Universal Soldier: The Lee Salem Interview
Editor’s note: This interview first appeared in Hogan’s Alley #7, published in 2000.
Few have had the vantage point on the comic-strip business that Lee Salem has enjoyed. Currently Universal Press Syndicate’s vice president and editorial director, Salem has been with the company since 1974, when he joined as assistant editor. Salem, a native New Englander, came to the comics industry with a valuable outsider’s perspective. Rather than coming equipped with a lifelong passion for cartooning, he came armed with a master’s degree in English and a fondness for the work of Charles Dickens. From this, he knew the importance of telling good stories and developing compelling characters, a point of view that has served him well as he has helped guide the careers of some of the best storytellers in contemporary comic strips. (He also says, diplomatically, that his affection for Dickens’ characters has allowed him to appreciate the eccentricities of cartoonists and their creations.)
Over the course of his two-and-a-half decades at Universal, Salem, 53, has seen his industry evolve dramatically. Universal was at the forefront of important movements such as creators’ ownership of copyright. This creator-friendly progressivism helped Universal to become home to blockbuster strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Cathy, Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse. But Universal has learned that, just as farsighted policies giveth, they also taketh away: Gary Larson and Bill Watterson chose to retire The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes at their peaks of popularity, and Lynn Johnston moved For Better or For Worse to rival United Media at the expiration of her Universal contract. It would have been understandable if Universal had chosen to respond to these developments by attempting to maintain market share through the introduction of safe, middle-of-the-road strips that could find comfortable homes in a profitable number of newspapers, but Salem knows that this is not how Universal attained its success: He and Universal have been nurturing tomorrow’s generation of blockbusters by discovering creators whose visions are personal and challenging, such as Aaron McGruder with The Boondocks and Lennie Petersen with The Big Picture, all the while keeping the ship of state moving ahead with established successes such as Cathy, Doonesbury, FoxTrot and Garfield. (Syndication achieved a karmic equilibrium of sorts when Jim Davis’ Garfield and Johnston’s For Better or For Worse migrated to each other’s former syndicates.) Newspaper economics and evolving technology are reshaping the way syndicates do business, and Salem plays a leading role not only in ensuring the continued prosperity of his company, but in creating new opportunities for it. —Tom Heintjes
Tom Heintjes: Unlike many in the industry, you didn’t grow up with a burning desire to get into the cartooning field.
Lee Salem: No, it wasn’t a path at all. It was more of a stream that turned into a waterfall. I have a master’s degree in English and had intended on teaching, and at that time English teachers were a nickel a dozen. I was working in health-insurance claims. A former college teacher of mine was friends with Jim Andrews, who co-founded the syndicate. My former teacher called me one day and said, “This company, Universal Press Syndicate, needs an assistant editor—are you interested?” That was in 1974, and I celebrate my twenty-fifth anniversary this [past] July.
Heintjes: What has changed most about the syndication business since you’ve been a part of it?
Salem: Two big changes, one positive and one negative. The negative change, of course, is that there are fewer and fewer competitive markets. At one time you could anticipate a good response in the major markets, because if you didn’t sell to newspaper A you could sell to newspaper B. Now there is no newspaper B in most cases. That requires the editorial side to be more careful in its selections. The positive change is that newspapers are more receptive to different things, they’re open to new visions in cartooning, and I think that’s a historical trend that newspapers have reluctantly accepted but have gone along with nonetheless.
Heintjes: Why do you think they’ve become more open to different material even as there are fewer and fewer markets?
Salem: When they look at their list of successful comics, many of them fit into the list of strips that do things differently or—this sounds a little trite in this era—pushing the edge a bit. If you look back at Doonesbury or For Better or For Worse or Bloom County or The Far Side, these are all strips that broke out of the mold. And when you realize the impact they’ve had, it forced editors to say, “Well, maybe there is a different way of doing things.”
Heintjes: I hear from a lot of aspiring cartoonists who say that the syndicates are looking for safe, middle-of-the-road properties, but then I see a strip like The Big Picture, which I think is a terrific strip and which makes a very personal statement. It’s not a warm and fuzzy strip at all, and it sort of counters the assertion that syndicates only want safe material.
Salem: Well, I hope it does. It’s a strip we’re launching this September, and it’s already out in book form through our affiliate, Andrews McMeel. I think Lennie Peterson has the talent to reach readers and say something to them, and my guess is that enough newspapers will believe in that vision and accommodate him. There has always been a constant struggle between the market saying it wants safe stuff and the market alleging that it wants to excite readers.
Heintjes: How do you reconcile those forces?
