Friday, January 07, 2022


Everyone recalls that Jeff NacNelly was a great political cartoonist, but once in a while it's good to look again and remind ourselves how truly great he was.

MacNelly had a special gift for portraying collections of morons-- a handy talent for political cartoonists.  

He presents the most complex scenes with ease: elaborate architectures from difficult angles, rooms full of people in dynamic poses, complicated machines.  

But as long as we're revisiting MacNelly's talent, let's put aside his obvious showy talents and consider a different standard: the way he handles a tiny sketch of an individual.  For example, look at the way he draws a dissident on the gallows:

Or in the following cartoon, note his tiny drawing of President Nixon walking the plank: 

Without bells, whistles or pyrotechnics, these simple treatments of a single human form are incredibly revealing.  It would be easy for a cartoonist to handle these tiny images as stick figures.  Many cartoonists today would.  But MacNelly's sensitive, descriptive line captures important observations about posture, stance, paunch, clothing.  Note the sagging belt and pants on the malnourished Iranian dissident.  MacNelly noticed and drew the puffed out knees on Nixon's pants, or the shoes that project out over the edge of the plank.  Note, too, the anatomical liberties MacNelly took with the way Nixon's head fit into his shoulders.

MacNelly's wonderful talent shows up even in the tiny, humble corners of his drawing. 


kev ferrara said...

These are hilariously vicious; intense yet full of subtleties. At the same artistic level, in my view, as Drucker and Davis, but with a very different personality.

Distinct from most others in his genre, MacNelly's best stuff is more metaphor than allegory, and the vehicles for his metaphors are quite fully fleshed out as a their own world. (They aren't simply dogma made into form). So they work first as narrative, then as metaphor, then as commentary. Which allows them to be as timeless as such work can be. (In my view, anyway.)

Richard said...

> Distinct from most others in his genre

I don't think this is the same genre. I can't say where the line is, but this seems like more than a difference in quality.

The goals of the work are entirely different:
- MacNelly is, first and foremost, funny. That is not true of Telnaes, Ramirez, or Pat Bagley.

- This isn't point scoring, MacNelly is perfectly happy to participate in friendly debate.

- This isn't militant, MacNelly craves fresh points of view.

- This isn't humorlessly distilled physiognomic character assassination, any physiognomy here is the genuine article.

- There's no party line, MacNelly is speaking from the heart.

MORAN said...

Thanks for the reminder MacNelly was one of the rare geniuses of editorial cartoons.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I agree that MacNelly is in the same lofty category as Drucker and Davis, who are two of my very favorites. He was simply extraordinary (although I like his political cartoons far more than I like his comic strip Shoe or his paintings).

I also agree that his cartoons are "hilariously vicious." I think MacNelly had the advantage of working in an era when politicians showed some measure of restraint. They might fight like hell but they never made coarse and vulgar personal attacks on an opponent. If you wanted to be vicious, you had to deliver it through the artistry (and even poetry) of a political cartoon. Those MacNelly drawings of the UN are scathing, but once the president of the United States calls third world countries "shit hole countries," where is there left for cartoonists to go?

Richard-- I disagree with the parts of your comment that I am able to understand. First, I certainly think that Telnaes and Ramirez are funny. So do millions of readers. I suppose that's just a matter of taste.

I'm not sure why you think MacNelly is happier to participate in a "friendly debate" and "craves fresh points of view." What makes you think MacNelly is speaking from the heart any more than Telnaes or Ramirez? MacNelly was a dedicated conservative with a sense of humor, just like Ramirez. He was a reasonable person but I wouldn't say he craved fresh points of view any more than Telnaes or Ramirez do. As more of Nixon's faults were definitively proven, MacNelly gradually distanced himself but that's no different from Ramirez taking note of Trump's faults once they've been definitively proven.

Telnaes and Ramirez are drawing in a different era than MacNelly when the stakes may seem higher. They have different drawing styles. But I would not rate them lower on the scale you mention.

MORAN-- Agreed!

Richard said...

> I certainly think that Telnaes and Ramirez are funny. So do millions of readers. I suppose that's just a matter of taste.

I have a hard time believing you. I'd wager you're experiencing the same emotion people get when watching Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Fallon.

Yes, it comes with a chuckle, but it's the sort of self-satisfied chuckle of "Hahaha, I understood that reference" or "Haha, I agree with him, which is the right opinion to have".

That has little relationship to humor, and is akin to the difference between sexiness and beauty.

> What makes you think MacNelly is speaking from the heart any more than Telnaes or Ramirez?

Because speaking from the heart has a flavor.

When people are speaking from the heart, even if you disagree with them, it's easy to want to hear them out. I disagree with MacNelly's takes in most of his comics, but because they're authentic to him, their odor is not particularly offensive.

It's the same reason that left economics when from the mouth of Bernie Sanders is palatable, but those same opinions from the mouth of Hillary Clinton aren't. It's the same reason Arthur Szyk is nauseating, and L.J. Jordaan isn't.

I can't tell you what the difference is, it's ineffable -- that's like explaining why Jimmy Fallon is gross and Louis CK isn't.

northierthanthou said...

The Nixon cartoon is particularly powerful.