Jeffrey Koterba’s LinkedIn profile is simple: editorial cartoonist, Omaha World-Herald, July 1989 – Present. His cartoons are distributed through King Features Syndicate to 400 newspapers nationwide, and have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, on CNN, and on SoulPancake.com. Jeff has also been struck by lightning. His memoir,Inklings (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), can be found where you can still find books.
BS: What do you do for a living and how did you get there?
JK: By day I’m a full-time newspaper editorial cartoonist. I also write nonfiction, fiction, and have a few other artistic irons in the fire. How I got to my newspaper job is a long and winding answer. I knew from an early age—six or seven—that I wanted to do something with art. I had a sense—a knowingness—that I was meant to be an artist. I thought cartooning, certainly, but it never occurred to me that I would one day draw editorial cartoons—I really wasn’t all that interested in politics. I’m still not, actually. Which I think makes me a better political cartoonist. I’m not some “insider baseball” kind of political aficionado. I prefer to think of myself as an average Joe who reads the news and keeps his ear to the ground and just so happens to draw cartoons about what he observes. I also grew up hearing all these great stories about my uncle Ed—my dad’s brother. Uncle Ed was a journalist and member of the Kennedy Press Corps. He wrote for, among other newspapers, The Washington Post, and was a syndicated columnist. He interviewed people like Wernher von Braun—father of the Saturn V rocket—and even ventured to the South Pole. Although I never got to meet him—he died shortly after I was born—his ghost lingered in a good way and I was inspired to work for a newspaper. I even created my own newspaper, at the age of seven. My homemade newspaper, of course, was filled with cartoons. As any good newspaper should be.
In high school and college I took art classes—studying painting and sculpture—but I also made cartoons for my school newspapers. After a variety of odd jobs including some freelance gigs—not to mention a stint as a bag boy at Baker’s Supermarket (at the age of 28)—it took me nine years to land my job at the Omaha World-Herald. Lots of trial and error, lots of rejections. Lots of late nights trying to push myself to get better. You can’t really go to college to get a degree in editorial cartooning—you sort of have to figure it out for yourself, along with the help of generous mentors.
BS: Tell me about working under deadlines.
JK: I don’t love deadlines but I’m grateful for them. Deadlines give my days shape. They put me on a schedule. I draw a new editorial cartoon five days a week—I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to show up. The good news is, if you show up for work every day at the same time, eventually, your brain get acclimated for creative work. Most of the time. But still, you push through…
BS: In addition to graphic art, you also have experience as a musician. Do those pursuits have creative common space or are they separate?
JK: Cartooning and music are related on the continuum. Or two sides of the same coin. Whatever analogy you want to use. Sometimes when I’m struggling with coming up with a cartoon idea, strumming my mandolin will be just the thing to free my mind up and the cartoon idea will come. And also, sometimes when I’m drawing, an idea for a song will come. When I was performing regularly in bands, there were oftentimes moments when during the gig I would look out into the audience and inspiration would come for a possible cartoon that I would file away for later use. Ultimately, whether it’s cartooning or writing a song, it’s all about creating the most unique idea you can and finding the best way to present that idea. No matter what the creative pursuit, it’s all about the idea first.
BS: What lesson keeps appearing in your life?
JK: Challenging question. But that’s good. A couple things come to mind. One is that I can’t do it all. I think I can. I believe I can. And to a certain degree, I think believing that is healthy and good. But, I also realize that it’s not possible to do EVERYTHING. I mean, I still want to be an astronaut. For example. I’m also constantly reminded that just when I think I know something, some new detail comes to light. So it’s good to always be reevaluating, whether it’s my political views or how to draw something—like a car or a newsmaker’s face. It’s important to always go back to the original source—it’s amazing what new details I’ll see in someone’s face each time I look at a reference photo, even if I’ve been drawing that person for several years. The other thing is that I find I tend to trust people too much, especially when it comes to my creative work. You can’t work in a vacuum, certainly, but when working on a joint venture it’s good to always find the very best people with whom to collaborate. Luckily, at the newspaper, I’ve always had great people to work with. Not true for every band I’ve ever played in.
BS: You’ve got a very small pool of peers. Who are your collaborators and co-conspirators?
JK: In the editorial cartooning world, there are roughly only thirty on staff at U.S. newspapers full-time. There are more, certainly, but they’re freelancers and contributors. But at the newspaper it’s all up to me to come up with the idea. I have an editor I have to get approval from, and sometimes he’ll offer a suggestion about my wording or about some other aspect of the drawing, but his input is minimal and almost always, those suggestions make me a better cartoonist. I also work with three other staff members of the editorial page who will proofread my final cartoon and will sometimes offer a tweak or two—which, again, is always helpful. You have to not be stubborn and always open to better options.
Check out some of Jeff’s cartoons.
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