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Jim Toomey Takes Us to the Bottom of Sherman’s World

The world’s most famous lagoon is created daily in Annapolis

I’m always surprised to discover someone world-famous living nearby. In New York City it would be routine, but not so much here. Everyone has to live somewhere, but why Bay Country?
    For many people, home is dictated by family roots or livelihood. For some, it’s a choice of desirable characteristics rather than ties.
    What brings Jim Toomey, creator of the nationally syndicated cartoon series Sherman’s Lagoon, to Annapolis?
    As I talked to Toomey on the porch of his house overlooking Weems Creek, I learned we had both come to Bay Country for the same reason: not family, not job but because we both thought this would be a neat place to live.
    Toomey grew up in Northern Virginia; worked there, then San Francisco and Paris. When cartooning became his primary occupation, he gained the flexibility to live anywhere.
    “I was a big boater, I loved the water. Annapolis seemed like a great combination of life near a big city and life on the water,” Toomey said. In 2002 he bought a home in the Hillsmere section of Annapolis. In 2008 he moved to his home in West Annapolis. As we talked, I realized his choice of home was only part of his story that brought him farther from the starting point than I would have imagined.

The Morph
    Toomey and I both started adult life from the same point: graduating engineering school. I would eventually become world famous among Bay Weekly readers in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties; Toomey became real world famous, with Sherman’s Lagoon read daily in over 150 newspapers worldwide. He has the ultimate badge of fame: an entry in Wikipedia.
    Toomey thought his destiny was to enter the family trade — engineering — as his father, brother and grandfather had done before him. He graduated Duke University as a mechanical engineer and went to work in that field. But destiny had a different path in mind. Toomey possessed a talent not usual in engineers: He could draw. As early as elementary school that talent manifested in caricatures of his teachers. By junior high, he was being paid for his drawings. He started doing cartoons in high school and at Duke did political cartoons for the university daily paper, The Chronicle.
    The morph from full-time engineer to full-time cartoonist was gradual, starting in 1991 in San Francisco. Toomey conceived the idea for Sherman’s Lagoon and developed the strip.
    “A self-syndicated cartoon was an easy business to start; all of your clients were in one publication,” Toomey said.
    If, of course, you have drawing ability and can develop characters and story lines people will take an interest in. Toomey did.
    Perseverance is also required. He mailed his first strips to 100 newspapers and hit the jackpot. Fifteen agreed to publish Sherman.
    Toomey continued to work full-time as an engineer as Sherman’s Lagoon gained popularity. His syndicate grew to 60 then 70 newspapers. In 1998, he signed a distribution deal with King Features Syndicate, and Sherman spread to 150 papers worldwide.
    Toomey’s engineering career was over. He was a cartoonist.

Sherman Enters the World
    When Toomey was 12 years old, his father, a private pilot, was flying the family to the Bahamas for vacation. They were flying low over the lagoons, when Jim spotted a large shark. Sharks fascinated a boy so drawn to the water that he became a certified diver at age 13. The shark in the lagoon was an image that stuck with him.
    The image and the fascination percolated into the characters that now inhabit Sherman’s Lagoon. The first character conceived was Sherman, a dull-witted great white shark.
    “I wanted a lead character to laugh at, not necessarily with,” Toomey says.
    Most of the characters are a composite of people Toomey had met. The exception is Hawthorne the hermit crab, who is based on a friend from his West Coast days. Sherman’s bossy wife Megan, the bachelor sea turtle Fillmore and Ernest the brainy fish fill out the cast.
    Like The Honeymooners, it’s a series about the absurdities of day-to-day life made funny by its characters. In the Lagoon, going out to eat Italian means Sherman visits a beach frequented by Italian tourists.
    “The comic strip has evolved over time as I have aged and matured to reflect my life,” Toomey says. Sherman’s Lagoon is no Mark Trail, but an ocean conservation message has worked its way into the strip.
    “I’ve always loved the ocean; I realized I could play a role in improving the ocean environment,” said Toomey, who worked to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration develop an outreach program.
    “The NOAA experience told me I had an audience,” he said.
    The current theme is ocean acidification. The dropping pH of our oceans is affecting the ecosystem, including the lagoon Sherman and his friends call home. A recent strip has Ernest, the intellectual fish in the lagoon, explaining the dangers of ocean acidification to Sherman. Sherman’s reaction reflects his dim wit (and maybe ours): “Can I blame my lousy golf scores on it?”

Toomey’s Other Life
    For a high-energy person like the 54-year-old Toomey, producing comic strips seven days a week leaves time for other passions. He now spends much of his time as an environmental advocate and facilitator. He is on the board of directors of two ocean conservancy non-profits, Mission Blue and the Blue Frontier Campaign. He talks causes at places like Harvard and the Royal Society of London. He creates ocean conservation videos, including a recent one on island conservation commissioned by the San Juan Island Preservation Trust in Washington’s Puget Sound for which he wrote the script, hosted the video and directed the production.
    Toomey gets to do lots of interesting things. In June, he was invited to go two miles deep in the Gulf of Mexico on board the deep submersible vehicle ALVIN. At the bottom, he made a telephone call to his daughter’s third grade science class. Perhaps in 20 years, this inspiration will lead one of those kids into saving species and oceans. Or into cartooning.
    When Toomey’s not drawing or speaking or making videos, he, his wife and two kids do a lot of sailing. His kids, ages 10 and 12, are typical; they prefer tubing off a powerboat to the leisurely pace of sailing.
    As well as a Jeanneau 43 at their dock in Annapolis, there’s a 45-foot sailing catamaran in the Caribbean they visit three or four times a year. The boat manufacturer calls that model Lagoon, and the Toomey boat is, of course, Sherman’s Lagoon.

    See Sherman’s Lagoon daily in many area newspapers or online at http://shermanslagoon.com/
    Learn more about Jim Toomey and see his videos at http://jimtoomey.com/index.html