Lee Salem Made the Funnies Funnier. He Also Helped Make Them Matter.
One of the many reasons I mourn the decline of print newspapers, and not the least of those reasons, is that it has diminished the funnies.
That makes it important, and poignant, to mark the death of Lee Salem, who through the last quarter of the 20th century was a godfather for some of the best newspaper comic strips ever.
America, we need to note up front, consistently underappreciates and undervalues its popular culture. Newspaper comic strips are among the most acute victims.
As an editor and later president at Universal Press Syndicate, now Andrews-McMeel, Lee Salem oversaw, among others, Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, For Better or Worse, Cathy and FoxTrot.
He didn’t discover all of them. Doonesbury had been running for four years when Salem got to Universal in 1974. But he was their suit, the guy who fed, nurtured and paid them, and it’s no accident that he assembled a crew who could comprise a pretty good comic strip Mount Rushmore: Garry Trudeau, Gary Larson, Bill Watterson, Lynn Johnston, Cathy Guisewite.
Salem stressed that the artists were the creative engine. But he was not incidental. He gave them the latitude to do what they did, even when it seemed unorthodox and pushed previous norms. He read their work, edited it, helped shape it, sold it to newspapers and defended it on the not-infrequent occasions when newspapers or readers got mad about it.
Newspaper comics have always had a topical side, back through the likes of Harold Grey’s Little Orphan Annie in the 1930s or Al Capp’s L’il Abner in the 1950s.
Still, on the whole, most strips for decades stuck with either soap-style dramas and action adventures (Brenda Starr, Joe Palooka, Winnie Winkle), or human nature (Peanuts).
Come the 1970s, a new wave of comic strip artists had pulled into Dodge. Reflecting the way comic books had become edgier, they wanted to tackle more weighty issues (Doonesbury) or just get darker and weirder (The Far Side). Calvin and Hobbes owed to Peanuts, but would never have been confused with Peanuts.
Lee Salem was a young kid, not yet 30, who was willing to take that ride.
“Lee had a sharp eye and he understood writers,” Watterson said in a statement after his death. “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, and his calm, unflappable personality made him an ideal firewall. This deep support made my work possible.”
That’s a generous assessment given that Watterson and Salem did not always operate in complete harmony when the subject got around to contracts.
The Daily Cartoonist just reprinted a 2013 interview in which Watterson assessed Salem thusly:
“His ‘New England reserve’ took some getting used to. In the early days . . . 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.”
The Daily Cartoonist also reprinted Salem’s reflections on Watterson:
“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 10-year run, probably as strong a 10-year run as anyone in comics history, I think.”
Salem’s contract reference, by the way, was to the fact that Watterson did not want a Peanuts-style merchandising tsunami for Calvin and Hobbes. He wanted limited merch.
That was significant because Salem and Universal were in the forefront of redoing cartoonist contracts so the company made more of its money on cuts from merchandising. Less merchandising, smaller cut.
In the end, it worked out, underscored by how much we still miss Calvin and Hobbes.
Trudeau, in a statement after Salem’s death, seconded the creative encouragement part.
“Working with Lee, you never felt like you were being edited,” Trudeau said. “He was more like a Good Samaritan who, for no reason at all, had stopped to help you do better work, or, in my case, keep you from embarrassing yourself.
“Lee made wildly insecure artists feel supported and safe and empowered to take creative risks. He will be missed terribly by all of us.”
A confluence of sociological and artistic factors brought an unusually masterful crop of writers and artists to newspaper comics in the 1970s and 1980s. They made it essential to find a newspaper every day and turn to the comics page.
That doesn’t happen so much now. There are still good newspaper comic strips, plenty of them (Dilbert, Zits), but as newspapers shrink, or disappear, comic strips have become a less powerful artistic forum.
Ironically, the millennial generation famous for its short attention span has never formed a bond with an art form that would seem like a quintessential fit. Four panels, 10 seconds, you’re done for the day.
Trudeau, in an interview five years ago, said with a hint of wistfulness that “I was lucky to have been there for the last golden age of newspaper comics.”
And lucky Lee Salem was there.
“Lee’s passing really seems to mark the end of an era,” said Watterson in his statement. “The media landscape has changed irrevocably, and I think it’s fair to say that Lee’s tenure at Universal created the final flourishing of American newspaper comics.”