Thursday, May 31, 2012

Herman creator Jim Unger dies at 75

"Your pulse is very, very weak!"

I met Jim Unger only once, at the 1989 National Cartoonist Society convention in Toronto.

I had been making the rounds of the city for the last two days in search of a new publisher for Portfoolio: The Year in Canadian Caricature.

It was Saturday May 20th, the eve of my 40th birthday, and I was ready to pack it in.

I perked up somewhat at the Reuben Awards banquet when I found myself seated next to Sergio Aragones who turned out to speak fluent French and got the band to play "Happy Birthday" at midnight!

I then met Jim Unger who introduced me to Doug Brown, his editor at Macmillan of Canada.

Doug gave me his card and told me to call him on Monday.

Portfoolio would then find a home with Macmillan for the next 11 years. I never got around to thank Jim.

Here is the letter he wrote when I sent him a copy of the book:

Here is a selection of some of my favourite cartoons:

"You look a lot better!"

"He only went hunting once."

A tribute on Fred Sebastian's blog.

The Toronto Star obit by San Grewal :

Herman creator Jim Unger dies in his sleep

His work was cut out and stuck to refrigerator and office doors around the world.

Jim Unger, the understated genius who looked at the banal and frustrating moments of every day life, turning them into daily laugh-out-loud comic strip rituals for millions of readers, died in his sleep at his B.C. home Tuesday. He was 75.

His dry-humoured character, Herman, would become the everyman for readers, who often threw out their daily paper after flipping to the only item that really mattered.

“I don't know how many times I saw someone pick up the paper, go to Jim's cartoon, then throw the rest of it in the garbage,” says Toronto Star editor Phil Bingley. “He was that good.”

That was when Unger penned a regular editorial cartoon for the Mississauga Times, where Bingley immediately saw something in the former London bobby, hired as an advertising page artist at the small paper in 1971.

“We needed someone who could do both, and Jim said in the interview, 'Sure I can do that sort of stuff'.”

After Unger began doing the paper's editorial cartoon Bingley says he was approached every week and asked what to write.

“I would give him some issue and he would come back with something about a guy being slapped by a woman over a perceived slight. It was hilarious.”

When it became obvious to Bingley and other colleagues that Unger's talent deserved a much wider audience, he approached Canadian syndicates and newspapers, including the Star, but was turned down.

But in 1974 he sent two-dozen panels to U.S.-based Universal Press Syndicate.

“They sent him a 10-year contract by return mail,” Bingley recalls.

Soon, Herman, the frumpy, sardonic character, who muttered one line retorts about the absurdities of everyday life, was being read in over 500 newspapers around the world.

To a generation that never knew him, he could be called the Seinfeld of an earlier time, a comic mind who didn't really write about anything, but boy was it funny.

Unger eventually moved from Mississauga to the Bahamas in the early ’80s. After winning the prestigious National Cartoonist Society Newspaper Panel Cartoon award in 1982 and 1987, he stopped creating Herman in 1992, to the disappointment of millions of fans around the world.

“I think he was just burned out,” says Bingley, who remained in touch.

Unger started up his career again in 1997, but he never fully recovered after the death of his brother, who Bingley says was the inspiration for much of Unger's work.

“He was a really good guy. Laid back,” Bingley recalls. “He usually wrote about nothing, just a slice of everyday life.”

Refrigerator doors will never be quite as funny.

Ottawa Citizen obituary by Clare Clancy:

Cartoonist Jim Unger, the man behind Herman, dies at 75 in Saanich

Remembered as an artist, trailblazer and offbeat comic

Jim Unger, the man behind the cartoon Herman, is being remembered as an artist, trailblazer and offbeat comic.

Unger, 75, had been feeling unwell for some time and died in his sleep at his Saanich home, his friend Adrian Raeside said Tuesday.

"Although we no longer have Jim Unger with us, we are lucky to have his body of work that spans decades, his cartoons still as fresh and as funny as they were the day he drew them," Raeside said.

Raeside, who draws cartoons for the Times Colonist as well as a syndicated comic strip, said that Unger was probably the funniest man he had ever known. Unger, he said, could find humour in just about anything.

Besides his enormous talent as a cartoonist, Raeside said, Unger had 'a wonderful soul and a big heart.' He was always willing to help those less fortunate, especially during the years he lived in the Bahamas.

Raeside first met Unger there in 1993, when Raeside had a boat moored in Nassau. They went to the casino a few times, and Unger boasted that he had a foolproof system but in the end, his luck was no better than Raeside's.

Born in London, England, Unger immigrated in 1968 to Canada, where his cartooning career began at the Mississauga Times.

Herman became a syndicated cartoon in 1974, eventually appearing in newspapers around the world. Unger twice won the National Cartoonist Society¹s award for best syndicated panel.

Unger first retired to the Bahamas in 1992, but five years later, Herman was re-syndicated and Unger started releasing a mix of classic and new material.

Unger moved to Saanich about a decade ago, and lived with his brother, Robert, in a home close to their sister Deborah. Robert died in 2003.

Another longtime friend, fellow cartoonist David Waisglass, also paid tribute to Unger, saying that in a 'small community of creators, Unger stood out as an icon.

"We not only lost a comic genius, we lost a fine human being," said Waisglass, creator of the cartoon Farcus.

He had truly an offbeat single-panel comment that was in mainstream newspapers. Nobody had done that before, Waisglass said, adding that it was Unger's insight and perception that drove his success.

To reach the pinnacle of success as a syndicated cartoonist, you have to be original and hilarious and be consistent. (An) observer of the human condition with a wry sense of humour, Unger was a generous soul outside of work, Waisglass said.

