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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 1)

"I like the maduros usually down there. I get these kind of nice, run-of-the-mill cigars, and they're great. To me, they match up with the Cubans. I don't think, when I smoke a Cuban cigar, that I'm having some 80-year-old brandy or something. I think the Dominican cigars are every bit as good as the Cubans."

Although MacNelly prefers Ashton Churchills, he has difficulty finding them near his Virginia home; and down in Florida he says he is "always roaming around" among different cigar brands and types. "There are some Fuente cigars of various kinds that I like. It just depends. Every once in a while I switch off."

For MacNelly, smoking cigars combines pleasure with practicality. "Susie calls them my 'think sticks,' because usually friends always know that I'm at home and working because the return to the air conditioning system is right over my desk, so when I fire up a cigar, the rest of the house gets the cigar smell.

"To me, it's just relaxing. And if I really have a heavy day--like on Sunday, when I work pretty much straight through--I'll probably smoke three cigars a day. Half of it is to keep me awake through the endless comic strip drawings. It's not a social thing with me, you know. I like to say it's 'crowd control.' Fire up a cigar and everyone leaves. It's kind of nice."

Up at 6:30 each morning, MacNelly leaves the second-floor bedroom of what he calls his "beach-house-style" residence, which he built in 1989, and commutes "16 steps" to his studio. He strolls past dramatically artistic photographs of world leaders (Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, Anwar Sadat), taken over the years by his good friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly. He works in a cluttered but bright and airy room, with paintings stacked against walls that are covered with framed cartoons by present-day colleagues and cartooning luminaries of the past.

MacNelly scours newspapers and magazines, listens to what he calls "the hideous National Public Radio" for the first two hours of the day--and "if something's really happening, that awful MSNBC, where you have to listen to the same ads over and over again every three minutes." He then decides what subject to address in his political cartoons.

He produces one editorial cartoon on Tuesdays for Wednesday's newspapers; one on Thursdays for Friday's papers, and one on Fridays for Sunday's papers. He does the drawings on 8-inch-by-12-inch slick stock paper with a combination of brushes, ink-brush pens and ballpoints. He works swiftly, preferring to finish a drawing within two hours, provided the composition he has devised is not too complex. "If you spend any more time on it, you get too nitpicky. It's not a fresh drawing," he says.

Once the ink is dry, MacNelly dispatches the cartoon by computer to an Aspen, Colorado-based aide, Chris Cassatt, who forwards it to the Tribune, which distributes it to MacNelly's syndicate clients.

On Sundays, MacNelly spends most of the day working on at least a week's worth of "Shoe" drawings, including the colored Sunday page. On Mondays, he produces the illustrations for his buddy Dave Barry's column. On other days he turns out paintings or sculptures, works on his model boats, or tends to the 10 horses he and his wife keep on their 110-acre farm (along with three dogs and seven cats), set atop a 1,200-foot peak with spectacular views of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

It is an intense regimen that MacNelly has maintained for more than two decades--through an occasionally turbulent private life that has included four marriages and the tragedy of losing a 24-year-old son in a rock climbing accident in 1996.

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