Editor at Epicenter of Left and Right

By: Dave Astor

What do the liberal Aaron McGruder and the conservative Ann Coulter have in common? Greg Melvin.

McGruder’s “Boondocks” comic and Coulter’s opinion column are among the 15 Universal Press Syndicate features edited by Melvin. “It would seem schizophrenic, but it can make me the most interesting guy at a cocktail party,” he chuckled.

Melvin was speaking figuratively. But if the Universal associate editor actually attended a cocktail party last month, he probably would have been asked about recent “Boondocks” strips mentioning Coulter and Condoleezza Rice.

In the Oct. 22 “Boondocks,” the Huey character opines that Coulter might be a man because “she’s got an Adam’s apple.”

What was it like okaying a comic poking fun at a columnist he also edits? “It really felt awkward,” said Melvin. “But, like Condoleezza Rice, Ann is a public figure. And, despite what people might guess about her, she’s a very good sport.”

McGruder’s Oct. 13-18 Rice strips — in which a character wonders if President Bush’s national security advisor “wouldn’t be so hellbent” to attack other countries if she had a man to love — was dropped by The Washington Post.

Melvin said the sequence (Syndicate World, text
Oct. 23 and Oct. 16) didn’t set off alarm bells when he saw it 10 days before newspaper publication. “I felt the subject matter and gags fell within acceptable bounds of satire. Aaron has done much more cutting commentary about Bush and Dick Cheney,” said Melvin, adding that he isn’t aware of any other clients besides the Post dropping the Oct. 13-18 strips.

(See related “Boondocks” item in the “Et cetera” section below.)

Some of McGruder’s and Coulter’s ideas do get questioned by Melvin, but the red flag is raised less often than people might think — maybe six to 12 times a year for the daily “Boondocks” and three or four times a year for the weekly Coulter column. Melvin explained that something would have to be really “egregious” to get nixed by Universal, because clients and readers know the two features are designed to be provocative.

“Conservative readers absolutely love Ann and liberal readers absolutely hate her,” noted Melvin. “And a strip such as ‘The Boondocks’ is going to have content you won’t find in a typical family strip” — referring to McGruder’s strong political and social commentary.

Melvin — who praised McGruder for helping newspapers “bring new readers to the comics pages by the thousands” — occasionally has Universal Executive Vice President/Editor Lee Salem take a look at potentially touchy strips or columns. But he added that Salem gives the syndicate’s editors a lot of autonomy.

McGruder and Coulter are both receptive to editing, said Melvin, adding that he gets along well with both creators. He has worked with McGruder since 1998, the year before “The Boondocks” was formally launched. And Melvin, 42, knew Coulter pre-column when he and she worked in the same Kansas City courthouse more than a decade ago — Melvin as a court recorder and Coulter as a law clerk. He was also lead singer of a rock band before joining Universal in 1995.

“The Boondocks” isn’t the only comic with content making waves in 2003. Among the most high-profile examples were a mention of masturbation in “Doonesbury” (by Garry Trudeau of Universal) and the implied use of the word “sucks” in “Zits” (by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman of King Features Syndicate). “There’s more envelope-pushing this year,” observed Melvin.

Why? Melvin said content on TV and in other media is much franker than in the past, so some newspaper cartoonists want that freedom, too. He did note that opinion columnists can usually get away with more provocative content than cartoonists because newspapers feel few children read the editorial pages.

While keeping an eye out for “egregious” material, Melvin doesn’t allow his personal political views to influence his editing — a good thing for someone working with creators as ideologically diverse as Coulter and McGruder. Melvin’s job also involves making sure content is understandable in all 15 features he edits; checking spelling, punctuation, and grammar; and more. In addition, creators often bounce ideas off Melvin before submitting finished comics or columns. And Melvin is involved in acquisitions, including the evaluation of features from people trying to get signed by Universal.

The 13 other Melvin-edited features are the comics “Baldo,” “Close to Home,” “FoxTrot,” “Heart of the City,” “La Cucaracha,” “Lucky Cow,” “Tom the Dancing Bug,” and (the not-yet-launched) “Mullets”; and the columns “Scott Burns,” “The Motley Fool,” “Column of the Americas,” “Mr. Handyperson,” and “Supermarket Sampler.”

Melvin concluded: “I feel close to all the people I edit. I think I have the greatest job in the world.”


Et cetera …

The Nov. 4 “Boondocks” indirectly referred to The Washington Post‘s decision to drop the Oct. 13-18 “Boondocks” sequence satirizing Condoleeza Rice. In that sequence last month, the Huey and Caesar characters discussed the personal ad Caesar was writing for Rice in the hopes she would meet a man and then maybe not want attack other countries. In the Nov. 4 episode, Huey looks at the ad. “‘Vibrant,’ ‘sultry,’ ‘twenty-two’?!,” he says. “You make the national security adviser sound like Beyonce! This document is at best deliberately misleading and at times a complete fabrication! People will have no idea what they’re getting themselves into!” Leading Huey to conclude: “I believe Condoleezza would be proud.” To which Caesar adds: “You think the Post will run this?” Apparently it did, because the Nov. 4 strip was visible on the paper’s Web site. “The Boondocks” is by Aaron McGruder of Universal Press Syndicate.

“Get Fuzzy” creator Darby Conley of United Feature Syndicate received several hundred angry e-mails — including death threats — from people objecting to his Oct. 30 comic insulting Pittsburgh. In the strip, Bucky the cat asks a travel agent if she has any vacation trips “based primarily on smell.” She replies: “Have a look at this pamphlet from the tourism department of Pittsburgh.” Conley’s reference to industrial pollution was very outdated — Pittsburgh is now more of a high-tech place. The cartoonist told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the comic was partly an inside joke meant to tease a college friend living in the Pennsylvania city. “I thought most people nowadays knew that Pittsburgh wasn’t like that anymore,” he told the newspaper. “The bottom line is if there were any truth in it I don’t think I would have done it.” Conley added that he will include a “lighthearted apology” in an upcoming strip.

The Wall Street Journal has selected AccuWeather to supply “Weather Watch,” a four-color feature designed for business travelers.

All four editorial cartoons in the Oct. 26 New York Times roundup were distributed by Creators Syndicate. Two were by Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and two were by Chip Bok of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal.

Dan Rosandich has launched a Web site (http://www.danscartoons.com) that includes more than 2,000 of his panel cartoons that can be purchased.

The Dog of My Nightmares: Stories by Texas Columnist Dave Lieber has been published. Lieber (http://www.yankeecowboy.com) is a senior metro columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, secretary of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and president of the NSNC’s Education Foundation.

The Hattiesburg (Miss.) American columnist Kristen Twedt (http://www.kristentwedt.com) has authored a children’s book illustrated by Dwelia Haas. It’s called My Crazy Christmas Catastrophe Cat.

Jan. 30 is the deadline for entering the editorial cartoon category of the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Awards (http://www.scripps.com/foundation). Last year’s winner was Clay Bennett of The Christian Science Monitor and the Christian Science Monitor News Service.

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