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Omaha Magazine

Jeff Koterba: Getting His Voice Back

Jul 01, 2022 11:11AM ● By Chris Bowling
jeff koterba with cartoon panels

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

The house looked the part of the artist’s home. Sketchbooks and looseleaf papers filled with doodles sat everywhere. Musical instruments and books, stacked high on tables or crammed into shelves, also filled Jeff Koterba’s Dundee home. 

At least that’s the way his son remembers it. “You would wake up and, whether it’s the newspaper, or radio, he would constantly be inputting information,” Josh Koterba said of his father.

Koterba wasn’t like a lot of dads.

On school career days he was the buzz, doodling kids and teachers in the same style as the illustrations he drew for 31 years as the Omaha World-Herald’s editorial cartoonist. His work has been collected by Democrats and Republicans, and even made it to space. In a decidedly even-keeled midwestern town, he also knows how to rile people, drawing hate or adoration depending on the day.

The trait Josh, 36, has grown to admire most about his dad is his work ethic.

For years Koterba, 61, never stopped trying to push his art further. When he was laid off by the World-Herald in 2020, he found a way to keep drawing through direct-support services like Patreon. It’s nothing new for Koterba who’s always embraced chaos. Whether in a cartoon or elsewhere in life, it’s how he digs deeper to find the stories that make art worth sharing.

“It may sound idealistic,” Koterba told a World-Herald writer in 1983, “but I think a cartoonist should be a truth seeker.”

Koterba grew up in South Omaha. His father was a Union Pacific employee, jazz drummer, and TV repairman—the latter of which he advertised in the Sunday Omaha World-Herald. On Saturdays, his dad would get an advanced copy of next day’s paper to double-check his ads, and he would hand his son the comics to read.

Those comics inspired Koterba to be a cartoonist; but, the desire became a full-blown mission when, at age 17, Koterba was struck by lightning outside the front porch of his family home.

“I had really long hair and I cut it all off [after that],” he said. ”I sort of led this monastic life, but I was also drawing political cartoons for the school paper and taking cartooning classes from Ed Fisher [then the World-Herald editorial cartoonist].”

Although he started working with Ed Fisher at a young age, the path to the World-Herald came only through tenacity. He drew for The Gateway—the student newspaper at the University of Nebraska at Omaha—during college, and created freelance sports cartoons. It took Koterba nine years of knocking on the door while freelancing and working other jobs. Throughout his 20s he kept in touch, and finally, the World-Herald finally gave him a trial run in 1989. 

Liz Hruska knew Koterba’s cartoons were special from the first time she saw them. One day she asked a friend at the World-Herald if it would be possible to get an original of one of his cartoons. A few days later an envelope appeared with the drawing.

Since then Hruska, a financial analyst for the Nebraska Legislature, has been friends with Koterba. Over the years she’s collected six originals for herself, but has gifted between 50 and 75 to politicians she’s worked with.

“He’s brilliant at meshing two different concepts that are out in the public conversation,” she said. “I’ve known him for a long time, and I’ve seen every piece of work that he’s done, and it still surprises me after all these years.”

She also enjoyed the creative flurry he stirs wherever he goes: she traveled to New York City once to see his jazz band, Prairie Cats, when they played at the top of One World Trade Center. Hruska also put Koterba in touch with a friend of a friend who happened to be aboard the International Space Station.

“One morning [in 2007] I got an email and the subject line said something like, ‘Greetings earthling,’” Koterba remembered. “And I thought it was spam. I almost deleted it. But I opened it up and it’s from [Nebraska astronaut] Clayton Anderson. He says, ‘I’m 200 miles above you on the space station.’ And through various connections we were able to beam the cartoon to him. Mind blown.”

Hruska also watched Koterba’s style develop over the years. He’s gone from black-and-white to color, and from using multiple panes in a cartoon to seeing how few words he could use to relate his viewpoint. His cartoons have won countless awards in local and national competitions and, in 2002, he was a finalist for the National Cartoonists Society’s Editorial Cartoonist of the Year award. In 2009, a Boston publisher released his memoir Inklings and in 2010 he became a Face on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club, an honor shared by Nebraska giants such as Johnny Carson and Warren Buffett.

“One of the things I think I’m most proud of wasn’t just the cartoons, but [being a] representative of the paper,” Koterba said. “People felt safe to share things with me that were going on in the community that would then turn into news stories or opinion pieces. [Current World-Herald owner] Lee Enterprises didn’t understand that.”

When Warren Buffett sold his stake in the World-Herald to Lee Enterprises in early 2020 it didn’t take long for layoffs, buyouts, and pay cuts to start. So, Koterba wasn’t surprised when he too was laid off on Sept. 18 that year. What did surprise him, he said, was that he wasn’t given the chance to draw one final cartoon. Instead, he said, he was escorted from the premises by security. 

“It was a supremely sad day for readers of the Omaha World-Herald, not just myself,” Hruska said. “We do have a community identity, and he was part of that.”

After he was laid off, Koterba didn’t waste time planning his next move. 

His son had told him about Patreon, a platform where people support independent artists’ work, and that seemed like a great idea. That money would help support him as he continued drawing comics on national issues for the distribution service Cagle Comics, which itself doesn’t pay much. Today he has 230 patrons whose memberships range from $6 to $100 per month. And he’s staying busy drawing. In the past two years he’s created more than 150 cartoons on the pandemic alone.

Koterba has also picked up side gigs as a morning fill-in host for KVNO’s blend of classical music, as well as serving as an artist-in-residence at Pottawattamie Arts, Culture and Entertainment (PACE) in Council Bluffs. 

While it’s all allowed him to keep drawing, the reality is he’s making a fraction of what he used to.

“Financially I’m not in a position where I can [stop],” he said. “Frankly, I have to work.”

He’s not alone either. From 1957 to 2019, the number of full-time newspaper cartoonists dropped from 275 to 30. At the same time, newspaper staffs have shrunk, declining by more than a quarter since 2008. In that context it probably makes sense why, given the choice between a cutting reporter or a cartoonist, a paper may do away with the illustrator.

But readers like Hruska feel someone is missing the big picture. Newspapers have value when they reflect their communities. Even for those who don’t know Koterba, it feels as if he knows them when they see one of his cartoons.

“Now he’s just doing national issues. And now [the World-Herald] is just doing national issues,” Hruska said. “So we kind of lost that local voice that his cartoons represented.”

But even with so much change, there is a lot to be optimistic about. While his last day at the World-Herald was far from what he’d imagined it would be, it was actually an opportunity to start a fresh chapter.

“I wasn’t angry,” he said. “I almost immediately felt a sense of relief, because they had really been, in recent times, preventing me from drawing cartoons that I felt strongly about. So I felt liberated. And I felt like I could get my own voice back.”

Still, the effects of Koterba’s work and ethos can’t be summed up in a world bubble.

The sound of piano keys clinked through the phone on Josh’s end. His daughter was doing a report on Gary Paulsen’s classic young adult book Hatchet, but it would not be the typical writeup. She and her dad were writing a song about the book.

Allowing his kids to follow their curiosities runs in the family. In that way, it’s bigger than art, local news, or editorial cartoons. It’s about inspiring creative people, and making sure the next generation is even more audacious and compassionate than the one before.

“He never missed a play. He never missed a show when I was in a punk rock band. He was always advocating for me,” Josh said. “He may not have had all the answers as a single dad…but he was always there. That’s what I hope I can do for my kids too.” 

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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