My thoughts have been on Jeff MacNelly lately, the late great editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune (their last?) and creator of the comic strip Shoe. Since Jeff's death in 2000 the landscape of editorial cartooning has seemed especially flat and without character. I learned at MacNelly's knee, as it were, pouring over his every cartoon during my years in college as I began to get interested in cartooning. So profound was his influence on my work that it took me years to work myself away from his apron strings.
At the request of the Richmond Times Dispatch I wrote the following review/remembrance upon the publication of the latest Shoe book collection.
27 Years of Jeff MacNelly’s Shoe: World Ends at Ten, Details at Eleven
Reviewed by Jim Borgman
Editorial cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer and co-creator of Zits
In the 1970s, the eyes of editorial cartoonists were on Richmond. Specifically, they were on the drawing board of Jeff MacNelly, who was flying loop-de-loops around the artform as we had known it.
From my college cartooning perch in central Ohio I watched, mesmerized. The world’s issues, so drab and heavy on the front page of my newspaper, unfolded as a hare-brained fable in Macnellyworld. In the charming world of his cartoons it was all so goofy and clear. What was I struggling with?
We cartoonists studied his every effortless brushline. “Aped” might be the better word. I once traced one of his drawings through onionskin paper just to see how he could get so much into the same size panel that I crammed with so little.
Those drawings! A rural one-pump gas station as Jimmy Carter’s White House. The NYC mayor’s basement counterfeiting operation. Idi Amin in a United Nations of idiots. How was he doing this?
And just when I became convinced that this exhausted man must be working through the night to create each wacky melodrama, he launched a daily comic strip in his spare time.
Shoe debuted in 1977 and I wanted to break my knuckles.
A presidential administration since Jeff MacNelly died way too young at 52, a loving hybrid of a tribute book/comic strip anthology is out, with the funky MacNellyesque title 27 Years of Shoe: World Ends at Ten, Details at Eleven. Until someone publishes a long- overdue The Art Of Jeff MacNelly coffeetable book, this will have to satisfy.
Those lush big Virginia trees, it turns out, held wise-cracking birds lazily chomping cigars at hopelessly cluttered desks. It isn’t so much the individual characters we remember as the idyllic world away from worries. Sneaking off to Cubs games. Puttering around old beaters on blocks. Chowing down at the local greasy spoon. Prowling the junkyard for parts.
The world of those birds was much like life around the Blue Ridge Mountain perch Jeff created for himself and his wife Susie and from which he drew cartoons for the Chicago Tribune and a thousand newspapers around the planet.
I bummed an invitation to visit once in the hopes of seeing the sweat behind the scenes. Jeff showed me his studio, (a mirror of the Perfesser’s desk.) That day he had a couple of editorial cartoons to knock out before lunch, a few daily strips to ink, a Dave Barry column to illustrate, some Pluggers panels to bring in for a landing, and he was wending his way through the drawings for a book on fly fishing.
Then he said, “Let me show you the not-for-profit studio,” and loped over to another building on his hilltop. This one was full of oil paintings in progress, clay sculptures of cowboys in pickup trucks, watercolor landscapes, wire whirligigs. Outside was a classic Thunderbird he was restoring, a tractor he was fixing. The man was wired different than you and me.
Since Jeff’s death Shoe has been carried on in print and spirit by a little tribe of creators including Chris Cassatt, Gary Brookins, a couple of writers somewhere, and Susie MacNelly. I’ve asked a bunch of times how they do it and I still don’t quite get it. Some cutting and pasting, a bit of new drawing, voting on gags, a handwriting font in Jeff’s style, some duct tape and coat hangers. It’s all still wonderfully loopy and familiar, like wearing a pair of old, well, shoes.
On page 143 it says, “This was the last Sunday Jeff drew.” The drawing is a stroll through Irv’s junkyard and ends with an impossible panel of spare tires, carburetors and car doors separated by piles of computer monitors. For the rest of us, drawing that scene would be a crowning achievement at the height of our powers. Jeff drew it virtually on his deathbed.
The man was wired different.