Over the years I have gotten many chuckles from reading “Herman,” the cartoon that came from the wit and penmanship of the late Jim Unger. The item ran in over 600 newspapers from 1974 until 1992, when Unger retired and moved to the Bahamas. He later returned to periodic updates of “Herman,” until his death at 75 in British Columbia in 2012.
He had been born in London, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, thus many moments of his early years had been spent in air raid shelters. He later became a London bobby and for a while he sold insurance. In his youth he had wanted to become a judge. He wrote that he was not funny and he could not draw, two lacks that he considered ideal qualities for a judge.
At 31 he emigrated to Mississauga, Ontario, at the suggestion of his sister who had moved there. He went to work for the Mississauga Times as an editorial assistant, and in 1974 he began contributing his cartoon that featured a middle-aged, balding, overweight gentleman with a large protruding nose. He named him Herman. The popularity of the piece spread rapidly, and the cartoon went into syndication.
I had not thought about Herman for many years, that is, until this Christmas when the Younger B.E. presented me with a copy of The 1st Treasury of Herman, that she had found in a used bookstore. Interspersed with the actual cartoons are Jim Unger’s reflections on his own life and of the broader scope of life itself. His musings are both hilarious and profound.
He wrote that he had gotten his first real insight into the human condition when he “was dragged off kicking and screaming into the British Army for two years.” He noted that the average soldier spent 95% of his time writing love letters to his girlfriend and 5% running up and down obstacle courses and mopping floors. He concluded, “So much for war!”
In addition to his cartoons, Jim Unger co-founded Intraca with fellow cartoonist David Walsglass. It is a cartoon-based computer messaging system that aims to boost employee morale in the workplace. “Herman” cartoons also can be found on posters informing workers about safety concerns in a humorous manner.
As I have been perusing this hilarious volume, I have been absorbed in laughter. Each item has its own message, from the convict breaking into the prison warden’s office and calling back downstairs to a fellow inmate asking what went wrong with their calculations, to the obese lady asking a restaurant proprietor what he is hiding behind his back. It was a sign saying, “All You Can Eat.”
In another piece, a large dog is eating from his bowl on the dining room table, prompting Herman’s wife to ask, “How would you like to eat off the floor every day.” At one point Herman’s wife tells him, “Look at my wall. Can’t you tell the difference between bug-killer and spray-paint?”—the wall being splotched all over with spray paint.
“Herman” had a universal and an enduring message. Not intending to become a cartoonist, and self-admittedly not able to draw, Jim Unger has left a lasting legacy by uniquely having captured the oddities of the human spirit. My Christmas holidays have been spent in large measure reading and laughing at and with his wit-at-large.
As the new year commences, and the pandemic continues in its most recent transmogrified form, my wish is for health and happiness to all of our readers. In that regard, a glance through one of Jim Unger’s hilarious volumes can be a good place to begin.