Universal Soldier: The Lee Salem Interview

Universal Soldier: The Lee Salem Interview

Editor’s note: Lee Salem passed away in September 2019. We at Hogan’s Alley were extremely fond of and indebted to Lee, and we present this interview from Hogan’s Alley #7 (1999) with gratitude.

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?

A Calvin and Hobbes Sunday (click to enlarge)

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.

Salem and Universal co-founder John McMell (right) at a National Cartoonists Society event.

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.

From The Boondocks' high-profile lightsaber sequence (click to enlarge).

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 the humor.

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.

The Far Side

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.

Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon (click to enlarge)

Heintjes: During your tenure at Universal, have you observed a trend in submissions in the type of material or the subject matter?

Salem: I guess the easiest response to that is that too many cartoonists are influenced by what is already successful. The classic is the strip I saw where the cartoonist had come up with an idea about a little girl and her pet teddy bear.

Heintjes: Sounds like a winning formula.

Salem: That’s not the business we’re in. We want something that goes beyond that. It’s a bit frustrating that there are so many cartoonists who say, “Because you syndicated The Far Side, you’ll like this.” No one needs a weak Far Side. But I think that what is exciting, what is innovative and what is different have gradually changed, and times have changed. There’s still that small core of people out there who can put themselves on a piece of paper in a way that no one else can and in a way that’s marketable. That’s what makes this business exciting and rewarding.

Heintjes: What is the most common flaw in submissions you see?

Salem: The vast majority of things we see are just very amateurish. They are not at the level of even being considered, even though an individual has spent a lot of sweat and effort on it. It’s not anything that would ever appear in print. And I think there’s a sense that, “If Cartoonist X can get on a comics page, so can I.” Or, “If Writer Y can get on the op-ed page, so can I.” It’s not that easy. Those of us who are gatekeepers at Universal, United, King or wherever bring a certain set of ideas to any submission. We may disagree on some points, and we may be criticized for that process of gatekeeping, but I think overall the syndicates would say that too many people out there think they’re talented when they’re not.

Heintjes: That has probably been the case ever since you entered the industry.

Salem: That really hasn’t changed, and that’s one of the givens you have to deal with in any creative field. I’m assuming there are music publishers who are getting poorly done rewrites of whatever is popular. That’s just part of the creative field’s process.

Heintjes: We hear the numbers of submissions that syndicates get—anywhere from 3,000–5,000. Has that number held steady over the years?

Salem: I think it’s been the same. We get about 60–70 a week, and you multiply that by 52 and that’s roughly what you get. They’re not all comic strips—they’re columns and other types of work, anything from columns on stamp collecting and home repair to op-ed and advice columns to comics and panels.

Heintjes: Who sifts through your submissions?

Salem: Various people have done it at various times. Now, it’s predominantly me, but tomorrow that might change, depending on other duties. I enjoy it, so I try to do as much of it as possible. A lot of the stuff is too amateurish, but every once in a while there’s that real nugget that’s worth talking through and thinking about and maybe getting the ball rolling.

Heintjes: Comic-strip fans sometimes forget that a big part of Universal’s business is syndicating editorial features. Do you evaluate those as well?

Salem: Yes. Universal might launch 10–12 features a year. Of those, two or three might be traditional comic strips or panels. One might be an editorial cartoonist, and the others would be some type of column or service that would run on an editorial page or in a features section.

Heintjes: Of those products, which kind would be potentially the most lucrative?

Salem: There seems to be a real interest these days in features that are packaged to meet a specific interest group. An example would be a full-page broadsheet on NASCAR that we launched. We sold the heck out of it—it sold to more than 500 newspapers in two years. That’s a full page in a time when we think a 600-word column is pushing the boundaries. But it provides an opportunity for a newspaper to reach a specific demographic need that might bring advertisers in to help support it, and it’s a legitimate, sound editorial product.

Heintjes: I guess it goes without saying that you’ll be applying that approach to other products.

Salem: We just did one on golf and we have others in the works.

Heintjes: That sort of innovation seems necessary in our era of fewer newspapers.

