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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)

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."

MacNelly firmly believes that humor can be an important, powerful weapon--provided it is aimed with precision.

"There has to be a point behind a cartoon. You want to say something, you want to point something out, and sometimes making fun of somebody is the point of the cartoon. A lot of times a gag is valid. You don't have to draw people with gunshot wounds in their heads or massacres in order to get a serious point across."

Asked to further define his political philosophy, MacNelly offers a broad outline: "Well, first of all, I am anticommunist--always have been, always will be. The anti-big government shtick is another thing I've always been in favor of; cutting the budget, basically supply-side economics, I've always bought into. But I'm more of a pragmatic conservative, if you really want to sit down and analyze it. I realize that certain things can't be done in the context of twentieth-century America."

Yet MacNelly insists that he can't be confined in an ideological box. "I'm not much on dogma. On the rare occasions when I do get really lathered up, I always turn out a really stupid cartoon."

So where--and how--does MacNelly get his ideas for political cartoons?

"I don't know," he says candidly. "I am sort of immersed all the time in so much news and stuff that I've got several things on my mind most of the time. I just sort of decide what I feel strongly about or what I'm having the most fun with and go with that. And like anything else, some days are better than others.

"I'm not doing things on every airline crash or something. It's more the big issues; what's on everybody's mind; what my neighbors talk about. They're not news junkies, but boy, if a story trickles up to the Settles grocery and I hear people talking about it, I know people really care about this issue.

"I think that when a cartoon really rings true is when it makes common sense. That's when people really connect with it. People don't appreciate hatchet jobs."

Having captured political cartooning's greatest prize after just two years at the drawing board, MacNelly subsequently began a second career as a comic strip artist. He launched "Shoe" in September 1977. It immediately became immensely popular, too.

MacNelly had wanted to do a comic strip since his youthful infatuation with Walt Kelly's legendary "Pogo."

"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."

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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