Talent rejects often caused major regrets

Newspaper biz full of comic gaffe tales

by Tom Webb
Knight-Ridder Tribune News
Printed in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, March 05, 2000. Page A17.

Fifty years ago, an editor at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., made a legendary blunder. He refused to pay $10 a week to keep publishing a comic strip created by a young employee, a St. Paul artist named Charles Schulz. The newspaper has regretted it ever since, as Peanuts became the most famous strip in history.

But the Pioneer Press has lots of company in the doghouse. Ask the folks at The Kansas City Star, who once refused to hire a youngster named Walt Disney.

"When he was a teen-ager, Walt Disney applied for a job as an artist, and we turned him down," said Mark Zieman, the Star's editor. "Then he applied as an office boy, and we turned him down. Then he applied as a truck driver, and we turned him down for that."

Disney eventually got his revenge. In 1986, years after his death, the Walt Disney Co. bought the newspaper.

The newspaper business is filled with famous tales of young talent rejected, and later regretted. That's particularly true on the funny pages, where the competition for new strips is fierce and rejection is the norm.

At the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, staffers remember a young cartoonist named Bill Watterson applying for an editorial cartooning job in the mid-1980s, only to be rejected. A few years later he became famous as the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes strip.

David Holwerk, now editor of the Duluth News-Tribune in Minnesota, has the distinction of being the editor who turned down Watterson.

"The folklore is that I did pass on Watterson, although I don't remember it," Holwerk said.

But Holwerk wasn't a big fan of Calvin & Hobbes , either.

"It was no Nancy, " he quipped. "It lacked `Nancy's' brittle postmodernist sensibilities. I'm looking forward to the day I can add Nancy here in Duluth."

Holwerk reflects a great truth about comic strips: What one person loves, the next person hates - guaranteeing that editors' choices will irritate readers no matter which comics they buy. It also virtually assures that no cartoonist escapes without some scars of rejection.

Matt Groening, creator of the animated TV show The Simpsons, had such disheartening tales as a young cartoonist that he named his original comic strip Life in Hell. It first appeared in an alternative weekly newspaper, The Los Angeles Reader, which eventually fired him.

The Pioneer Press has other famous alumni, including humorist Garrison Keillor, who worked there as a reporter. He is remembered for producing lovingly crafted - but not speedy - obituaries.

But it is Schulz, who died Feb. 12, who will never be forgotten there. Schulz grew up in St. Paul, and in the late 1940s the Pioneer Press published his first cartoon strip, called Li'l Folks.

As the story goes, Schulz started out working for nothing, which was customary at the time, but eventually wanted to be paid. Editor Vernon "Doug" Fairbanks thought it was too much for the newsroom budget. So Schulz took his strip to a newspaper syndicate, which began selling it under the name Peanuts.

The rival Minneapolis Tribune bought the exclusive rights to publish "Peanuts" in the Twin Cities. It has never again appeared in the Pioneer Press.