More About Jim Unger
Born January 21, 1937, Jim grew up with four siblings in a working-class neighborhood in London, England.
Laughter was as common as tea and biscuits in the Unger home. Debbie Unger would howl with laughter at big brother Jimmy entertaining her with faux television interviews from inside a cutout cardboard box. Oldest brother Bob would mumble deadpan one-liners for pee-in-your-pants guffaws. And Jim Sr. relentlessly made quips about fat people and their mum’s infamously bad dinners, “She’s got a black belt in cooking,” he’d say.
Unger enjoyed drawing and performed exceptionally well in school. After receiving an impossible perfect score on an exam, his middle school teacher accused Unger of cheating. He repeated the test for another perfect score.
Young Jim Unger's school photo, London, England.
But there were few opportunities in those days for a gifted working-class Brit. After compulsory military service, Unger had a variety of jobs, including two years as a London Bobby (police officer) on the docks, an insurance clerk, and repo man.
In 1968, after an acrimonious divorce where Unger lost custody of his two children, the 31-year old Unger followed his sister Shirley to Ottawa, Canada, in search of a better life. The amicable young man eventually charmed his way into the pre-press room of The Mississauga Times — a weekly suburban newspaper in Toronto — where he learned how to paste-up the paper’s pages.
In the midst of a comedic crisis, the editor asked Unger to temporarily fill-in for an absent political cartoonist. Without any formal art training, Unger picked up a pen to produce his first cartoon. “I guess it must have been good because it won an award,” said Unger.
One of Unger’s first cartoons created when temporarily filling-in for a political cartoonist at the Mississauga Times, a suburban weekly newspaper in Toronto, Canada.
As he continued cartooning, friends at the paper urged him to submit samples to a syndicate — a company that sells daily opinion columns, puzzles and comics to newspapers.
In the newspaper industry, syndication was the Holy Grail — a ticket to fame and fortune. Syndicates received thousands of submissions each year from hopeful cartoonists dreaming of stardom. Of course only a few were chosen, and fewer still were sufficiently hilarious and original to bump an established cartoon feature off the comic page without causing a frantic rebellion among die-hard fans. Editors tread cautiously with the most popular section of their newspaper. But having exclusive rights to a popular feature was a major coup for bragging rights and grabbing new subscribers from their competition.
Unger knew little about syndication and investigated the idea at the public library. His first submission to the Toronto Star Syndicate was quickly rejected. Unger then discovered a listing of American syndicates and sent sample cartoons to Universal Press Syndicate because “well, they sounded big” — completely unaware it was an industry upstart against established giants like King Features (Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Archie, etc.) and United Features (Peanuts, Marmaduke, etc).
Jim Andrews, founding partner at Universal, reviewed Unger’s 24-comic submission and asked for more samples. During this time, Unger’s live-in girlfriend ran off with another man. With tears dripping down on the page, Unger managed to produce some of his funniest material.
Andrews immediately recognized Unger’s enormous talent and sent him a 20-year contract to produce a daily comic panel. Universal christened the feature “HERMAN” and it was launched November 4, 1974.
Within a year, HERMAN was a top-selling feature and the first off-the-wall single panel comic to run in mainstream newspapers. More importantly, it stood out from all other comics with its unique illustrative style and characteristic sardonic wit.
HERMAN was suddenly everywhere as fans read, clipped, saved and posted it on refrigerators and office walls. The feature’s popularity prompted the release of a best-selling book collection of Unger’s comic entitled, HERMAN, The First Treasury, which would be translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. There was also licensed merchandise such as greeting cards and posters.
Unger received accolades from peers as well. He was twice honored by the National Cartoonists Society for Best Syndicated Panel. And numerous other cartoonists cited Unger’s work as a major influence including Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Lynn Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse, Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers, Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump, David Waisglass and Gordon Coulthart’s Farcus, and countless others.
In the Seventies and Eighties, newspapers were the primary source of pop culture information and editors wrote full-page stories about their new comic sensation. The media attention also prompted radio and television interviews across North America.
