Giving Cartoonists a Break

By: Dave Astor

Updated at 12:55 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

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.”

Staving Off Sabbaticals?

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.”


Human Images of War in New Book

Artist Johnson May Return to Iraq This Fall

Portraits of War may not be the end of the story for Detroit Free Press artist Richard Johnson.

The Portraits book — published July 15 by the Free Press — features Johnson’s drawings and Jeff Seidel’s articles from their three months in and around Iraq earlier this year.

Johnson told E&P Online he may return to Iraq this fall with a different Free Press writer — Nancy Youssef, who speaks Arabic. If that happens, the two will try to do more portraits of everyday Iraqis than Johnson and Seidel were able to do, while continuing to sketch U.S. soldiers still in Iraq.

The new 300-page book is full of the evocative stories and illustrations that ran in the Free Press and many other papers via Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. Johnson and Seidel’s work brought a strong positive response from readers — more than 600 e-mails, plus numerous postal letters and phone calls. One reason for this huge reaction was the unusual use of drawings rather than photos as the Johnson-Seidel team humanized the war experience by focusing on individuals. Also, the U.S. soldiers Johnson drew were from throughout the country, not just Detroit and Michigan.

Johnson said art can evoke stronger emotions than photos for several reasons. “Drawing allows you to filter out things,” he said, while enabling the artist to put “intense detail” in the most important areas of a picture. Johnson added: “With a photo, you’re looking at 1/100th of a second. With a drawing, I was with the person, looking them in the eyes. We had some history. It is a much more intimate portrait.”

The artist drew his subjects from life, from photos, and from memory — depending on how much time he had, whether the Marine unit he and Seidel embedded with were under fire, etc. Johnson worked in black and white because he felt it gave “more weight” to the topic.

Among the scenes Johnson remembered the most was one of two Marines, both bleeding from shrapnel wounds, lying on stretchers in the sun as medics treated more seriously injured people. Johnson drew the Marines at the moment when they punched each other’s hands for encouragement.

Johnson, 37, is a native of Scotland who joined the Free Press in 2000. He’s a strong admirer of famed combat artist Howard Brodie, and was also influenced as an illustrator by his grandfather, Herbert William Bingham.

The full title of the collection ( is Portraits of War: The people of the Iraq war, one sketch at a time. It includes an introduction by Joseph L. Galloway, senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder, who wrote: “The tradition of Howard Brodie and Bill Mauldin, and of Winslow Homer’s stunning Civil War art for Harper’s Weekly, is alive and well and safe in the drawings of Richard Johnson and the words of Jeff Seidel.”


‘Boondocks’ Film and TV Show?

McGruder Inks Agreement With Sony

Aaron McGruder signed a deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment to develop a feature movie and TV series based on his “Boondocks” comic strip, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A Sony spokesperson told E&P Online that there’s no target date yet for the completion of the animated projects. Also, no network has signed on yet for the TV show.

The Times said McGruder “previously tried to launch a ‘Boondocks’ vehicle for MTV that never got off the ground.”

“The Boondocks,” known for its strong political and social commentary, appears in about 250 newspapers via Universal Press Syndicate.

McGruder’s comic was the subject of a July 13 column by The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee ombudsman Tony Marcano, who reported receiving a number of complaints about a recent “Boondocks” sequence focusing on Strom Thurmond. One strip showed the Huey character noting how beautiful the weather had been since the death of the longtime segregationist.

Marcano said he doesn’t think provocative strips should be pulled on certain days. “It’s a wishy-washy policy,” he wrote. “If a newspaper commits to running anything potentially controversial — whether it’s a comic strip, a columnist, or an editorial — on a regular basis, it should stick with it and stand up to the backlash. Otherwise, cancel the strip entirely or don’t buy it in the first place. Editors are charged with making tough decisions, frequently unpopular ones. Comics are no exception.”

The ombudsman added that people can be “selective” about which comics they read or don’t read, and concluded: “If the Bee backs off on content that might get your back up, it will become as bland as a bucket of mayonnaise. Pass the mustard.”


‘Mallard’ and Affirmative Action

Comics Protest Supreme Court Ruling

Bruce Tinsley is using four “Mallard Fillmore” comics to express displeasure with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of affirmative action.

In the July 18, 21, 22, and 23 strips, the Mallard character suggests that high-school seniors of all races “protest racial discrimination” by checking off the African American, Hispanic American, or Native American boxes on their SAT and college applications. This, says Mallard, will make it “tougher… for colleges to judge applicants by the color of their skin.”

Tinsley told E&P Online that the four “kind-of-tongue-in-cheek” comics are not necessarily asking high-school seniors to lie. “In this great melting pot,” he said, “who really knows who all their ancestors are?”

“Mallard Fillmore” appears in about 400 newspapers via King Features Syndicate.


DBR Signs ‘The Leftersons’

Hayes’ Comic Strip Spoofs Liberals

DBR Media is syndicating “The Leftersons” once per week.

The comic satirizes liberals. Members of the Leftersons family includes father Upton, mother Imelda, daughter Hillary, and son Stalin.

The strip ( is by Colin Hayes, one of three conservative artists who co-founded (Syndicate World, Jan. 23, 2003).


Et cetera …

It Became Necessary to Destroy the Planet in Order to Save It! has been released by Plan Nine Publishing. The book is a collection of cartoons by Khalil Bendib — whose work, from a Muslim-American perspective, has appeared in newspapers and other media outlets.


Editor’s note: This fall, E&Pis scheduled to run its third annual “Features of the Year” spread. If you have any syndicated creators you’d like to nominate, please e-mail Dave Astor (at the address below) with their names and a brief explanation of why you feel they’re doing a particularly good job in 2003. The four categories include best comic creator, best editorial cartoonist, best columnist, and best feature. The last category can include non-Op-Ed columns, puzzles, children’s features, paginated pages, etc.

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