Opus 37:

The Other Shoe and My Boo-boo. I was wrong. Mistaken. Back there in Opus 32. Jeff MacNelly’s comic strip Shoe, now being produced by a team with Chris Cassatt and his computer at its head, does not consist entirely of stored computer images. Not true.

The truth is that Cassatt and Gary Brookins, who draws the strip, work diligently to provide fresh images, new linework, in every installment, seven times a week. No clip art, whether pixelated or not, for them.

Cassatt and his computer, however, play a large role in the production process. Cassatt, who lives in Aspen, Colorado, is the editorial cartoonist for the Aspen Times and has produced strips for the paper, too.

MacNelly began working with Cassatt about eight years ago. By then, Shoe had been running for 15 years, and MacNelly was getting bored with certain aspects of the daily grind. MacNelly loved drawing, but he found himself spending more time on the purely mechanical aspects of the strip--figuring out how to fit the drawings into the panels and then how to fit in the speech balloons. And then lettering it.

As Cassatt explained when we talked on September 18: "What really made him happy was taking a big piece of paper and a brush--he didn’t even pre-draw or anything. He just sat down and did this stuff. He said, That’s really the way I like to draw them. He said, I hate it when I have to put the drawings into a box and make room for the balloons and all this stuff. And I said, Well you don’t have to do that because I can do that. You just draw what you want and scan it into the computer, and I’ll take care of the rest. I’ll put it together, I’ll put the balloons in, and I’ll letter it. And that was the system we used.

"The art was new," he continued. " I’d take his big drawings and drop them into the frames. The lettering was a font. Using his lettering, I built four or five different MacNelly typefaces, each one slightly different. And we did things, we called it type funking, where I have two or three As and Bs and Ds and so on, and we did baseline shifts and used different letters just to give it a more hand-lettered look."

It was a system that did exactly what MacNelly hoped for: "Jeff had spent more time on the parts that he didn’t like to do and not enough time on the parts he liked to do, and this changed the way he did Shoe. And he really became excited about it again. He was getting to the point where he was so sick of it that he didn’t want to do it any more."

Cassatt and his computer enabled MacNelly to avoid the creative fatigue that sets in when the work is repetitive. And drawing the same characters in similar situations day after day is undeniably repetitive.

"There were occasions," Cassatt said, "when he would say, How many hundreds of thousands of times do I have to draw the Perfessor sitting at his desk under a pile of papers. And so I would sometimes go in and borrow some of the images we had stored in the computer and change them a little bit and use them. But not very much and not often."

The thing to remember is that MacNelly loved to draw. So his preference was to draw rather than to poach images from a computer file.

"He was such a fabulous artist," Cassatt said, "and sometimes he would say, Okay--I’ll draw it from the birdseye view or from over here. And he would draw different angles to avoid being bored. All of those unusual angles were there because he didn’t have to cram them into a box. That’s what he really liked to do--draw. What I did was cram his pictures into the boxes.

"But nobody ever touched the editorial cartoons," he said. "That was the thing--the editorials were more important to him than anything else. That was the Number One thing."

A year or so ago, Gary Brookins, editorial cartoonist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch (MacNelly’s alma mater under a different name), joined the production team on Shoe. Brookins had been doing another of MacNelly’s creations, Pluggers--a single panel gag cartoon--since 1997. MacNelly had given up the panel shortly after his son Jake died as a result of a tragic climbing accident in Colorado.

Jake had come to Aspen to work with Cassatt. "Jeff was really happy that he and Jake could finally work together," Cassatt wrote in NCS’s Cartoonist. "It strengthened the bond between them. Those were the really good times. Being at the hospital as Jake died and then having to break the news to Jeff was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do until I had to watch Jeff slip away.

" Jeff lost all interest in doing Pluggers after Jake died," Cassatt said. "It just knocked the wind out of him. A big part of him died right then. It was never the same after that. And he just didn’t care about Pluggers anymore."

Brookins produced finished Shoe art in MacNelly’s style, doing as many as three of the week’s six dailies. Brookins worked in the same way as MacNelly--drawing the pictures that Cassatt would slot into the panels of the strip. Sometimes he uses brush on paper; sometimes, he draws on a digital tablet. (MacNelly had adopted the digital tablet entirely.)

As MacNelly’s lymphoma began to take its toll, Brookins did a little more.

"Jeff was sometimes in a lot of pain," Cassatt said. "And later on, he had trouble seeing. In the last three or four months of his life, he lost his sense of perspective: he could see out of only one eye. And it was really difficult for him. But he’s fabulous. Don’t mistake me: Jeff MacNelly is the greatest cartoon artist that ever was, as far as I’m concerned. But he was ill.

"And then it got to the point where we would start doing a little finishing over Jeff’s stuff because it was starting to come apart," he went on. "I could sense it--the end coming--better, more accurately, by looking at the artwork than by anything else. So if Jeff was going through particularly bad chemo, Gary and I could just do the week ourselves."

