TODAY, I envy Skyler.
I count myself fortunate to have met many of the cartooning greats whose newspaper work I grew up on, including Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau, Mell Lazarus, Lynn Johnston and Mike Peters. But there was one giant I missed — one influential titan of political and strip cartooning that many of us still miss. I never met Jeff MacNelly.
Today, Skyler gets to go back in time, to 1977, to meet his maker.
MacNelly created Skyler and the rest of the flock that populates the comic “Shoe” 35 years ago this month (Sept. 13, to be exact). To celebrate the occasion, “Shoe” unveils a weeklong retrospective starting Sunday, as young Skyler seeks the perfect souvenir from 1977. This time-tripping will skip, Forrest Gump-like, along some cultural touchstones, including the birthplace of the Apple computer on one coast, and a famed World Series for the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson on the other shore.
The creative forces behind this story, as distributor King Features notes, are the folks who were handpicked by MacNelly to carry on “Shoe” prior to his death in 2000: widow Susie MacNelly, who inspired the “Shoe” character Roz; longtime assistant Chris Cassatt, who helped shepherd Jeff into the era of digital comics; and political cartoonist Gary Brookins, who learned at Jeff’s elbow at the Richmond News-Leader.
Just to stare at and study a “Shoe” comic, or a MacNelly political commentary, is to gain a deep education. There was a reason that Jeff won three Pulitzers for editorial cartooning, and that “Shoe” passed the 500-newspaper mark in syndication. MacNelly blended wry, just-right timing with deft draftsmanship that is still, all these years later, the envy of the industry. As an aspiring cartoonist, I spent hours studying his exquisite inkwork, trying to figure out how he laid down a line with such supple painted grace.
So how does it feel to carry on that legendary legacy?
“I have every confidence that when I run up against [a creative challenge], he’s sitting up on my shoulder …,” Cassatt tells Comic Riffs. “I could swear that we’re channeling him.”
“Shoe’s” creative team certainly was schooled deeply in Jeff’s approach to his work. “We called the writing ‘MacNelly Smarta--,’” says Cassatt, noting that he got his Ph.D. at MacNelly U. “…The trick is to go through ourselves — through our characters — rather than pick on other people. … That’s something he drummed into me for so long.”
“He was never mean-spirited,” Susie MacNelly tells Comic Riffs of her husband, whom she married shortly after meeting in 1989. “You can be clever and witty by going through the back door. … We get away with a lot of stuff by making fun of ourselves.”
That approach recently served the current “Shoe” brain trust well when it agreed to create a handful of “Shoe” strips expressly for the website of the USA Network limited series “Political Animals,” which starred Sigourney Weaver as a White House candidate whose resume had a distinct resemblance to Hillary Clinton’s. By using humor that skewered fictional characters who have echoes of real people, the “Shoe” cartoonists reminded that political satire can be sporting more than blood-sport. (The custom “Shoe” strips appeared on a website designed to look like the TV show’s fictional newspaper, the Washington Globe – whose masthead conspicuously resembles that [a-hem] of The Washington Post.)
One of “Shoe’s” most distinctive characters has long been Sen. Batson D. Belfry, the “Beltway blowhard” who bears a striking physical resemblance to former House speaker Tip O’Neill. For their Washington Globe strips, the “Shoe” cartoonists got to put some of that self-inflating rhetoric into the beak of “Political Animals” President Paul Garcetti.
“We have more freedom making up what Belfry says,” Cassatt says of satirizing politics through these two characters. “But he’s not in the same league” politically as Garcetti.
As Team MacNelly celebrates this month’s anniversary, it’s worth noting that “Shoe’s” creative team came together gradually.
MacNelly met Susie 12 years into the life of “Shoe.”“We married later in life – I’m actually Roz,” says Susie MacNelly, who in the ‘70s worked at the now-shuttered Marigold’s at 18th and H in Northwest Washington. (“I was dangerous behind the bar,” she says.)
When she met Jeff, he had a heavy workload. “He was doing three editorial cartoons a week for the [Chicago] Tribune, he was doing ‘Shoe,’ and was doing Dave Barry cartoons and he was cranking out ‘Pluggers,’” Susie tells Comic Riffs. “He was getting grumpy.”
“He had a love/hate relationship with ‘Shoe,’” says Cassatt, noting that MacNelly strove for his strip to hit the creative heights of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” of which he was a big fan.
To help lighten MacNelly’s load, Susie took on some of the technical duties, including scanning his cartoons and sending the digital files. In the early ‘90s, Jeff and Susie decided to seek computer help. Cassatt, an early adapter to digital comics and then editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times, came recommended by mutual friend Mike Peters. Despite the first meeting being over sushi – which Jeff called “fish bait” – Cassatt and MacNelly hit it off.
“He was just a charming guy and so hilarious,” Cassatt said of MacNelly. “I was so lucky. … Working together with him was better than [just] being friends with him. I talked to him every day for almost 10 years — and we never had a cross word.”
MacNelly’s adaption to working digitally was gradual. Initially, Cassatt did such things as creating typefaces based on MacNelly’s lettering, and doing rough layouts with MacNelly’s hand-drawn panels and balloons. “He didn’t really switch to the digital tablet until about 1998,” Cassatt says.
When MacNelly died two years later, some skeptics didn’t think “Shoe” would continue. “Nobody thought we could carry on,” says Susie, emphasizing that most people didn’t realize how closely Team MacNelly had worked together for years. “Everybody thought we were some two-bit hacks.”
Today, of course, “Shoe” is still going strong, as the feathered journalists at the Treetops Tattler Tribune — including titular editor P. Martin Shoemaker and columnist Perfesser Cosmo Fishhawk — weather both the real and fictional storms of journalism and newspaper comics in 2012. And on the strip’s 35th anniversary, the memories of the man who created it remain strong and poignant and warm.
“He was this nice, modest guy,” Susie says of Jeff, “who just happened to be a genius.”