The lead character in Jim Unger’s offbeat cartoon panel “Herman” is a rumpled, middle-aged everyman, with a bulging belly and a potato-sized nose, dealing with the frustrations and absurdities of everyday life.
In one panel, Unger’s lumpy hero wears an apron and washes the dishes as his wife glowers over his shoulder. The caption says, “It’s one small step for a man, one giant leap toward a divorce.”
The award-winning British-born cartoonist had a good idea why his widely syndicated cartoon was so popular. “Everybody knows themselves when they see Herman,” he once said. “We all think we’re so different and we’re not.”
Unger, 75, died May 29 at his home in Saanich, British Columbia, Canada, said a spokesman for Universal Uclick, the features syndicate that distributes the “Herman” cartoons. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Launched in 1974, “Herman” was running in more than 500 newspapers around the world by the time Unger retired in the Bahamas in 1992. The cartoon returned to syndication in 1997 with a mix of classic and new material and still appears in hundreds of newspapers worldwide.
“It was a very nontraditional approach to humor in its day,” Lee Salem, president of Universal Uclick, told the Los Angeles Times. “It was Jim’s voice and his vision of Herman kind of getting through life, and often it was laugh-out-loud funny.”
One of Unger’s off-the-wall panels shows a doctor and a shirtless patient with a comically large Band-Aid on his hairy back. Inquires the doctor: “D’you want me to pull it off fast or slow?”
The cartoon’s sensibility “really sprang from Jim’s personality and his own droll sense of life,” Salem said. “It really opened up the comics pages for a much wider variety of humor and in its way helped pave the path for a new generation, including ‘The Far Side’ and others that came later.”
Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, said he “can’t imagine ‘The Far Side’ from Gary Larson catching on the way it did without Jim Unger blazing the trail.”
Unger “had a real idiosyncratic style and just an off-kilter way of looking at the world,” Farago told the Times. “I don’t think anyone on the comics page drew like him. He used nice, bold lines that really stood out on a comics page. When you saw an Unger cartoon, you knew it was unmistakably his work.”
The cartoonist’s quirky humor and exaggeratedly dumpy characters — “Ugly people make me laugh,” Unger once said — twice earned him recognition from the National Cartoonists Society for best syndicated panel in the 1980s.
His “Herman” cartoons also were collected in more than a dozen books.
“I have a silly way of looking at things,” he told the New York’s Syracuse Post-Standard in 1987. “I don’t think I’m like Herman, but I probably think like Herman thinks. I think you’re just born looking at the world in a certain way.”
Unger was born in London on Jan. 21, 1937, and spent his early childhood surviving Nazi Germany’s strategic bombing during World War II. He once told the reference work Contemporary Authors that he survived “enough near-misses to take life less seriously than most people.”
He served two years in the British Army and held a variety of jobs, including taxi driver, police officer and insurance clerk, before immigrating to Canada in 1968.
Unger, who had attended art schools in England, worked as a graphic artist in the advertising department of an Ottawa construction company before becoming art director of the Mississauga Times newspaper in 1971.
He later became the paper’s award-winning editorial cartoonist. And in 1974, after sending samples of his work to Universal Press Syndicate, he received a phone call.
They “told me I should be doing comics, since my work for the Times was so comical,” he told Canada’s Globe and Mail in 1984. “They suggested I send them some comics and they left it open as to what I would do.
“Without any conscious thought about character, I just sat down one weekend and drew 10 little jokes and sent them out.”
He didn’t even know what to call his character.
“I really didn’t want to name him anything. To me it wasn’t a character, it was just cartoons. But they told me I had to name him because that’s what the public wants. In the end, Universal Press Syndicate came up with ‘Herman.’ ”
Unger is survived by his sisters, Deborah Parker and Shirley Mann, and his brother, Steve.
©2012 the Los Angeles Times