Sunday, June 3, 2012

License Request - Herman Omnibus

Last week on May 29th, my favorite single-panel cartoonist Jim Unger died in his sleep. There was something of a minor shock almost a decade ago when I saw that an Unger died in 2003, but it turned out to be Bob Unger, who was responsible for inspiring the majority of the jokes that made up the straightfaced humour of Herman. At the time, some people were worried it might’ve been musician David Unger who died.

I seem to be part of a minority of people who care that a comedic trailblazer passed away. More than any other comic, it was from Herman that I learned about comedic timing and human speech. His characters were capable of spouting the most natural one-liners spouted by what was essentially living mashed potatoes in human form. (Obviously inspired by Don Martin's natural clowns) Amazingly enough, Jim Unger admitted that he couldn’t draw the same guy twice, which was why Herman's character design was always inconsistent. Somewhat fitting for a cartoonist who changed his appearance as often as possible. Like Michael Jackson, no two pictures of Jim Unger are alike. His sense of humour and character designs were unique, and influenced other comics, not just The Far Side, but also spiritual successors Cornered and Close to Home, though none could hold a candle to Herman’s flame.

When Jim Unger first started, he thought that he would run out of material after the first month. It’s saying something that he managed to keep up his ability of being consistently funny for almost twenty years. It's also notable that he decided to leave his strip after he felt he was becoming burnt out, though there was no sign of any slowing down or decaying humour. It seems that twenty years is the ceiling for creating quality material before declining into Cerebus Syndrome.

Then five years later, Herman returned to the newspaper on June 2, 1997 in the form of reruns, with Jim Unger continuing to create new comics for his renewed publishing. Though for the most part, this was reduced to rewording various daily strips rather than drawing new comics. And without Robert Unger’s guidance, they didn’t quite have the same spark of humour to them. Also, like some various Bloom County strips, some old comics had been dumbed down or had grammar corrected, which seemed a sin against Unger’s philosophy as mentioned in The Best of Herman book: “using bad grammar like ‘wanna’ is funnier than ‘want to’.

As an added insult, the daily strips were colourized, which seemed less appealing than the detailed screentone patterns in the original black & white. Some forms of media were updated, while other were left untouched, such as box television sets. Also, cultural references were updated to keep up with the times, such as changing telling the husband on an exercycle from “Don’t go too far, you’ll miss Gunsmoke.” to “Don’t go too far, you’ll miss Seinfeld.

Oh yes, there were plenty of cowboys & indian homages, back when Westerns were popular, and henpecked wives were a popular theme. (Relaying to Jim Unger’s disastrous marriages) It might've been that reliance to archaic devices that could've alienated modern readers, but that doesn't jibe with other comics & stories where old narrative elements are part of their charm.

In some cases, the new lines were a shadow of their former selves. In others, the joke was either explained or improved on. A fan could quite literally spend the rest of their lives recaptioning any random Herman comic that would fit perfectly well within The New Yorker.

Ironically enough, Jim Unger didn’t actually start producing new work for the Sunday pages until recently. Up until then, his last regulated output was limited to creating an extra for Blondie’s 75th Anniversary. (Herman’s right below Elly & John there) This is ALSO going to bump up my tag list with all these extras here, but I don’t care, since I enjoy Herman so much. I even created a Garfield mash-up comic of one of his most famous strips.

However, what I want is EVERY Herman comic published in chronological order, even the bad ones, and the inexplicable ones. I suspect that it was the recent Herman books containing multiple jokes that were already overly familiar in a new coat of paint & dialogue that put off faithful readers. I suspect that if we had a reprint project similar to the Fantagraphics Peanuts reprint, sales would be through the roof. One of the biggest deterrent to collecting every single strip was that a few more were being added late in his life, and thus, a final tally couldn't be figured out. It's just a shame that it would take the death of this fine man for this request to come through.

I also want this nonexistent album to contain the original texts that were used at the time of publication. If some of the references are too unwieldly or obscure, a footnote or alternative text can be inserted elsewhere.

Only two books containing a large portion of his Sunday comics were ever reprinted. The first one was unique in that it was done in reverse chronological order. Starting from September 27, 1981 to March 30, 1980, as so not to alienate long-time fans with their weird crude amateurish early character designs which weren’t quite as charming as their later incarnations. This was also before the Herman logo would develop the flowery curved design later.

There were some rumours of adapting his comic strip for an animated show on Teletoon, but nothing ever came to fruition, since the animation company in charge closed before anything could be produced. On the one hand, it’s kind of a shame, since it could’ve exposed an entirely new audience to Jim Unger’s works, and several of the silent Herman strips could’ve served as bumper slots in between commercials, similar to the Ducktales stills.

On the other hand, it’s doubtful they would’ve been able to tie together plots from dozens of Herman comics dealing with similar themes into a single cohesive narrative plot. What made Herman work so well was how much story could be contained within the constraints of a single panel. Free up that restriction, and you’ve got a singular stock man in any time frame trying to deal with absurd situations as best as possible. Herman works when you don’t exactly know who he/she/it is. Herman could be the executive, the doctor, the patient, the wife, the dog, the plant, the alien, or all of the above, or none of the above. WHO Herman was wasn’t important. It was what happened that was worth seeing.

The new animated primetime series is based on the popular syndicated newspaper comic by Jim Unger, and features Herman, and his reactions to an insane world populated by lovable misfits surviving various life crisis.
- the pilot pitch

There’s an online archive of many of Herman comics available at this address, and divided by subject and theme for easy browsing, though they’re all considerably reduced in size, which ruins the humour somewhat. It's recommended that you take your time going through all of them, because after awhile, you need to take a breather after so many jokes.

Out of all of the Herman comics, this last one seems more melancholic and thoughtful than the others, and doesn’t exactly end on a typical punchline. It feels more like the Calvin & Hobbes Sunday comic where Calvin & Hobbes would “meet each other in their dreams”. It’s unknown who this was intended for, but seems a fitting finale for a man who made the world laugh.


  1. I learned a lot about the Herman strip. Very comprehensive sir. I have been a fan of the strip too but for different reasons. I always felt the humor was far weaker than the art. I really like the loose, sloppy style since it is so different than my own art.

  2. I learned that there is a software called "The Complete Herman Collection", which is probably not what you wanted since it's a CD with Herman cartoons, rather than a comprehensive book. Also, it's an old software, like 90's old, so not sure if that works.

    It's interesting that you view Herman as the best, even more so than The Far Side, which is considered many people's favourite comic. I do see the appeal, as I didn't really appreciate The Far Side as much as other people did (also it helps that I read the Sunday comics when I was younger while Far Side was unknown to me until I am much older).

    Thank you for reading.