Salem: No question about it. There was a time when we wouldn’t have thought of anything that could conceivably be ad-sponsored, because we were strictly an editorial entity. But given space in newspapers and the limitations there, a sports editor doesn’t have space for a once-a-week golf column. But if you provide a page that they can sell advertising to, that’s a whole different ball game.

Heintjes: Speaking of new ways of doing business, how has the Internet changed the way you do business? Everyone is on the Internet, but everyone is also trying to figure out how to make money off it.

The Big Picture by Lennie Peterson (click to enlarge)

Salem: That’s the question we’re trying to answer here, too [laughter]. In terms of the creative aspects, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. There might be cartoonists who are not interested in traditional print media who can use that as a creative outlet and do some interesting things with it and get reader response. As a way to generate income...last year, 25 percent of our new revenues came from the Internet.

Heintjes: What would have generated that revenue?

Salem: Providing material to newspaper websites, reformatting that material for non-newspaper websites, for example. It is a growing area and I don’t doubt that it will continue to grow. I think newspapers have been amassing capital for the way they view the role of their websites. A lot of newspapers have strong websites, and for us that’s another opportunity to sell content.

Heintjes: I wanted to ask you about the process that takes place when an editor calls to complain about the material you supply. “This character is gay,” “Trudeau is offending our readers again”…how do you respond to that?

Salem: [laughter] We do our best to avoid supplying replacement material.

Heintjes: How do you avoid the issue?

Salem: We just say we don’t supply substitutes, and very rarely do we. The problem is that the readership expects certain things from certain comic strips. Readers would not expect Ziggy to delve very heavily into Monica Lewinsky. If Tom [Wilson] were to do that, we would exercise our editorial judgment and say, “This does not make sense for Ziggy.” It would be too alien to readers. However, readers expect Trudeau to deal with Monica Lewinsky or the Clinton White House or whatever. To pull two or three days of that because a few readers object to that really, I think, violates the relationship between that cartoonist and his readers. If the bulk of Doonesbury readers expect and enjoy that sort of subject, why should we go to the extent of protecting the non-Doonesbury reader? That’s our position.

Heintjes: What is an example of an instance where you supplied substitutes?

From the coming-out sequence in For Better or for Worse by Lynn Johnston.

Salem: Given technology, it’s much easier for a newspaper to just substitute an older, safer release for a controversial one. Some cartoonists don’t mind if we offer substitutes. But on a feature such as Doonesbury, if a client wants to install a safety valve, we can’t provide it. You mentioned the gay character. Lynn had explored some touchy subjects before, like shoplifting and abuse, so the introduction of Lawrence into that comic strip was not that foreign nor that contradictory to the strip’s sensibilities. I do think that sometimes the press overreacts and blows a situation out of proportion, because even if 50 or 60 papers decided not to run a sequence of For Better or For Worse, the story was that at that point there were 1,800 that were running it. At the same time, we fully understand and respect and support the right of the editor of a local newspaper to edit that newspaper. They have a better sense of what their readership is about than we do. If they decide that something goes beyond the line for them in terms of taste or potential legal problems or whatever, they have every right not to publish it. That’s what editors do.

Heintjes: What has been the most unexpected firestorm of that sort?

Salem: I was surprised by the extent of the anger focused on Lynn about Lawrence. Although we had talked about it and I had warned her about it, it was a bigger firestorm than I thought it would be. For Better or For Worse reaches readers in a way that is different from the way Doonesbury reaches readers. They bring different experiences to it. And I think some newspaper readers felt that she violated their trust in introducing this character. I don’t happen to think that, but I’m trying to read between the lines of some complaints we got. Also, it was fueled by a real panic over topics such as what it means to be gay, questions about whether the gay society is trying to swamp the rest of society, issues like that. Some of the negative reaction was fueled by groups who didn’t have the interests of the comic strip or of Lynn Johnston in mind, but only their political viewpoint.

Heintjes: I also think some of the hubbub had something to do with the difficulty that most people have in believing that a comic strip can do anything other than entertain on a very superficial basis.

