After earning a Master’s degree in English, in 1974 Lee took a job at a still new independent newspaper feature syndication agency, the Universal Press Syndicate, as its editor. UPS had started with a fast-growing comic, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury — and one of the first things Salem did with that was submit it for the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. It was the first daily comic strip to ever win that prize. Salem was well known for backing up his creators when they delved into controversial subjects, including talking Trudeau out of a series on abortion, convincing the artist that it wasn’t “in the best interests of the feature to run it.” But he helped Trudeau get the rights to publish them elsewhere. “Lee made wildly insecure artists feel supported and safe,” Trudeau says, “and empowered to take creative risks.”
Salem went on to recruit other artists to debut their cartoons through UPS: Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, and Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, among others. (UPS also represented text-based features, including Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird. It was quite successful, running in 500 newspapers at one point, which is one of the reasons the other main independent feature agency, the Creators Syndicate, tried to sign up This is True in the mid-1990s to compete in that space …but I turned the contract down.) “He proudly launched voices that had never been heard in the comic pages, giving women and minorities a revolutionary new, equal stage” says Cathy Guisewite; Salem brought her daily strip Cathy to acclaim in 1976. “In doing so, Lee opened a universe of self-expression in the comic pages, with a ripple effect in all areas of creativity.” Watterson agreed: “Lee had a sharp eye and he understood writers. He found cartoonists with strong, quirky, inimitable voices and brought a new type of humor to the comics pages.” So much so that after Salem announced his retirement, the National Cartoonists Society presented him with their Silver T-Square Award. “His prescient eye for discovering talent,” said NCS President Tom Richmond at the time, “remarkable skill in nurturing that talent, and tireless pursuit in developing new opportunities and platforms for our creators is unequaled.” UPS is now known as Andrews McMeel Syndication. Salem died in a hospice on September 2, a few weeks after suffering a stroke. He was 73.