Famed Universal Press Syndicate editor Lee Salem has passed away.
Lee served as editor and then president of Universal Press Syndicate, now called Andrews McMeel Syndication. In his nearly four decades at Universal, he is credited with editing and developing some of the iconic comic strips of our time, including Calvin and Hobbes, Cathy, Cul-de-Sac, Doonesbury, The Far Side and For Better or for Worse. Lee’s calm demeanor and steadfast defense of cartoonists’ creative rights resulted in close friendships with numerous creators. His colleagues at the syndicate benefited from his quiet leadership and integrity. In 2013, he was awarded the Silver T-Square award by the National Cartoonists Society for his contributions to the industry. His legacy flourishes through the creative works that he allowed to blossom.
Lee was, if not the leader, on the front lines of changing syndicate attitudes toward cartoonists. Lee joined Andrews and McMeel’s Universal Press Syndicate just four years after it had been formed in 1970. So while Doonesbury was already there, Lee would be the one bringing those listed above into newspapers worldwide. Lee would remain with Andrews McMeel for 40 years, retiring in 2014.
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.
Lee, in a 2007 interview with Bob Andelman on the Mr. Media podcast, on dealing with cartooning geniuses and imparting creator rights:
ANDELMAN: All right. And what about “The Far Side”?
SALEM: We had been doing Gary’s books for maybe a year or so, and Gary at that time was with a smaller syndicate, Chronicle Features, and made it clear that he wanted to come over to us, and we had some tough negotiations with his lawyer, and Bob Duffy, who preceded me in the presidency and was then sales director, and I kind of looked at each other wondering about the tough terms of his contract, but it worked out great for everybody, and we had a wonderful run with Gary and still do calendars with him on a regular basis and still remain friends.
The contract with Gary Larson allowed for UPS to get monies from books, calendars, mugs, posters, t shirts, and many more items featuring the popular Far Side images. That made passing rights to the creator a bit easier pill to swallow. Bill Watterson, who insisted that merchandising be limited to books, and maybe a couple calendars, made giving up rights quite a bit more difficult. From that same interview:
ANDELMAN: “Calvin and Hobbes.”
SALEM: Well, Bill is Bill. The somewhat rancorous relationship between the two of us, while occasional, was still public, and he made his feelings clear about the business obligations that we felt and thought that we were asking too much of him and “Calvin and Hobbes” in terms of exposure in the market. We ultimately accepted his arguments and redid his contract, and he retired after a brilliant ten-year run, probably as strong a ten-year run as anyone in comics history, I think.
While the company editor, Lee acknowledged by the 1980s that, as a practical matter, contracts between creators and syndicates had to, and were, changing. With Lee championing a less tight rein on cartoonists. That freedom would result in gay characters appearing in Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse; backing demands of Bill Watterson for newspapers to run his strip in the way he desired; and introducing newspaper readers to the very edgy The Boondocks comic strip.
Lee had dealt with G. B. Trudeau for ten years by 1985 when he convinced Garry to hold back on a series of abortion strips.
“Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau agreed not to send newspapers six comic strips involving the anti-abortion movie “Silent Scream” because of their controversial nature, a spokesman for the strip’s distributors said Friday.
Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate officials decided that “it would not serve in the best interests of the feature to run it,” said Lee Salem, editorial director at Universal Press Syndicate in Mission, Kan.
“It was us exercising our editorial process here,” Salem said.
It would be Lee and UPS that would submit Doonesbury to the Pulitzer committee and then win The Prize in 1975. Also in 1983-4 Lee and UPS would give more consideration to cartoonists when Trudeau went on that famous first sabbatical.
[Lee] is one of the most influential editors in comics, setting an industry example for supporting his syndicate’s cartoonists and their freedom to express themselves. He also has discovered and cultivated some of the most iconic comics in newspapers.