James Toomey B.S.M.E. '83, M.E.M. '08

Underwater wit
Writer: 
January 31, 2010

For most people, a shark bite would be catastrophic. But Jim Toomey is one of the few who might profit from it.

"Actually, I lather myself up with chum whenever I go into the ocean," Toomey deadpans. "Because I've thought that if I ever did get bitten by a shark, it'd be great PR. But so far, no luck."

James Toomey B.S.M.E. '83, M.E.M. '08

Credit: Valerie Toomey

Even though he's kidding, you can still imagine the headlines: "Jaws bites shark cartoonist back." Toomey is the cartoonist behind Sherman's Lagoon, a strip that stars Sherman the shark and runs in more than 150 newspapers. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife of ten years and two children, passing his work days just like any other writer.

"Mostly, I sit in a room trying to fill up a blank piece of paper," Toomey says. "I really do approach it like a job, although there's a personal aspect to it. It's important to create characters that are parts of you, and the strip is really dialogue between different parts of me—about life experiences, kind of reflecting on what's happened to me over the last week."

Toomey began cartooning during his freshman year at Duke, while working on his mechanical engineering degree. A friend from high school talked him into doing a political cartoon for The Chronicle, which went over well enough to encourage Toomey to do more.

Soon he was doing two a week, mostly about campus issues. Toomey kept it up after graduation, even while working for a company that built exhibitions for museums and trade shows. Eventually, he began conceptualizing a strip based on a shark he'd been drawing since childhood.

"I was a very active scuba diver, loved the underwater world," he says. "And I realized the ocean was very cartoony. All these underwater creatures had their own demeanor—crabby crabs, slow and deliberate turtles, funny sawfish. So they came pre-programmed, almost. I remember thinking, 'Why is nobody doing this?' "

Toomey comes from a long line of engineers, so he was bucking the family business by leaving the field. But he plunged fulltime into cartooning with Sherman's Lagoon in 1991. The strip stars Sherman the shark, "a naïve, goofy, say-anything character," Toomey says.

There's also Fillmore the sea turtle, wise though a bit pretentious, and Hawthorne the crabby hermit crab. Though not especially edgy, Sherman's Lagoon pokes gentle fun at its characters.

About the only political content is a pro-environmental bent, which it comes by honestly. Toomey returned to Duke a few years ago to earn a master's degree in environmental management.

"There's a lot of demand for environmental media, especially online," he says. "So I'm casting about for ways to combine that with the strip. It's really a pretty easy job. You don't need anything that sophisticated or any arcane politics, because people don't get that. What people respond to is what they can relate to—something as banal as a haircut, or running out of gas. So you just pour that in."

In recent years, Toomey has taken the strip into other realms, including the 2008 debut of Sherman's Lagoon, The Musical (the soundtrack is available via iTunes or Rhapsody). Given the decline in print journalism, there might come a day when the main venue for the strip is something other than a daily paper.

"I'd love to do more things with the strip," Toomey says. "Maybe an animated film, because I have great concern over where the newspaper industry will be in five years. And I have few marketable skills. I write short punchy dialogue for fish. I did pass my engineering boards, but that was twenty-five years ago. I'm not sure how well I'd do there anymore."

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