News FocusProfile: Jim Toomey

LOL and a Touch of Science, Too

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Science  06 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6090, pp. 28-29
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6090.28

Cartoonist Jim Toomey finds ways to sneak marine conservation and science into his popular comic strip.

Group photo.

Cartoonist Jim Toomey posed in 1998 with the characters from his comic strip, Sherman's Lagoon.

CREDIT: CHRISTINE GUINNESS © 2010

ANNAPOLIS—“Science is hard to make funny,” admits cartoonist Jim Toomey. “And I don't want to be known as the guy with science predictably in the story line.”

Despite those caveats, the former mechanical engineer has repeatedly used his popular comic strip, Sherman's Lagoon, to champion marine conservation. One favorite topic (see panels) is the Census of Marine Life, a decadal effort by scientists to catalog the diversity of life in the oceans. But Toomey, whose strip appears in 150 U.S. newspapers and 25 other papers around the world, has found a way to present the issue without violating the first rule of cartooning: Keep it light.

“I like to dive into scientific themes often enough to keep the audience intrigued,” Toomey says. But the more science-oriented the content of the comic, he adds, “the more you whittle down your audience. I'd rather cast a wider net with a thinner scientific message.”

For Toomey, humor comes from recognizing oneself in a cartoon character. And his strip offers readers a wide selection of mirrors: In addition to Sherman, an affable great white shark, the strip features a green sea turtle called Fillmore as his brainy sidekick, a scheming hermit crab, and a juvenile-delinquent fish.

Scientists involved in the marine census are basking in the attention that Toomey has given it. “It was a great advertisement to the public at large that really didn't know much about the oceans,” recalls marine ecologist Patrick Halpin of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Cartoons offer some inherent advantages for scientists who are trying to reach the public. “Kids put a lot of stock in your strip,” says Stephan Pastis, creator of the comic Pearls Before Swine, whose characters have opined on quantum mechanics and colliding galaxies as part of Pastis's wry and offbeat exploration of the human condition. “You almost teach them how to read, and you are their first introduction to many new ideas.”

CREDIT: COURTESY OF JIM TOOMEY

The visual nature of comics shouldn't be understated, adds Scott McCloud, a cartoonist and author of several books about comics and their impact. Images can bypass our critical faculties and forge a pretty strong connection in our memories, he says.

Toomey, 51, traces his love of the ocean—and his interest in sharks—to childhood summer vacations spent at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach, a popular tourist destination in the mid-Atlantic region. Fishers casting off a local pier would pull in all sorts of fish, including a few sharks. As he was growing up, the TV specials of marine explorer Jacques Cousteau convinced him that sharks had an undeserved reputation as villainous predators. Flying low over the crystal-clear waters of the Bahamas in a plane that his father piloted, a 12-year-old Toomey spotted a lone shark in a lagoon.

Following the family tradition, Toomey was trained as a mechanical engineer. As an undergraduate student at Duke, he also drew political cartoons for the student newspaper. After college he moved to San Francisco and combined those talents by working at an exhibits company.

After a few years, he decided to use his artistry to tell stories. Thinking back to that Bahamian bay, he created a comic strip with a bumbling great white shark at its center. His friends are all named after streets in San Francisco.

He sent samples of his strips to the top 250 U.S. newspapers, and about 15 signed up. A year later he gave up his day job as an engineer and embarked on a fulltime career as a cartoonist. In addition to penning Sherman's Lagoon, Toomey has lent his talents to outreach programs by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.N. Environment Programme, and several conservation organizations. He also serves on the board of directors of the Sylvia Earle Alliance, a group that promotes the formation of marine sanctuaries.

Tradeoffs

Although his characters have often advocated on behalf of scientific causes, Toomey doesn't let science cramp his artistry. Sherman never had his full set of fins, for example, and his sharply pointed nose has become softer over time to the point where it now resembles Snoopy's, the beagle made famous by Charles Schulz in Peanuts. Fillmore once had flippers but now has fingers and hands. His shell is more like a sweatshirt than a bony carapace. Hawthorne—besides being enormous for a hermit crab—no longer scuttles like a crab but stands up like a person. “My fish are people in fish costumes,” Toomey says.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF JIM TOOMEY

Researchers say they are cool with the distortions. “I don't mind that Sherman is a caricature of a real shark,” says marine biologist Demian Chapman of Stony Brook University in New York. “Anything that conveys information about the plight of sharks is something that's really important,” adds Chapman, who studies sharks.

