Friday, October 09, 2009


Jeff MacNelly never went to art school or graduated from college, but his brain was the prototype for 3D supercomputer graphics software-- he had the uncanny ability to visualize an object and rotate it in his head on all three axes, then scale, translate and project it-- all before breakfast.

MacNelly rarely drew one of his political cartoons straight on-- instead, he effortlessly played with the vantage point, ratcheting it up or down a few degrees to make the picture more dynamic:

Note how the low vantage point completely transforms what would otherwise be a fairly conventional scene.

MacNelly punctuates the receding plane of the bar with well placed figures.

Here, he convincingly intersects the receding plane of the fence with the right angle of the jet and the acute angle of that sagging truck.

His angles allowed him to go wild when foreshortening the ground-- a side benefit he obviously enjoyed...

MacNelly won his first pulitzer prize by the time he was 25. He told friends he hoped that by hanging his pulitzer high enough on the wall, he might fool people into thinking it was a college degree. He won two more pulitzers by the age of 38.

A highly prolific artist, MacNelly used to claim that on days when he felt he had done a bad job with his cartoon, he would sign his name to look like "Oliphant."

MacNelly was a natural; he intuitively understood many of the things he might have learned in art school; for example the fact that the part of the picture that attracts the most attention is the part that appears to be out of place (here, the small dark figure contrasted against the white half of this picture.)

MacNelly's gift for visualizing an image and rotating it on an axis was not limited to the drawing. One of the things that made him the preeminent editorial cartoonist was that he could rotate ideas as well, looking at subject matter from a variety of perspectives in order to come up with great concepts.


Blogger andreas schuster said...

thank you once again for posting.
Jeff MacNelly is new to me and i´m now exited to find out more.
off to google!

10/13/2009 6:43 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Andreas, you have probably seen a lot of editorial cartoonists whose work looks like MacNelly's-- but that's because he was so hugely influential in the 1970s and 80s that a whole generation of cartoonists gravitated toward his style.

The personal touches in that first cartoon--the row of ramshackle umbrellas lined up under a gray sky, the perspective on that leaning, sagging coffing-- tell you all you need to know about what a special, vivid imagination he had. Brilliant.

10/13/2009 9:49 AM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

He's a god!

The nearest we see today is Michael Ramirez, probably McNelly's equal except that his politics guarantee that he'll be a non-person in this blog. Still, Ramirez is a person, just as Jeff McNelly was. Here's a clear example of what can happen if a mind is not tainted by what's taught in most colleges. He's not at all derivative...a true original (ain't many of those heterodox artists around).

10/13/2009 10:54 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Rob, I agree that Ramirez is an excellent draftsman but if you are looking for proof that a right wing editorial cartoonist can be wildly popular, you don't have to look any further than MacNelly. Until MacNelly came along, I thought you had to be liberal to be a good editorial cartoonist (I would say the four legendary politcial cartoonists of the 20th century were Low, Searle, Oliphant and MacNelly-- of which only MacNelly was on the right).

10/13/2009 12:43 PM  
Blogger Diego Fernetti said...

Brilliant work, I knew about Mc Nelly's work only from a few examples and these confirm that his work is outstanding. Wonder if there's any book or website with more of his work, and how it evolved in a long period of time?
Speaking of cartooninsts, I always liked the "clumsy" lines of Gary Larson. He achieves humor both from the punchlines and from the seemingly amateurish drawing, when the expressions in the drawings usually are spot on what the text says, and add to the meaning of the phrases. That's an example of a "bad" artist but a great humorist

10/13/2009 12:55 PM  
Anonymous carnifex said...

i believe this is an appropriate time to say "whooooa nelly"

10/13/2009 3:42 PM  
Blogger Josh (musarter) said...

These are great and your comments are spot on. Interestingly enough his most powerful pieces, in my opinion, are the ones that employ strong graphic elements, ie. Hammer & Sickle and the Nixon Drain, juxtaposed against his drawing/line style.

Indeed, he understood Graphic Design and Illustration more than most College graduates. I find it strange that the "No College" stigma followed him around despite his Pulitzer worthy success.

