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Comic Riffs
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Posted at 11:54 PM ET, 07/09/2012

RIP, UNITED MEDIA: On the anniversary of its death, remembering the great century-old syndicate

A YEAR AGO this month, the historic United Media shuttered its Madison Avenue doors for the last time. Over more than a century, the syndicate had bought and sold and distributed everything from “Peanuts” to “Garfield” to the columns of Eleanor Roosevelt. In memory of the great syndicate, here’s the Comic Riffs piece that ran upon its passing. (Editor’s note: Michael Cavna was a cartoonist for United Media from 1997 to 2003.)

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(PEANUTS WORLDWIDE - Peanuts LLC)

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OUTSIDE, ON BUSTLING MIDDAY MADISON AVENUE, it is cold and wet and the stormclouds are threatening. Inside the warm glow of the offices at 200 Madison, though, it feels as secure and sequestered as a nest -- like a commercial for Prudential come to vivid life. Comics editor Amy Lago is leading the personal tour of the United Media premises and I, as the syndicate’s newly signed hatchling talent, marvel at all the beloved icons of commercial empire. Here, in one corner, is a giant smiling Snoopy and there, against one wall, is a towering canary-yellow Woodstock, bright and plush and plumping out in the middle like a MetLife blimp. And there is a single rogue Garfield, grinning with smug satisfaction. All these fatted cartoon characters loom like beatific toy Buddhas of good fortune. And, frankly, of great fortune.

As multimillion-dollar enterprises go, this is one exquisitely feathered nest.

Yet then, Lago leads me to one low-slung wall, on which perches a row of “Dilbert” originals. “Look close,” she says of the art. “They’re fading already. Scott [Adams] doesn’t use permanent ink.” Suddenly, the spell has been broken. Dogbert and Wally are disappearing as if they had been reproduced on a centuries-old Gutenberg press. In that moment, Adams’s panels illustrate one thing:

Even empires face the inevitability of impermanence.

Today, that personal tour, conducted in 1998, is irretrievably lost to time and place and fiscal vicissitude. As of today, July 1, the historic United Media is officially shuttering its Madison Avenue doors. “Peanuts” and “Dilbert” recently took their fortunes to Universal Uclick in Kansas City, and then, early this year, the other shoe dropped: United Media announced that come June, it would outsource its newspaper features to Universal, ceasing to operate as a full-service syndicate and developer of talent.

The Madison Avenue castle is dead. Long live the queen.

United Media is survived by millions of comics and feature-column fans. But today, the closing of the New York offices represents a physical end to a Scripps syndicate that spanned a century. United Media befriended presidents and first ladies and met global celebrities and turned some people into global celebrities themselves. The deceased was 109.

What follows is less the obituary and more the celebration of a newspapering life.

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2.

IT IS EARLY JUNE, and senior United Media executives Lisa Klem Wilson and Mary Anne Grimes are wading through history. They are combing through United Media’s vast archives and trying to place them in good and proper new homes. Where to send all the syndicated columns written by, say, Jack Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt? Then there is the tonnage of original comic art, much of which is being sent to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State.

Most of the equipment is now gone. So, too, are most of the employees.

“They worked right up till the end,” Wilson says of her colleagues, most of whom departed the company June 1, as the official handover to Universal was carried out. 200 Madison Avenue had a staff of 35 at the end; about a half-dozen of those staffers are either staying on with the Cincinnati-based parent Scripps company, or caught on with Universal Uclick.

The office had a lottery, giving away desktop computers and Mac laptops to workers. “We made it the most fun we could,” says Wilson, who was UM’s senior vice president and general manager. “It was bittersweet. There were some tears, but it was good.”

Wilson and Grimes worked through June to ensure that the transition to Universal would go smoothly, they say -- as the creators of such strips of “Pearls Before Swine” and “Frazz” and “Big Nate,” among the dozens of features, adjusted to working with a new syndicate. Their goal, Wilson says, was “to make the talent comfortable.”

“We’re thankful for the cooperation and professionalism of their staff in the transition. ...” says Universal Uclick executive John Glynn. “They worked hard, maintained their integrity and did their best for their creators.”

As for the outsourcing deal itself, Wilson tells Comic Riffs, “It was a painful decision for a 109-year-old business. But this was less about any individual and more about the talent and the clients.” Wilson, herself the daughter of a newspaperman, then says with emphasis: “This was the most incredibly dedicated staff I’ve ever seen under adverse conditions.”

