‘Doonesbury’ Break Puts Cartoonist Vacations in the News Again

By: Dave Astor

With yesterday’s announcement that “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau will take a 12-week break starting March 23, the topic of cartoonist vacations is again in the news.

Trudeau’s break will be more of a sabbatical than a vacation, but a July 2003 E&P story about time off for cartoonists still has relevance. Here’s that article (which includes comments from Trudeau) reprinted in full:

Cartoonists who draw 365 comics a year can always send their characters on vacation, but what if they want time off themselves? They can either get ahead in their work or — if they’re with Universal Press Syndicate — take advantage of vacation benefits.

In 1995, Universal began offering a break option to comic creators on its roster for at least five years — with the syndicate providing newspapers reruns while cartoonists are away from their drawing boards.

Eight years later, six of Universal’s 18 eligible cartoonists take vacations regularly — using the maximum four weeks allowed per annum. “I know it provides a welcome respite from schedules that are sometimes very harried and demanding,” said Universal Executive Vice President/Editor Lee Salem, adding that another four comic creators took time off at least once, mostly due to family emergencies.

Among the artists using the maximum four weeks each year (not just in the summer) are “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau and “FoxTrot” creator Bill Amend. Why do they value the vacations?

“Family, family, family,” replied Trudeau. “You can’t imagine what a difference it has made for my kids, and especially my wife. I’m more present on vacations, not working at night or early morning, struggling to make a working week seem invisible to them. Some creators find it easy to get ahead and thus have no need for breaks; I’m not among them.”

Amend, who uses a lot of his vacation time to visit family, said: “I’ve been doing the strip for 15 years alone, all by myself, and work on things like my books and Web site and e-mail nearly every weekend. Some cartoonists can do their job quickly and have a healthy amount of free time, some can’t and thus don’t have much free time. Add to this that I don’t get holidays off, or sick days off, or any of the normal breaks from work regular folks enjoy. My suspicion is Universal’s vacation policy has kept me out of the loony bin!”

One reason Universal started its vacation policy was to give comic creators an option other creators had. “So many syndicated columnists were already taking vacations,” Salem recalled. “Ann Landers, Art Buchwald, Dear Abby, and Erma Bombeck come to mind and I’m sure there [were] others. Additionally, anyone who is syndicated and works at a newspaper — editorial cartoonists and columnists — already gets vacation time.”

Another reason for the time-off program was the hope cartoonists who took regular short breaks wouldn’t get exhausted enough to need long ones. Universal cartoonists who had taken leaves of absence in pre-vacation-policy years included Trudeau, Gary Larson (“The Far Side”), and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”) — with the latter two later retiring their comics. Since then, no Universal cartoonists have taken sabbaticals, though it’s hard to prove whether or not this is due to the vacation option.

Trudeau, at least, doesn’t see the exhaustion connection. “The sabbaticals have never been about burnout, but about taking advantage of other opportunities that appeal to me,” said the “Doonesbury” creator, noting he used his first hiatus (lasting 20 months) to work on a pair of theater projects, and his second (10 weeks) to work on a film script.

Trudeau and Amend pick relatively recent comics to be rerun during their time off. “Originally, I thought it would be fun to use very old strips,” said Trudeau, “but the change in style and the dated situations made it seem jarring.”

Amend actually had a November 2002 vacation repeat show up in an episode of “The Sopranos.” Was he miffed that it wasn’t a new comic? “I was thrilled to see my strip,” he replied. “It didn’t matter at all that it was a rerun.”

Only a few papers still balk at publishing (and paying for) repeats, but “even that number has declined,” said Salem.

“A handful of clients don’t accept the reruns, and take the opportunity to experiment with new strips, but the vast majority use them,” added Trudeau.

Amend said Universal has done a good job explaining to newspaper editors that “cartoonists are people with families and lives, and occasional breaks from work are healthy things.”

Salem said: “There was a big public response to our announcement of this, with people lining up on both sides, but it seems to have quieted down. For us, it was the right thing to do and I’m glad we did it. The policy is a sensible way to recognize that the creative responses to the demands of the cartooning profession vary from person to person. A wise business would recognize that.”

Trudeau concluded that he can’t understand why other syndicates haven’t followed Universal’s lead, especially since most papers are accepting vacation reruns. “Of course, some creators live to do their strips and/or manage to carve out vacation time without reruns,” he said. “Others feel too vulnerable. But for me, it’s a quality-of-life issue. … We’re no longer treated like a public utility — producing 24/7/365 — and the policy has made for some happy campers.”

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