Salem: You’re right. We receive letter after letter that says, “Whatever happened to the ‘funny’ pages?” You want to say, “Go back and read Little Orphan Annie from the ’30s and then tell me about it.” Or they say, “I thought the funny pages were for families,” and you point out there are some misconceptions about what comic strips should do and could do. I think every comic strip trying to appeal to every member of every family would be the death of the art form.

Heintjes: We’ve mentioned Garry Trudeau, who obviously works hard at being topical. To do that, he must function with a different set of deadlines from most other cartoonists. How different is his schedule?

Salem: He has a twofold approach. In terms of his running storylines and how different characters are going about their lives, some of that is projected well into the future, because he has Sundays that are sometimes in sync with the dailies. At the same time he has that stream of writing going, he has a separate—and sometimes contradictory—stream of current events. We normally get his dailies in late on a Friday for release 10 days later. That’s been his pattern for a long time.

Heintjes: Not much wiggle room there.

Bill Amend's FoxTrot (click to enlarge)

Salem: No, there isn’t. Our dealings with Garry from way back when, from when he first took a sabbatical, really raised our consciousness in terms of creative pressure and the need for time off. That was one of the key things that led to our institution of the vacation policy.

Heintjes: Putting Universal’s cartoonists aside for a moment, whose work do you enjoy?

Salem: I don’t read comic strips in the newspaper. Once in a while I’ll see a sales kit from another strip that one of our salesmen has picked up and I’ll go through it. I read the trade press. But in terms of being a devoted comics reader, I am not, and for mostly peculiar reasons that relate to me being influenced by what other people are doing. I try to bring certain ideas, goals and principles to bear on any strip we select and edit, and I want to keep those pristine.

Heintjes: What are the costs of launching a new strip?

Salem: It’s considerable. Keep in mind that, contractually, production costs come off the top, so we share them with the cartoonist. A sales kit can run $10,000–$12,000, but that’s not the real expense. The real expense is more difficult to itemize, because we’re talking about six salespeople on the road knocking on editors’ doors for 42 weeks a year. If our accounting department has done this calculation I’m not aware of it, but I don’t know what it costs to put a salesman into all those markets selling a feature. That is a considerable expense. The real hidden factor is: Because we chose Feature X over Feature Y, does that mean we lost out on the potential of Y? That’s the sort of question you can’t ever really get an answer to. But if you look at the total investment of time, work and personnel in a feature, then it’s substantial. There’s editorial time; there’s lots of sales time and all the backup time. So I don’t have an exact answer, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the low six figures.

Heintjes: How would that compare to the cost of doing the same thing 25 years ago?

Salem: Given the higher cost of traveling, it’s a lot higher. I guess you could correlate to the general increase in the consumer price index, but we have more salespeople now than we did then.

Heintjes: Why is that, since fewer markets exist now?

Salem: There may be fewer markets, but the opportunities and revenues are greater. We’re selling more features to more areas of the newspaper. We’re calling on ad people and web people. We’re setting up book programs. It’s no longer a case of calling on one editor, then moving on to the next town.

Heintjes: Do the increased costs of launching a strip cause you to be more conservative now than you used to be, or do you feel you have the same latitude in launching a strip?

Salem: I think we have the same latitude. John McMeel and Kathy Andrews, the owners of the company, have been very supportive of the things we have tried to do on the syndicate side. If anything, they challenge me to do better, and that’s fine; we all need those challenges. But when we sign up a feature we have to ask those questions. The market is not as open as it used to be. There was a time when we launched three strips a year, and now we probably launch, roughly, four strips every two years, so we don’t offer as many as we used to offer—partly it’s because we’re competing against ourselves. We have established strips that are trying to get better established, and other syndicates have good strips. And as you mentioned, the number of outlets is fewer than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

Salem accepting the NCS's Silver T-Square Award in May 2013 for service to the cartooning industry (click to enlarge).

Heintjes: When something unusual happens in the industry—for example, Bill Watterson walks and all of a sudden 2,000 slots open up—it becomes a matter of preserving market share. How does Universal go about preserving as much market share as possible?

