Blunt instruments

Beyond measured words: Remembering Jeff MacNelly

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

If youth is wasted on the young, often so is good humor. For cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, it must have been a wasted hour when he spoke to my junior-high assembly some 25 years ago. We were a quiet bunch in the dimmed light of the auditorium, watching him doodle away via overhead projector and wondering what was for lunch. Mr. MacNelly was an oddball cartoon of a man himself, 6-foot-4 with a blast of dark hair and Ward Cleaver glasses. He was not yet out of his 20s, but the glasses and a booming stage voice convinced us he was ancient.

He persisted. The cartoonist put up photos of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and John Mitchell, challenging us to choose the funniest feature in each then-famous face. Soon we were seeing things his way: Nixon-nose, shoulders; Agnew-ears; Mitchell-lips and chin. He moved in, concentrating, drawing those features alone in unhesitating strokes with keen exaggeration. He finished out each face, surprising us with the quick sureness of his craft, talking as he worked, weaving anecdotes with each pen stroke, willing the whole auditorium into laughter, finally. Hmm, he paused over one, I might use that this week. We felt like we were in on something. As Watergate wore endlessly on, and we became unavoidably savvy to political scandal, these would prove to be enduring moments when the wit and style of a funny man with a lightning pen smoothed over the jagged edges of national shame.

Mr. MacNelly was a sensation in Richmond, Va., where he came as a college dropout to draw political cartoons for the city's afternoon paper in 1970. By age 24 he had collected his first Pulitzer Prize, and the paper sent him on a good-will tour that included my school. He would collect two more Pulitzers in a 30-year career that continued right until his death from cancer June 8. He was 52, and the entire universe of fellow cartoonists and fans mourned what to human sensibilities seemed like an early death.

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"He was the best there was," Johnny Hart told WORLD. "You could take one square inch of any drawing of Jeff MacNelly, blow it up really big, and it would be better than any Picasso."

For most of his colleagues, even those who had regular contact with Mr. MacNelly, his death came as a shock. Treatment of lymphoma had plateaued and he was awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Mr. Hart, creator of B.C. and Wizard of Id, hoped to lure him to the upcoming BC Open, an annual golfing benefit in Mr. Hart's hometown of Binghamton, N.Y. So he drew three pages of cartoons for Mr. MacNelly. One showed the cartoonist, in real life bereft of his trademark shock of hair, with frizzy red hair, while Mr. MacNelly's wife Susan, the real-life redhead, is depicted with a bald head and a baseball cap. "When was the last time you media wonks got anything right?" reads the caption.

It was a fitting rejoinder to a career out of step with the liberal media establishment. Mr. MacNelly's work was delineated as much by the cartoonist's political conservatism as his craftsmanship. He honed it daily for 12 years at the Richmond papers, then joined the Chicago Tribune and national syndication. Out of his pen also poured two daily strips, Shoe and Pluggers. And he honed them all in sickness and health. This spring he depicted Janet Reno in full military regalia, ready for the Elián Gonzalez threat. Earlier, he drew Hillary Clinton on a streetcorner in Manhattan, map in hand, with political gangstas-including a leather-jacketed Rudy Giuliani-lurking behind her: "Yes, Hillary, run," they sneer.

"I'm politically incorrect," Mr. MacNelly was known to boast. "That's what I do for a living."

"Anyone right of center takes some grief, but he was good at having fun with everybody," said Mr. Hart. "I am a go-for-the-throat guy; he was clever enough to appear to be kind when he was strangling somebody."

In the auditorium, Mr. MacNelly ended on a self-deprecating note. He asked us to guess his final character, which began with hopelessly sagging jowls and ended with gigantic, owlish glasses: the artist himself. It was a self-portrait that was to become a trademark. But what do adolescents know? I tossed out a stray sketch he offered students on the way out the door, saving instead a pica ruler given courtesy of the paper. It rests above my desk as a testament to my folly and his fun: Measuring words is fine, but sometimes a good blunt instrument is irreplaceable.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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