"It's a huge loss for us who loved him," he said, adding that Unger was especially close to his siblings.

Unger is survived by sisters Deborah in Saanich and Shirley in Ontario, as well as brother Steve in the United Kingdom.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made. In lieu of flowers and cards, Unger¹s family has asked for donations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

"If, like me, you're feeling down about Jim Unger's passing," Raeside said, "go pick up a Herman book. I guarantee you'll start giggling at the first cartoon. I think that's how Jim would want to be remembered."

The Globe and Mail obit by Tom Hawthorn

Cartoon everyman's exposure to ridicule made Herman universally appealing
Humorist's offbeat, oddball tone brought him fame, fortune and a huge following in more than 600 newspapers in 25 countries

Jim Unger's Herman was a cartoon everyman whose daily misfortunes amused, delighted and, occasionally, outraged readers.

Unger, who died in Victoria on May 26, at 75, went from obscurity as a fill-in cartoonist for a weekly newspaper in Ontario to unwanted fame and unexpected fortune as creator of a popular cartoon syndicated around the world.

Unger's panel, which first appeared in 1974, was an immediate hit, appearing at its peak in more than 600 newspapers in 25 countries, including Japan and Sweden.

Herman's misadventures were captured in more than 6,000 cartoons, many of which would be torn from newspaper pages to be stuck on countless office doors, bulletin boards and refrigerators.

The shlubs and grumpy losers featured in Herman endured daily humiliations - a nurse with a giant needle, a wife whose culinary skills resemble those of an arsonist, a child standing over him in bed to show off new-found juggling skills while holding a collection of cleavers.

The cartoonist said Herman's exposure to ridicule made him universally appealing.

"I need someone powerful to illustrate the contrast because it's when they're weak that people are funniest," he told the Regina Leader-Post in 1984. "It's the loss of dignity, the vulnerability that's funny."

A typical character in Herman had a large proboscis, a chin of uncertain conclusion, and eyes obscured behind thick glasses. "I'd hazard a guess there's an 'E' on there somewhere," he tells an optometrist while squinting at an eye chart in a 2008 cartoon.

Many cartoons hinted at violence, an aspect of the human experience in which Unger saw comic possibilities, such as a cowboy whose back is pierced by woodwind instruments. "Somebody," the cowboy says, "is selling clarinets to the Indians."

As with cowboy-and-Indian gags, jokes about a profligate, unattractive, unskilled and, above all, demanding wife seemed rooted in an earlier era. A henpecked Herman was part of a comic sensibility in which the critic Gene Shalit saw Unger as "an astute student of human behaviour and phobias, a keen observer of romantic and domestic relationships, abnormal psychology, emotional disturbances, and body English."

The offbeat and oddball tone of Herman showed an audience existed for such comedy, making possible the later success of such cartoonists as Gary Larson (The Far Side), who considered Unger a pioneer as a newspaper humorist.

James Frederick Unger was born on Jan. 21, 1937, in London, England, to Lillian Maud and James Unger.

After service in the British Army, he worked as a police officer, a driving instructor and a repo man. He was tramping across Europe as a penniless artist when a sister enticed him to move to Canada. After a time as a construction worker, he joined the Mississauga Times as art director. When the editorial cartoonist went on holiday, he was invited to replace him, soon after winning journalism prizes for his work.

He mailed out batches of cartoons seeking a syndication deal, only to be rebuffed in Canada. The Universal Press Syndicate of Kansas City replied with the offer of a 10-year contract. They had one caveat: They disliked Unger's suggested title, Attila the Bum.

The panel featured heavy lines and dark shading, a style that appeared crude at a glance but demanded skill.

"You sit down to draw some days and it looks like a kid of six did it," Unger told Andrew Cohen of the Ottawa Citizen in 1979. "Other times when the pen hits the paper it looks like Michelangelo."

In time, the artist relocated to an oceanfront villa in the Bahamas, complaining of high taxes and "creeping leftism" in his adopted land. He maintained a summer home on Vancouver Island.

Unger won the best-syndicated cartoon award from the National Cartoonists Society in 1983 and 1988.

The popularity of the strip also made it a regular on the paperback bestseller list, as collections of the cartoons became biannual yuletide favourites.

The Communist authorities in East Germany permitted Herman to appear in a newspaper.

Not long after, the citizenry tore down the hated Berlin Wall, an event Unger celebrated by titling his seventh collection of cartoons Herman: Over the Wall.

On occasion, the cartoon upset some readers. One featured Herman warning a misbehaving child, who had cut a hammock support, "Tomorrow I am having you adopted." Several parents of adoptees complained.

The grind of producing the cartoon took a toll. Unger collapsed during one book tour and he put the cartoon in abeyance by going on an indefinite sick leave in 1992. The strip returned to syndication five years later, though these were a selection of Herman favourites, sometimes with the gags improved, or updated.

"I say it's one of the toughest jobs in the world," Unger told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch on his return. "You've got a fresh sheet of drawing paper in front of you every day for 18 years and you've got to do it. Your mom dies, your dad dies and this is your life going on and you've got to do it. It's like Chinese water torture."

Unger leaves two daughters, four grandchildren, two sisters and a brother. He was predeceased by a younger brother, Bob Unger, who collaborated on Herman as a gag writer before dying suddenly at 63 in Victoria in 2003.

Death appeared as a regular topic in Herman cartoons. In one, a man in a hospital bed is greeted by a visitor holding a bottle of champagne in one hand and a funeral wreath in the other. "The doctor said you had a 50-50 chance," the visitor explains.

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