Salem: Well, given that we’ve had both Gary Larson and Bill Watterson decide to retire their strips, we’ve probably got more experience there than anyone. It’s one thing to have a cartoonist change syndicates, as Lynn did. The market share for that feature will remain relatively stable. But in the cases of Larson and Watterson, we knew in advance it was going to happen, and the question was when we were going to go public with it in order to capture as much of the market as we could. We did have the advantage of knowing ahead of time and getting people ready to make the battery of calls, but once you make that first call, it’s public, so the advantage is slight. I happen to think that a combination of good selling and quality always prevails. Heaven forbid that this happens to us again, but if it does, the feature that picks up the most market—whether it’s by us or somebody else—will be the feature with the combination of selling and quality. You can’t sell something that’s not good. And if you don’t have good salespeople, a good feature won’t get a fair hearing.

Heintjes: Do salespeople have any input on what properties Universal picks up?

Salem: I almost always seek their input.

Heintjes: During your time at Universal, have you always sought their input?

Salem: We probably cooperate more with sales now than we did when I started. But it’s a larger company, and I think that’s part of the natural growth of the company. The decision is ultimately an editorial decision. There have been things that sales has said will do well that haven’t, and things that sales has said will not do well that have. And all combinations in between. Our salespeople are wonderful pros, and they’re out there talking to editors every day. They’ve got a good ear for what’s going on, and we would be foolish not to listen to that. We want to come up with things that will sell, but at the same time we bring some extra criteria to the decision. If I brought them a feature to sell that they had never even seen, I know they’d bring their professional best to it—they always have.

Heintjes: In talking to younger cartoonists—not just Universal ones, but from every syndicate—there’s a feeling that they receive a huge sales push at first and are then left to build their own momentum. What are your feelings on that? Is a strip supposed to sell itself after a while, or is sales pressure exerted continuously?

Salem: I think it would be non-human to think that every feature is going to get the same amount of attention all of the time. If one feature has 50 papers as a starting list, and another has 200 papers as a starting list, the latter one has built up a momentum of its own. That doesn’t mean the first feature is dropped or is allowed to languish. We frequently put bonuses on our backlist and we try to give it attention, but there comes a point where the market has spoken to us. Realistically, you can give as much attention as you want to a feature that’s been out there for a while, but after a number of newspapers have said “No” a number of times, that critical relationship between the salesperson and the editor will only deteriorate if you keep bringing the same subject back up. So we have to be realistic. Just last December we passed 1,000 papers on FoxTrot. It took us 10 years to get there. I wish we could do that for every feature, but we can’t. In many cases it’s not for lack of effort, but sometimes the market says, “This is all we can absorb of this feature.” Unfortunately, it’s one of the sad realities of the business.

Heintjes: Is there a strip whose success you have found especially gratifying?

Cathy by Cathy Guisewite (click to enlarge)

Salem: Actually, I have more stories about the other kind—things that I’m disappointed about [laughter]. The first strip I looked at and fell in love with was Cathy, and I’m still delighted with what happened with Cathy. That was one of those flukes—it happened to hit the top of my in-box, and I sent it to Jim the same day it came in. I fell in love with it and wrote a note on top about how I really liked it but maybe we needed to work on the art. It hit the top of Jim’s in-box, and at that time Jim was really making the decisions.

Heintjes: What were your feelings about the art?

Salem: This was 1976; it was a very different time. When the market was crowded with strips with art stronger than writing, Cathy reversed that. I just loved the writing, and Jim got back to me the same day and said, “Let’s get her a contract.” It happened that fast. I might add that it took us well over two years to hit 100 newspapers with that feature, and now it’s at 1,400.

Heintjes: Do you think the marketplace has a greater tolerance for cartoonists who don’t possess great technical facility as draftsmen than it has in decades past?

This interview first appeared in  Hogan’s Alley  #7. To buy a complete, high-resolution PDF of this sold-out issue (with artwork not included here), just click the cover image.

This interview first appeared in Hogan’s Alley #7. To buy a complete, high-resolution PDF of this sold-out issue (with artwork not included here), just click the cover image.

