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Comics: Meet the Editor

Suzanne Whelton
Comics Editor, Washington Post Writers Group
Friday, July 30, 2004; 1:00 PM

What are editors looking for when searching for the next comics page phenomenon? Ask Washington Post Writers Group comics editor Suzanne Whelton. Though Whelton is departing the job in mid-August, she'll join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online Friday, July 30, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her job and answer questions from aspiring cartoonists.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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Suzanne Tobin: Greetings, comics fans, and welcome to "Comics: Meet the Editor." Today our guest is Suzanne Whelton, comics editor for the Washington Post Writers Group, which is the syndicate that is owned by The Washington Post company. Suzanne is joining us from her office here at 15th and L St. NW. One more thing before we get started--As if it's not confusing enough that we have the same first name, let me explain that Suzanne Whelton edits the comics that are syndicated by the Writers Group (Opus, Red and Rover, Pickles, That's Life, BoNanas, Candorville, Cheap Thrills Cuisine) and administers the FineToon Fellowship Program, which helps aspiring cartoonists develop their talents. I, on the other hand, handle the copy editing and production on the actual comics that are distributed by all the different syndicates, including the Writers Group, that are printed in The Post newspaper each day. Now that we've got that out of the way...Welcome, Suzanne, and thanks for joining us Live Online.

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Suzanne Whelton: Great to be here! I'm honored to be invited on your chat!

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New York: How did you get into this field? Were you an aspiring cartoonist?

Suzanne Whelton:
How did I get this great job? It's a long answer. I was never an aspiring cartoonist, but I've always been a huge fan of comic strips. After graduating from college in the early '80s, I worked for an art gallery here in Washington. Jane Haslem Gallery had one of the largest inventories of original comic strip and editorial cartoon art in the country. Her list of artists included Garry Trudeau, Jeff MacNelly, Mike Peters, Jim Borgman, Gary Larson and Mell Lazarus. The first gallery exhibition I helped to install was a two-person show of Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe" cartoons and Pat Oliphant's editorial cartoons. One of our best clients was a man named Art Wood. He was creating an amazing collection of original cartoon art -- he recently donated all 20,000+ pieces to the Library of Congress. Mr. Wood wanted to buy the original art for a strip that just started running in The Washington Post -- "Bloom County." I called Berkeley Breathed, who was then living in Iowa City, and asked if he would like to have a show of his original drawings at our gallery. It took him about one minute to agree to it and said he wanted to donate the proceeds of the sale to Paralyzed Veterans of America. This was a very generous offer considering "Bloom County" had only been syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group for about a year. At this point in his career, Berkeley fell into the "starving artist" category. He came to Washington for the opening reception and we let him paint a huge Opus on the gallery wall. When we opened the doors, the line of fans went down the street and around the block. Every cartoon sold at the reception. It was amazing to witness how much people loved that strip! Berkeley invited me to attend a luncheon held in his honor at The Washington Post. It was in Katharine Graham's private dining room, Ben Bradlee and Don Graham were there. I was awestruck. I met the folks from the Writers Group and knew instantly that this was someplace I wanted to work. A couple years later, when the economy was doing a number on the art business, I sent my resume to the Writers Group. As fate would have it, they were looking for an editorial assistant and I was offered the job. Sorting mail, answering phones and stuffing copies of "Bloom County" into 1,000 envelopes each week were among my original responsibilities. I loved working with the cartoonists and knew that's where my heart was. I held many different titles in my 18 years with the Writer Group, but always worked with our cartoonists. In 1999, I became Comics Editor. How did I really get this great job? Pure luck.

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Washington, D.C.: Whats a typical day like for a comics editor?

