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Quick On The Draw

A cigar-smoking bird named Shoe and political caricatures have made Jeff MacNelly a newspaper favorite.
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

On those rare occasions when Jeff MacNelly descends from his Virginia hilltop home to lope down Chicago's Michigan Avenue or traipse around Washington, D.C., he looks for all the world like an oversized bumpkin touring the big city. Large feet slap the pavement, large hands jam into pockets, an unruly thatch of gray hair brushes his heavy eyebrows, and thick glasses slide down his nose, which is small compared with his lantern chin and jug ears. He is a walking, six-foot-five-inch caricature--a "nerd," he cheerfully concedes.

Beneath that awkward appearance, however, is one of the sharpest wits and finest artists in American editorial cartooning and on the comics page. With the Chicago Tribune as his flagship paper, MacNelly, 51, is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for political cartoons and twice the recipient of the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award (named in honor of the late Rube Goldberg) for his editorial cartoons and his comic strip, "Shoe," about the cigar-smoking bird editor of the Treetops Tattler Tribune and his avian associates.

"I think MacNelly's one of the most influential cartoonists of the last 30 years," says political and comic art historian Richard Samuel West, a Northampton, Massachusetts-based dealer in early American magazines."Many younger cartoonists became interested in cartooning because of the vitality of his work, and that's why most cartoonists regard him as a pivotal figure in political cartooning in the latter part of this century."

According to Kevin Kallaugher, himself an award-winning editorial cartoonist for The Sun in Baltimore and a former president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, other cartoonists "are dazzled by [MacNelly's] artistry, enchanted by his wit, and astonished with his originality.

"I know, I am one of them," wrote Kallaugher, also the editorial cartoonist for the Economist in London, in a tribute accompanying a display of MacNelly's cartoons at Forte Dei Marmi in Tuscany, Italy, which was held in connection with MacNelly's receipt of the 1998 Graphica Internazionale award.

MacNelly's thrice-weekly editorial cartoons for the Chicago Tribune are syndicated to approximately 400 newspapers, and "Shoe" appears in nearly 1,000 papers. He admits that his double duty as a political and comic strip artist is "hellacious," yet it does not seem to have diminished his astounding reservoir of creativity: he also does weekly illustrations for humorist Dave Barry's newspaper column, writes and illustrates books periodically, produces extraordinary, lavishly colored comic paintings and prints, crafts bronze and wire sculptures occasionally, and even turns out finely detailed model wooden boats. And he tinkers with his small fleet of vintage automobiles: a 1929 Model A, a 1931 Chrysler rumble-seat roadster, two 1952 U.S. Army Jeeps, a 1954 Willys four-wheel drive and a 1959 DeSoto--the model for the rattletrap conveyance that Shoe's colleague, the Perfesser, is forever taking to the mechanic.

MacNelly's remarkable productivity at the drawing board and easel is amply rewarded. Between his Tribune salary, syndication proceeds, merchandizing of "Shoe"--which has been turned into books, greeting cards and other products--and his prints and paintings, he has become one of the most highly paid political cartoonists in the country. He acknowledges earning nearly $1 million a year.

"It's like making it in Polish zlotys," shrugs MacNelly. "I mean, all I know is I can put the card in the ATM machine and get 300 bucks out of it, and I put it in my jeans and walk around with it for weeks. And, you know, the only reason I run out of cash is 'cause Susie [his wife] says, 'I gotta go to the hairdresser, can I have $40?'"

While MacNelly could easily spend exorbitant amounts on expensive premium cigars, he doesn't--although he, like his creation Shoe, savors a good smoke. During the depths of the winter, he lives in a tiny cottage in Key West, Florida, where he has access to a wide variety of cigars. On rare occasions, he even is the recipient of a contraband Havana--with which, he confesses, he is only mildly impressed.

"I hesitate to say this. These friends of mine have risked confiscation and possible fines to bring me [Havana] cigars if they come through London or somewhere. And they are really nice smokes," MacNelly says. "But I gotta tell you, I have cigars in Key West that are, like, three-dollar cigars, that are wonderful. And I think also that's probably because Key West is, in itself, basically a humidor. You could almost keep the cigars out on the porch. They'd just be fine. So they're good, sort of gooey, nice smokes.

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