‘Boondocks,’ Coulter Among Topics of ‘Mr. Media’ Talk With Universal Prez

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By: E&P Staff

Universal Press Syndicate President Lee Salem discussed “The Boondocks” (he doesn’t think it’ll return to newspapers), Ann Coulter, and many other topics in a “Fridays With Mr. Media” interview posted today.

The interview was conducted by Bob Andelman, whose “Mr. Media” entertainment blog is a successor to his “Mr. Media” column formerly syndicated by Universal.

When Andelman asked about “The Boondocks” — which left newspapers last year but continues as a TV series — Salem said: “I know [Aaron McGruder] is enamored of the whole Hollywood sensibility and the opportunities of Hollywood. I think he thinks that he can do a bit more creatively with animation, and I certainly understand that. … I think Aaron’s talents are shown on a television show, and I doubt very much if he will return to the confines of a three- or four-panel a day strip.”

Salem was also asked about the potential conflicts involved in syndicating creators as ideologically diverse as McGruder and Ann Coulter. He said: “I think newspapers and readers understand that syndicates are in the business to disseminate entertainment and disseminate ideas and disseminate discussion, and it would not do this company any good, nor do I think it would do newspapers any good, for us to come have a strong ideological viewpoint, [a] personal strong ideological viewpoint that we try to purvey in the newspapers.”

Andelman opened the interview by asking Salem — who joined Universal in 1974 and became president last year — to recall his early memories of some of the syndicate’s most famous cartoonists.

— Salem on McGruder: “For a long time we had been looking for a strip by an African-American cartoonist, and nothing really leaped out to us as saying this is a Universal-type strip, and then ‘The Boondocks’ landed on our desks. … Everyone had a very similar response that this was a breath of fresh air, and it proved out to be a wonderful strip for us. It didn’t achieve in number as some of the strips we have already mentioned, but in terms of its notoriety, it certainly was a national phenomenon, and he used that to springboard to what we hope will be a successful career in animation in television.”

— On “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau: “I started in July of 1974, and the following spring, we nominated him for the Pulitzer for his work in 1974, which mostly focused on Watergate. And that year, he won his Pulitzer, so that was a thrilling time for all of us.”

— On “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson: “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.”

— On “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill 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 [Watterson felt] 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.”

— On “Cathy” creator Cathy Guisewite: “When ‘Cathy’ began, everyone was apprehensive. We circulated it in the office before we launched it, and people were saying, what is this, the art and the character? And it is still in well over a thousand papers after 30 years, which, in this market, is quite an accomplishment. I really look on her as a pioneer, and if ‘Cathy’ had not worked the way we hoped it would, I am not sure we would have made the plunge with Lynn Johnston and ‘For Better or For Worse.’ But ‘Cathy’ worked, and it seemed natural to us that the time was right for talented women on a comic page.”

— On Lynn Johnston: “When we saw Lynn’s work, we loved it. We loved her perspective. In the late ’70s, there was not a great demand for more family strips because the pages seemed to be dominated by them, but what attracted us was the mother’s perspective and the somewhat wry tone she would take on her situation and her husband’s life and children’s lives, and it has proven to be a comic strip that has dominated the surveys in terms of popularity for a long time.”

— On “FoxTrot” creator Bill Amend: “It’s a wonder Bill even signed with us. When Jake Morrissey, who was an editor with us, and I first visited Bill out in California, we had breakfast with him and went outside and went to wish him well, and somebody had taken off the bumper on the front of his car, and we had to dash off because we had another appointment. … We waved at him and wished him well, and ever since then, I have felt terrible about it. But ‘Foxtrot’ was another case of … does the world need another family strip, but the kids were so different, and he was bringing in science, and that occasionally kind of added another perspective to it, and really, until his retirement from the daily portion of ‘Foxtrot’ a couple months ago, I think it was consistently a top-10 strip.”

— On “Lio” creator Mark Tatulli: “Lio” is a new strip [that] has been out less than a year, and it is something different. There is no language in it, it’s all pantomime, which I suspect is very, very difficult to do from the creative standpoint trying to think up a new situation each day using this character as the focal point. It?s a little dark and edgy sometimes, though oriented for younger readers, and we have had a terrific launch with it … approaching 300 papers in less than a year, so we are delighted with it.”

Andelman also asked Salem about Lynn Johnston’s plan to make “For Better or For Worse” an old/new hybrid this September. “To us, it seemed like a nice midway point between either full retirement or keeping up with the daily grind of deadlines,” he said. “So we are looking forward to seeing what happens … and I think it will be something a little different in the market. It won’t be strict reruns as such, and I think she is going to take some creative steps that this particular approach will allow her. …”

Salem was also asked why several Universal cartoonists have taken breaks over the years. He replied that Univeral, from the time it was founded in 1970, “wanted to do things a little differently, and even in a very conservative medium like the comic page, tried to push out the boundaries a bit, and I think that is the flip side of the coin of being attracted to talents who are somewhat exotic and eccentric in the way they approach the art form. …

“We like people who try to do things a little differently, and sometimes that entails a slightly different attitude toward the definition of a career. … I am not in a position to judge another person’s creative wellspring, and if our cartoonists sometimes think they need some time off, then we are going to try to accommodate them within certain limits. I think it’s the responsible thing to do for the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and I think if we had not had a time-off policy for someone like Trudeau, I think he would have given up the drawing board a long time ago.”

What about the trend of less-accomplished drawing in some comics? “Well, I think the times have shifted,” said Salem. “People like Garry Trudeau and Cathy Guisewite, even some of the early Larson, the art was criticized by more established or more finished artists, but I think in those cases, the writing really kept things going until the art could catch up to the writing. … I think that given readers’ habits and what newspapers are looking for, good writing will prevail over good art. I think it’s easier to sell good writing with less good art than it is to sell good art with less good writing.”

Are any gay-themed comics coming to Universal? “I haven’t seen any,” said Salem. “I think that if that’s going to work, it would be less because it’s a gay strip than … because it is a strip with characters, one or two of whom happen to be gay. … It would depend a lot on the writing and the sense of humor that the artist might employ.”

The entire interview can be seen and/or listened to by clicking here.

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