Suzanne Whelton: Every day is different. Other than doing this chat, today is a typical Friday. I rolled out of bed at 7AM and logged on my PC to check for "Opus." The final version wasn't there when I checked for it at midnight. Berkeley sent it to me around 3AM. He finished coloring it and made a few changes from the version I saw yesterday afternoon. Through blurry eyes, I thought it looked fine. Then I asked my husband (a huge comics fan) to take a look at it while I grabbed my first cup of coffee. He noticed something I missed -- a very subtle difference in the art from one panel to the next. Not enough to stop the presses, but if we could fix it, we should. I didn't want to wake Berkeley (he's on the West Coast) so I had to make a judgment call on the change. A quick call to American Color the company in Buffalo which distributes Sunday comics to newspapers around the globe) and the fix was made before the strip was posted for newspaper clients. We made the deadline by a few minutes. All this before I got to the office.

My routine with each cartoonist is different. The one common denominator is helping them meet their relentless deadlines -- they all have them! Most of our cartoonists send "roughs" a few weeks (or days!) before the strips are to be published. Strips are edited for spelling, grammar and punctuation. If a gag needs work -- like I don't think it's funny and I can suggest a way to make it better, I'll mention that to the cartoonist. Of course, I also look for matters of taste. If I think newspapers will have a problem with the subject or language in a strip, I'll talk it over with the cartoonist. Sometimes I'll need to show it to the powers-that-be to get a final blessing. I've run down to the lawyers' offices a few times during my career. Some cartoonists like to hear a lot a feedback about their strips and others don't. I may see two or more versions of every strip we send out.

I'll spend time today checking the final versions of "Red and Rover." Brian Basset and I discussed changes over the phone yesterday. I'll finish up a promotional mailing we're doing for "Cheap Thrills Cuisine" and I've got a full inbox with submissions from cartoonists who want to join the Writers Group. If I get through most of those things, I've had a good day.

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Penandin, Kan.: I, um, have this friend. Yeah, that's it. I have this friend who draws constantly, worhips Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson, has a weekly strip in a college newspaper, and wants to spend a lifetime working at home in his or her pajamas. Any advice?

Suzanne Whelton: I know for a fact that most cartoonists don't work in their PJs, but sometimes their editors do.

The comic strip business is a very difficult one to break into. First piece of advice for your "friend" is to spend a lot of time developing your comic strip's concept and characters before sending it off to syndicates. We get so many submissions from cartoonists who send us their comic strips before it's ready for prime time. Get to know your characters. If you don't know them, your readers will never connect with them. Keep in mind that the dialogue and character development are just as, if not more, important than the artwork!

Also, tell your "friend" to apply for our next FineToon Fellowship program in 2006. Those awarded the program attend three seminars during the year where we discuss such topics as the role of the syndicate, the editor-cartoonist relationship, writing dialogue, meeting deadlines, etc. They also get mentoring with one of our cartoonists while their strip is developed. See our web site for more info: www.postwritersgroup.com

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Burke, Va.: Wow... your job descriptions are complex.

SW edits for the WashPost Group syndication.

ST edits for the comics that appear in the Post (which include some selections from the WashPost Group Synd).

If every major paper has a comics editor (ST) and every syndication has an editor (SW), how many times does a strip get edited before being ok'd? Is sounds like a long process. How far in advance are the strips written?

Thanks.

Suzanne Whelton: Enough of the long answers.

Hopefully, there are many sets of eyes reading the strips before they are published. At least two people read ours before they go out. Every newspaper has a copy editor who checks the strips as well. And it's good thing! You'd be amazed at what gets by us. Thank goodness for Suzanne Tobin -- she's saved me more times than I can count!

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Omaha, Neb.: I LOVE Pickles.
What can you share about this cartoonist?
(background? interests? The setting seems like it could be NYC one day, down south another, and in the Heartland on another)

Suzanne Whelton: I love "Pickles" too! In my humble opinion, it's one of the funniest strips on the page.

Brian Crane is one of the nicest human beings on the planet. He lives near Reno, NV, and is the father of seven, grandfather of two. He's never missed a deadline in over 14 years -- my hero!

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Kingstowne, Va.: Is there an agreement that a strip can appear in only one major paper per market? How is it determined which strips will be replaced and by what?

