‘Herman’ creator Jim Unger was a master of offbeat humour

The influential artist had a rocky relationship with Canada, his adopted country

Jim Unger, the cartoonist who died Monday at the age of 75, had an unmistakable drawing style.

As Andrew Cohen, writing for the Ottawa Citizen in 1978, described the middle-aged people who populated Unger’s one-panel strip Herman: “The belly bulges, the nose is protuberant and the back is invariably hunched.” It almost looked like an unfriendly parody of the demographic – middle-aged, full of aches and pains and complaints – that was thought to be the core readership of newspaper comic strips.

But Unger managed to become an internationally popular cartoonist, part of one of the last waves of newspaper comic artists to make a big splash in the medium, and the tone of the strip – cranky but not enraged about the indignities that life visits upon ordinary people – would influence a lot of strips to come, especially one-panel strips.

The offbeat, sometimes cryptic humour hadn’t been seen much on the comics pages before. Maryann Grimes, promotion manager for the United Media Syndicate, told the Washington Times in 1997 that “Herman was the original offbeat humour panel before The Far Side,” and that before Unger was coaxed out of his temporary retirement, “there was a big hole left” in the comic strip business.

Unger was originally from England, but moved to Canada to work. He originally tried to sell his comic strips to a Canadian syndicate, which turned him down; he turned around and sold it to a U.S. syndicate, which rejected Unger’s name for the strip, Attila the Bun, in favour of the simpler Herman. Speaking to the Citizen in 1978, Unger was still disappointed that he had to go to a U.S. publisher to make it big: “Canada gave me a chance and I’m grateful for that,” he said, “but whereas Americans still buy seeds and nurture them, Canadians want the plant and the flowers. They’ll tell you to take the seeds elsewhere.”

In the ’80s, he was so frustrated with Canada that he moved to the Bahamas, telling the Canadian Press that he was tired of paying his Herman money in taxes to support “creeping leftism, the breakdown of law and order and the spreading social-welfare system.”

He returned to Canada later, and died in Victoria Monday at the age of 75.