SYNDICATION EXECUTIVES, by the nature of the beast, seldom gain wider acclaim in comics. They work offstage, undetected beyond the panels and unseen behind the balloons. As former senior vice president Lisa Klem Wilson underscored last year when United Media shuttered its doors, the focus is on the talent instead of the suits.
Sometimes, however, a momentary exception must be made.
Lee Salem, a four-decade figure at Universal Uclick, now deserves a little time in the center-spot.
The Kansas City-based syndicate recently announced that Salem will move from the editorial side of the business, as the Universal Uclick president drops “Editor” from his title — as a baton is passed to capable hands and the talented John Glynn becomes Editorial Director.
Since Salem joined Universal Press Syndicate in 1974, he has helped discover and/or nurture dozens of stellar strips, including Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or for Worse,” Richard Thompson’s “Cul de Sac” and Mark Tatulli’s “Lio” — as well as editing Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” which won a Pulitzer the year after Salem arrived.
“In the strips Universal launched, the writing was paramount, and Lee had a great eye for lively writers and a real understanding of what makes a comic strip work,” Watterson tells Comic Riffs.
“Lee has a smart sense of humor and he understands good comic timing,” Johnston tells us. “He can be funny and fun to be with, but he can also be a tough opponent if need be.”
And Trudeau tells Comic Riffs: “I’ve depended on Lee’s friendship, guidance, protection and occasional interventions for decades, and I have no intention of giving all that up.”
As Salem eases into his transition with his usual wisdom and grace, Comic Riffs asked those five cartoonists to share their thoughts on his legend and legacy, his editorship and his friendship.
Here are their thoughts:
“I’m in complete denial about his move. I’ve depended on Lee’s friendship, guidance, protection and occasional interventions for decades, and I have no intention of giving all that up. He’ll just have to keep making room for me in his schedule. This isn’t open to discussion.”
I think a big part of Lee’s editorial legacy is in bringing to newspapers a new generation of cartoonists — including women — and introducing an entirely new range of subjects and voices to the comics page.
In the strips Universal launched, the writing was paramount, and Lee had a great eye for lively writers and a real understanding of what makes a comic strip work. He always seemed to find strips with highly individualistic takes on the world, and a strong sense of voice. This has become more or less the standard model for newspaper comics now, but it was quite different from the plug-in-the-gag, committee-drawn strips of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I think it brought the comics a new sharpness and relevance.
Because I admired and respected so many of Universal’s strips, I completely trusted Lee’s judgment in editing my work: I never argued for a strip he questioned. Of course, his “New England reserve” took some getting used to. In the early days, I’d save a week’s mailing time by handing Lee a stack of roughs to edit whenever he swung through the area on a business trip. He’d read through a month of my cartoons in a few minutes, and he could have been reading obituaries for all the delight he radiated. I’d crawl under the couch and lie in a tight ball until he was back on the plane. You can imagine what it was like to negotiate a contract with him.
But of course, that unflappable quality was a real virtue in the other part of his job, which was to step into a circle of furious readers and newspaper editors, and take all the bullets. Lee was a great defender of my work, and I’ll always be grateful for his long and vigorous support. I’ve really enjoyed having Lee as my editor all these years, and he’s been a great friend to cartooning.
"Lee Salem changed my life. I always wanted to make comics professionally, and I had been trying for syndication for some time. But it wasn't something real until 1997, when I sent a bunch of “Heart of the City” sample strips to Lee through the mail and he called to offer me a development deal. And from then on my life changed.
It was because Lee Salem, the first guy with real comic-strip power, said, “Yes.”
When I first started to work with Universal Press, Lee Salem was my editor. He was the one who suggested the name “For Better or For Worse" for my comic strip, and I have to admit, it suited the work I did.
For the first few months, he worked with me to develop something that had consistency and balance. He was an excellent editor. Writing funny stuff is a personal venture, so the editor who says, “Hey, that's not funny!” better be right ... and Lee usually was.
Whenever I traveled to Kansas City, he'd come to the airport to meet me [in his car]. It was old and comfortable with evidence of kids and family still in the trunk and the door compartments.
The syndicate was then headquartered on the second floor of a plain square building on Squibb Avenue. A dusty plastic jade plant was at the top of the stairs, which gave me comfort. There was a lack of pretense everywhere and a real sense of camaraderie among the staff. Lee's office was small and cramped, but orderly. He had a window with a view of the farmlands outside and a secretary who sometimes put her dresses on backwards. I was lucky enough to have been there when [co-founder] Jim Andrews was alive. In fact, I think it was Jim who went to bat for me when others might have asked me to wait until I had something worth consideration.
My first impression of Lee was that he was competent, thoughtful, honest and fair. He still is! I was well out of my league with a daily comic strip, but his confidence and easygoing manner made the job so much easier. Lee has a smart sense of humor and he understands good comic timing. He can be funny and fun to be with, but he can also be a tough opponent if need be. We have disagreed, heartily at times, and yet we have never fought. ...
I believe his impregnable stare and calm demeanor — when under duress — is kind of a gift. Managing cartoonists can't be easy. We are all so capable of devastating a weak superior with a withering remark or a hideous drawing that it's best, perhaps, to keep us guessing when the gloves are off! What I'm saying here is...we all appreciate authority when it comes with class.
Lee is a class act and I'm grateful to have been one of “the cast.”
Late in 2005, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Lee Salem; his subject line was: “Syndication?” I’d been asking myself the same question since I was about 10 years old, and the answer had always been, “Maybe some other time.” But such is the reputation, sway and authority of Lee Salem that my immediate response was: “Sure!”
In the seven years since that e-mail, Lee has gently guided me into a life-changing career in the noblest calling: newspaper comic strip cartoonist. He didn’t do it alone, of course — it’s taken a team of ace specialists to convince me I know what I’m doing. But Lee’s lower-case e-mails encouraged me like nothing else, and his dinnertime conviviality sure helped, too. I’m proud to cal him my editor and friend.”