No one was more surprised by the adulation he received than the humble creator who worked quietly at home drawing and dreaming up new gags. When Unger arrived at a Chicago bookstore for a book-signing event, he waited in a line that circled the block to enter the store. It never occurred to him that everyone there was lining up to meet him.
The success of HERMAN changed Unger’s life, but not the man. His priorities and convictions remained steadfast.
One of the first things Unger did with his cartoon earnings was to buy a modest house in Ottawa for his parents, where he took an upstairs apartment for himself. He had little interest in his new wealth other than paying bills. When Universal’s president personally presented Unger with his first six-figure royalty check — a staggering amount for a working-class bloke — Unger simply looked at it, neatly folded it up, and put it away in his breast pocket without a word.
Making more money, or managing what he had, was not a priority for Unger. He had no stock market investments, tax strategies or business development plans. When top corporate executives flew across the country to meet with the creator in his living room to present details about their multi-million dollar marketing campaign for HERMAN posters, Unger dozed off. They stood dumbstruck wondering what to do next. Unger did not mean to be unkind or rude, he simply wasn’t interested.
Unger didn’t take himself too seriously. He could make fun of himself as easily as he did of others. His seemingly uncaring attitude made Unger an easy target for unscrupulous business managers and other people who cheated him. Still, he chose not to concern himself with it. He would rather see money slip away than be emotionally burdened by aggravation, anger, or hate. Instead, he put his faith in Karma.
“But they can't do that," his cartoonist colleague David Waisglass would often say to his friend Jim. “You have to do something.”
Unger would quote the Dalai Lama, Jesus, or his beloved father who pursued a stress-free life. He also believed in Karma and the value of being kind. Unger was extraordinarily thoughtful, caring, gracious, patient and, of course, generous to almost everyone he met — whether they were serving staff or homeless people on the street. For Unger, his greatest pleasure was helping people. “Money is not important,” he often said, “unless you don’t have any.”
To some, Unger appeared naïve and child-like. To others, he seemed deeply rooted in a well-thought-out philosophy of life. Unger believed small acts of kindness can change the world. It was the domino effect: The recipient of a smile, laugh or act of generosity would result in them doing the same for others.
Unger was an intellectual; a Renaissance man who was well-read in the humanities, science, classics, literature, art, philosophy, history, and current events. Similarly, when discussing humor, Unger could deconstruct and analyze a gag to the smallest detail while admitting that somehow it all came naturally to him.
Unger’s sister Debbie would jokingly say the only thing her brother Jimmy loved about his success was the attention he got from all the birds. “You know,” said Debbie, “Girls!”
During public appearances and book signing events, women would slip the good-looking and irrepressibly funny British creator lurid notes and hotel room keys. The stories didn’t help quash Unger’s reputation among the syndicate executives who saw him as an over-sexed ladies’ man. They would simply roll their collective eyes and warn colleagues to “keep your daughters away”.
What mattered most to Unger was the family he grew up with. He was particularly close with his brother Bob, younger sister Debbie and her husband Danny, along with their children — all of whom were his comedic inspiration. The entire clan was as funny as Unger himself. The laughter was constant. Only a few close friends entered his inner circle, some of which were other Universal creators — such as Tom Wilson, Lynn Johnston, and David Waisglass.
There were occasional outings and trips, but Unger preferred the comforts of home and the few familiar restaurants where he ate almost daily — usually the same favorite foods. “Why are you even studying the menu?” said Waisglass before ordering lunch at Unger’s favorite Ottawa diner. “We both know you’re going to have the liver and onions.”
“Not necessarily,” Unger would say defiantly, just before ordering liver and onions.
Unger faced the daunting task of producing a daily comic — 365 original cartoons per year for 800 newspapers and millions of comic readers. And not just any comic gag would do.
Good was often not good enough. Comics were often redrawn several times under a pressing deadline. It was Unger’s own exacting standards that undoubtedly made HERMAN a classic comic. And like all artists, he pushed himself to improve his craft.
The comics were created in batches of a week or more. And the hard work typically began by creating a list of joke ideas. On one occasion, Unger told his girlfriend he ought to work. He then stretched himself out on the sofa and closed his eyes. “I thought you had to work,” she said. To which he replied, “I am working!”
