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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

(continued from page 3)

"Mauldin was an inspiration to me when I was growing up," recalls MacNelly, "because like most kids I was into tanks and warfare and G.I. Joe and everything else, and he was the cartoonist of World War II. He was my hero. My mother gave me a collection of his stuff, and I was just in awe of him and Herblock."

(Today, Block generously expresses awe of MacNelly: "He is not only an outstanding cartoonist but a real original--in his ideas, in the way he presents them and in his remarkable drawing, which applies to his strip as well as to his editorial cartoons. Jeff can do more with birds than most cartoonists can do with people or animals. And he has the incredible ability to draw caricatures of each person in a group--from memory.")

MacNelly went to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he did not distinguish himself academically. At least during this period he learned how to smoke cigars.

"It's a long, tortured, hilarious story. I was hunting snakes in Central America when I was 14. It was bizarre." He explains that a childhood friend who was a pre-medical student at Harvard University had invited him to join in an exotic expedition to do research for Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology during the summer of 1962. "I remember being in Mexico and we stopped somewhere and there was this little bunch of cigars--they were tied with a string--and they cost like a dollar for 25 of these beauties. And I said, 'What the hell,' and I bought the cigars. And I think that's when I started smoking cigars. They were great."

After the Phillips Academy, MacNelly spent four years at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill without obtaining a degree. "Most kids took notes and doodled in the margins; I doodled and took notes in the margins," he says.

In his junior year--1967-'68--MacNelly began drawing editorial cartoons for the local Chapel Hill Weekly (now the daily Chapel Hill News). He eventually dropped out of school, married his girlfriend, Rita Daniels, and began working for the Weekly full-time, earning $120 a week for his cartoons and other artwork.

MacNelly confesses now that when he began drawing editorial cartoons, he knew nothing about national--or even local--politics. Fortunately, the Weekly's editor, Jim Shumaker, gave him ample opportunity to develop. Years later, MacNelly would honor his mentor by bestowing Shumaker's nickname, Shoe, on the title character of his comic strip.

MacNelly's experience at the Weekly led to a job with The Richmond News Leader, a daily newspaper. His editor there, "a classic conservative" named Ross Mackenzie, awakened MacNelly's dormant ideological instincts and gave him free rein to express them. (Mackenzie remains in Richmond, overseeing the editorials on the city's surviving newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)

MacNelly's work quickly attracted the attention of a syndicate and newspaper editors around the country. In April 1972, at the age of 24, he became the second-youngest cartoonist (after Mauldin) to win the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning. It was an accolade that "still baffles the hell out of me," he says. "I look back at the work I was doing then and I feel like having a large bonfire in the backyard. Back then I was always worrying about being too much like Mauldin. Or too much like Pat Oliphant [the Australian-born political cartoonist]. I kept telling myself I've got to develop my own style. Then, after a while, I quit paying attention to that sort of thing."

One of the byproducts of MacNelly's success was that soon he became one of the country's most widely imitated editorial cartoonists. A substantive criticism that has been leveled at these "MacNelly clones" (and sometimes at MacNelly himself) is that their drawings don't make a genuine political statement but just are jokes at the expense of public figures. Cartoon historian Richard Samuel West believes MacNelly has been criticized unjustly for the failure of his followers to emulate all that he has to offer--humor and substance. "I think a lot of people have lodged complaints against this younger school of cartoonists for not having a lot to say, but MacNelly has always had an agenda," says West. "And it was never difficult, looking at his cartoons, to discern an opinion behind the joke."

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