Salem: I’m not sure you can do it with any single strip. Over a, say, two- or three-year effort, you try to accommodate those different demands, and we’ll do some strips that are edgier than others and some that are safer than others, because we are in the business of selling cartoonists’ work. But I do think we have a certain editorial bent that inclines us toward things that in the long run are on the edgier side of that equation.
Heintjes: Your weekly strips, especially, tend toward the edgier side of the spectrum. Where I’m Coming From, by Barbara Brandon, comes to mind—a strip with a black woman’s point of view. Do you perceive a difference between what a weekly strip can handle versus a daily strip?
Salem: I think you have to look at the environment in which a strip finds itself. A strip like Where I’m Coming From is probably going to be put in the lifestyle section or weekend-wrapup section, so I think Barbara can do and say some things that the comics page itself might not allow because of the strips that surround it.
We’re syndicating a new strip called The Boondocks, which in a daily strip addresses some of the same issues Barbara does. The Boondocks is a very youth-oriented strip, strong in hip-hop flavor. It’s done by Aaron McGruder, a young African-American artist who makes some strong statements about how the races get along. The premise is that two young African-American boys get transplanted to the all-white suburbs and how life is very different for them there. Thus far, in terms of initial sales, it’s up there with Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse.
Heintjes: Has any of the reaction to The Boondocks surprised you? I imagine you were braced for it.
Salem: Actually, little of the reaction has surprised me. I made a few sales calls myself and warned editors, “This strip will not just sit on the page.” Many people are reading it, and some are discussing issues Aaron raises. We couldn’t have asked for more.
Heintjes: What do you think all the reaction to the strip says about race relations?
Salem: Hell, I don’t know. I’m no sociologist, and I claim no special knowledge on racial relations. But it does seem to me that the mass media could do more to enable conversation on different racial and cultural experiences and allow us to get past the sense of “the other.” The Boondocks is a step in the right direction.
Heintjes: What sort of reaction did the sequence in which Huey was hitting other children with the toy light saber elicit?
Salem: I think that many people read the light-saber sequence through the lens of the school shootings in Colorado. We thought the first day’s warning label put the week into a proper context, but it did not do that for enough readers. The week the sequence ran, we and Aaron took some not-unjustified shots. But I believe the sequence now fits into the larger context of Aaron’s views of The Phantom Menace.
Heintjes: Has the client list of the strip held steady throughout?
Salem: At this date, we’ve had a few cancellations from smaller papers, but the major clients of the strip are standing firm. The publicity has been incredible and the sales continue. Once the newness of the strip wears off, I think the strip’s solid core of readers will keep it placed, and those who are put off by the strip will stop reading it—and complaining about it.
Heintjes: When you’re deciding on a property you’d like to handle, how much talent comes over the transom and how much do you tap and say, “We’d like to work with you”?
Salem: In the area of cartooning, it’s more of the former. Once in a while, we’ll see somebody’s work who is not quite there, and we might make some suggestions or put him on a development contract to see what happens. The majority of the strips we get are well thought out by the time we get them. If we decide to launch it, it’s a matter of getting an idea of the characters and where the writer intends to go with
Heintjes: I guess The Boondocks would be an example of that.
Salem: Yes. Aaron had done the strip for the University of Maryland newspaper, and it appeared monthly in The Source, which is an urban entertainment magazine. We’ve been talking with him and working with him for about a year and a half now.
Heintjes: Between him and Frank Cho, I wonder what’s in the water at the University of Maryland.
Salem: [laughter] I don’t know. For a while, the University of Texas was that way.
Heintjes: Of the cartoonists that Universal syndicates, how many have signed development contracts as opposed to emerging full-blown?
Salem: The vast majority might work with us for four or five months before syndication, but then you just go with it. We worked with Aaron for about a year and a half. I think we worked with Lynn about a year and a half. Most of the work falls in the middle of that—seven or eight months and they’re launched. We don’t do many development contracts because we can anticipate pretty early on how someone’s going to do.
Heintjes: When you place someone in a development contract, is its purpose to refine the concept or to see if someone’s up to the rigors of daily production?
Salem: A little of both. We like the characters but we may need a better way to get a fix on them, or maybe there are too many characters.
Heintjes: You also want to make sure that those 36 strips didn’t take two years to produce.
Salem: Sure, that’s always a concern. We hear it from the market all the time: “Yeah, this is a great six weeks, but what’s the next six weeks going to be like?” It’s always a judgment call. I wish we had five years’ worth of work from every cartoonist, but then they wouldn’t be cartoonists.