And they continue in much the same mode today.

Once a week, Cassatt receives an e-mail load of gags from a brace of gag writers (Chuck Smith, who has been with MacNelly for almost as long as Cassatt has, and Bill Linden). He winnows out the clunkers, saving the best ones, the "sparks." Then he phones Susie MacNelly, Jeff’s wife--who owns the strip--and reads her the sparks and they rate them on a scale of one-to-five. Sometimes, the sparks include some that Cassatt has written. And he often embellishes the gag ideas submitted by the gag writers.

"Whatever has the highest rating of the week becomes the Sunday strip," Cassatt said, "if it lends itself to that expanded treatment."

He’s been writing more Sundays himself because "I have things I want to say. And the stuff we get often just doesn’t make it for a Sunday. Sundays to me are the most important. I spend a lot more time on them."

Cassatt reads the sparks on the phone to Brookins, too. And from these two conversations, the strip’s content for the week is shaped. Then Cassatt begins storyboarding the strips.

After determining how many panels each installment will take, he decides what sort of picture will be in each panel. If he knows of a MacNelly image stored in the computer that will serve to suggest to Brookins the scene Cassatt has in mind, he imports that image into the panel. Then he erases about three-quarters of the art.

"The picture isn’t, really, what I want," he explained. "The picture is just approximately what I have in mind. We call it ‘approximate art.’"

Using the approximate art as reference, Brookins draws his own picture from scratch and transmits the image to Cassatt, who constructs the strip as he did for MacNelly.

Since the strip is gag-driven, sometimes the gag requires a picture that’s not in the computer storeroom. So Cassatt tells Brookins with "a fairly intricate verbal description" what he wants in a given panel.

This method, Cassatt believes, plays to the duo’s strengths. Cassatt’s strengths are in writing and composition; Brookins’, in drawing. And sometimes Brookins will change compositions if he thinks he has a better idea.

They deliberately avoid using stored images in the finished art--probably because they are fully aware that purists might think using stored images is somehow cheating. Truth to tell, however, any cartoonist who uses an assistant to ink his penciled images is "cheating" in just about the same way. And there are legions of strips produced in this manner.

"These days there is no stored art being used except for reference," Cassatt said. "Jeff was probably the greatest cartoon artist there ever was. And not to try to improve our work by studying his art would be foolish. So we’re basically studying how he handled certain situations and learning from that. But everything is gag-driven, so if a gag comes out requiring something new, we produce something new, drawn without reference at all. You can’t run a strip indefinitely on stored images even if you wanted to. And we don’t."

Cassatt takes great pains with the strip. His work is a labor of love. His affection for Shoe began when the strip did.

"I truly love the strip," he said. "I love it as much as any fan. People my age remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. I remember where I was when Shoe came out. We love doing this, and we are making it as good as we can. And I think it is a fabulous comic strip. And I’m very proud to be part of it."

And it’s all new. Every day.

Just want to make sure you get that message and laminate it over the erroneous one of a couple Opuses ago.

Their effort seems to be paying off: according to Tribune News Syndicate, which distributes the strip, Shoe has kept virtually all of the 1,000-plus client papers that were running it last spring.

And here’s another bit of good news: before too many moons, we may have a collection of MacNelly’s editorial cartoons, something sadly in short supply. As one of the two most accomplished editorial cartoonists in this half of the century (Pat Oliphant is the other one), MacNelly desperately needs a commemorative volume.

Although Shoe has been collected several times, not much of MacNelly’s other work has been published in book form. He illustrated A Political Bestiary: Viable Alternatives, Impressive Mandates, and Other Fables by Eugene J. McCarthy and James J. Kilpatrick in 1978, but only two collections of MacNelly’s editorial cartoons exist. The first collection was published just after he won his first Pulitzer in the spring of 1972. Entitled MacNelly: The Pulitzer Price Winning Cartoonist, it reprints cartoons (all carefully dated and annotated) from his first year at the Richmond News Leader (the predecessor of the Times-Dispatch); Foreword by his editor there, Ross Mackenzie.

The second (and only other) MacNelly collection came out in 1984: Directions covers approximately 1976 through 1983, which gives us part of the Jimmy Carter administration and the earliest years of Ronald Reagan’s (but no dates of publication appear on any of these cartoons). By this time, MacNelly’s style had drifted somewhat away from cloning Oliphant’s, and he was beginning to produce the devastatingly accurate visual metaphors that so distinguished his work.

But the brilliant culminations of his cartooning genius in the last decade or so is a vein of cartooning gold that has not been mined in this manner at all. Until now.

Cassatt told me that he and Susie are working to put together a collection of MacNelly’s editorial cartoons and his Key West paintings (which would be reproduced in full color). Stay ‘tooned for the publication announcement, when it comes.

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