10/13/2009 3:44 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>> I thought you had to be liberal to be a good editorial cartoonist<<<

Kinda like being amazed that someone on the right could have a sense of humor ;=)

10/13/2009 6:27 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Diego, it's surprisingly hard to find MacNelly's editorial cartoons (just as it is unfortunately impossible to escape collections of his comic strip, Shoe). That's one reason I wanted to post some of these images. And I too am crazy about Gary Larson.

Josh-- I agree.

Rob, I'm glad you see things my way. Perhaps it's because humor implies a sense of perspective and self-awareness. Perhaps it's because it is difficult to draw likenesses of political figures when one is sputtering and fuming under one's breath. But whatever the reason, we seem to have stumbled across a real sociological phenomenon here!

10/13/2009 7:08 PM  
Blogger Arun Kumar said...

Thank you for introducing me to another legend!

10/13/2009 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like everyone else who has commented, I love MacNelly's editorial work.

Although I don't necessarily dispute your choices, your "four legendary cartoonists," apart from the bow to Low, is a little heavy on the latter third of the century. I have to think Herblock and Mauldin would make most people's lists. I wonder if the ed. cartoonists have ever taken their own survey?

By the way, I was recently inspired to pick up a couple of Low's books, and have to say I found them a bit of a let down, with many of the cartoons not making much of an impression. As I knew him only by his most famous and oft-reproduced cartoons, maybe my expectations were unduly high.

--Bob Cosgrove

10/13/2009 10:16 PM  
Blogger Michael Swofford said...

Sadly, MacNelly died at 52 of lymphoma, but his art made him one of the immortals.

And as for indignation among conservatives that so few of them are considered great editorial cartoonists, MacNelly was great because his ideas sprang from his own observations, not rutted dogmas. By contrast, sour and cynical Ramirez merely regurgitates Fox News talking points like a propagandist.

10/13/2009 11:20 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Arun-- one of the best things about this blog is the trading of worthy artists by all sides.

Anonymous / Bob Cosgrove-- I agree that Mauldin rates highly because of his influence during World War II, but personally I don't think the quality of his images is at all comparable. The same with Herblock; some clever ideas, perhaps, but for me the quality of the artwork just isn't there. In my view, Low had many great years-- especially the "years of wrath"-- but his style at the very beginning and at the very end was not as impressive. I guess Searle goes back to the mid-century, but I don't know of many stand out examples from the first half of the 20th century. Winsor McCay did editorial cartoons, but they really weren't his strong point. Same with James Montgomery Flagg (although Rob would approve of Flagg's politics). I think I'd stick with my four.

10/14/2009 12:09 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Michael, it's true MacNelly died at a tragically young age. He is another one of those artists who worked from his death bed, drawing and drawing until the last minute. Irving Stone once wrote something to the effect of, "the only artists who belong on this planet are the ones whom God himself can't get rid of until they have said everything they need to say."

10/14/2009 11:16 AM  
Blogger theory_of_me said...

"the only artists who belong on this planet are the ones whom God himself can't get rid of until they have said everything they need to say."

Huh? Then how do you explain all the artists who have nothing to say yet keep saying it year after year after year? God sounds like an asshole.

10/14/2009 11:45 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Theory of me-- under Stone's theory, such artists would not "belong on this planet." I think it is a little harsh to conclude that God is an asshole simply because he lacks a willing deputy to go around and bump off such undeserving artists one by one. It sounds, however, like you may have some enthusiasm for the job. You could call it "performance art." Maybe even start a blog about the process...

10/14/2009 12:13 PM  
Blogger theory_of_me said...

Interesting idea. I'll do it as soon as God gives me the sign....

10/14/2009 1:26 PM  
Blogger kenmeyerjr said...

Oh yeah, what a master, what a great writer, what a humorist. He was something else (I am only saying 'was' because I don't know whether he is still around). It's always great to see that duoshade board. When I show it to students, they love it and are always dismayed to find out it is very very hard to find.

And Rob, I agree, from what I remember, Ramirez is also really good. Man...there used to be so many guys like this it my imagination there are very few nowadays? Or is it just that print is doing down the tubes?

