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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 7)

For three years, from 1993 to 1996, MacNelly produced yet another comics-page creation, the single-box "Pluggers," which features anthropomorphic animals illustrating the theme that people just endure somehow, no matter the curves that life throws at them. ("Pluggers" now is drawn by Gary Brookins, the political cartoonist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.) The title drawing for a collection of MacNelly's "Pluggers" comics, called "Calm in the Face of Disaster," shows two bears as billboard painters, just discovering that they have produced a monumental-sized typographical error: "Clam in the Face of Disaster."

It was a genuine disaster, the death of his son Jake on October 12, 1996, that ended MacNelly's stint with "Pluggers," which became just too much to handle in the wake of the tragedy. An immensely personable and talented 24-year-old who enjoyed writing poetry, Jake MacNelly had begun making a mark for himself as the editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times when he went on a climbing expedition at Diehard Rock, some nine miles east of the Colorado resort town, and fell about 75 feet. He died later at Aspen Valley Hospital of massive injuries.

"It's like somebody comes along and basically chops off your arm," MacNelly says quietly. "You're going to recover from that part of it, but the rest of your life, you're going to have to do things a little differently. Very weird.

"I was divorced, I guess, when he was like 10, and we were always pretty close, but it was one of those divorced father things that's just stupid and awful--basically like a rich uncle who comes in and buys him a pizza every once in a while and takes him on a trip. But he and I got to be very close the last year and a half. And he was actually doing political cartoons. We talked every day--twice a day, sometimes. He'd call up and it would always be something funny and we'd have these great discussions."

The death of his son affected MacNelly's creative output in another way: the sort of paintings he produced changed completely.

"I've always enjoyed painting, but I'd always ended up doing sort of serious, kind of Andrew Wyeth things, 'cause that's what I love. People hate 'em. They look at 'em and say, 'So what? You're supposed to be a cartoonist. What the hell's this?' So I did them basically for me.

"But after Jake died, I went to Key West that winter and I just said: You know, life's too short to fart around trying to be a fine artist. I'm just going to have some fun, get some therapy out of this. So I started just doing basically the cartoon paintings, some wacko ideas I had, and they just started selling--which was a shock."

A good friend of MacNelly's, Nance Frank, owns The Gallery on Green in Key West. She expressed an interest in trying to sell his acrylics and oil paintings--and they instantly were snapped up by eager buyers. Admirers also have expressed interest in prints of his paintings, as well as in his original political cartoons and non-computer-composed "Shoe" strips.

MacNelly's paintings generally illustrate outrageous puns or bizarre comic visions: "Alexander Graham Bell's First Try" shows Bell looking at an Edison light bulb and saying, "Hello?"; "Born to Graze Hell" is a portrait of a bull-turned-Hell's Angels biker.

Although MacNelly has used computers to facilitate production and distribution of his political cartoons and comic strip--and has a Web site (www.macnelly.com)--he remains an adamant advocate of the printed page and scornful of past attempts by others to put political cartoons on television.


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