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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em: The Twenty-Fourth Sherman’s Lagoon Collection (2019)
Book Reviews

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em: The Twenty-Fourth Sherman’s Lagoon Collection (2019)

Dive right in as Sherman’s Lagoon gets its twenty-fourth collection of underwater gags and clandestine aquatic learning.

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Did you “catch” last year’s The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends, the twenty-third collection of Sherman’s Lagoon daily and Sunday funnies? Even if you did, no worries, as cartoonist Jim Toomey keeps his sharktacular comic strip as blissfully episodic and irreverent as ever in his latest square paper collection. Just like the subtitle says If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em is the strip’s twenty-fourth collection of anthropomorphic underwater gags and lessons published way back in 2018 (or abouts, as there’s no annotation for any of them).

Hard to believe Sherman’s Lagoon has been around a whopping 28 years, but that’s what a solid concept and one determined artist will get you: job security. Sherman’s Lagoon plays on the family dynamic of our “everyman” shark, Sherman, his wife Megan, Fillmore the bookworm sea turtle, Earnest the nerdiest fish, and everyone’s favorite, Hawthorne the crabbiest crab. He’s basically the Cartman/Bender of the bunch, but with pinchers. It’s your typical anthropomorphized underwater cartoon sitcom; they’re just like you and me, only with flippers and a taste of hairless apes. How relatable!

Sherman’s Lagoon is, in a word, perfunctory. An aging relic from a very different time when comic strips were only served on paper, color a luxury, and the only “edgy” humor was the odd papercut from badly stacked newsprint. All of this might sound like faint praise, but it’s actually quite the opposite: Sherman’s Lagoon is so pleasantly quaint, so eager to provide a good chuckle without any modern angst or cultural muckraking that it’s almost impossible to dislike. If we could use a second word it would be educational, but not in the stuffy, soul-sucking third-grade educational sense. Jim Toomey makes learning about what goes on under the waves deceptively entertaining and informative.

At it’s fishy best, Sherman’s Lagoon is really two comics for the price of one: the first being a traditional, gag-laden panel comic about fish that’s equally useful for wrapping around dead fish once the chuckling is done. You know the type – gags, jokes and maybe a few parodies if you’re lucky. The wordplay and visual puns are never as thick as Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, but they occasionally pop up.

The second is a clandestine aquatic classroom where you’ll absorb all sorts of little-known facts about sea critters and marine ecosystems. More than anything, Jim Toomey’s real gifts as both a cartoonist and teacher is knowing when to lay down the knowledge and when to lighten the mood. Nobody likes being preached to and that’s never an issue with Sherman’s Lagoon messaging. Read through this collection and you’ll definitely learn a thing or two about snails, fish and bioluminescence.

So what about those gags, puns and parodies? We’ve got plenty in this collection, the best concerning the unstoppable scourge of social media, technology and our addiction to the internet. Expect one or two jabs at Amazon’s Alexa “smart” speaker versus Apple’s Siri digital assistant and even a surprise zing at the technological new world order as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg make a surprise appearance. Can the world survive without direct access to newsfeeds and the relentless glut of fake news headlines and muck-stirring articles?

Are octopus really alien life seeded on Earth by way of icy meteors? And how can smartphones and laptops work submerged under the sea when they can’t even survive an unfortunate drop in the toilet?

Fans looking for Toomey’s big “get”, or his usual “catch of the day” person, cause or organization may be disappointed as there’s not one included in this collection. But that doesn’t mean you won’t learn a thing or two about environmental causes, especially in Australia.

Meet your new best friend, Triops australiensis, i.e. shield shrimp. Perhaps you’ve heard them referred to by their better, cooler name: zombie shrimp! These ancient crustaceans have evolved a neat trick to help them survive the driest climates as they’re able to shrivel up when water is scare and come “back to life” when the wet stuff returns. The same goes for their eggs, which can lay dormant for years and even take rides on convenient winds. Don’t let their name fool you: zombie shrimp aren’t actually shrimp, a minor inconvenience for the Lagoon’s resident shyster crab, Hawthorne, who dreams of packaging them into tasty treats ramen-style to combat the global snack food crisis. Who knew zombies could be so friendly?

Keeping things down under, say hello to the Charonia, the adorable marine gastropod mollusk that’s also something of a superhero. Better known as the Triton snail (its name inspired by Greek god Triton’s epic triton, naturally) these slow-as-molasses creatures serve an essential ecological service by chowing down on crown-of-thorns starfish that have been destroying Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks to Disney’s completely scientifically accurate Dumbo we all know elephants can fly (duh), but did you know pachyderms could also swim? And that they could swim for miles and miles? Toomey educates us on the amazing sea rescue of an Asian elephant that was found swimming TEN MILES off the coast of Sri Lanka by the awesome Sri Lanken Navy. Like any good Hollywood biopic, of course, Toomey imagines what happens next as “Eddie the Elephant” joins the Lagoon crew with dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer.

Did you ever see an elephant in speedos? Do you want to see an elephant in speedos? Thanks to Sherman’s Lagoon, you totally can.

Come for the gags, stay for the learning; you’ll laugh, you probably won’t cry, but you’ll definitely come away a little bit smarter after reading through The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends. It not only contains another helping of daily and Sunday funnies from Jim Toomey’s resiliently funny comic strip, but offers fans and curious newcomers alike a brief respite from the craziness that’s made following “the news” an exercise in frustration. If it takes man-eating sharks and shameless crabs to lift our spirits during these trying times, so be it.

Sometimes reading Sherman’s Lagoon can feel like you’re also reading whatever Jim Toomey’s reading at the moment, like a one-year delayed social media post in cartoon form. Not a bad thing, mind you, and the wait is always worth it. If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em is essential for cartoon collecting purists, of course, and they’ve probably already got this one pre-ordered. Fans should know what to expect as this collection doesn’t rock the boat, the ship remains as steady as ever. If spending a few hours with a cartoon shark and his friends sounds like a good time, dive right in. The puns stop…right now. Promise.

About the Author: Trent McGee