Appreciating Jeff MacNelly

From the inkwell to the Internet, a giant

June 13, 2000|By Neil A. Grauer

AN EDITORIAL cartooning colleague of Jeff MacNelly's once called him "the Michael Jordan of the profession" - and that wasn't because he was 6-feet, 5-inches tall.

Mr. MacNelly, who died of cancer last week at 52, towered above his contemporaries because he excelled at every aspect of political cartooning: the draftsmanship, the caricaturing, and - most important - the ideas.

His bright, clean, forceful and almost always comical drawings - as well as his phenomenal financial success - inspired a generation of young artists to become editorial cartoonists. Yet while many of them - dubbed "MacNelly clones" - could emulate his drawing style and occasionally his wit, they were criticized for failing to make genuine political points. They were accused - as sometimes was Mr. MacNelly himself - of just cracking jokes.

In fact, Mr. MacNelly was much more than a graphic comedian, even in his popular comic strip "Shoe." The beliefs behind his drawings - and they always had a philosophical underpinning - are what made him powerful. He insisted that he wasn't much on "dogma," but he actually was a profound thinker. Both privately and in interviews for publication over the past 20 years, he offered observations about politics, his profession and life that were remarkably insightful, even prescient.

In 1985, long before the Internet and four years before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Mr. MacNelly foresaw the potential impact that the then-emerging communications technologies would have on totalitarianism.

"I think the people, given the free flow of information, given the dissemination of the truth - which is going to happen in places like behind the Iron Curtain - eventually will find ways to rid themselves of the bad guys," he said over lunch in Chicago.

"You can't keep the facts from people forever, you can't keep the truth out, and especially now - when you can ... open up a briefcase and pull out an antenna that picks up a satellite. What the hell, if you can do that, the game is over for the totalitarian governments to try to control the minds of the people."

Reminded of that conversation two years ago, over another lunch in Virginia, Mr. MacNelly was pleasantly surprised at the validity of his own prediction. He then ventured another: "It will take a lot longer in China, but eventually, yeah, it'll happen there."

Impressed as Mr. MacNelly was with the expanding power of new technologies, he remained convinced that newspapers would survive - particularly for cartoonists.

Although he used computers to facilitate creation and distribution of his political cartoons and comic strip (and had his own website -www.macnelly.com), Mr. MacNelly was an adamant advocate of the printed page. He scorned efforts to transfer political cartoons to television and was skeptical of the Internet as a home for graphic humor.

Political cartoons on television were "a waste of time," he said. "Newspapers can reproduce two things that television can't: they can reproduce great writing and they can reproduce artwork. Cartoons are a two-dimensional thing. They're something that you can cut out and look at and show to people; and if it moves, I think it screws up the whole idea of cartoons. It's like a painting - I'm not being crazy about it- but if the Mona Lisa's eyes blink, does that make it better? No."

Mr. MacNelly also believed that the public would not readily switch to the Internet to see political cartoons or comic strips. "I might be just totally anachronistic," he said, "but I still think there's no substitute for actually just turning the page and seeing it."

Much was made of Mr. MacNelly's success as a "conservative" political cartoonist in a profession routinely considered "liberal." Although he eagerly acknowledged his conservative beliefs, he shied from characterizing everything as either "liberal" or "conservative," considering such labels meaningless. He relished attacking "the establishment," whether it was liberal or conservative, and he balked at the right wing's penchant for intrusive moralizing.

"The disconnect ... with me and a lot of conservatives ... [is] when they say, `Gotta get rid of government, get government off of people's backs - but, by the way, what are you doing in your bedroom? That doesn't make sense to me."

Mr. MacNelly received as much - probably more - public reaction to "Shoe" than to his political cartoons. The comic strips that prompted the greatest response, he said, were the "philosophical" ones, in which Shoe or the Perfesser reflected on life's vagaries.

The strip of Jan. 3, 1997, probably summed up Mr. MacNelly's philosophy most succinctly. Sitting at his cluttered roll top desk, the Perfesser muses: "When I first started out in journalism I was going to be a one-man truth squad. But as time went on, my hair turned gray ... and so did the truth."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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