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Quick On The Draw

A cigar-smoking bird named Shoe and political caricatures have made Jeff MacNelly a newspaper favorite.

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For three years, from 1993 to 1996, MacNelly produced yet another comics-page creation, the single-box "Pluggers," which features anthropomorphic animals illustrating the theme that people just endure somehow, no matter the curves that life throws at them. ("Pluggers" now is drawn by Gary Brookins, the political cartoonist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.) The title drawing for a collection of MacNelly's "Pluggers" comics, called "Calm in the Face of Disaster," shows two bears as billboard painters, just discovering that they have produced a monumental-sized typographical error: "Clam in the Face of Disaster."

It was a genuine disaster, the death of his son Jake on October 12, 1996, that ended MacNelly's stint with "Pluggers," which became just too much to handle in the wake of the tragedy. An immensely personable and talented 24-year-old who enjoyed writing poetry, Jake MacNelly had begun making a mark for himself as the editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times when he went on a climbing expedition at Diehard Rock, some nine miles east of the Colorado resort town, and fell about 75 feet. He died later at Aspen Valley Hospital of massive injuries.

"It's like somebody comes along and basically chops off your arm," MacNelly says quietly. "You're going to recover from that part of it, but the rest of your life, you're going to have to do things a little differently. Very weird.

"I was divorced, I guess, when he was like 10, and we were always pretty close, but it was one of those divorced father things that's just stupid and awful--basically like a rich uncle who comes in and buys him a pizza every once in a while and takes him on a trip. But he and I got to be very close the last year and a half. And he was actually doing political cartoons. We talked every day--twice a day, sometimes. He'd call up and it would always be something funny and we'd have these great discussions."

The death of his son affected MacNelly's creative output in another way: the sort of paintings he produced changed completely.

"I've always enjoyed painting, but I'd always ended up doing sort of serious, kind of Andrew Wyeth things, 'cause that's what I love. People hate 'em. They look at 'em and say, 'So what? You're supposed to be a cartoonist. What the hell's this?' So I did them basically for me.

"But after Jake died, I went to Key West that winter and I just said: You know, life's too short to fart around trying to be a fine artist. I'm just going to have some fun, get some therapy out of this. So I started just doing basically the cartoon paintings, some wacko ideas I had, and they just started selling--which was a shock."

A good friend of MacNelly's, Nance Frank, owns The Gallery on Green in Key West. She expressed an interest in trying to sell his acrylics and oil paintings--and they instantly were snapped up by eager buyers. Admirers also have expressed interest in prints of his paintings, as well as in his original political cartoons and non-computer-composed "Shoe" strips.

MacNelly's paintings generally illustrate outrageous puns or bizarre comic visions: "Alexander Graham Bell's First Try" shows Bell looking at an Edison light bulb and saying, "Hello?"; "Born to Graze Hell" is a portrait of a bull-turned-Hell's Angels biker.

Although MacNelly has used computers to facilitate production and distribution of his political cartoons and comic strip--and has a Web site ( remains an adamant advocate of the printed page and scornful of past attempts by others to put political cartoons on television.

"About every year and a half during the mid-'80s, somebody would put together some money and decide that it's time to put cartoons on television. And it just doesn't work. It's a waste of time. Newspapers can reproduce two things that television can't: they can reproduce great writing and they can reproduce artwork. Cartoons are a two-dimensional thing. They're something that you can cut out and look at and show to people; and if it moves, I think it screws up the whole idea of cartoons. It's like a painting--I'm not being crazy about it--but if the Mona Lisa's eyes blink, does that make it better? No."

While the work of top cartoonists can be found in cyberspace--and MacNelly's own Web site carries his paintings, editorial cartoons and comic strips--he doesn't think the general public will switch readily to the Internet to see his work or that of other newspaper cartoonists. "I might be just totally anachronistic, but I still think there's no substitute for actually just turning the page and seeing it."

MacNelly would rather spend his time contemplating possible developments in politics, both national and international. He is surprisingly optimistic about foreign prospects and somewhat resigned to domestic ones.

"I think people--given the free flow of information, given the dissemination of the truth--eventually will find ways to rid themselves of the bad guys. They always have, if they're presented with the facts. You can't keep the truth out, especially now when you can pick up satellite broadcasts from a briefcase. You open up a briefcase and pull out an antenna that picks up a satellite.

"What the hell, if you can do that, the game is over for the totalitarian governments that try to control the minds of the people. That proved to be the case in Eastern Europe. It will take a lot longer in China, but eventually, yeah, it'll happen there."

MacNelly maintains what he calls his "Presidential Hall of Fame" in his laundry room, over the sink. It features photographs of himself with such chief executives as Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan--and yes, even Bill Clinton. Grinning, he says the location of this mini-museum was calculated: it was selected "so when Susie's washing my socks, she knows what a terribly important person I am."

The present crop of presidential prospects, however, does not impress him. Asked if he thinks we have entered an age of political pygmies, he readily agrees.

"I think that's true. I think that reflects on the new view of leadership, which is: get the best pollsters you can find, find out what the people want to hear--and give it to them. That's basically what's happened.

"In the old days, the reason someone appeared larger than life is because he had a concept, he had an idea of what he wanted to accomplish. Sometimes he failed, but he tried to influence public opinion instead of the other way around. Certainly Reagan was like that. Reagan believed all that stuff. This wasn't something he was spouting just to get people to go along with him. That was his core belief system and involved a lot of what he ended up doing. The same with Lyndon Johnson. Of course, he was a little more of a bully about it."

MacNelly doesn't see any giants on the horizon, either in the Republican or the Democratic ranks.

"I like guys like John McCain [Republican senator from Arizona], but I'm suspicious of him 'cause so many in the media have decided he's their favorite. The media favorites always are great copy. They tend to prop 'em up."

And as for Al Gore?

"I think Gore is as dead as a smelt. I mean, if I was running against Gore, I'd get all the film clips of him with his arm around Bill Clinton. I'd get a shot of him over in China, hugging whichever dictator he was hugging at the time. And then this campaign finance thing." Even though Attorney General Janet Reno decided not to recommend that a special prosecutor look into the matter, "I think it's going to hurt him," MacNelly says.

"I just don't know. We may be going into a period of boring straight guys--this may be a Harding-Coolidge thing," MacNelly concludes with a chuckle, referring to Warren G. Harding, the randy 29th president who trysted with a nubile mistress in a White House closet, then died in office in 1923 and was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge, a dour, taciturn, straight-laced New Englander.

Past presidents such as Nixon, Carter and Reagan gave MacNelly plenty of rich material with which to work, but he admits to having some problems drawing a few of today's politicos. "Gore is tough to do. [Rep. Richard] Gephardt [of Missouri] I do pretty well, even though he's very fair [complected]. It's the Jerry Ford problem: you know who it is but you can't do it in ink."

Nevertheless, he insists that he doesn't pine for those halcyon days of colorfully caricaturable officials.

"You know, I don't really miss anybody, because I'm having so much fun with this particular bunch of ninnies and hypocrites," he says with a satisfied grin.

He anticipates continuing his cartooning--on both the editorial and the comics pages--"probably forever."

"I think if I retired, I'd be twice as busy. I can't afford to retire, basically because I have too many projects that'd take up all of my time. So this way, at least, I have an excuse to relax, have fun and do my job." *

Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer and caricaturist, is the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.

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