How do you feel towards Bill Watterson's open criticism of the newspaper's restrictions of creative and artistic freedom that ultimately led to his retirement? It was his fight that led to the more open sunday format that other artists utilize today.

Suzanne Whelton: There aren't too many "competetive markets" left. Most cities have just one newspaper. Most newspapers rely on the judgment of their features editor or a comics committee to decide which new strips they'll run. When a paper wants to change their lineup, they sometimes do a comics survey allowing readers to vote.

Yes, Watterson made a huge contribution with his innovative use of space. He was the first cartoonist to ask for 1/2 page on Sunday and get it. He wasn't the only cartoonist to have those feelings about artistic restrictions. I'm sure it contributed to his decision to end his strip when he did. Too soon for us.

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Brewster, N.Y.: Hi Suzanne. Many of the WPWG's strips are now available in Spanish. Do you have a separate editor for that? Is that more for Spanish language strips in the U.S. or international?

Suzanne Whelton: Three of our strips are offered in Spanish. Thankfully, we have a translator and spanish-speaking editor on our staff. Those strips are of interest to both domestic Spanish-language papers and internationally.

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Arlington, Va.: What payment does the typical cartoonist receive from the Post?

Suzanne Whelton: Our newspaper clients pay for features based on their circulation. The larger the paper, the more they pay for a feature. The more clients a comic strip has, the happier the cartoonist is!

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Arlington, Va.: If the Washington Post would just run all the comics now in the Washington Post group, a lot of the griping re: comics would go away!; I love nearly all of them, especially Candorville and Bo Nanas, which I read on-line daily (and Bo Nanas in the Paper Post on Sundays!;!;). Keep signing such great talent!;

Suzanne Whelton: Amen!

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Washington, D.C.: I would love to see BoNanas as a daily strip in the paper. What kind of committment does the Post have to publishing the WP Writers Group comics?

Suzanne Whelton: The Washington Post is a client, just like the LA Times is a client. The Post has no obligation to run everything the Writers Group syndicates.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Suzanne,

Has there ever been a time when you disagreed with what the cartoonist has submitted? If so, how did you handle it?

Suzanne Whelton: Absolutely. Most of the cartoonists I've been blessed to work with have been fine with "constructive criticism." A lot of my cartoonists work in a solo world -- they crave feedback.

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Washington, D.C.: Why are you leaving such a cool job? are you doing something else with comics?

Suzanne Whelton: No doubt, I have a dream job. But I'm cashing it in for one that really speaks to my heart. In a couple weeks I'll be a stay-at-home mom with my 2-year-old son, Jakob. Trading cartoonists for a toddler -- should be an easy transition!

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Dundas, Ont, Canada: Hi Suzanne it's not really a question, but more of a Thankyou, for all your help you have provided to me in the last 6 years that I have worked in the industry. You will be sadly missed and it was always a pleasure to talk shop with you. Enjoy your time off. Well I do have a question sort of!; Do you notice a down turn in quality of the strips being submitted to you in the last few years.
All the best Cam The Comic Guy

Suzanne Whelton: Thanks, Cam! You've been a joy to work with, too!

I think the quality of strips submitted have actually gotten better over the years!

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Almost Gettysburg, Pa.: Just wanted to pipe in here to say what a great editor Suzanne is. She gives us all the freedom to do what we do and help us to stay focused and not get into trouble. (And I bet she's proofing this message right now to see how my comma usage is.) I've only been syndicated for a bit over a year and it's been a wonderful experience working with her. Even if we disagree on the funniness of a strip, she'll still let me run it if I feel strongly about it. (I also promise her that I'll run it between two "funny" ones.)

John Kovaleski
"Bo Nanas"

P.S. Excuse whatever typos are above.

Suzanne Whelton: Thanks John! I'm going to miss you guys so much!

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Suzanne--

What's your favorite thing about your job?

Suzanne Whelton: Two things: Being a friend to our cartoonists. Being paid to laugh.

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Suzanne Whelton: At this point, I'm going to ask Suzanne Tobin to take some questions that are really more up her alley than mine.