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3.

JIM TOLER BEGAN SELLING United features in the summer of 1978, right as the Scripps merger of United Feature Syndicate and NEA formed the new enterprise. “I like to say that I was there at the birth of United Media,” Toler says, “and now, 33 years later, I’m here at the passing of United Media.”

For much of those three decades, Toler says, it was a glorious time to be a syndicate salesman.

“It was great — editors would really make time to SEE you in those days,” Toler recounts. “The syndicates were highly competitive, we had a well-respected sales force -- and the management of United Media [including editors Lago and Sarah Gillespie] kept giving us good stuff.”

United Media already had the “Peanuts” powerhouse behind it, having helped shepherd Charles Schulz’s landmark creation to superstardom since the strip’s humble debut in 1950. In the late-’70s, the syndicate launched another comic that would hit the commercial stratosphere: Jim Davis’s “Garfield.”

“We had 12 salespeople -- we were a solid team -- and we got ‘Garfield’ in 2,000 papers in less than 10 years,” Toler recalls.

“With ‘Garfield’ and ‘Peanuts’ in the ‘80s,” Toler tells Comic Riffs, “we were just printing money.”

The ‘80s, Toler says, flourished squarely between decades of industry tradition and the next wave that was around the corner, with the Web-driven ‘90s.

“We had people who were real characters then, including John Carroll, who had been on the road back in the ‘40s, [selling comics] before there were even interstates,” Toler remembers. “He’d stay with the newspaper owners in different cities, hit the course with them — he turned into a scratch golfer.” In those more easygoing ‘80s, he notes, “a lot of business was still done on the golf course.”

The ‘90s, of course, would bring profound technological change for newspapers and syndicates -- one that would put United on the forefront with another commercial dynamo: “Dilbert.”

“I owe my career to United Media,” creator Scott Adams tells Comic Riffs. “They were the first to recognize the potential in ‘Dilbert’ and they made all the right moves to develop it, promote it and sell it. I got to work with a brilliant bunch of people who could, it seemed, see around corners.”

Mary Anne Grimes notes the mid-’90s watershed moment with Adams’s creation: “ ‘Dilbert’ was the first comic to put an e-mail in the strip.” Suddenly, salespeople like Toler had a whole new persuasive tool at their disposal.

“I was educating [newspaper] editors about e-mail then,” says Toler, as torrents of fans went online to register their enthusiasm for the cubicle-set comic that so deftly reflected the decade for officeworkers. “I finally had some formal proof of the appeal of ‘Dilbert.’ That really opened the door.”

“Dilbert” also helped illuminate the way as United became the leading syndicate for online comics.

“We were a force — we were like steamrollers,” Toler says. “That’s why now, I feel so bad about all this.”

On June 1, Toler said farewell to his syndicate of 33 years. Within days, he had a new job lined up: Washington Post Writers Group, where Lago is now comics editor, hired the veteran salesman.

Says Toler, who still thrives on hitting the open road: “I can’t wait.”

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4.

“BIG NATE” CREATOR Lincoln Peirce distinctly remembers the thrill two decades ago of joining forces with the folks in midtown Manhattan.

“When I signed my deal with United, it felt like I was joining an empire. They had ‘Peanuts,’ they had ‘Garfield,’ they’d just launched ‘Dilbert’ -- and of course they were an absolute merchandising buzzsaw. So it was sort of exhilarating and intimidating at the same time.”

Peirce, though, also developed a fondness for the syndicate’s more intimate workings. “Once you got inside, the place didn’t feel like a corporate behemoth. This sounds corny, but it really did have a family feel to it, and the folks in charge had very deep roots in the business. ... I really did feel that I was a part of things.”

That support would prove to be crucial. Peirce’s “kid strip” launched about the same time as “Dilbert,” yet -- unlike Adams’s route -- it would be decades before Peirce found major online popularity.

“The ‘Big Nate’ launch makes a good story now, but it was excruciating at the time,” Peirce tells Comic Riffs. The syndicate, hoping to debut the strip with a big splash, offered pay incentives to its sales staff.

“The West Coast rep ... started selling the strip [like crazy]. At least 75-percent of the pre-launch sales came from this one guy. Then, practically on the day of the strip’s debut, this particular sales rep unexpectedly died.”

Turns out, most of the rep’s sales weren’t legit, Peirce says -- he’d reported bogus sales to score the bonus. Suddenly, “Big Nate” had fewer than half the clients that United Media thought it had.

