By: ELAINE WILLIAMS
Jeffrey Koterba is an award-winning, nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist in a jazz band, and contributor to publications such as the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald and The Daily Beast. With the release of his memoir, Inklings, he adds another line to his resume: author.
And if he didn’t already have enough on his plate with the cartooning, book, and band, Koterba’s drawing a cartoon that will be sent along on one of the last space shuttle flights this March. Though he still isn’t sure exactly what that cartoon will be, he says he’s aiming for “something that will hold up and make sense.”
Inklings reveals many of the turbulent details of Koterba’s life, starting with his childhood in Omaha, living in a veritable junkyard of spare parts and television sets with his temperamental
former-musician father, peacekeeping mother, and younger brother who followed his every move ? even if it involved scribbling in green crayon all over Koterba’s early drawings in an attempt to mimic his older brother. The book goes on to chronicle his beginnings in cartooning, and the start of his own family, still in Omaha.
“As I began to write I began to see a bigger story there,” explains Koterba, who worked on the memoir intermittently for about 10 years. “But it’s ultimately a way to explain myself to myself.”
In addition to the common themes of family, growing up and conflict, one unexpected thread winds its way through the book: Koterba’s lifelong struggle with Tourette’s syndrome. While he did not intend for Inklings to focus on his disorder, he does hope that his story will shed some light on the cultural stereotypes of Tourette’s sufferers, such as sudden outbursts of profanity or yelling.
“There’s an automatic assumption of what Tourette’s is,” he tells E&P. “I’ll do a Google search and see all references to swearing and jokes about it. I’m not overly sensitive about it, but if I can bring a deeper understanding, that would be great.”
However, Koterba views his condition as more of a necessity than a detriment. He avoids taking large amounts of medication to suppress the tics, since he considers the unique way of thinking that comes with the disorder a source of inspiration.
“I do believe that there is a connection between my creativity and Tourette’s,” he says. Still, it can be difficult for him to write, draw or play music with the constant distraction, and he sometimes finds himself having to leave a situation to relieve a tic privately. Koterba can control it somewhat by eliminating caffeine and sticking to a strict exercise routine. “It’s infinitely fascinating to me,” he adds. “I don’t know what it’d be like to not have it.”
Because Koterba is most often associated with his job as a cartoonist for the World-Herald, with his work also syndicated by King Features Syndicate and appearing in 400 newspapers nationally, some readers did not appreciate that he created a more traditional memoir instead of a graphic novel. Inklings is peppered with small line drawings throughout, but the artist says he specifically avoided a graphic-novel type of approach because “I wanted some drawings, but I wanted people to be surprised along the way.”
In addition to his cartooning and writing, Koterba plays and sings in the swing and jump-blues band the Prairie Cats. The group has performed at the South by Southwest Music Festival, and its songs are included on several Sony/BMG compilations and distributed around Europe. “I hear we’re big in Poland,” he jokes.
Koterba doesn’t consider juggling three separate mediums to be too difficult. “They’re all very connected to me,” he says. “If I’m stuck on an editorial cartoon idea I’ll strum a guitar and get the juices flowing. If I’m at a gig and nervous, I’ll draw a quick cartoon. And writing is the glue that ties it all together.”
Because Inklings is so intensely personal, showing a copy to Koterba’s parents was emotionally taxing. “It was difficult for my parents. I give them credit, though, and they have a lot of courage to read it,” he says. “But the ultimate theme is that despite family differences, love shines through.”
For now, though, his focus is on promoting his book. He hopes that readers can use his experiences with music, cartooning and Tourette’s as motivation to defeat their own problems. “I didn’t set out to write an inspirational book,” he adds, “but now that it’s written, if people can be inspired by it, or any person can overcome an obstacle or use it to their advantage, that’s great.”