Virginia’s Star Political Cartoonists
Virginia has been home to many well-known politicians and artists, but it can also lay claim to several prominent political artists. Two of the most influential and accomplished are Fred O. Seibel and Jeff MacNelly. Though they were only briefly contemporaries, their outstanding work, iconic characters, and prodigious output demand their recognition as all-time greats in their field. Selections from both artists’ work can be found here at the Virginia Historical Society, and they are well worth exploring.
Fred O. Seibel (1886–1968) was originally a New Yorker, and established himself as a popular political cartoonist working for the Utica Tribune and the Knickerbocker Press, a publication with a strong Republican bent. In June of 1926 he moved to Virginia and began working for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which prompted an about-face from his previous political leanings. He whole-heartedly embraced the established Democratic tradition found throughout the South and would soon call Virginia his adopted home. Working within the restraints of a single-pane comic, he found countless ways to lampoon current political issues, including the effective use of several recurring characters. “The Colonel” was a physical incarnation of southern democratic tradition, “We The People” represented the working class of America, and his most beloved “Moses Crow” was a witty bird dressed in an amusing variety of outfits found in the corners of most of Seibel’s comics.
As generous as he was prolific, Seibel made his work widely available and often gave original copies to those who requested them. He kept a remarkably low profile for someone whose famous fans included Charles Lindbergh and Harry Byrd, and by all accounts he lived a very happy, modest life in Richmond with his wife until his death in 1968. There is no doubt that he accomplished his stated goal of doing at least one of three things with his work. “It should make the reader laugh or cry or think. I usually try to make him laugh a little whether I can make him think or not.”
Fred Seibel represented the peak of Virginia political cartooning for the first half of the twentieth century, but the second half was unquestionably dominated by Jeff MacNelly (1947 –2000). He got his start drawing cartoons for his high school literary magazine in Massachusetts and then continued to develop his craft while working for numerous publications at school in Chapel Hill, including the UNC student run Daily Tar Heel. In 1970 he moved to Virginia and began work for the Richmond News Leader, and a mere two years later he became one of the youngest people to win a Pulitzer prize at the age of twenty-four. It was his first of three over the course of a career that would see his work syndicated in nearly 1,000 newspapers. Though he would eventually leave the News Leader for a stint in Chicago, he ultimately returned to Virginia, which he would call home for the rest of his life.
His editorial work was only rivaled by his creation of Shoe in 1977, which won the National Cartoonist’s Society Reuben Award in 1979. It traded the single pane format of his editorials for a multi-paned strip, and it created a community of birds to serve up daily doses of humor. It centered on a newspaper run by “P. Martin Shoemaker,” a cantankerous Purple Marten, “Perfessor Cosmo Fishhawk,” a bumbling Osprey, and their odd assortment of feathered friends. Shoe was less directly political than his editorials but still managed to offer plenty of social commentary, as characters complained about taxes, struggled with healthy living, and frowned on their politicians. Sadly, MacNelly passed away too soon in 2000 at the age of fifty-three after a battle with lymphoma. Shoe lives on, however, in the capable hands of his widow Suzie and an assortment of peers. Samples of MacNelly’s editorial work can be found here, and his Shoe comic can be read here.
Tony Walters is a library clerk at the Virginia Historical Society. Read other posts by Tony.