“The strip seemed likely to fail at that point, but then the syndicate threw me a life preserver and moved the strip ... to NEA, which is a different compensation model. It stabilized my income and saved ‘Big Nate’ from the comics graveyard.”

“Big Nate” has recently become hugely popular after Peirce’s friend Jeff Kinney, creator of the publishing phenomenon “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” placed the strip’s characters on PopTropica.com.

“Lincoln Peirce’s experience,” Wilson says, “is a beautiful story.”

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5.

A DECADE AGO, UNITED WAS the industry leader in online comics. Paced by “Dilbert,” United was the first comics website for syndicated strips, Wilson and Grimes say. So where did it all go wrong?

“For those of us who were around when the syndicate and newspapers were big and the network [HGTV and FoodTV] were small, there’s a feeling of abandonment,” Lago says. “A feeling that Scripps Networks stood on the shoulders of E.W. Scripps [then Scripps Howard], got too heavy and kicked ol’ E.W. to the curb.”

Yet why cut loose more than 100 well-known comics and columns?

“Business is business, of course,” Lago says, “but information is content. You might alter the medium of delivery, but why abandon valuable content? I can only think that Scripps corporate doesn’t value that content.”

“For me, the Universal/United deal had to do with the fact that, over the years, there was this slow bleed of good people leaving the company,” Peirce says. “The ones that remained weren’t given the support or resources to maintain what had been built while changing with the times.

“It’s been sort of like watching a great baseball team grow old: Your favorite players retire or get traded. There are still a few players left from the glory days, but they can’t do it all by themselves.”

As the comics industry shifts like tectonic plates to having only two major syndicates — Universal and King Features -- some see the change as a natural course of events.

“I think consolidation was inevitable ... “ says Michael Fry, co-creator and writer of “Over the Hedge,” which like other United strips is now handled by Universal. “The print comic is slowly dying. It’ll take awhile to go completely away, but it will go away -- to be replaced by digital comics of all kinds. It’s a natural and necessary progression.”

Fry says the rarefied bubble that comics long lived in became part of the problem.

“They’ve been well-protected from real competition,” Fry says of newspaper comics. “There’s no other form of media where something like ‘Blondie’ or ‘Family Circus’ or even ‘Peanuts’ would survive as long as they have.

“Online, it takes an intense, interested audience to survive and prosper,” Fry tells Comic Riffs. “Most newspaper comics just won’t cut it. But a few will. And great online comics like ‘the Oatmeal’ ‘xkcd’ and ‘Penny Arcade’ will lead us into the future.”

Wilson, too, sees the shift as inevitable. “Consolidation has been coming for a long time,” she says. “The market can’t support as many syndicates as it used to. And now, Universal is on the forefront of mobile delivery.”

And once it was announced last spring that Iconix had acquired United Media Licensing — including the multibillion-dollar business that is “Peanuts,” as well as “Dilbert” — many industry observers wondered how long United Media would last as a full-service syndicate.

The thing is, Wilson says, “United Media was still profitable. We never had a down year.”

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6.

THE MADISON AVENUE DOORS might be shuttered, but United’s legacy still stands tall above the industry’s skyline.

“We developed and represented some of the best talent in the world,” Wilson says, “from ‘Peanuts’ to ‘Garfield’ to ‘Tarzan’ to ‘Nancy’ ... to ‘Rose Is Rose’ to Miss Manners to Eleanor Roosevelt.”

“The history of UFS/NEA is long and rich,” Lago says. “NEA began more than 100 years ago ... for UFS, the legacies of Schulz and [Jim] Davis alone attest to its former power and glory.”

“No history of daily comics could be written,” Glynn echoes, “without a third or more of it devoted to what United and NEA brought to the readers of the world.” And Glynn’s Universal colleague Lee Salem says: “Many of the talents [United] brought to newspapers and readers are not just household names, but cultural icons.”

Jean Schulz, widow of Charles “Sparky” Schulz, who died in 2000, says that the “Peanuts” company fortunately “has been working with Universal for many years, and Sparky had great respect for Lee Salem and [parent-company founder] John McMeel.”

“But I often shake my head,” she says of United’s demise, “and think, Sparky would not like to see all this.”

“We may move on,” says Lago, who edited “Peanuts,” “but there is the grief of losing a loved one for all of us who shared in her reign.”

By  |  11:54 PM ET, 07/09/2012

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