Jeff MacNelly, Political Cartoonist and Creator of Shoe

22 February 2002

   A blue sky and leafy green tree branches are not the normal setting for a busy newspaper office. Then again, comic strip characters don't usually perch in a fantasy world built around the Treetops Tattler-Tribune and its grouchy editor, P. Martin Shoemaker. (Aka Shoe.)

    Lazy reporters, the dilemmas of Shoe's nerdy nephew Skyler, diners at Roz's Roost, attractive females and their unavailable, homey nests, and dubious politicians: each character adds dimension to Shoe, the creation of multi-award-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. That the cast is a flock of birds of undetermined species only enhances the sharp humour of his unique comic strip.

Shoe 2

   Shoe is drawn through the perspective of a newspaper- insider. As a student of the University of North Carolina, Jeff MacNelly drew cartoons the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. While still a junior, he cartooned for the Chapel Hill Weekly. His boss was professor and tough bird of an editor, Jim Shumaker. Jeff was paid $15 for his first cartoon. He knew that cartooning was his future.

   In 1970, before completing his final year of university, Jeff left his studies behind to take a position with the Richmond News Leader as editorial cartoonist. He earned his first Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1972, when he was just 24 years old.

    The comic strip, Shoe, hatched from Jeff MacNelly's imagination and flew into syndication with Tribune Media Services on September 12, 1977. The main character, Shoe, was based on Jim Shumaker, Jeff's editor from the Chapel Hill Weekly.

    Just like the cartoon Shoe, the actual Shumaker wore sneakers to the office and smoked cigars. He was a gruff, cynical and irreverent man, but devoted to journalism and to his students. He made the perfect lead for a comic strip. All Jeff had to do was give his character wings and a beak.

    MacNelly continued to receive much acclaim for his talent as both political cartoonist and comic strip artist. He was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1978. He joined the Chicago Tribune in 1982, to produce three syndicated political cartoons a week. A third Pulitzer Prize was given for his captivating work in 1985.

    His fellow political cartoonists honoured MacNelly with "Best in the Business" in 1987, 1989, 1993. The Sigma Delta Chi National Award was given to Jeff in 1991 for his editorial cartooning. The National Cartoonists Society awarded Jeff the Reuben for Cartoonist of the Year twice in a row for Shoe, in 1978 and 1979. Whew! But...

    Jeff's work was not finished yet. He created the cartoons for Dave Barry's Sunday column in the Miami Herald for 13 years. He also provided illustrations for several of Dave Barry's humour books. Jeff drew the Pluggers cartoon from 1993 to 1997. He found three full-time cartooning jobs to be just too much and so, Gary Brookins, friend and fellow cartoonist, too over the Pluggers cartoon.

   Dave Barry has great appreciation for Jeff's cartooning talents. Barry explained, "He could see what was funny, and he could draw it so that you could see it, too. I doubt there has ever been a cartoonist who combined so much artistic talent (he was also a skilled painter and sculptor) with such a wonderful sense of humour." *(1) Similar praise is echoed lavishly by many of MacNelly,s peers.

    Along with Shoe's inspiration from a real person, Jeff found pieces of his own personality showing up in the character of "Perfessor" Cosmo Fishhawk. The cartoonist's desk is always piled high with papers and clutter, similar to the workspace of Fishhawk. (Except, Jeff's desk isn't perched on a large tree branch, of course.) Jeff made use of his wife's traits to create the sharp-witted restauranteur, Roz.

    The 1959 DeSoto car that is regularly featured in the comic strip is a depiction of Jeff's car at home. The real one may have had as many troubles as its cartoon nemesis.

    Jeff and his wife, Susie, made their home on a farm in Rappahannock County, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He worked mostly at night on his cartoons, leaving his days free to work on his barn or his DeSoto. Of his beloved farm, he said, "We leave here only for NCS events."

    The MacNellys had three sons, Danny, Matt and Jeffrey Jr. Jeffrey Jr. followed his dad's footsteps into political cartooning. A tragic rock-climbing accident in Aspen, Colorado claimed Jeffrey Jr.'s life in 1996, at age 24.

    Jeff MacNelly became sick in the late ‘90s. He began outpatient treatment for lymphoma in January of 2000. Jeff cut back on his cartooning efforts, drawing only Shoe and a few other cartoons. He was in the process of grooming his long-time assistant, Chris Cassatt, to take over more of his artistic duties. Sadly, Jeff MacNelly died on June 8, 2000 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He was 52 years old.

    Admired by fans and colleagues, known for his genuine spirit and uncomparable talent, Jeff MacNelly is sorely missed. He will be considered an important inspiration to cartoonists for many years to come. His political cartoons are striking, with shrewd observations and insightful comment; his comic strip is pure fun.

Shoe 1

    Shoe and the hilarious business of the Treetops Tattler- Tribune continue in the comics pages of over 1000 newspapers world-wide, thanks to the skilled pens and talents of cartoonists Chris Cassatt, Gary Brookins (of Pluggers fame) and Jeff's wife, Susie. Shoe can also be purchased in many book collections. 

Have a look at the daily delightful Shoe with Tribune Media Services:

Jeff MacNelly's great home page featuring Shoe, political cartoons and his fine art work:

*(1) Dave Barry's remembrance of Jeff MacNelly:   (Link no longer active.)

© Susanna McLeod 2002  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on