Adonis Diaries

Archive for November 23rd, 2015


An Exclusive Interview with Calvin and Hobbes Editor Lee Salem

Lee Salem, former Universal Uclick president and editor, was instrumental in the discovery and development of Calvin and Hobbes, one of the most remarkable comic strips of all time.

As this legendary comic celebrates its 30th anniversary, Lee shares his reflections regarding his professional and personal relationship with cartoonist Bill Watterson, and the legacy of Calvin and Hobbes.

1. Calvin and Hobbes grew to become an incredible phenomenon. What was it about Bill Watterson’s work that initially caught your attention?

I remember first looking at Bill’s submission for Calvin and Hobbes. It was so breathtakingly simple, fresh and professional that I had to set it aside with the thought, “This can’t be as good as I think it is.”

On a second look, and subsequent looks, it was. It still is, to my mind. Bill had taken a near-universal situation – a child with an imaginary friend – and turned it into something archetypal.

When I circulated the samples, the response was positive, though there was some concern about readers “getting” whether the tiger was real or imaginary. I think every strip in that initial submission made it into the starting set of six weeks.

2. How has editing Calvin and Hobbes changed the way you view comics?

Editing Calvin did not change the way I viewed comics as much as dealing with Bill changed the way I viewed the syndicate/creator relationship.

For a few years, the relationship between us and Bill was very testy. We wanted calendars, products, licensing, and he wanted none of that. (Either too naïve or extremely lucid?)

It became so acrimonious that Bill went public in a speech at Ohio State, calling us “money-grubbing bloodsuckers.” That speech was picked up by the AP and I still wince when I think about it.

Each side had its points, but eventually we were able to get past all that. The fact that Bill agreed to “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes” showed how far we had come.

3. You worked closely with Watterson for more than 10 years, remaining a friend after 30 years. Please share a few of your favorite memories of working with him.

From an editorial perspective, Bill was a dream to work with.

If we didn’t think something worked, he’d generally accept it. He was terrific on deadlines (though to this day he still thinks he ran late. I never let him think otherwise).

In the early days of syndication of a strip, we’d review mailed-in roughs, then call the cartoonist. The goal was to reach a common understanding of what the characters were about and where the strip might be going.

It didn’t take long – less than two years, if my recollection is correct – to get to the point where all the roughs were fine, so Bill could just send in finished art.

For Mike Cavna’s Washington Post blog, Comic Riffs, Bill recalled watching me read a set of his roughs: “He could have been reading obituaries for all the delight he radiated.”

But I was trained by Jim Andrews, the co-founder and first editor of Universal, who one time chastised me for laughing at a cartoonist’s roughs. “Don’t ever laugh at a cartoonist’s work in front of him. It’s a sign of weakness.”

4. Calvin and Hobbes fans were heartbroken when the comic strip ended on Dec. 31, 1995.

Can you share what you felt and thought when he told you he wanted to end the strip? What were some of the factors that influenced his decision to retire the strip?

We had known for a while that Bill would retire, but coming one year after the end of The Far Side was tough to take, as a fan of the work of those two amazing cartoonists and as someone employed by the company that lost those two.

Bill thought he had said all he could say about Calvin and about Hobbes.

Tom Thornton, then the publisher of Andrews McMeel Publishing, and I visited Bill to try to convince him otherwise. Clearly we failed.

I think an additional factor was that Bill carried some wounds from the earlier period when our relationship had soured and the wounds continued to affect him.

But the relatively short lifespan is part of the great allure and mythos of the strip. We or Bill’s legions of fans might have wanted him to continue, but only he could make that decision. And he walked away at the top of his game.

5. You served as the liaison between Watterson and his fans. What was the most memorable piece of fan mail you ever received?

When the strip was in its heyday, the amount of mail was impressive and voluminous.

This was before email had really caught on and it took effort for the many fans – both children and adults – to actually write and send a letter.

Most of it was genuine fan mail and we generally handled it from the office. Bill decided early on that he could either do the strip or answer the mail.

I felt particularly bad for the youngsters who had class assignments to write to “somebody famous” and anticipate a reply. I hope our form responses qualified!

One of my favorites was from a young boy who complained that sometimes Calvin used “big words” and couldn’t Bill just use words kids could understand.

6. Can you share a few of your favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips with us? Why do these particular comics stand out to you?

There’s the one about … And the one with … Oh, and don’t forget the Sunday in which … I won’t take that route.

But one that still cracks me up was an early daily that showed Calvin at home, thermometer in his mouth, blanket drawn to his chin, watching TV. From the TV comes dialog from a very adult-sounding soap opera. In the last panel, Calvin turns to the reader and says, with a knowing smile on his face, “Sometimes I think I learn more when I stay home from school.”

