Frontlines

Jim Unger: the mind behind ‘Herman’

Roy MacGregor April 16 1979
Frontlines

Jim Unger: the mind behind ‘Herman’

Roy MacGregor April 16 1979

Jim Unger: the mind behind ‘Herman’

Frontlines

Roy MacGregor

When Jim Unger moved recently, he took an unfinished thought with him. He carried it from a lonely 17th-floor Ottawa apartment the few blocks to a large house he bought so he could once again, at the age of 41, live under the same roof as his parents. And he sat it in a corner, facing the wall, incomplete. The painting wasn’t inspired by anything he had actually seen. It was merely an idea, but then Jim Unger believes all of life is an illusion anyway. The background was complete—a boat at anchor, empty and waiting, the jungle beyond threatening—but the dock running out from the bamboo hut eventually vanishes, as if into the steam of the river.

Soon it will be a year since he decided this painting was a thought he couldn’t get completely out of his mind. A genuine block, a failure that stands in sharp contrast to the past two days, when Unger has created fully 25 new Herman cartoons, the creative magic outdistancing even the blur of his sketching pencil over paper. Hard to believe this same man who scowls at the incomplete fantasy of the jungle hut sat last night with tears in his eyes, laughing hysterically as his pencil perfected the bored look of a television repairman leaning toward a fat and ugly, armchaired couple and announcing, “Folks, the main reason you’re not getting a good picture is because you bought yourself a microwave oven.” Between this condescending repairman and the peculiar beginnings of Herman there are, roughly, 1,300 cartoons and four years. Yet the first creation remains a strong memory, not for what it was—a guy buying a console TV, with a salesman holding up straps and saying, “It’s portable if you’re going camping”—but for what it became. Unger had been an art director for a weekly newspaper in Mississauga, just outside Toronto, and the job was, he believed, no better nor worse than any of the other traps he had been caught in both in his native England and, since 1968, in this country: soldier, cabby, cop,

driving instructor, copywriter, even jam-tart inspector. He also believed he was totally without ambition. “Everybody seemed to have aspirations,” he would say years later. “But I can’t remember anything. I just knew that everything I did I didn’t belong in. I never knew where I belonged.” He had a suspicion he might one day escape, though he didn’t know how, not even when the panicking publisher came to him with the news that they had neglected to assign an editorial-page cartoon. Unger simply did as'he was told— and suddenly he belonged.

By the end of that first year he was named “Cartoonist of the Year” by the Ontario Weekly Newspaper Association, and would hold the title for three successive years before leaving. He played variations on the same caricature, an ugly, fat, hammer-nosed slob, and it was so popular that a few of Unger’s friends decided to try to inspire him to do more with it than The Mississauga Times could offer. “They said I should try and syndicate my stuff,” Unger says. “I wasn’t even sure what syndicate meant.”

But eventually they convinced him. He selected, he says, “the syndicate that looked the most important to me.” It happened to be the Toronto Star, and the Star was at least prompt with its answer: “No. There’s no market for it.” Unger would have let it lie there were it not for the pestering of his friends and, to end their naïveté once and for all, he sent a halfdozen cartoons off to Universal Press Syndicate in Mission, Kansas. And in August of 1974 Universal sent its response by registered mail: a 10-year contract.

The syndicate insisted on renaming the cartoon Herman, even though Unger insisted there was no such character: “I say there isn’t a Herman—the name appears in the caption sometimes, but he can be a guy 18 to 80, a caveman or a Martian.” But the syndicate won and in November of that year Herman showed up in 20 newspapers. Today he

is in more 250—from Los Angeles Times to The Globe and Mail and abroad in seven countries—and Jim Unger has fan letters from everyone from Farrah Fawcett-Majors to a high bureaucrat in the U.S. department of justice who writes to tell him, “You are hereby pardoned for all offences against the U.S.” There are already three books out in English, two in German, and The 1st Treasury of Herman is being issued this month (Gage will bring it out in Canada). It is a massive, 800-panel, full-color book that is expected to do for Jim Unger what The Doonesbury Chronicles did for Gary Trudeau.

