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Comics: Meet the Artist
With Jim Toomey
Cartoonist, "Sherman's Lagoon"

Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor

Friday, April 5, 2002; 1 p.m. EST

Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin hosts "Sherman's Lagoon" cartoonist Jim Toomey.

Tobin and Toomey were online Friday, April 5 at 1 p.m. EST to discuss "Sherman's Lagoon" and the art of cartooning.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Suzanne Tobin: Greetings, comics fans! Today our guest is Jim Toomey, creator of "Sherman's Lagoon," which we are proud to run in the Sunday Post comics section. Jim is joining us from his studio in Annapolis, where he has moved after eight months of living in Paris. Welcome, Jim, so how do you rate the two cities?

Jim Toomey: I'm very excited to be back in the DC area, which is my childhood home. DC and Paris, they were both designed by Frenchmen. I prefer the food in Paris but the waiters in DC.

Washington, D.C.: Great strip. A must read for me. Were you ever a cartoonist for the Alexandria Port Packet? In the 80s I recall a cartoonist named Toomey, but it has been awhile and I'm easily distracted by donuts so I may not remember correctly.

Jim Toomey: My first job was as an editorial cartoonist at the Alexandria Gazette, around 1985 or so. At that time, under its banner, the Gazette had the subtitle, "the oldest daily newspaper in America," so I thought "Well, here's a secure job, working for this paper." Of course, less than a year later, they went from daily to weekly. (At that point, I moved over to the Journal newspapers.) The Alexandria Port Packet was a free giveaway, as I recall. But ultimately the two newspapers essentially merged. So you're right, it was me you're remembering.

Lorton, Va.: What is your average day like?

Jim Toomey: Well, since I live on the water, I usually wake up and take five pounds of beef out of the freezer to feed the pet sharks I have living off the dock here. That usually gets the creative juices flowing. I like to write the gags before I draw the cartoons. So I spend the first half of the day writing, and then I actually start drawing the cartoon. In the course of a week, obviously I have to produce a week's worth of cartoons. So I generally will write two or three in a sitting. I'll spend about the first half of the week writing the whole week's gags and doing the rough sketching and lettering. The last two days of the week I usually spend creating the final drawings.

Bethesda, Md.: Back in the D.C. area? You mean you live here now? When's your next book coming out? Are you doing any book signings locally?

Jim Toomey: I was born in the Alexandria and lived there until I went off to college at Duke in 1980.
The next book has just come out this week, coincidentally. It's title "Greetings From Sherman's Lagoon," a collection of golden oldies from 1992-'93. I may do some book signings in the Washington area, probably over the summer. Keep an eye out on my Web site, which is slagoon.com.

Baton Rouge, La.: How did you come up with the names for the cast? Especially, "Sherman?"

Jim Toomey: I was reading Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" when I was creating the strip. And I was looking for names that alliterated with the word "shark." So the lead character in the book was Sherman, so I thought Sherman the Shark would fill the bill.
At that time, I was living in San Francisco and I noticed there was also a street called Sherman, so I decided to start lifting street names from all over San Francisco for the other characters. So Fillmore and Hawthorne came straight from the streets of the City by the Bay.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada: How come we don't see more of Bob the bottom dweller?

Jim Toomey: Bob is a character who never speaks, therefore it's difficult to write gags for him. His whole schtick is that he is a vehicle for physical humor and he's more of a butt of jokes than an actual protagonist.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Many cartoons are of people and/or animals. What inspired you to set your cartoon underwater?

Jim Toomey: I've been infatuated with the ocean since I was a little boy. When "Jaws" came out, I was the only one in the theatre rooting for the shark. And I invented a shark character when I was 9 or 10, pre-Jaws, believe it or not!
And he appeared in all my schoolbooks and margins of notebooks and anywhere else I was supposed to be doing something academic.
The interest in the ocean matured into an interest in ocean ecology and marine biology, but I never lost touch with that little shark character. When it decided to develop a comic strip, I already had the lead character, and it was just a matter of creating the supporting cast.

Washington, D.C.: This is (for better or for worse) a political town, and Boondocks does a great job of melding humor with politics. Do you ever let political comments slip into your work?

Jim Toomey: No. I think comic strips have a "contract" with their audience from their earliest inception, and although I do touch on topical issues and current events, like environmental issues, I make it a point not to take sides on the politics.

Shelltown, Md.: There is a dearth of zany cartoon strips today. Especially given the state of current events, thank you for continuing the awesome adventures of Sherman's crew. It's a welcome relief day after day. What do you do for creative inspiration? Movies? Museums? Nature?

Jim Toomey: The best kind of inspiration for writing humor--regardless of the character or the setting--is ordinary life experience. And although doing exotic things like traveling and living in Paris and scuba diving make for an interesting life, what readers relate to the most are subjects that are actually very ordinary. I do think it's important to be culturally literate when you publish anything (be it a comics strip or a newspaper column), and therefore I do try to catch popular TV shows and the latest movies, Because my comic strip has this unique underwater setting, I read ocean-related articles and books. I am an avid diver and occasionally I do weave marine biology topics into the comic strip.

Boonies, Va.: Do you ever get complaints from people who are horrified by the main characters eating people? I think its hysterical, but it occurs to me that others might be offended.

