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Saturday June 2, 2012

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

Special to The Globe and Mail

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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