Heintjes: Talking about changes in the industry, creators’ rights have come a long way, and Universal has played a role in that change. To your mind, what are the advantages to your company of creators’ rights as well as, conversely, the drawbacks?
Salem: Presumably, when a cartoonist comes to us, we have a set of mutual goals, and those goals all point to trying to make the feature as successful as it can be. If that means that there’s give and take over what goes in the contract, that’s fine. There are some things we insist on. At the same time, we as a syndicate have to acknowledge a changing world. That might result in a cartoonist saying, “In the past you used to do this, and I’m willing to offer my services but these are the things I want now.” A syndicate needs to be able to sit down at the table and talk about those things with the benefit of the feature in mind, or that syndicate’s going to be out of business.
There’s no question that the general contract of today is different from the general contract of 30 years ago, just as the general contract of 30 years ago was different from the general contract of 30 years before that. It’s a natural progression, and both sides do their best to deal with it.
This phrase “creator’s rights” bothers me. It seems to me that you’re dealing with a talented individual at any given point in that individual’s career, and we have certain services to offer as a syndicate. If we have to nibble around the edges of the contract to accomplish our mutual goals, then fine—we can do that. And what one cartoonist considers a “right,” another might not be interested in.
Our record on the rights of cartoonists is unmatched. Since 1970, only 12 comics have been introduced that surpassed 1,000 newspapers. Six of those reached that number with Universal. We have been the most vocal regarding the shrinkage of comics. We initiated a vacation policy for cartoonists. Most importantly, we’ve provided a climate and support for artists who have opened doors for new subject matter and new approaches to the art form. When other syndicates have gone to newspaper and asked, “Are you going to let Trudeau, or Guisewite, or Johnston, or Larson, or Watterson get away with that?”, we have articulated the right of the cartoonist to communicate with his or her readers.
Heintjes: You mentioned that you insist on certain things in a contract, but I assume copyright ownership is not one of them.
Salem: We’re less concerned with copyright ownership than with ancillary rights. Some artists want the responsibilities and duties that accompany copyright ownership, and some don’t. Whatever rights everyone ends up with require some responsibilities.
Heintjes: Scott Adams, for example, has no interest in copyright ownership.
Salem: It’s an individual decision. Related to that is our policy of vacations. We instituted a policy that says any cartoonist who has been with us five years or more can have four weeks a year of vacation. It’s not mandatory, but some cartoonists want to take advantage of it. Others say, “Why would I want to do that?” In situations like this, both sides have to be open to new ideas yet try to address each other’s interests.
Heintjes: I suppose the flip side of this situation is when a creator who owns his or her property chooses to take his bat and ball and play somewhere else. We could talk about Bill Watterson, Gary Larson or Lynn Johnston, but I suppose in any case it’s a situation that a syndicate is prepared for, because in today’s industry it’s going to happen.
Salem: Any contract has an end. In Lynn’s case we’d reached the end of the contract, and she thought it was time for her to find a new environment. In the case of Bill, it wasn’t a case of seeking a new environment as much as it was a case of seeking no environment [laughter] and saying, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” After we put the Kleenex box down and stopped crying, we figured out how we could deal with it. The bottom line is, you can have any contract you want in the world, but you can’t force someone to be funny. In the old days of syndicate ownership of properties, the market didn’t respond negatively if artist A was replaced with artist Y. Today, a number of features are so closely identified with their creators that it’s very difficult to envision anyone else doing them. I can’t imagine anyone else doing a Doonesbury or a Cathy or a For Better or For Worse or a Calvin and Hobbes. So when an artist or a writer says, “I can’t do this,” you have to deal with it.
Heintjes: How large a role do merchandising concerns play in your evaluation of a strip?
Salem: It’s something that’s on my mind all the time, because the stories are legion of the millions of bucks being made off the potential for licensing. But in terms of editorial judgment, I look at my job as coming up with features that will sell to newspapers. That’s what I try to do. If that feature becomes one that is successful in other areas, such as books or other merchandise, that’s fine, but my main job is to come up with features to sell to newspapers. If I saw a feature that I thought we could sell to 500 newspapers but not sell a book, I’d certainly sign that feature up.
Heintjes: If you saw a strip that had a brilliant concept and well-developed characters but the art was wretched, what would your approach be? Would you try to play matchmaker with another artist?
Salem: Matching a writer with an artist would be an option. We tried it a couple of times with things that were in development, but we never launched them. The problem is not so much a question of ego as it is creative interest. The people we see want to do the whole thing. If they come to us with a complete strip that has weak art, but they’re not inclined to work with another artist, you try to work with it the best you can, in the hope that the art would be overcome by the strength of the writing or that the art will gradually improve.