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Springfield, Va.: Thanks for a truly enjoyable and varried comics section -- and if you ever think about dropping "Tank" again, I'll cut off the WP's do-nut supply!;

Suzanne Tobin: Thank YOU for noticing! We do try to offer a variety of strips for all our readers. And I'm glad we brought Tank back too! As a matter of fact, Jeff Millar will be my guest on my next chat, on the day the Olympics begin, Aug. 13. So make sure you tune in then!

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Washington: Hi. So, why are so many comics mediocre? I won't name names You know what I mean.

Suzanne Tobin: Well, one man's meat is another man's poison. What can I say? I am constantly amazed about how opinionated people are about the comics. Some people say "Mutts" is the only reason they buy the paper; other people say they just don't get its appeal. It's all a matter of taste, which is as individual as each of us.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I've always wondered--how does a comics editor "edit" a comic strip or comics page?

Suzanne Tobin: At The Post, I am responsible for correcting any misspellings, and checking with my bosses if I think there is a "taste" issue or if I feel the comic would offend the readers. I check the answers to the crossword puzzle, to make sure they go with the correct day, that the horoscope is for the correct day, etc. In addition, I edit the other features on the comics pages, and at the bottom of the page facing the first comics page (John Kelly's Washington, Animal Doctor, Dear Abby and Heloise.) My colleague John Vockley edits the Chess column and Vicky Fogg, another copy editor, checks the Bridge column, since I don't have the expertise on either of those topics.

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Herndon, Va.: As you are well aware, Mr. Weingarten of the Post would gladly throw out at least half of the currently-printed strips for more "funny" strips. How do you strike a balance, and do you fear for your safety when a strip is removed or added?

Suzanne Tobin: Gene is not someone who can be easily ignored. He is lobbying for total revolution, which I don't think is likely considering The Post's editorial style. I have proposed putting in a new strip for 10 weeks in a certain spot on the comics page and telling readers we want their feedback (an idea I got from an Australian cartoonist at the National Cartoonists Society convention in May), and if the response to the strip is positive, replacing one of the current strips with the new one. If the readers don't lobby for its permanent inclusion, then we drop it and give another new strip a chance. This type of gradual change, I think, is more likely to happen. But so far, the powers that be haven't taken me up on the idea. I fear for Shirley's safety, not mine, since I'm just a peon in the process, not the final say.

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The Process: So if, say The Post, catches an error in a national strip, does that mean all the other papers gets a new version too?

Suzanne Tobin: It depends on how close to the deadline the error is caught. I often point typos out to the syndicates that I catch, and then the correction comes across my desk from the syndicate. Other times, I make the change in The Post's pages, but the syndicate doesn't bother to send it out because most papers have already received their pages from the paginators that put the comics pages together for them.

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Burke, Va.: How large a bribe would it take to kill the soap opera strips? How much just to eliminate Mark Trail?

Suzanne Tobin: Ah, alas, you'd have to bribe Shirley Carswell, who makes the final decisions...so I can't say! Please refer to the response to Beautiful Silver Spring to see how to make sure she gets the message.

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Beautiful Silver Spring, Md.: Please cancel "Marvin."

Suzanne Tobin: Your opinion counts. But it doesn't get heard by the powers that be on this chat. It gets heard when you call 202-334-4775 or e-mail comics@washpost.com. Every call and e-mail is transcribed for Shirley, and goes across her desk. She's the person you want to lobby.

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Washington, D.C.: Can either of you explain the following that Zippy the Pinhead has? I love comics and have been reading them as long as I could read. But this one continues to escape me.

Suzanne Tobin: To be honest, I don't get Zippy half the time. After I had Bill Griffith on my chat, he sent me a copy of his 2003 annual compilation, which had more than 200 footnotes at the end. When I read the footnotes, I have to say the comics did make more sense. But we don't have space for footnotes in the daily paper. But there apparently are much more intelligent people than me among our readers that "get" Zippy and who am I to deprive them of their daily dose?

