Jeff MacNelly died a year ago Friday (June 8). This year, he didn't win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. And therein lies a tale....
It's hard to go mystical or cosmic, or weepy, when recalling Jeff. I knew him so well from almost the beginning to the end of the prime of his life - knew so well his genius and generosity, his loves and his lows and the disease that took him - reality and laughter keep entering in.
Jeff was a MacNelly caricature.
Part Labrador puppy with little-boy humor and big-boy blues. Part finger-in-your-eye, back-of-the-classroom jape. Part medieval fool - a persistent straggler with an engaging attitude impishly maddening the sheepdogs barking to keep the flock together.
A quirky deadpan who captured hearts as deftly as he captured the heart of an issue. A mimic, a ham, a zany stand-up comedian who (as The Washington Post's Howard Simons said of him) landed in a bottle of ink. "One of us" (as Conrad termed Lord Jim) and just one of the guys - with perfect pitch and unerring eye, one of those unassuming schleppers (Pluggers) for whom he drew: He did not gladly suffer puffery or grandiosity, genuflectors or swells.
His secret? He thought as well as he drew.
Jeff was unlike the everyday rest of us in three principal ways - in his depth of insight, in his breathtaking composition and draftsmanship, and in his ability to combine that insight and artistry through humor. He was his medium's talent of most epic dimension, editorial cartooning's Andrew Wyeth (the comparison extends to his non-cartoon art as well).
In Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," Roy Hobbs became in one partial season "the best there ever was in the game." Jeff MacNelly was the cartooning game's Roy (as some called him); the natural who appeared suddenly from few knew where - whose facile, loose, nuanced, supernatural power with pencil or Papermate or brush stunned even his contemporaries and demolished (for instance) the Carter and Clinton administrations the way Roy Hobbs clobbered the cover off the ball.
Jeff shouldered cartooning as revolutionized by David Low and Pat Oliphant, and carried it down a different path - a new path of wit and whimsy and iconoclasm, where the hard truth and the dribbly line complemented the importance of each other, and where the best bozo gag-writers daily strutted their stuff in DeeCee. His art nearly three-dimensional in a two-dimensional form, he drew relentlessly the incongruities of public policy and the human condition - drew us as we are and not as we yearn to be.
This mastodon on the cartooning landscape won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning at 24 - for his first full-year's work at his first full-time job on a daily newspaper, The Richmond News Leader. He missed being the youngest to win it by several months. He won it again at The News Leader six years later, and a third time seven years after that at the Chicago Tribune - thereby tying with four others for most Pulitzers ever.
From 1985 forward three names dominated in editorial cartooning - Oliphant, Jim Borgman and MacNelly. The truth is, if in this and other journalistic categories the Pulitzers were given for sheer talent, the Pulitzer for cartooning would have alternated among those three for the better part of two decades. But since MacNelly last won it, only one of the three has won it at all - once, and it wasn't Jeff.
Several years back (industry rumor goes) the implication, vibe, hum, puff of smoke went out from the Pulitzer pontiffs they would not make MacNelly the winningest cartoonist ever by giving him the Prize a fourth time. Yet this year big journalistic hitters mounted a major effort for a fourth Pulitzer on Jeff's posthumous behalf. The submitted nomination contained a powerful selection of January-May, 2000, cartoons - though drawn by a dying man, cartoons romping far ahead of just about anything else out there. The swell pontiffs conferred the Prize on another.
Maybe Jeff's conservatism caused him ultimately to miss the ring a fourth time. In a lopsidedly leftist profession, conservatism is the Ultimate Unforgivable. Rarely does a conservative or true moderate win a Pulitzer or anything else in journalism, and that is only partly because it boasts so few conservatives within its ranks. Lofties in denial as to the role leftist ideology - leftist bias - obviously plays in newspapering's plummeting credibility, clearly are not likely to dub cartooning's conservative Roy Hobbs the profession's most Pulitzered cartoonist. They will go out of their way to honor someone else, anyone else, preferably one of their ideological own.
Or maybe there's a dubious impulse for diversity at work - to spread Pulitzers among as many practitioners and newspapers as possible. If that were so, then staffers of predictable, decidedly acceptable newspapers would not so predominate among Pulitzer winners in most categories. Whatever. A passion for diversity that discriminates against the best ought to have no place as the motivating force in selecting Pulitzer winners.
Sabatini surely foresaw Jeff MacNelly in the opening lines of "Scaramouche": "Born with a gift of laughter and a sense that all the world was mad." He privately delighted in the rib tickling his quips and inkstroke gallantries gave the faithful - in the knowing laughter that was his greatest joy.
Knowing laughter with a certain edge and attitude to it, indeed.