Some readers actually claimed that strip encouraged kids to stay home and objected to their newspapers and to us.

And just one more. The last strip, the “Let’s go exploring!” Sunday. Bill freed his characters and himself with that strip — and, I think, encouraged his readers to move on, too.

7. Watterson surprised and delighted fans worldwide when he collaborated with Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis on a series of comic strips in June 2014.

Do you think we might see any new work from Watterson in the future?

Bill also publicly embraced the work of Richard Thompson, whose Cul de Sac is akin in spirit, artistic quality and understanding of children to Calvin and Hobbes.

In 2014, Bill and Richard shared an exhibit at the cartoon gallery at Ohio State University. That and Bill’s very funny collaboration with Stephan suggest a restlessness.

So it may be that Bill returns to the drawing board with results the public can enjoy. But I believe that if that happens, it will not involve Calvin and Hobbes or regular deadlines. Those he has put aside.

8. Calvin and Hobbes was, and remains, amazingly popular, and has served as an inspiration for artists worldwide.

Why do you believe it has such enduring appeal? How will it continue to influence the industry in years to come?

I know the fact of the strip’s enduring appeal from my personal experience. In 1985 I brought home the early samples for my family to read. My then 11-year-old son exclaimed, “This is the Doonesbury for kids!”

I used that line (with attribution, of course) in my presentation to our sales team. Several years ago, I entered the room of my 7-year-old granddaughter and I saw her reading a volume of “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”, which was opened on her bed. “Julia! Calvin and Hobbes!?” I wondered aloud.

Julia replied in a conspiratorial tone, “You know, Grandpa, Hobbes isn’t really real.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Calvin wasn’t either, only a product of the remarkable artistry and imagination of Bill Watterson. I don’t doubt that thirty years from now some young reader will stumble upon Calvin and Hobbes and re-discover how good comic strips can be.

To my mind, that is Bill’s great legacy, a challenge to readers to keep looking for the most talented and creative cartoonists and a challenge to cartoonists to keep trying to reach that goal.


How Lebanese are complacent on ISIS victims?

Sunday evening of November 15: I attended a candlelight vigil organized by a humanitarian NGO and some students from the American University of Beirut for the victims of the suicide attacks that took place in Burj al-Barajneh last Thursday on November 12.

So far, 44 people lost their lives and at least 200 were injured.

The attack, which ISIS claimed responsibility in a press release, comprised of two suicide attackers; a third one shot on site before detonating himself.

The ministry of interior in Lebanon later confirmed that the attack was supposed to involve a total of five attackers, and one of the targets was supposed to be a hospital (Al rassoul al A3zam) in the area, in addition to a Shia mosque.

The latter target was kept safe by Adel Termos (in the picture with his daughter) who tackled the first suicide bomber from entering, losing his life in the process.

Lebanon’s Complacency On ISIS Victims:

A Harsh Reminder That The Time For Change Is Now

Posted by Kareem Chehayeb: Nov. 18 /2015

Like any other terrorist attack in Lebanon, the frustration and anger I felt went well beyond the attack itself. This time was little bit different.

It wasn’t about the usual plethora of Western and regional press calling the neighborhood a ‘stronghold of Hezbollah‘ or any other leader stronghold, nor was it about the minor impact an attack on Lebanon or most other places in the Middle East makes to the rest of the world.

It wasn’t even the speech of Beirut’s municipal chief at the vigil, which was shallow and unauthentic to say the least. It was something else.



“The political situation will be less difficult to sort out after the attack on Burj al-Barajneh.”

This tasteless statement was made by Lebanon’s Interior Minister, Nohad Al Machnouk. The Lebanese government has been meeting to sort out various laws, and the two political factions were in a deadlock.

(Mind you that the Prime PM never set foot on the attack location, or even demanded that the government meet)

However, after the tragic attacks, they managed to make compromises and sort things out. This was promoted as something done in the interest of “national unity”, a term that the political elite in Lebanon use to improve their image. It was just shocking to see this come out of the minister’s mouth.

The Lebanese government’s reputation couldn’t be worse, especially the ministry of interior and Al Machnouk. Ever since the trash protests escalated in Beirut last August, all eyes have been on the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and Nohad Al Machnouk.

On August 24, a video surfaced of Al Machnouk partying at a beach club in Mykonos, Greece. This was around the same time protesters were indiscriminately attacked with water canons, high concentrations of tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and in some cases live ammunition.

Even at press conferences regarding the issue of the brutal police response, the interior minister tried to justify his actions with blatant lies. He did everything he can to depict the protesters as thugs and “infiltrators” who want to dismantle whatever is left of Lebanon’s stability and cause chaos.

He even went as far as to use a video still from a viral video. The still depicted a police officer with an injury. What Al Machnouk intentionally left out was that protesters ran to the injured officer, gave him some water, and took him to an ambulance.