Jim Toomey: No, I never have gotten any angry feedback on that subject. It was a problem for me last August and September, when there were actual shark attacks and tragic consequences. The period that immediately followed that made me reassess the value of this kind of humor. In fact, for several months after that I endeavored to forgo the "shark eats human" type of gag. Then, on top of that, Sept. 11 came along and I kind of lost my sense of humor altogether.

Alexandria, Va.: Welcome back!! Love your strip. Are the characters available as stuffed animals? My son would love a stuffed Sherman.

Jim Toomey: No, I'm sorry they're not.

Bethesda, Md.: What age were you when your cartoon was first published in a newspaper?

Jim Toomey: When I was a college cartoonist for the Duke Chronicle, some "real" newspapers did pick up some of my work, so I was probably 21 or 22 at the time. As for my comic strip, that was first published in 1991 in the Escondido (Calif.) Times-Advocate.

Kissimmee, Fla.: Hello, Mr. Toomey. Recent fan of Sherman's Lagoon. Does Sherman take any characteristics from you?

Jim Toomey: All the characters are facets of me. Sherman is my "say anything, do anything" impetuous side. There's also a naive quality about Sherman that I relate to. Hawthorne the hermit crab is my cranky, cantankerous side and my bossy, opinionated side. Fillmore is my intellectual side.

Toronto, Canada: Your strip brightens my day every day. Any aspirations to get into other medias such as television?

Jim Toomey: I have been trying to get an animated cartoon developed for quite a while and I continue to do so, with varying degrees of success. Right now, there is one producer who's interested. If there's any business more difficult to break into than print syndication, it's got to be TV. If there is any news on that front, I will post it on my Web site, slagoon.com.

Washington, D.C.: Hello Jim,

I've been a big fan of Sherman's Lagoon since Day One.

Do you look forward to Shark Week on Discovery Channel as much as me and my friends do? Do you plan on adding other types of sharks to the group? Thanks for making sharks funny.

Jim Toomey: Two years ago, Shark Week did a segment on me. It was a lot of fun to do. They sent a production crew to my studio, which was then in California, and the segment aired in the summer of 2000. Since then, I've been a big fan of Shark Week and many other Discovery Channel Productions. In their effort to fill an entire week with shark material, the channel does try to reach out beyond the ordinary. During the same time the segment on me aired, they did a piece on a guy who had welded steel "shark" fins to his car and painted it to look like a giant shark. In general, TV documentaries tend to demonize sharks, but I think that is changing as documentaries become more animal friendly. For example, Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, in every show talks about how beautiful snakes and crocodiles are. And you're beginning to see that in other nature shows. That is to say, the hosts tend to talk about the beauty of the animals rather than their threat to humans.

Bethesda, Md.: So, how come The Post doesn't run your daily strip? What is their problem, exactly?

Jim Toomey: Suzanne?

Suzanne Tobin: For all you folks wondering why The Post doesn't run Sherman's Lagoon daily, when one strip comes in, another has to go out. And we all saw what happened when we pulled Tank McNamara from the paper. So I just want to put a plug in for our readers' comics survey, which will be published in the Sunday comics section of April 28. THAT'S where you need to voice your desire to see Jim's strip on a daily, as well as a Sunday, basis. Now, can we move on????

Luray, Va.: Will Fillmore ever find love?

Jim Toomey: Fillmore is sort of like the Charlie Brown character who can never hit a home run. And his inability to find love is an ongoing theme that I think a lot of readers relate to. Perhaps someday before I retire the strip )as Charles Schulz did with Charlie Brown's home run), he'll find true love. (It also would be nice for me to have as long a run as Schulz did.)

Shelltown, Md.: So what's your favorite comic strip?

Jim Toomey: My lifelong favorite is "Peanuts." Some recent favorites are "Far Side" and "Bloom County," which are no longer in syndication.

Silver Spring, Md.: I liked your strip at first, because it is well-drawn, funny and different. But after a while, I lost interest in the strip because it seems awfully repetitive. Would appreciate your comments.

Jim Toomey: I suppose that a lot of great comic strips can be characterized as "repetitive" if you look at the limited themes that a strip like "Calvin and Hobbes" addressed. I don't think mine's "repetitive," although it does dwell on the same themes. It's not like it's the same gag all the time.

Washington, D.C.: I think you should open up a Sherman's Lagoon-themed restaurant in Annapolis. I'd go every weekend!

Jim Toomey: If you'd ever tasted my cooking, you wouldn't make that suggestion!

Alexandria Va.: So you have any other strips being published or are you working on any others?

Jim Toomey: I am just finishing up development of a comic strip for my syndicate to take a look at for possible syndication. This one is based on humans, and is much more like a sitcom, than the whimsical underwater one you're currently reading.

Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Do you have a "Bloom County" influence?

Jim Toomey: I loved "Bloom County." And I do consider Berke Breathed one of the most talented cartoonists that has ever graced the comics pages.

Jim Toomey: I appreciate everyone's loyal readership and I look forward to having The Post pick me up daily because of your MASSIVE response to their comics survey. That's April 28th, FOLKS! Mark your calendars.

Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Jim, you were a breath of fresh water. It's been great to have you with us. For those of you who submitted questions that we didn't get a chance to answer, you can e-mail Jim from his Web site, www.slagoon.com, or you can e-mail me at tobins@washpost.com. Join us again in two weeks, on April 19, when Chip Sansom of "The Born Loser" will be with us Live Online. Have a great weekend!

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