Appreciating Jeff MacNelly

An inspiration, a mix of both Shaq and Yoda

June 13, 2000|By Kevin Kallaugher

WHEN I heard that the great editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly died last week, I thought back to May 1985, the first time we came in contact. Jeff and I, within days of each other, each had drawn the very same cartoon with the same punch line.

I was living in London working as an editorial cartoonist for the Sunday Observer. Jeff was 4,000 miles away at the Chicago Tribune.

We had both drawn cartoon commentaries about then-President Ronald Reagan's attempts to isolate Nicaragua. We both used two panels, with Mr. Reagan in the first saying, "I aim to bring Nicaragua to its knees." The second panel showed a Nicaraguan on his knees kissing Fidel Castro's hands.

It is uncommon, but not rare, for two or more cartoonists to draw similar takes on a given subject. Still, when I saw Jeff's cartoon reproduced in the International Herald Tribune out of Paris a few days after I had drawn mine, I was pleasantly surprised.

I wrote to Jeff, whom I had yet to meet, to point out the coincidence. He responded graciously in writing and noted that our two cartoons proved that "great minds think alike."

This was a watershed moment in my young career. I had made it. I was a true professional cartoonist. I could now think like Jeff MacNelly.

For 30 years, Jeff MacNelly cartoons have been the instructional textbooks for the profession. As Jeff's cartoons appeared regularly in hundreds of newspapers and periodicals, young aspiring cartoonists around the globe learned the craft by dissecting, analyzing and emulating his work.

As a result, Jeff has had a massive influence on a whole generation of cartoonists. MacNelly brushstrokes, lettering, composition and humor are now incorporated into the work of scores of cartoonists around the world - including this one in Baltimore.

If I was to draw a cartoon character today that embodied the presence of Jeff MacNelly, I'd make him a cross between Shaquille O'Neil and Jedi Master Yoda.

Since Jeff burst onto the scene in 1970, he has been the most dominating figure in cartooning worldwide. Like Shaq, the 7-foot, 1-inch basketball star of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jeff was a giant talent in his profession. He was a virtuoso in all aspects of the cartoon arts. He was equally deft at caricature, composition and calligraphy. He was a master of rendering, often imbuing his drawings with dazzling displays of intricate pen and brush work. Further, his drawings were just plain fun to look at.

But Jeff was not just a master of the craft. He was, like Yoda, a guide, an instructor, an inspiration.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the editorial cartoon profession is that there is no conventional academic training available to learn the trade. There are no correspondence courses, no university degrees in the subject. Instead each practitioner has had to learn the nuts and bolts by observing other cartoonists.

Jeff inspired many of us in the profession. We will miss him dearly. But he will be with us in every working day. That is because in every drawing we create you can find a little piece of him.

The great Jeff MacNelly will live in the hearts and the pens of cartoonists for decades to come.

Kevin Kallaugher is an editorial cartoonist for The Sun.

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