10/14/2009 2:59 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

>>>And as for indignation among conservatives that so few of them are considered great editorial cartoonists, MacNelly was great because his ideas sprang from his own observations<<<

Ironic thing for a Schmid wannabe to say.

10/14/2009 3:30 PM  
Anonymous GOD said...

Theory of Me-- Get Started!

10/14/2009 4:00 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>> GOD said...
Theory of Me-- Get Started!<<<

Your Celestial Omnipotence, I see you readying that tabasco enema for the Gnat of the Indus for that remark that caused him to take one of his feet from his mouth - but on his behalf I wish to beg forbearance. He knows not what he does. In fact, now that I look at itit, that five gallon jug of tabasco may not be enough to capture his attention. Then again, he may require more drastic measures to decalcify his attitude.

BTW I really love what you used to do with raining flaming brimstone down on folks...that was ingenious. Let's do lunch!

10/14/2009 10:49 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

MacNelly was great, art and wit alike.

theory_of_me~The purgatory of repetitive mediocrity is their just deserts.

10/14/2009 11:12 PM  
Blogger theory_of_me said...

"GOD said...

Theory of Me-- Get Started!"

If you want the job done right get off your ass and do it yourself, asshole.

10/14/2009 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Ramirez spent his first several years as an editorial cartoonist aping/copying MacNelly's work. In fact, he also spent much of his first several years defending himself from such accusations. Look up his work from the late 80's and early 90's...he was pretty shameless about his MacNelly 'duplication'.

10/15/2009 2:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"best" political cartoonist?
i dig Paul Conrad...
his skewering of Nixon, Reagan, and Both Bush's' is ingenious...

10/15/2009 9:24 AM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Interestingly, I had a couple of political cartoonist come to study painting with me. They could not have more pleased with their progress, giving me praise and paintings.

Then they discovered that unlike every talented artist has to be, I was not part of the lefty orthodoxy to which anyone with an IQ above that of a planarian worm has to subscribe to (leftism is a sure sign of great intelligence and very diverse thinking).

The mood immediately changed with these open-minded and fair-minded people to attitudes resembling exactly what they claimed "The Other Side" is all about...cold, snide, distant, and absolutely against any individual opinions that did not square with their's.

These people represent the very best in clear, unbiased political thought according to their editors. Living in Massachusetts, I have grown used to this approach to fair and open thinking.

10/15/2009 1:15 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>>If you want the job done right get off your ass and do it yourself, asshole.<<<

Gnat, one might be drawn to say it is heinous how many times have you referred to your defining orifice in recent posts.

10/15/2009 1:20 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Paul Conrad operates at the same level of insight and humor that one expects in a high school newspaper. As obvious as a turd in a punchbowl. You are absolutely assured of his standpoint, level of humanity and level of skill from cartoon to cartoon. naturally, he won Pultizers and the respect of his peers. Keeping with the awarding of Nobels and Oscars, he might qualify for those too...wait, he has more than fourteen days experience so that rules him out. However, his intentions might be good enough to garner those prizes because talking the talk is far more important than walking the walk.

As I have said, it all ends at high school...the same music is on the car radio and the same favorite food is on the plate. And people wonder why they are bored. They haven't dusted off ideas since high school or cow college.

10/15/2009 1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...concerning Conrad, anyone who makes Nixons "enemies list" is a friend of mine,

10/15/2009 2:42 PM  
Blogger theory_of_me said...

Rob Howard:

"one might be drawn to say it is heinous how many times have you referred to your defining orifice in recent posts."

Yes, one might if one were an effeminate aesthete whose panties shrivel like a timid schoolgirl's at the mere sight of an uncouth word.

By the way, in case the "GOD" in this thread was not some vastly powerful deity that created the physical universe, I apologize for referring to you that way. I almost never talk like that to someone that actually exists. :)

10/15/2009 7:48 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Uh, back to that MacNelly dude:
Pretty damn cool, huh?

10/16/2009 1:09 AM  
Blogger LCG said...

McNelly had that rare combination of mind, eye and hand. Those were great to see, David.

10/16/2009 3:09 AM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10/16/2009 4:36 AM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>>McNelly had that rare combination of mind, eye and hand. <<<

But how is that possible without receiving the standard indoctrination in college?

