Meet Top Syndication Attorney — Who Cartoonists Will Soon Honor

By: Dave Astor

Many readers are fans of cartoonists, and many cartoonists are fans of Stu Rees.

The San Diego-based Rees is an attorney with numerous artists among his clients. “I probably represent three-quarters of new comic launches,” said Rees, speaking of the strip and panel creators for whom he negotiates contracts with syndicates.

His clients — there have been well over 300 since Rees became an entertainment lawyer just over a decade ago — aren’t just syndicated comic creators. He also represents editorial cartoonists, Web cartoonists, magazine cartoonists, greeting card cartoonists, newspaper columnists, and others.

In addition, Rees has done pro bono legal work for the National Cartoonists Society for nearly a decade. That led to the recent announcement that Rees, 38, will receive the NCS Silver T-Square Award for service to the organization and cartooning.

“I’ve been perfectly happy to labor behind the scenes, but this is obviously a tremendous honor,” Rees said in a phone interview with E&P. “It was completely unexpected, and I couldn’t be happier.”

The attorney, who’ll receive the prize May 24 during the NCS Reuben Award weekend in New Orleans, has done various kinds of work for the organization. One task that stands out for him was resolving a complicated estate case after a cartoonist left a large sum of money to the NCS.

There are various reasons why the solo-practicing Rees has many more syndicated-creator clients than any other attorney.

For one thing, there are very few entertainment attorneys in the country who know much about newspaper syndication — whereas Rees is an expert in that field.

“And most entertainment attorneys charge double what I charge,” said the Harvard Law School graduate. One reason for this is Rees’ awareness that most syndicated creators can’t afford to pay as much in legal fees as a big company can.

Rees’ awareness of a cartoonist’s needs partly stems from the fact that he’s one himself. He does law-related gag cartoons, illustrations for law books, and more.

“I know how hard it can be to create and sell cartoons,” said Rees, whose work can be seen at Stus.com. “Cartooning is a great job, but it’s still a job.”

And Rees has been a fan of newspaper cartoons since he was a kid.

When Rees started his legal career in the latter 1990s, feature sales to newspapers “were rising — though at a slowish rate,” he recalled. “There was still the semblance of how the business used to be — and optimism that the business would remain steady. The first contracts I negotiated with syndicates were pretty good.”

But it has become “a different world” since 9/11, continued Rees. Newspapers — and the U.S. economy in general — have been going through hard times, and “the syndicates are now tougher in their contract negotiations,” the attorney noted.

Also, Rees said syndicates in 2008 are more interested in signing people (such as editorial cartoonists starting a comic) who already have a track record in newspaper cartooning or another artistic field. “The days are virtually over for when a syndicate would sign a cartoonist who had been working in a coffee shop,” commented the attorney. “Of course, there are exceptions.”

Rees estimated that at least 80% of new launches are now by creators with some professional art experience, up from perhaps 50% a decade or two ago.

“Syndicates are looking for some sort of guarantee,” he explained. “They don’t feel they have the leeway to take some of the risks they used to.”

Rees did mention that the success of some Web-based cartoonists is one bright spots these days. “Some have sidestepped the traditional syndicate route and managed to make a liveable wage,” he noted.

The attorney said cartoons should be doing better in newspapers than they are. “They’re visual and they’re quick,” said Rees. “In a world of seven-second attention spans, cartoons are a five-second read.”

Rees is looking forward to attending the Reuben weekend in May, noting that he’s missed the past couple of NCS gatherings because of having young children.

“I’m getting to be a young part of the ‘old guard,'” Rees added. “That’s what I wanted when I got into this industry — to be with a group of people my entire career.”

Indeed, Rees has reached the point where he’s now negotiating with some syndicate executives who have been at their jobs for less time than he’s been a syndication attorney.

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