Most gag ideas arrived like gifts from the Comic Gods. Others required more thought. It was essential for Unger to jot them down as they occurred to him or risk being quickly forgotten. Over the period of a week or two, comic ideas accumulated as crude scribbled drawings on scrap paper, a restaurant napkin, toilet paper, or whatever was available when an inspiration struck. At other times, a gag might occur at the art table while drawing characters in bizarre situations.
The artistic challenge was to compose a comedic scene within the confines of a small single frame. Unger mastered the task with an economy of line. With a few strokes of his pen, he created characters whose body language and facial expressions perfectly conveyed the comical feel of the gag.
According to Unger, the drawing had to be funny on its own. And some comics, of course, require no caption at all.
Writing a great caption posed a similar challenge. The characters had to be real. And every word in the caption was scrutinized. “Some words are definitely funnier than others,” said Unger. “Adding, removing or changing a word can make a difference.”
Unlike standup comedians who test and refine their material before a live audience, cartoonists can only rely on their comedic intuition. And the results are not known until weeks and months later when the fan mail arrives.
Many young cartoonists would cringe at the way their predecessors produced comic art without computer technology. No Photoshop. No electronic pens. No digital erasers. No electronic coloring or screens. And no Google searches to provide quick image references. There was only a stick pen, inkwell, paper and a large wastebasket. And the creator’s only references were magazine photos and library books. Mistakes and changes meant starting over.
After inking the comic art, Unger would then add dot patterns for shading. With an adept use of an X-ACTO knife and Letratone, Unger would cut out the correct shape and attach the adhesive patterns to the artwork.
As a final step, Unger signed his creation and wrote the release date (e.g. 12-31) to indicate when subscribing newspapers could publish the comic.
Unger sent his original drawings by mail to the Syndicate who would stick-on the typeset caption and copyright notices. The syndicate would then print weekly sheets called “slicks” and mail them to the subscribing newspapers. The original drawings would then be mailed back to the creator who would have already begun working on the next batch of comics.
Creating HERMAN was a one-man operation with no breaks, vacations, or sick days. Unger often described it as a “Chinese Water Torture” — slow dripping water on the forehead that eventually drives victims insane. The challenge of maintaining the creative workflow was something other syndicated creators often talked about among themselves.
In good times, Unger would try to get ahead of his deadlines by submitting several weeks in advance. In rough times, it would be a challenge to get one week out the door.
The stress of working continuously on comic deadlines eventually took its toll. Unger developed debilitating cluster migraines and fought bouts of depression. And in 1984, he took drastic measures by relocating to sunny Nassau, Bahamas.
Unger asked his brother Bob to join him on the island and help come up with gags. In an instant, Bob was there. Their homes were attached for quick access to each other. Together they created some of the funniest HERMAN comics to date. Although the brothers had very different personalities, they were the best of friends, each speaking of the other with the highest regard and how the other saved their life.
Upon leaving Canada, the tax department requested Unger pay an enormous penalty for leaving Canada — a capital gains tax on the HERMAN comic property. Unger was advised to challenge the improper assessment, but characteristically avoided any conflict and paid the full amount. He vented his annoyance with a reporter who, along with Conservative politicians of the day, incorrectly reported that he left Canada because of high taxes. It was simply untrue. Unger objected to the excessively high taxes of the day (which have since been reduced) but his primary reason for leaving was to address his work stress, migraines, and chronic battle with depression.
From his sunny ocean front home in Nassau, Unger immediately found the tranquility he desperately needed and the laughs once again flowed easily.
Most people in the area were unfamiliar with his celebrity status and simply knew Unger as a gentle man who treated everyone with enormous respect and generosity. He was different from the many wealthy ex-patriots on the island who often showed little more than contempt for local residents. Unger truly loved Bahamians, and unlike everyone else in his ocean-side neighborhood, he was never a victim of a break-in or robbery.
Unger at home in Nassau, Bahamas.
The most frequently asked question put to all cartoonists is, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Unger would often reply to this complex question by simply saying, “Comedy is truth.”
