Herman Creator Became Cartoonist by Accident

by BK Munn
Jim Unger, the creator of the widely-syndicated comic panel Herman, died May 28 at his home in Saanich, BC. He was 75.
Born in London, England, Unger had several false starts in his career before finding his niche, working as a policeman, repo-man, and office clerk before emigrating to Canada in 1968. He eventually landed a job as an advertising copywriter and graphic artist for the Mississauga Times in 1971. Asked to fill-in for a vacationing staff cartoonist, Unger soon began churning out daily cartoons for the editorial page on the subject of municipal politics. A popular local success, Unger was encouraged by friends and workmates to syndicate his work. After putting a package together in 1974, he was offered a contract by Universal Press (now Universal Uclick), who asked him to create a humour panel in his distinctive graphic style. Unger put together a gag panel pitch utilizing a prototype of his big-nosed lumpen everyman characters and the property –dubbed “Herman” by the syndicate– debuted in 25 papers in 1975 and almost immediately became a hit, adding tens of clients monthly until reaching a peak of some 700 papers.
Never a graphically sophisticated or innovative strip, Herman relied on Unger’s dry wit and deadpan, understated delivery to enliven and contrast with his almost cookie-cutter, prosaic set-ups featuring interchangeable, disheveled, haystack-shaped characters (his male and female figures looked almost the same), depicted almost universally from bulging midsection up, in a state of declamatory ironic, grumpy detachment amidst scenes of fantastic domestic tragedy, workplace humiliation, or social faux pas. The soul of his art was his ability to render the foibles of these middle-aged, bespectacled hunchbacks humanely as well as with a great deal of hilarity, and to do so in a variety of generic settings and with a variety of generic actors (cave-men, medieval knights, housewives, office workers, schoolkids, etc).
Herman occupies a place in comics pop-culture between Ziggy and The Far Side, a 70s sarcastic precursor to the cynicism of Jim Davis’ Garfield and an inspiration for Gary Larson’s sci-fi surrealism.
Unger won the National Cartoonist Society’s award for best panel cartoon in 1982 and again in 1987. Beginning in 1979 with The 1st Treasury of Herman, Andrews-McMeel published a series of bestselling collections that added to Unger’s fame and helped to make him a very rich man, as well as creating a template for hundreds of panel cartoon/marketing behemoths to follow. A colour Sunday Herman strip was added in 1980.
After moving his mother, father, brother and sisters from England to Ottawa, where they lived together for almost a decade, Unger moved to the Bahamas in 1982 to avoid paying Canadian taxes.
Unger used a number of ghosts and assistants on Herman, beginning with his brother Robert, a close collaborator who served as a gag writer on the strip from 1982 to 1992, when the brothers retired and Herman folded. Cartoonists Roly Wood and David Waisglass (creator of the Farcus comic strip) also assisted. Along with Waisglass, Unger started INTRACA, a company that provides modified Herman cartoons to corporate clients for workplace safety and motivational campaigns.
At the urging of Waisglass and Universal, Unger revived Herman in 1997, syndicating a combination of new and classic strips and beginning a trend towards “zombie” heritage comic strips since perpetuated by the likes of Peanuts and For Better Or For Worse.
Unger and his brother returned to Canada in the early 2000s, taking up residence in a home near their sister in Saanich, close to Victoria, BC. After Robert died in 2003, Unger was reportedly depressed for many years.
After complaining of not feeling well, Unger died peacefully in his sleep this past Tuesday.
Unger is survived by two sisters, Deborah and Shirley in Canada, as well as by a brother Steve in the UK.
Jim Unger on CBC Radio, 1978. Interviewed by Danny Finkleman.
(Featured on As It Happens, Wednesday May 30, part 2, around the 7 minute mark)