Ask anyone what their favorite section of a newspaper is, and many will say the funny pages. Whether it’s Peanuts, Blondie, or other timeless classics, good comics have a way of cutting through people’s differences and bringing them together, even if it’s just for a moment. It’s what creative Jeff Koterba strived to do daily with his editorial cartoons for the Omaha World-Herald as well as with his Chirpy comics that he co-creates with his son, Josh, and his grandkids.
Growing up in South Omaha, Koterba had equal fascinations with drawing, space, and journalism, thanks in part to his uncle who was a syndicated columnist who covered the early days of the country’s space program. Koterba studied both fine art and journalism while at the University of Nebraska Omaha and started his career as a sports cartoonist for the Kansas City Star. After nearly nine years as a freelance and self-syndicated cartoonist, he finally landed his dream job with the Omaha World-Herald, where he spent 31 years, making him one of about 20 full-time newspaper cartoonists in the country.
Once called political cartoons, Koterba prefers the term editorial cartoons because he covers topics other than just politics. He describes the point of view he uses in his cartoons as “mindfulness,” explaining that the truth is not just one side or the other, but rather often has three and sometimes four different points of view. “It’s my job to document history in a creative, and hopefully humorous, way. But I’m not a bomb thrower. I focus on content and draw cartoons about how to find common ground without beating each other up.”
Building a rapport with readers has been paramount to Koterba’s longevity as a cartoonist. He regularly speaks to local service organizations and engages with readers whenever possible. Even if someone becomes angry at one of his cartoons, he encourages civil discourse. “I try to approach my work with humanity and kindness,” he said. “They are a sacred part of me.” A Catholic monk even once called his cartoons “little prayers sent into the world.”
Having drawn an estimated 10,000 cartoons to date, Koterba must rely on numerous sources for inspiration. These include reading a variety of news sources from across the spectrum, walking, thinking, and most importantly, listening. He hones in on where people live, what they do with their time, and what touches them emotionally. He said he’s happy to have one good idea a day, and on the rare occasion he comes up with two good ideas in a day, Koterba calls it “magic” and “like elves that came in the night.” He also attributes his creativity, in part, to the fact he has Tourette’s syndrome, which was the subject of a TEDx talk he gave. Being a creative goes beyond cartooning—Koterba is also an author, singer, songwriter, and guitarist.
Even an award-winning cartoonist whose work has been syndicated around the world and appeared in The New York Times and the Washington Post admitted not all of his cartoons are home runs. “I got five at bats per week. Did I strikeout sometimes? Yes. But if I got a homerun once a week, I was happy.” Even when he’s critiquing his own work, Koterba tries to do it with kindness and find something about it he loves.
Similar to any industry, technology has had a life-changing impact on Koterba’s career, especially in the last six months. The tools of his trade used to include an oversized drawing table, paper, pencils, and watercolors. When the pandemic hit and he found himself at home without the space for all his usual tools of the trade, his son encouraged him to finally make the move to drawing comics on an iPad. “I haven’t had a moment that changed my life so dramatically as that first editorial cartoon I did on an iPad,” he said. “I miss the ink splatters on my drawing table, but it opens up new worlds to me.”
Despite having made the move to draw digitally, Koterba has a love for the tactile experience that only print provides. He said it’s so satisfying to have a working relationship with an editor who has great vision and to have worked for a newspaper with writers and editors who work so hard. “It breaks my heart that everyone doesn’t subscribe to the paper,” he said. “You can’t get the local stories anywhere else that they report on.”
Despite all his accomplishments, Koterba said he feels like he’s “just getting started.” He misses playing with his band, the Prairie Cats, and wants to get back into painting and working on his graphic novels. He also believes in inspiring others and helps coach other creatives. “Creativity permeates our lives, and everyone is creative in some fashion. When you embrace your obstacles and own vulnerabilities, it heightens your creativity. It doesn’t matter your age; do that creative thing you’ve always wanted to do.”