But even before those royalties begin, life today for Jim Unger is an $80,000a-year salary, more time off than on, holidays in Nassau and Mexico and a sleek Fiat X-19. What concerns he has sit easily on the shoulders—which might explain why he looks a half-dozen years younger than he is. There is talk of a possible Sunday color strip that could double his income (he is the one balking, not the syndicate), talk of getting Herman into England, into Australia, even talk of licensing the character for further rewards. And there is praise, more than he ever imagined possible. “Jim Unger is among the top halfdozen cartoonists in the English language,” says Ted Martin of Toronto’s Ted Martin Cartoon Gallery and Illustrators’ Salon. “This is,” says Lee Salem, managing editor of Universal Press, “the age of Herman humor.”

“It is a new type of humor,” says Ted Martin. “It’s very sarcastic, very black.” It is, really, the perfect humor for the Recycled ’70s: something borrowed. Unger himself calls it “old-fashioned” and—though he disagrees—it shows signs of British Goon humor of the 1950s (when Unger was growing up in London), with tracings of W.C. Fields (an Unger hero), the insults of the Marx Brothers and the sheer stupidity of The Three Stooges. There is no Wizard of Id obscurity nor insufferable Family Circus cuteness. Unger’s great strength lies in his draughtmanship—Herman is, even without the punch line, the quintessential ass—and in the reader’s instant familiarity with the locale and the situation. That the cartoons strike a nerve is indisputable: a dentist in Pasadena, California, has bought 25 or more originals at $65 a piece to line the walls of his office.

“To me,” Jim Unger has written, “it’s supremely important that the faces fit the situation exactly. It’s not just

enough to have everyone smiling. The caption is not the joke. The situation is the joke and the drawing should be set up like a movie director sets up a scene.”

He giggles. “Here,” he says. “Here’s a great one.” He fumbles through the sheaf of new cartoons, selects one and spins it across the table. In the drawing, a haughty bank teller has a bullhorn raised to his lips and is staring with disgust at a cowering customer while a snoopy customer stares from behind. “Mr. Johnson,” the teller booms. “Your account is $28 overdrawn.” Unger takes it back and looks again, as if he hasn’t seen it before, and the heavy moustache rises on large teeth. “Isn’t it the truth,” he says shaking his head. “And if you’ve $1,000 in your account they write it dis-

creetly on a piece of paper and pass it to you.”

“You’ve got to have a little madness,” he says as he gently carries the work back to the drawing board. “What I draw aren’t really jokes, you know, just exaggerations of real things. The art is to illustrate some facet of everyday existence that people have never come to grips with. It’s odd, but people say to me, ‘How come you do Herman but you’re not funny yourself?’ I say, ‘A wedding photographer doesn’t have to be married, does he?’ ”

“You don’t exactly walk into a clown’s den when you visit him,” says Ted Martin. In truth, Jim Unger would rather talk about anything other than being funny. He often writes letters-to-theeditor about issues from gun control, which he favors, to the social behavior of Ottawa males, which he does not favor. He detests organized religion— “the nicest, warmest people I’ve met don’t go to church”—and advocates capital punishment.

But it is in talking about his adopted city that he becomes most vocal. He calls Ottawa “Miami after the nuclear attack” and refers to it as “a city of a quarter of a million clones,” which may be only slight exaggeration. He lives there because it is where his sister Shirley brought him after she bailed him out of Athens 11 years ago when he was down to his last few drachmas. And it is now where his parents are retired. They are a close, warm family and the new house was specifically purchased in December so Jim—who was divorced sev-

eral years ago—could live on the top floor, his parents underneath and another brother in the basement. “It’s just like the Waltons now,” he says proudly.

And yet, away from the family, there is this raging dissatisfaction, undoubtedly tied in part to the fact that the Toronto Star once told him he just wasn’t up to scratch. “In Canada,” he says, “you’ve got to come to them with a flourishing flower. Americans, you can go to them with the seeds and they’ll help you make them grow. A certain type rises to the top in this countrytalentless. In the U.S., talent rises. Here, the morons reach the top and the talented are kept in their places.”

A bit of sour grapes, perhaps, but then his own story has a certain proof to it. In Jim Unger’s case he beat the morons. Not only that, he beat the system. He is a man not in the least driven to success, but rather someone who came upon it by chance. And he may leave it just as easily as he found it.

“All living things except humans just hang out,” he says. “And I’d like to change that. I think if I ever get wealthy from this I’ll just quit. I’m now in the last stage of being employed prior to being completely free.”

It is a thought to sorrow Herman fans and strike terror in the heart of Universal Press Syndicate. But he does claim that one day he will finish that jungle painting that sits in the corner of his living room. The dock will be completed, the boat untied, the anchor lifted, and Jim Unger may be gone as quietly as he came.