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B.C.: So when (BC) will you be doing your next round (BC) or subtractions (BC) and additions (Frazz) to the Post's pages?

Suzanne Tobin: You've got my vote, pardner. But I have to recuse myself for lobbying for Frazz, since I met Jef Mallett and his wife at the National Cartoonists Society convention, and the two of them and I hit it off as friends. Call the hotline! Send the e-mail!

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Tempe, Ariz.: I have a nephew (8 yrs old) with an aptitude for cartooning.

Any advice that an uncle could share (in terms of what to do? I keep saying "draw, draw, draw" just as a writer should be told to sit down and write)?

Are there places for minors to submit work?

Suzanne Whelton: The Writers Group doesn't, but maybe Suzanne knows some places your nephew could submit his work to.

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Suzanne Tobin: I think you are giving him the perfect advice, from what I've heard cartoonists say in my conversations with them. As for places the budding artist could submit his work, take a look at the Sunday comics with her. If your paper carries, "Slylock Fox and Comics for Kids" by Bob Weber, he has one part of his panel each week where he publishes a reader's drawing. It can be of anything, animals, people, whatever, but it's a pretty small space, so I would suggest keeping it to one figure. (His comic is on Page 8 of our Sunday comics if you can get a copy of The Sunday Post in Tempe.) The drawings can be sent to: Slylock Fox, 12112 Rancho Vistoso Blve., Suite 150, PMB 158, Oro Valley, AZ 85737. I also imagine that kids magazines, like Highlights for Children, also accept drawing from readers. Tell him to keep an eye out for contests for kids, like poster contests for safety, and to ask his teachers to let him know about any contests that come across their desks. And, finally, the Weekend section here at The Post usually has a contest for holiday wrapping paper each November. You could probably find out about it online right here at washingtonpost.com. And KidsPost, our page geared to 7- to 13-year-olds is always looking for art to illustrate the weather forecast. So if you have someone in DC who would be willing to cut out and send the KidsPost page to your nephew, that would be another possible avenue for publication. Best of luck!

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Soap Opera Comics: Do you, personally, enjoy soap opera comics, like Apartment 3-G?

Suzanne Tobin: I, personally, have a sentimental attachment to the soap opera strips, because they were a running joke between my late mother and me. But it's our readers that pay my salary, and it's really up to them if a strip should stay or go. Again, please make your comments known on the hotline or through e-mail. If enough people feel the same way, it will eventually impact our decisions.

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Bowie, Md.: So does either of you Suzannes select which comics should be dropped or added to The Post; and on what data do you base those decisions?

Suzanne Tobin: The way The Post newspaper handles strips that are being offered is this: We have a Comics Committee of about a dozen or so employees who are interested in Comics and they review new submissions. I am on the committee, but I don't get the final say. That dubious distinction goes to Shirley Carswell, who is the assistant managing editor who handles the sales calls and contracts with the syndicates. So my personal opinion is only one of several that she takes into account when making her decision. If you recall, a few years back, we did a comics survey of readers, and that, while not scientific, does serve as sort of a reference point for what strips to drop, when we need to find room for a new one. But in the end, it's reader feedback that seems to carry the most weight with Shirley. If we drop a strip and she receives an outcry of support for it from the readers, she will restore the strip. It's been our experience that Mark Trail and Zippy the Pinhead, although they don't usually do well in comics surveys, have a rabid and vocal following. We print the comics hotline phone number and e-mail each day in the newspaper under the crossword puzzle. And the squeaky wheel get the grease...

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Ashburn, Va.: What is Berkeley Breathed REALLY like?

Suzanne Whelton: Brilliant, generous, charming and a hoot to work with.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thanks so much, Suzanne, for taking time out of a busy Friday to take questions from our readers. I hope you and everyone else will join me again in two weeks when Jeff Millar of "Tank McNamara" will be our guest on the opening day of the Olympics!

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Suzanne Whelton: It's been a real pleasure! Special thanks to all my 'toonists! See you in the funnies ...

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