Protesters, including “unlicensed” journalists and photographers who were arrested, were deprived of their rights and weren’t being told what they were charged for, as 22 year-old photographer Hassan explained in an interview I had with him.

Some protesters were forced to take urine tests, at their own expense. Those who refused or couldn’t afford paying for the test were threatened to be imprisoned for drug-related charges.

Some protesters were even tried at military court for clashing with police officers and for vandalism, despite being civilians. Even though those prisoners are now released, a court verdict last month ordered some of the protesters to stay in prison.

However, that didn’t last too long due to public pressure. Al Machnouk nor the ISF have not made any official statements about these practices.

The manic and intense response by the interior ministry on protesters almost makes it seem like they’re ISIS, doesn’t it?

Location, Location, Location

While the candlelight vigil was moving, its location just didn’t make sense to me. It took place in Zeitouna Bay, a privatized space with upscale cafes, restaurants, and yachts, far from Beirut’s impoverished neighborhoods.

Sure, the view was nice and it was a calm atmosphere, but I don’t think it did anyone justice. We should have had this vigil right in front of the ministry of interior for obvious reasons.

They failed us, just like the rest of the government. Time and time again, they have taken major security issues lightly, from terrorist threats to public health outbreaks, and it’s time we hold them accountable.

The head of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim said that they’re anticipating more attacks from ISIS.

So what are we going to do?

I’ll see you at the protest on Independence Day on November 22 at Riad el Solh Square.

Feature image by Kareem Chehayeb

Note: TV Reporters rushed to a hospital to interview the badly injured kid of 3 who witnessed his parents go in flame. Like: “What did you see” How do you feel. Tel us more….Quick, say something, we have to cover other injured parties…

Do Changes in Sense of Humor Presage Dementia?

What can be considered sense of humor?

“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast

A close friend was an even-keeled, responsible man, endowed with a sunny outlook and a gentle, punny sense of humor.

So when he started to make snide remarks at social gatherings several years ago, I secretly championed the delight he was taking in his newfound freedom from social constraints.

After more than 50 years of exemplary adult behavior, he had earned the right to play court jester now and then. Or so I thought.

Susan Pinker posted

New research from University College London suggests that shifts in what a person finds funny can herald imminent changes in the brain.

Published this month in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease, the study found that an altered sense of humor can predate a diagnosis of dementia by as much as 10 years.

A burgeoning penchant for slapstick—over a past preference for satire or absurdist humor, for example—characterized nearly everyone who eventually developed frontotemporal dementia.

(Far less common than Alzheimer’s, this illness usually hits people in their 50s and 60s.)

But a changed sense of comedy affected less than half the people later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

 Najat Rizk shared this link
Do Changes in Sense of Humor Presage Dementia?

“The type of change could be a signpost of the type of dementia the person is going to develop,” said Jason Warren, a neurologist at University College London who led the study.

Acknowledging that humor is an unconventional way to think about neurodegenerative disease, he told me that most research in the area uses more standard assessment tools, such as memory tests, but that “memory may not be the type of thing that patients or relatives notice first.” Such warnings could be subtle changes in behavior, including humor.

After all, most forms of humor require some form of cognitive sleight-of-hand (And developed general knowledge?).

“Getting” satire hinges on the ability to shift perspective in a nanosecond. Absurdist jokes play fast and loose with our grasp of logic and social norms; black humor lampoons taboos. All are a rich source of data about the brain.

“Humor is like a stress test,” said Dr. Warren. “The same way you’re on a treadmill to test the cardiovascular system, complex jokes are stressing the brain more than usual.” (Isn’t that good? After all, we are exercising the brain)

Modest in size, the London study compared 48 patients from an outpatient dementia clinic with 21 healthy older adults.

A spouse or longtime caregiver filled out a semi-structured questionnaire about what kinds of TV shows, comic writing and other media each subject preferred.

Fifteen years before the study and now, how much did the person enjoy slapstick (along the lines of “The Three Stooges,” though the British study focused on U.K. entertainment only, like “Mr. Bean”), satirical comedy (“Saturday Night Live”) or absurdist comedy (“Monty Python”)?

A change in the type of comedy that people found funny turned out to be a sensitive predictor of a later diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia, though Dr. Warren cautioned that a small, retrospective study like this one is just a first step.

Still to come are brain-imaging studies and a prospective look at changes in humor in people who carry genetic markers for the disease.

Their findings could well apply to me, given that dementia runs in my family.

I admit, though, that I’m not used to thinking about humor this way. The quip attributed to Groucho Marx that “a clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast” captures my view.

In a perfect world, laughter would be the antidote to illness, not its red flag.




November 2015

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