Kinda makes you wonder what the world would be like if the old masters ever got their Old Master's Degrees. I mean, how could Rubens have done what he did as an artist, act as foreign ambassador for his country and speak five languages without even graduating high school? Just imagine how smart he'd be if he had received the standard college indoctrication. Okay, so he might not be able to construct coherent sentences in his native tongue but he would have been much more socially aware and shared common values, and beliefs, and ideas. The new and improved Rubens would have been a joy to behold multitasking while texting on his Blackberry.

10/16/2009 4:40 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Hi, Just to let you know I'm an avid follower of your blog. I myself am a 25 year old illustrator working in Paris and regularly come to your site for inspiration. I hope you don't mind that I presented a link to your site on my own blog, which is quite new, but which I hope to fill with all the artwork which motivate and encourage me.

10/16/2009 5:41 AM  
Anonymous Jocko MacNelly said...

Hi from Jeff's kid brother, and thanks for this wonderful posting! Someone back there somewhere (before the theological discussion) was asking about his (Jeff's not God's!) evolution; I can tell you that, as a little brother who was trying to be as cool as him, I watched him make a lot of his youthful drawings, and one thing was always true. It seemed like he started at one corner, let's say the northwest, and just drew - no mistakes, no evident preplanning, no Sturm und Drang, no change in his demeanor at all - and landed up at the southwest with a completed picture, usually hilarious. I've always felt (being a musician) that I had a bit of insight into how Mozart must've worked!

As far as his being "conservative" goes, that word carries a different meaning today than when he came up. Oh Lord, don't get me started.... By the end of his life, I think he'd be thought of as "center right." He'd have no use, for example, for this so-called "culture war." He used to say "I'm not a racist, I'm an asshole-ist."

He was a dead-on mimic, by the way, and it seems he came out of the womb knowing how to rebuild an outboard motor. I suspect that when he drew, say, a helicopter, he knew the precise real-life function of every detail he put in there.

oh really thanks again, I miss my big brother

10/16/2009 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Kgreene said...

Miss this guy. Went WAY before his time. Just a masterful cartoonist. I love Jim Morin and Michael Ramirez (illustration-wise.... Ramirez is way too right wing for me) but MacNelly was the king in my opinion. Is there a book solely dedicated to his political cartoons? There must be but all I ever see are Shoe books... Thanks for posting these great pieces!

10/16/2009 11:37 AM  
Blogger kenmeyerjr said...

Jocko, good to hear from someone truly in the know, instead of just a lot of opinions (mine being one). Amazing to hear of the lack of pre-planning in his work, ending up as good as it did.

Conrad may have been somewhat obvious, but I have a feeling that came partially with the times.

10/16/2009 2:45 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Jocko, I'm glad you found us and thanks for writing in with some very interesting background about your brother's drawing methods. We would never learn such things any other way. Your description was very daunting for those of use who draw the way normal mortals do.

I had the pleasure of hearing your brother give a talk and seeing him sketch when I was young; he was funny and personable and brilliant and he had the audience eating out of his hand.

As you may gather from some of these comments, I think there would be a real audience for a publication with his political cartoons, well-reproduced. All those lovely drawings deserve fresh eyes. I hope you will share that notion with his family.

10/16/2009 3:18 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

D.H. /anonymous, other anonymous, Rob and Ken-- I give Conrad points for slogging away on behalf of his cause for so many years and I also give him points for earning a place of honor on Nixon's enemy list. Having said that, I am a pictures rather than a words guy and I find his pictures totally uninteresting. I am sure there are many reasons he was able to keep his job through the years, but I have a hard time believing that drawing ability was one of them.

Chris and LCG, I'm glad you like these. Making pictures this extraordinary, day in and day out, is a remarkable achievement and deserves our attention. "Back to that MacNelly dude" indeed!

Peter-- how nice of you to write, and to link to my little blog. Always happy to get more European perspectives on here.

10/16/2009 4:01 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kgreene-- I agree with you, there are dozens of books out about MacNelly's comic strip Shoe, but the sparse few compilations of his political cartoons are long out of print. Those cartoons were, in my opinion, his best work and I hope they are reprinted soon.

