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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 5)

"I thought, 'God, wouldn't it be fun to create this little world and have this constant play going on.'" He readily admits the initial stylistic similarities between "Pogo" and "Shoe," with both featuring gnarled trees, drooping foliage and slick brushwork, but he notes that "Shoe" has "never been a political thing" in the way that Kelly's creation was. "Shoe" occasionally may contain a wisp of social commentary, but it essentially is a humorous chronicle--and a tremendously time-consuming one, given its insatiable, seven-days-a-week format.

"Yeah, it's hellacious. I did it because I just wanted to see if it would work, and I kinda snuck into it. And then I started having fun with it. The problem with a comic strip is that the major part of the creativity comes in creating the characters and rounding them out. After they're rounded out, it's a writing thing, not a drawing project anymore. Yeah, it's fun to do it in front of a football game, but it's not as challenging as a political cartoon from the artistic standpoint."

Adding the new demands of "Shoe" to those of his editorial cartooning evidently did not unduly tax MacNelly's creativity. In 1977 he won his second Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, as well as the prestigious George Polk Award, which recognizes journalistic integrity and efforts to protect the public. In 1979 and 1980, he earned the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award. Ironically, the never-ending deadlines proved to be a crucial safety valve for him during a tumultuous two-year period in which he divorced, remarried, divorced again, retired from editorial cartooning--and then returned to it.

In 1981, MacNelly ended his marriage to Rita Daniels, the mother of his sons Jeffrey (Jake) and Daniel. His second marriage, to Boo Goldstein, his former secretary at The Richmond News Leader, also ended in divorce. In 1985, he married Scotty Perry, a Chicago advertising executive, who became the mother of his third son, Matt, the following year. After he and Perry were divorced, MacNelly moved to his Virginia mountaintop and vowed never to marry again. Then he met Susie Spekin, a former Washington, D.C., caterer, in late 1989. They were married in 1990.

Throughout all the personal traumas of the 1970s and 1980s, MacNelly continued to do his work, never missing a deadline.

"A lot of times it was an escape. I really needed it. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have cartooning. You know, I'd have people yelling and screaming at me, and I'd go up to my little room and do my cartoons. I could just absolutely put it all behind me, put it away."

MacNelly's editorial cartoons briefly became a casualty of something other than his personal turmoil: professional burnout. He had enjoyed success lampooning his then-favorite target, Jimmy Carter, and confidently expected to find others to lambaste even after Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. The reality proved otherwise. The public may not have been losing interest in MacNelly's editorial cartoons--but he was.

So he quit editorial cartooning in June 1981, announcing that he planned instead to concentrate on "Shoe." His "retirement" lasted eight months. By March 1982, he was back in the editorial cartooning harness for the Chicago Tribune, returning to something he found he really had missed. The profession had missed him, too. In 1985 he received his third Pulitzer for political cartooning--and other accolades for his work have continued rolling in. In a survey by the Washington Journalism Review, he was judged "the best in the business" among political cartoonists in 1987, 1989 and 1993; and in 1991 he won the award for editorial cartooning bestowed by the national journalism fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi.

MacNelly's draftsmanship is bright, clean, forceful and almost always comical. He has the natural comedian's sense of absurdity, posture, expression and punch line. He believes caricature is the most important artistic element in his work. His likenesses of major political figures are not meant to be anatomically correct, but "impressions" of the individuals that try to make a stronger statement about the person's character than facial features convey. Caricature offers MacNelly the single most important opportunity he has for artistic creativity.

"I really get uncomfortable if I draw something that looks like I've taken a photograph of the president and kind of made the nose bigger. Sometimes I'm doing a whole scene and I want to do the president and I'm going to have to reduce him to the size of your thumbnail when I do the original. So you really have to have a certain shorthand and looseness."

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