As Unger saw it, brilliant comedic minds are free-thinking independent artists. He believed many great gags were the result of seeing things as they truly are. It was his task to mirror it back to his audience. Although there are many components to making a gag funny, an important part of the process was conveying a different perspective.
Unger was a progressive — an atheist whose compassion and empathy were deeply routed in his principled humanist values. Long before it was mainstream, Unger embraced civil rights issues of blacks, first nations, gays and other disenfranchised groups. He knew his liberal views were out of step with conservative readers in America, and respected the boundaries with HERMAN.
But his personal life didn’t mix as well with the more conservative religious-right executives of his mid-western-based syndicate. In those days, Unger made no attempt to conceal two long-term inter-racial relationships with younger women, or his progressive views about marriage, religion, sexual orientation and racial equality.
Unger would also push the boundaries of convention in his work. For the back-cover of his first book, he insisted on using a photo of himself unshaven and sweaty wearing a headband. It was not the typical author photo. According to Unger, it was more real depiction of himself. The publisher finally agreed and the unusual book photo later received a lot of positive feedback.
In the sacred halls of Universal, along with other corporate-like life-sized photos of famous newspaper creators, hangs a photo of Unger mockingly hitting-on a busty marble statue. While giving a tour of Universal’s facilities to a new creator, Vice-President Lee Salem ruefully shakes his head as he passes the Unger photo, “And, of course, you know Jim.”
Unger challenged convention yet again when he insisted on vacation time, forcing the Syndicate to re-run old cartoons for a few weeks. The practice was unheard of within an industry that demands fresh content, but Unger believed it was necessary and reasonable.
The working relationship deteriorated further in the late Eighties when several comic creators, including Unger, joined forces to address creator rights such as the syndicate entering into merchandising licenses and changing artwork without the creator’s approval. Under the threat of a lawsuit, the authors won their trademarks and copyright from the syndicate. The syndicate executives viewed this as an act of disloyalty from ungrateful comic artists.
These differences became more apparent as Unger began to see signs of alienation, as if he was being written-out of Universal’s promotions and history.
In 1992, with more than 6,500 comics to his credit, Unger announced his retirement. He decided to end the daily pressure of newspaper deadlines, especially amidst a new growing legal dispute with Universal.
But Unger was far from finished with HERMAN. His love of creating laughs would continue.
Waisglass and Unger established LaughingStock Licensing Inc. to manage their comic properties and pursue new media ventures. It began with a massive undertaking to re-master, restore, modernize and color the 7,000-comic archive from decaying film negatives. The company performed the same tasks for other syndicated cartoonists, such as Lynn Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse.
Jim Unger (left) and his brother Bob (right) with David Waisglass, creator of FARCUS. The brothers lived together in the Bahamas for many years writing gags, and later joined by long-time friend Waisglass.
Unger, the consummate artist, never stopped creating comic laughs. By 1998, HERMAN was re-released by United Features Syndicate with a mix of new and classic comics. It was the best of both worlds for Unger, creating new gags for his own enjoyment without the pressure of deadlines.
Re-syndicating HERMAN was an enormous success. Newspapers that were previously excluded from running the feature by their competition could now run the comic. Unger remained with United Features Syndicate until it ceased operations in 2011, and HERMAN was reunited with Universal Press Syndicate (now called Andrews McMeel Universal).
The semi-retired Unger brothers returned to Canada in 2001, purchasing a house directly behind their sister Debbie’s family home, a short distance from the ocean and mountains of Victoria, B.C.
Unger, 75, died at home from heart failure during the night of May 26, 2012. Next to him on his bedside table were several new HERMAN gags he had scribbled in the night.
“The world lost a comic genius,” says Waisglass, who continues to manage HERMAN and keep his friend’s legacy alive. “But for those of us who were fortunate enough to have Jim in our life, it’s an unfathomable loss. He was truly an extraordinary human being.”
Jim Unger’s HERMAN remains a feature on the comic pages of hundreds of daily newspapers worldwide and enjoyed online by a new generation of cartoon fans.