Cartoonists: Don’t be Afraid to Break the Rules

*Excerpt from 2001 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market and written by Doug Hubbuch.

break the rulesAspiring cartoonists should follow the familiar advice handed down to writers through the ages: write about what you know. Right?

Wrong, says Lee Salem, executive vice president and editor of Universal Press Syndicate. “I don’t buy into the old saw of write what you know about best; yourself and your experiences,” he says, nothing that Tolstoy would never have ventured into the Napoleanic wars if he had accepted that dictum.

Instead, Salem encourages cartoonists to be original and willing to break the rules. “Let your imagination tackle the natural boundaries and opportunities the art form affords and see where that takes you.”

Not that Salem has any problem with a “mainstream” comic strip that successfully crosses a variety of age demographics. After all, Charles Schulz did it with Peanuts for nearly fifty years. “Schulz allowed cartoonists to write about real people in real lives,” says Salem. But changing market and societal factors have made it unlikely that another Peanuts will come along, he believes. “I have difficulty imagining an artist wanting to draw for fifty years or a strip remaining that popular for that long a time.”

break the rules

Salem says many of the most successful cartoonists today break the rules rather than follow them, although he notes that many of the commonly accepted rules for successful cartooning are really non-existent. “We seek cartoonists with a strong vision for their characters and writing,” he says.

With a master’s degree in English, Salem has a special appreciation for good writing in comic strips, and he is quick to pas that along to aspiring cartoonists. “Write, write, write. We’re all capable of writing better stuff than we do.”

As a person who “reads comics for a living.” Salem is always on the lookout for the next hit strip. Among the things he looks for are strong characters and an artist’s sense of what those characters are capable of. “Good characters can do the most mundane things and still come off as funny and human. There’s that Schulz influence again,” he says.

Many of today’s popular comic strips and panels feature some sort of social commentary or content, but Universal Press doesn’t necessarily encourage its cartoonists to do commentary. Salem says he advises cartoonists to be as funny as they can be. For some, that means commentary.

break the rules

Some of the newer strips that Universal Press syndicates are very much into social commentary. The Boondocks, written and drawn by Aaron McGruder, is the story of a group of African-American kids adjusting to life in white suburbia. Combining childhood antics with contemporary political and social satire, The Boondocks caught Salem’s attention. “The spirit of the strip seemed right for the times. It had a strong point-of-view and characters with potential,” he says. Universal Press had been looking for a strip that dealt with relations between the races for some time, Salem explains, and McGruder’s work hit the mark.

Another new strip that caught Salem’s attention was Lennie Peterson’s The Big Picture. Peterson basically lives out his life in the daily comics in his autobiographical look at the absurdities of everyday life. “It may prove yet to be too ‘underground’ for daily newspapers, but its spirit is fresh and innovative,” Salem says.

break the rules

Other strips and panels syndicated by Universal Press include Calvin and Hobbes, Cathy, Tank McNamara, Garfield, Ziggy, Stone Soup, and the ever-popular and often controversial Doonesbury. Comics that cross many age demographics tend to be non-controversial but can hit on topics that cause negative reactions, Salem says. But with other strips that are clearly intended for an older, savvier audience, the artists have more freedom to push the envelope.

While newspaper syndication remains a tough nut to crack (Universal Press receives more than 100 comic submissions each week and takes on only two or three a year), Salem encourages cartoonists to keep plugging away. One thing offering increased opportunities for both cartoonists and syndicates is the Web. “For us, it presents new outlets and new revenues for content, both for newspaper websites and non-newspaper websites.” Salem notes. “For cartoonists, it may well allow for more creative flexibility in term of subject matter and animation.”

2015 Artist's & Graphic Designer's MarketSalem believes that, in general, it’s a good time for both cartoonists and syndicates if they are successful in grasping the potential of current (and future) technology.

The advent of the Web has made Salem very optimistic about the future of newspaper syndication, which would be good news for cartoonists. “I believe the Web and newspapers can complement and reinforce each other,” he says. “Though newspaper readership seems to be slightly down, profits remain vigorous, and good profits mean business for us and revenue for cartoonists. “

For more information on Universal Press Syndicate, check out their website at


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