Salem: I think newspapers realize that reader habits have changed. The day of ornate art and labyrinthine storylines is over. Space in newspapers is a major factor, as is time on the part of readers. We can sell good writing and so-so art, but we have a difficult time persuading newspaper to take good art and so-so writing. Consequently, we’re all scrabbling for the cartoonists who can do both well.

Heintjes: Have your children ever acted as barometers of what would appeal to young readers?

Salem: I remember when I brought home Calvin and Hobbes. My son was 8 and my daughter was 10. I showed them the strip, and they both fell in love with it. My son came out with the line, “This is the Doonesbury for kids,” and I ended up using that in my presentation. My wife and kids have often been involved. We have some wonderful memories of cartoonists who have come to the house. My kids played volleyball with Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson and Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston came to dinner. Those are memories they’ll always have.

Heintjes: Cathy was clearly the big fish that didn’t get away. What about the big fish that did get away?

Salem: We all can tell lots of stories about this. Our rejection letter for Dilbert is up there on Scott Adams’ website, along with rejections from other syndicates. So you have to give United a lot of credit for spotting him and having faith in his talent. That’s a story that I’m occasionally reminded of here [laughter]. But that happens.

Heintjes: What still excites you about the business?

Salem: There’s nothing like taking somebody who is unknown and working with that person until he or she is communicating with readers in a way that cartoonists want to. It’s very exciting and rewarding. The Boondocks had the biggest launch of any strip we’ve had. Two years ago, he was a student at the University of Maryland, and on April 19 he woke up and was in 35 of the top 40 newspaper markets. It’s very exciting, even after all this time.

Sidebar: Lee Looks Back

In the years Lee Salem has been at Universal Press Syndicate, many strips have come along, not all of which remain with us. Salem shared his thoughts on some of them with us.

 On Doonesbury: "Garry Trudeau is a pro of pros, and I learned an inordinate amount from him and Doonesbury. As far as impact is concerned, his influence is unmatched. There are very, very few strips introduced since the early '70s that he did not pave the way for or influence. A hundred years from now, what strips will be remembered? Certainly Peanuts and Doonesbury will top the list. "

 On For Better or For Worse: "From Lynn Johnston's tremulous first steps through her mature and confident handling of the introduction of Lawrence, watching Lynn master the artform was especially gratifying."

 On Downstown:  "Engaging characters and solid writing. I thought that's what makes for successful strips. But Downstown just didn't catch on with enough readers at enough newspapers. After more than a decade, we still occasionally hear from a fan, 'Whatever happened to Downstown?' And I answer, 'Good question. ' "

 On Hotel America: "Well, I liked it. Unfortunately, not many other people did. I think the steadily sarcastic tone put off too many newspaper editors. "

 On Bears in Love: "One newspaper editor nicknamed this Bears in Heat. So much for the idea that sentimentality sells."

 On Cathy: "ln the mid-'70s, America discovered that women exist. Fortunately, we discovered Cathy Guisewite—actually, she discovered us—at just the right time. Some readers want to impose their own visions of 'womanhood' on the strip, but Cathy just continues to do what she does so very well: reveal her character's foibles, failings and resilience.”

 On Ziggy: "I continue to be amazed at the freshness of both Tom Wilson's art-his Sundays are marvels-and his appreciation of the human condition. Those qualities have sustained the panel for nearly 30 years."

 On Tank McNamara: "Bill Hinds and Jeff Millar are admirably deft at looking at current sporting events or scandals and the many prima donnas that now crowd sports at all levels. While Jeff skewers them with his writing, Bill humanizes them with his art."

On The Boondocks: "For a long time, I'd been looking for a strip that spoke clearly from an African-American perspective. The launch of The Boondocks was exciting, and the reaction, both positive and negative, from readers has been strong and deep. I would have guessed at the reactions, but not necessarily the terrific numbers the salespeople put on. The match of Aaron McGruder's talents with the times was perfect. Newspapers seemed ready to accept a strip that used satire, candor and a strongly held perspective to tackle this country's toughest subject: race. As the strip evolves, and Aaron reveals more of his skills, I think his supporters will increase and the detractors decrease."

The Tracy Twins: Dik Browne's Labor of Love

The Tracy Twins: Dik Browne's Labor of Love