KenMeyerJr, I join in your gratitude for Jocko. When I saw MacNelly give an instructional chalk talk, it was reminiscent of the old Steve Martin comedy routine about how to make a million dollars tax free. ("First you get a million dollars, then you don't pay taxes on it). MacNelly showed us how to draw an airplane, and it was obvious after 30 seconds that no one in the room was capable of following in his footsteps.

10/16/2009 4:10 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Jocko thanks for that description of how your brother worked. He was not alone in having the whole thing on paper before making the first stroke.

10/16/2009 10:09 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>>I would say the four legendary politcial cartoonists of the 20th century were Low, Searle, Oliphant and MacNelly<<<

Yeah, Pat Oliphant is a real legend...that is, you really have to BS yourself and make up stories counter to what your eyes see. In this time of ultra-sentivity to racism, where to disagree with our president's policies is racist, the same mini-Torquemadas failed to notice the blatant racism in Oliphant's handling of Secretary of State, Rice. Hey, it's all okay because he wasn't seething and snarling like a rightwinger does...and this was damned good humor too! Yep, those thick lips were the very height of political humor delivered with a deft jab.

One wonders how you blinded apologists would react to Chimpy Boraxo as a character repeated in political cartoons for the next few years?

Please, I'd like to hear how I am wrong on this this Oliphant is a clever cartoonist whereas Michael Ramirez is a heavy-handed right-wing hate monger. Clearly the subtleties of thse distinctions leave me thinking in terms of double-standards but, as all educated people know, that's an impossibility.

Click on this and tell me how this was a rare occasion when Pat Oliphant went off his meds. The reality is that the Pats (oliphant and Conrad) are a couple of mean-spirited SOBs who neither draw very well nor create humorous situations (unless your idea of humor is causing embarrassment and pain). Me? I can do both...humor and pain, and do it at will.

10/16/2009 11:50 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Rob, I think a number of political cartoonists who failed to achieve the proper combination of art and subject matter and indignation eroded their audience. It's a tricky thing.

MacNelly was right wing, Searle was left, but both were hugely popular because they were able to keep their emotions under the control of their art, which was so damn good you couldn't look away regardless of your politics. Then there are others (such as Scarfe, on the left) who are very talented but whose hostility sometimes capsized their art. I do like Oliphant's art, but for the last three decades he has had a smaller audience than the quality of his drawing warranted precisely because he was so darn angry. I saw him give a chalk talk at ComicCon this year where he spontaneously drew a fairly explicit picture of Sarah Palin having sex with a moose. It was a pretty good drawing. She was on all fours. But you can see how it might have a limited audience.

Two other editorial cartoonists worthy of note: Kley and Grosz. What do you think?

10/17/2009 12:48 AM  
Blogger Lucas Ferreyra said...


10/17/2009 4:46 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>>Two other editorial cartoonists worthy of note: Kley and Grosz.<<<

I really don't think of them in the same genre as political cartoonists. Nast pretty well set the standard for what we have today...a muckraking or editorializing journalist with a pen. Kley and Grosz went well past that limited role and indulged in social commentary along the line of Kollwitz and Daumier. Grosz spat razors. Kley guffawed. Kollwitz and Daumier brought a more elevated and subtler approach. All were powerful in their own ways and on an entirely different plane than newspaper cartoonists.

10/17/2009 5:06 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Oh, as an aside, I'm am currently doing some social commentary using the little M&M characters.

10/17/2009 5:08 PM  
Blogger Michael Swofford said...

MacNelly made beautiful drawings, but his slight swipe at Oliphant (perhaps meant affectionately) is not quite fair because MacNelly's flamboyant style overpowered his message, whereas Oliphant's point is always clear and direct. Oliphant is the better writer and observer, the more mature intellect, and though he could probably do more elaborate drawings if he wanted to he never let's the image get in the way of what he wants to say.

10/20/2009 3:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Edholm said...

I have loved Jeff's cartoons for years and will continue to sift through the MacNelly archives, searching for "Lost MacNellys". Don't forget that Jeff also painted. His collection is amazing —

11/01/2009 7:19 AM  
Blogger jim webb said...

This was and is one of my favorite artists.

6/14/2011 8:04 PM  

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