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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 6)

When MacNelly stopped working in newsrooms in the late 1980s, he was concerned that the longer lead time between the drawing of his editorial cartoons and their subsequent appearance several days later might diminish their effectiveness. And he had already been grousing about the artistically deadening demands of producing "Shoe" for daily publication, something he once did all on his own, without the assistants that some comic strip artists have. Thanks to today's computer technology, these are no longer problems.

Chris Cassatt, 52, a talented photographer and the editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times, is the computer whiz who now enables MacNelly to fire off his editorial cartoons to the Chicago Tribune the day he finishes them and also to enjoy drawing "Shoe" again.

"In the old days," MacNelly says, "I would write the strip, then I would letter the balloons and get the lettering and the writing all done, and then figure how the hell I was going to crowd stuff into the remaining inch-and-a-half-high area. I was doing everything very traditionally.

"So now what I do, I do the drawings much bigger than I used to--it's much freer and looser, it's a lot more fun to draw--and I send Chris the dialogue. He types it out with my font-- in my handwriting--he arranges everything, then I just send him the artwork and he just fits it in and crops it, hacks around it, moves it around.

"This has really made it a joy to do the strip again. After 15 years or so, I was worried that it was losing the artwork side of it. I was just doing talking heads, and I didn't want to do that. Now since I'm looking at a bigger space, got a little more leeway, I can experiment around a little more than I used to."

MacNelly also says that he now has writing help on "Shoe"--a gentleman named Chuck Smith of Woodbridge, Virginia, a personnel manager for the Environmental Protection Agency who has earned a modicum of notoriety in Washington by consistently participating in a weekly humor contest called the "Style Invitational" in the Sunday Washington Post. "He sends me every week a bunch of stuff and I basically try to rearrange [it]," MacNelly says. "A lot of times it's some idea that he's had that kicks off an idea in my brain."

MacNelly says he gets comments--"always con"--from readers about Shoe's cigar smoking and other habits. "Every once in a while somebody yells at me: 'Your characters are in a bar! Your characters are smoking! This gives a terrible message to kids!' Well, you know, kids are smarter than you think."

When he receives compliments on "Shoe," they usually are prompted by what MacNelly calls "the philosophical" episodes. People like "the life view of the Perfesser. It's a philosophy of life that rings true. People like those."

Like the Perfesser, MacNelly is not a model of neatness: decades' worth of his cartoons are scattered in his attic, all uncatalogued by date or subject; and his studio is a jumble of paper, art supplies, paintings, wood scraps and the model boats he makes out of them. He says that "over the years, I've kind of turned into the Perfesser."

Indeed, much of what is in "Shoe" is "just stuff that happens to me," MacNelly says. "It's just observations. It really doesn't change much. It's not going anywhere, clearly, 'cause if it was headed somewhere, it probably would have gotten there by now."

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