THE PROBLEM WITH drawing lines for a living is that sometimes, even the comics fan doesn’t follow them back to the beginning.
Which is another way of saying: If you don’t know “Herman,” you should remedy that and acquaint yourself. Because prior to “The Far Side” and “The Neighborhood” and “Speed Bump” and other single-panel strips that are labeled/branded as “quirky” or “weird” or “off the wall” (or in the case of my own ol’ syndicated single-panel strip, “warped”), there was “Herman,” which sprung from the unique pioneering mind of Jim Unger.
The through-line starts here.
We the comics community and the comics-loving community worldwide lost Unger this week; the London-born cartoonist died at age 75 in his adopted country of Canada. Fortunately, he leaves a healthy shelf of “Herman” treasuries for us to remember his talents by. And if you know a newbie or two who’s fond of wry, curmudgeonly, somewhat “bent” humor, introducing them to a “Herman” treasury is a gift unto itself.
All those protuberant proboscises and bulging bellies and swayback spines, jutting out with a certain physical belligerence. These are Unger’s specimens of wry skepticism, all fallen arches that spark arch humor. And all rendered in artfully liquid line-weights. Through Unger’s eye, even the physically static rang funny. So much so, you were primed to laugh even before “Herman” unleashed his caption.
All those relationship putdowns and smarty-pants babies and stuffed-shirt waiters and medical props and left-field malapropisms. You don’t think about “Herman” -- you go with the mood and attitude and singular world of its creator. You sense the inherent tension, too: The adult characters seem worn down, yet their dialogue rings creatively fresh.
“The characters always looked older than where his sensibility was,” Lee Salem, president of Universal Uclick, tells Comic Riffs.
Four decades ago, that askew humor struck as new to the newspaper comics page. “He was a real trailblazer in some ways,” says Salem, who joined Universal the same year -- 1974 -- that Unger did. (The executive notes, too, that Unger offered his comic submission to the Midwestern-based company — then called Universal Press Syndicate — simply because the name itself sounded to him like something with wide appeal.)
“During the first couple of years of the 1980s, newspaper articles would often cite Gary Larson’s ‘The Far Side,’ and my panel ‘The Neighborhood,’ as the advent of the off-the-wall newspaper panel cartoon,” “Neighborhood” and “Ballard Street” creator Jerry Van Amerongen tells Comic Riffs. “But before either of us, there was ‘Herman’ -- a wacky, always robust and funny dose of humor. ... “
“He was a real student of the ‘panel form’ as art, which we spent much time discussing.”
We quirk-loving single-panelists knew “Herman” like an old friend.
“He was an idol and a major, major influence ... ,” “Speed Bump” creator Dave Coverly, who corresponded with Unger, tells Comic Riffs. “One of my favorite pieces hanging on my studio wall is a ‘jam’ drawing he and I did -- I sent him my character, and he drew Herman with his arm around him. I think it’s what I’d grab in a fire.”
Coverly calls Unger a “genius.” Given “Herman’s” frequent pitch-perfect delivery, he’s not wrong.
“He took a very different view of things,” Salem tells ‘Riffs. “He didn’t try to be safe, even in the life he lived.”
Unger the civilian really launched his cartooning career at the Mississauga Times, after landing in Canada in 1968. Six years later, he sold “Herman” to the syndicate, and the strip was quickly a hit, finding an international audience; appearing in more than 600 newspapers at its height; and winning two National Cartoonist Society awards. “Herman” ran till Unger’s retirement in 1992, then was resuscitated about five years later as a mix of old and updated cartoons (with the aid of business manager/”Farcus” cartoonist David Waisglass and illustrator Roly Wood). Unger moved to the Bahamas for a time before returning to Canada, where some of his family lives.
“He was kind, generous and urbane,” Van Amerongen tells Comic Riffs. “A great guy to spend time with.”
So, too, is “Herman.” Take two treasuries and smile in the mourning.