Toomey says it's a constant challenge to make Sherman lovable because a lot of endearing human foibles just don't apply to fish. So forget midriff bulge and receding hairlines. “It's a very narrow slice of the humor pie that you can play with,” he notes.

Toomey is also constrained by the dimensions of the panels of the modern comic strip, which have gotten considerably smaller over time. Whales are too big to interact with Sherman, he points out, while corals are not only too small but also lack a mouth with which to talk. When he wanted to feature an octopus, whose mouths are underneath their bodies, Toomey used a thought cloud instead of a dialogue bubble to convey the creature's views.

Although Pastis says Sherman provides “a natural fit” to explore marine conservation issues, Toomey has learned that readers don't want to be lectured. He once ran a series about the shark-fin trade in which Sherman gets caught, loses his fins, and is tossed back into the ocean to die. After St. Peter tells him that there are too many sharks trying to enter heaven, Sherman returns to Earth and struggles to change his diapers with his teeth. His friends come to the rescue, buying his fins from a Web site and sewing them back on. Although many readers voiced their approval of the series, Toomey says, some complained that the message was too serious for the comics.

Sherman's adventures

Toomey has taken his cast of characters all over the world. They've skied in the undersea mid-Atlantic Range, seen a 3-meter-wide jellyfish off the coast of Japan, and descended to the ocean's greatest depth in the Marianas Trench. “What I am trying to do is bring some of the ocean to the public that they might not be aware of,” Toomey says. “I'm fascinated with the oddballs.”

The Census of Marine Life is a natural stage for oddballs. Halpin had met Toomey while the cartoonist was getting a master's degree in environmental management at Duke. “It was really interesting to have someone not only doing a cartoon on marine life but also dedicated enough to the field to get his graduate education in it,” Halpin says. After a colleague suggested recruiting artists to help get the word out about the census, Halpin e-mailed a request to Toomey. The cartoonist saw great potential in the idea.

“I turned it into what the human census was because that's what people could instantly identify with,” Toomey says. As a result, Ernest the fish gets his census-taking kit in the mail and goes door-to-door looking for new critters (see panel). He comes across numerous Census of Marine Life finds, such as the yeti crab (Kiwa puravida), which grows bacteria on its claws to eat; the vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis); and a dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis sp.).

Census scientists were thrilled. “Scientists can be stodgy and set in their ways and might look down on people doing cartoons,” Halpin says. “But they enjoyed seeing different avenues of communication [for their work].”

Toomey has used his strip to convey a variety of marine science and conservation messages. A plastic bottle floating into the lagoon sends Sherman and his friends on an adventure, tracing the bottle's journey from Boise to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. When a conservation organization tagged a sea turtle in Cocos Island National Park off Costa Rica and named it Fillmore, the cartoon character took a trip there, and the strip directed readers to the Web site tracking the real Fillmore.

His strip is not the first to tackle marine conservation, admits Toomey, citing the venerable Mark Trail as a forerunner. “But Sherman's Lagoon is probably the only comic strip that repeatedly revisits the issue.” At the same time, Toomey deliberately puts a spin on the science. “I take the scientific fact and give it a comic twist,” Toomey says.

Take the fact that great white sharks have ampullae of Lorenzini, tiny electromagnetic receptors used to find prey. Toomey turns them into a sixth sense that enables Sherman to win bets on sporting events. Another strip shows Fillmore making a yearly pilgrimage to Ascension Island, where green sea turtles migrate to lay their eggs, for a swinging singles party.

An upcoming series about the Sargasso Sea will include a fish with modified pectoral fins that let it climb up on Sargassum seaweed. The comic strip may also propose turning part of the Sargasso Sea into a marine sanctuary, a common theme for Toomey. But some marine topics, such as ocean acidification, are harder to fit into the 20 or 30 words available within a typical strip. “You might see one in a year” on that topic, he predicts.

Anticipating the continued decline in newspaper readership, Toomey has begun writing and producing animated videos in hopes of mastering this potentially more potent medium. Videos and e-books, he says, “will probably be my ultimate future.”

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