More response to half-page 'Calvin' strip

By David Astor for Editor & Publisher
January 11, 1992 edition; Pg.30

The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, which has more than 100 members in the U.S. and Canada, has asked Universal Press Syndicate to reconsider the Sunday size requirement for Calvin and Hobbes.

Universal responded that the half-page format -- due to take effect February 2, when Bill Watterson returns from his nine-month sabbatical -- will not be changed.

AASFE president Barbara Schuler, in a December 27 letter to Universal president John McMeel, wrote that the size requirement "appears to be yet one more attempt by Universal to dictate how we edit our sections. And it comes at a time when most of us are struggling on a daily basis with a shrinking news hole and are frequently being forced to reduce or eliminate popular, newsworthy features from our sections."

The Long Island (N.Y.) Newsday-based editor added that the half-page format leaves newspapers with "several equally unsatisfactory choices," including dropping the Sunday Calvin and Hobbes, ignoring the size requirement, or pulling another strip.

"A number of [AASFE] members have suggested that this might well be a Universal strip," stated Schuler. "Several others have pointed out that this would likely be the very work we should be encouraging the most, that of new, promising talent."

She concluded, "It's hard to imagine that these options are any more attractive to you than they are to us. Considering the difficult economy we are all wroking in, it seems it would be to everyone's advantage for you to reconsider your position on Calvin and Hobbes."

Universal vice president/editorial director Lee Salem told E&P that the syndicate -- which mailed a reply to the AASFE letter this past week -- is keeping the half-page format.

Salem said newspapers are "not being coerced" into using this format because they have the option of dropping Watterson's Sunday strip. He added that clients keeping Calvin and Hobbes can accomodate the larger comic without pulling other strips if they do some restructuring of their sections. Salem said a number of broadsheet papers will accomplish this by using the half-page tabloid version of Calvin and Hobbes.

The tabloid option is a major reason why only seven newspapers, according to Salem, have so far canceled Watterson's post-sabbatical Sunday strip. Originally, it looked like at least 12-15 papers were going to drop the half-page Calvin and Hobbes (see E&P, December 21).

Even with the seven cancellations, Universal expects the returning Calvin and Hobbes to have more than 1,800 daily and Sunday clients -- approximately the same total as when reruns began last May.

Salem, in further commenting on the AASFE letter, said the organization's talk of current economic problems faced by newspapers "is kind of a red herring" because papers have been shrinking Sunday comics for years -- long before the current recession began.

As for the AASFE's statement about "yet one more attempt by Universal to dictate" how newspapers edit their sections, Salem said the syndicate hasn't had a size requirement since the minimum 44-pica width for Doonesbury was instituted in 1984.

"To have one requirement every seven years relating to comics by the likes of Gary Trudeau and Bill Watterson is hardly dictating to newspapers," he stated.

The half-page format, continued Salem, will help Watterson "provide the best work he can provide." He added that bigger comics can help newspapers keep readers and find new ones. "We are in a fight for our lives against competing media," Salem declared.

What do other organizations besides the AASFE think? The Newspaper Features Council and National Cartoonists Society do not have formal positions on the Calvin and Hobbes size requirement, although the matter could conceivably come up at future meetings. When asked by E&P, NFC and NCS executives did offer their personal opinions about the half-page format.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said NFC president-elect Robert Reed, who is chairman of Tribune Media Services. "Editors should have the right to edit their own newspapers."

NCS president Mell Lazarus, who does, Momma and Miss Peach for Creators Syndicate, stated, "I'd like to see everyone go back to a wide open half-page format, as long as it didn't mean there'd be half as many strips in the paper every Sunday.