Lee Salem’s name was little known outside industry circles, yet for the better part of four decades, perhaps no editor had a greater impact on what newspaper comics tens of millions of people read over their coffee and juice boxes every morning.
He signed up “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Cul de Sac” and “For Better or For Worse.” He discovered “The Boondocks” and “Cathy.” He guided “Doonesbury” and “Fox Trot” and “The Far Side,” among many other successful features. Meaning that beginning in 1974, when he joined Kansas City’s fledgling Universal Press Syndicate, he had a highly influential hand in the last golden age of newspaper comics.
Salem steered strips and other syndicated features with reassuring wisdom and insight, as well as a native New Englander’s unflappable reserve, which is why many writers and artists are especially mourning the longtime comics editor, who died Monday at age 73.
Salem, who retired in 2014 as president emeritus of the syndicate (now called Andrews McMeel Syndication), was renowned within the industry for having his creators’ backs in times of controversy and then dealing with rankled newspaper editors and persistent media inquiries with a gentlemanly charm.
“The first time I read Lee's responses to a reporter's questions about some cartoon I had done, my jaw dropped,” Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side,” tells The Washington Post. “Lee was a guy [who] didn’t blink when someone got in his face about a particular cartoon or cartoonist.”
“I just can’t tell you what it means to have an editor who believes in you, that stands behind you like that. It’s a huge confidence-builder,” adds Larson, noting that he surely benefited from Salem’s experience as Garry Trudeau’s editor.
Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” won the Pulitzer Prize the year after Salem arrived at the syndicate, and the editor helped the often-topical strip navigate cancellation threats as well as controversies, including one series in the ‘80s that satirized Frank Sinatra’s alleged mob ties. Also that decade, Salem talked Trudeau out of offering a series of abortion-themed strips to newspaper clients; the “Silent Scream” arc was later published elsewhere, including book collections.
“In times of trouble, he turned into a human firewall,” Trudeau tells The Post, “taking all incoming from irate clients in stride, talking them down with that calm, reasonable voice of his.
“Lee made wildly insecure artists feel supported and safe and empowered to take creative risks,” continues Trudeau, whose syndicated “Doonesbury” will turn 50 next year.
Salem believed a successful strip or political cartoon spotlighted its creator’s singular voice, and he championed increasing the diversity of viewpoints and cultural experiences.
“He proudly launched voices that had never been heard in the comic pages, giving women and minorities a revolutionary new, equal stage,” says Cathy Guisewite, whose “Cathy” was selected by Salem in the mid-1970s, when few women had syndicated comic features. “In doing so, Lee opened a universe of self-expression in the comic pages, with a ripple affect in all areas of creativity.”
In 1979, he also helped develop Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse,” which tackled child abuse and sexual harassment and made headlines for its unflinching portrayal of a gay character’s coming out.
Salem expressed a similar commitment to representation two decades later, when he signed “Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder, who had drawn for the University of Maryland’s student newspaper.
“Before the strip had even launched, I signed a ‘Boondocks’ poster to him that read: ‘Lee, you have permission to save me from myself,’ ” McGruder says. “And he tried. So, so hard. I never felt fully cut out to be a cartoonist, but he truly believed in me and did his best to keep me in the newspapers.
“He was a man whose kindness and patience I could not have truly appreciated until much later,” says McGruder, whose popular animated TV series “The Boondocks” would later spark its own controversies, “and I owe my success to him as much as anyone.”
More than a decade ago, Salem also discovered Richard Thompson’s work for The Post and talked him into moving the strip “Cul de Sac” into daily syndication. Salem also edited such cartoonists as Barbara Brandon-Croft (“Where I’m Coming From”), who in 1991 became the first African American woman to achieve mainstream national comics syndication, according to Universal. And he greenlit the editorial-cartoon syndication of political artist-activist Lalo Alcaraz.
In 2013, Salem received the Silver T-Square Award from the National Cartoonists Society — an honor that recognizes “outstanding dedication or service” to cartooning.
“Lee had a sharp eye and he understood writers,” Bill Watterson, the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator, tells The Post in a statement. “He found cartoonists with strong, quirky, inimitable voices and brought a new type of humor to the comics pages.
“More than that, he stood up for creators as they pushed boundaries,” continues Watterson, adding that such support “made my work possible.”
Salem was born July 21, 1946, and grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He joined the syndicate shortly after receiving his master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri in Kansas City and was also widely appreciated by cartoonists and colleagues for his deep well of intelligence.
“Lee always struck me as kind of scary smart,” Larson says. “More than once, I remember mentioning to Lee some book I had read, and the subject was something I was sure was going to be more specific to my interests than his — like maybe a book on ants or something — and he’d say: ‘Oh, yeah, that was a good book.’ The difference was, he had also probably just read a new translation of ‘Don Quixote.’ ”