Forever Duke Q&A: Jim Toomey

Sterly Wilder '83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, in conversation with the Class of '83 "Sherman's Lagoon" creator
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May 1, 2015

Toomey is the cartoonist behind Sherman’s Lagoon, a comic strip that follows the lives of ocean characters addressing environmental topics such as shark finning, ocean pollution, and threats to the world’s coral reefs. The strip is syndicated in 250 newspapers, thirty foreign countries, and five languages. He has won two Environmental Hero Awards from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “for using art and humor to conserve and protect our marine heritage.”

When did your passion for marine conservation begin?

I had a formative experience when I was eleven or twelve. My dad was an old military pilot. He retired, but he still flew small planes. We flew over the Bahamas. It was extremely clear water. I just saw this underwater landscape that I had never really seen before. That was the beginning of my falling in love with what was below the surface of the ocean. Fast forward a couple decades, and I’m doing the comic strip. I chose the underwater characters because of my fascination with the ocean. I was contacted by NOAA to do some outreach. They thought the comic strip could really reach a lot of people and convey an important message in a subtle, entertaining way.

What are you hoping to leave with your readers through your comic strips?

I don’t know if I’ve changed hearts and minds all that much as much as I’ve created a little bit of awareness. I had the privilege, through the courtesy of the Duke Marine Lab and Cindy Van Dover [Duke Marine Lab director and professor of biological oceanography], of diving in the DSV Alvin [a deep-sea research sub] last summer. In the run-up to that trip, I took the characters to the deepest parts of the Gulf of Mexico, to a place called the Sigsbee Deep. It’s a lot of fun taking the characters to different places in the ocean and introducing the readers to the crazy characters that live there.

What was it like drawing for The Chronicle?

I aspired to be a political cartoonist, and I ended up not liking it that much. I did a lot of national and international cartoons. By the time senior year rolled around, I was doing almost exclusively campus issues, and I really loved that. I look back at those Duke years and drawing for The Chronicle as really formative. At the end of my four years I was flattered to be contacted by Perkins Library. They wanted all the originals.

How do you come up with your story lines on a daily basis?

I’ll cast around looking for something unusual. Sometimes that’s an ocean-related story. There’s a giant jellyfish in the Sea of Japan that was just discovered. But that alone doesn’t make a story. So if you make that jellyfish into a character, it’s a character that is too big to be comfortable with itself. It’s an insecure jellyfish. You put that jellyfish into a story situation where its insecurity comes out in a humorous way. You combine the quirkiness of marine life with the quirkiness of your own life experience. It’s really the banal life experiences that are the most entertaining.

What’s next for Sherman?

My wife and I bought a sailboat, and we’re selling our house in June, and we’re going to live on the sailboat for a year. So the comic strip is going to follow the waters around where we’re going. We are going to start on the west coast of Europe around Bordeaux, France, and the Bay of Biscay and go down to Portugal and Spain and through Gibraltar, so you’ll probably be seeing a lot of Mediterranean themes.

What’s your advice for Duke students who want to engage in advocacy in a creative way?

I followed my passion. You could call it the path of least resistance. You go into it thinking you’ve already written your autobiography when you’re eighteen. You’ve figured it all out. I think you can do that to a certain extent. The planning is valuable to keep you on course. You also need to be able to adapt to a situation. You need to willingly jump off that narrative you’ve written for yourself if an opportunity comes along.

  • Christina Holder M.Div.'13 the DAA's assistant director of communications.