A Short Q&A with Lee Salem

by Tim Hulsizer
September 2005

Me: Please discuss the early years of the strip. Since it had over 100 clients from the start, does that mean the syndicate was sure of its success?

Lee Salem: That was our second biggest launch, after 'For Better Or For Worse,' so we felt confident. About 14 months later, 'Calvin and Hobbes' came in at number one in a comics survey done by the Chicago Tribune; that told us we were really on the way.

Me: Bill did a few interviews when the strip started and even posed for some photos which he later regretted. At what point did his outlook on publicity change? Did the strip's popularity simply become too great for him to handle?

LS: Yes, the demand became overwhelming and he faced the choice of doing the strip or doing interviews. Rather than pick and choose among client newspapers, he decided to do no further interviews.

Me: I understand that Bill came under a lot of pressure to merchandise his characters, and at one point may have even signed something along those lines before the syndicate voided it for him? Did you play much of a role in those discussions over the years?

LS: Our contract with Bill called for us to control the ancillary rights and split revenues with Bill. His words in the tenth anniversay book and, now, this one, relate how unhappy he became over that situation. Our view was that, hey, we're running a business and this is what you signed. We eventually gave in to him and returned those rights to him. We and our bankers still weep, but our relationship with Bill became more amicable.

Me: When Bill returned from his first sabbatical he had a larger Sunday format to work with in newspapers. Was that a stressful time for you, dealing with irate comics editors? Did you have to smooth things over with other comics creators?

LS: There was grumbling by some newspapers and some cartoonists, but I think in that case, the quality supported the stipulation.

Me: Over the years I know you and the syndicate have remained cautiously optimistic that Bill might someday return with new work in some form. Do you think this is still a realistic hope for fans, or are we better off considering him permanently retired?

LS: Oh, I believe he is retired.

Me: As the new Complete Calvin collection proves, the strip remains popular to this day and continues to sell. What to your mind is the ongoing appeal of the strip?

LS: The expression of Bill's fertile imagination through the written word and the drawn image brought those characters to life on many levels. But the recalled pains and joys of childhood and the lasting bonds of friendship, themes explored in the strip, are nearly universal. I think the appreciation of Bill's work will last for a long, long time.

Me: Any favorite Calvin strips that leap to mind?

LS: One of my favorites is on the wall of my office. Calvin is at home, thermometer sticking out of his mouth, watching a lurid soap opera, with all the language that entails. in the last panel, he says to the reader, "You know, I think I learn more when I stay home than when I go to school." Believe it or not, some readers actually thought he was suggesting kids should watch daytime TV rather than attend school.

Thanks Lee!


Update: In February 2007, blogger Mr. Media did an interview with Mr. Salem. At one point they discussed Calvin and Hobbes and Lee had this to say:

LS: Well, Bill is Bill. The somewhat rancorous relationship between the two of us, while occasional, was still public, and he made his feelings clear about the business obligations that we felt and thought that we were asking too much of him and Calvin and Hobbes in terms of exposure in the market. We ultimately accepted his arguments and redid his contract, and he retired after a brilliant ten-year run, probably as strong a ten-year run as anyone in comics history, I think.