Koterblog

Cats and Dogs, Tics and Space

December 21st, 2011

I always knew that my childhood creation, Dogie the Doggie, was engaged in a self-proclaimed space race with Snoopy. Dogie was also the star of his own newspaper, The Dogie the Doggie News. But who knew that he had competition? From a Cat? It took a trip to New York for me to learn that when she was ten, comedian Chelsea White was not only “broadcasting” The Daily Cat, but had also sent Whiskers into space.

When she’s not making people laugh with her stand-up, Chelsea’s hosting, producing, and editing. And when she’s not doing that, she’s mentoring those with Tourette Syndrome, often visiting schools, sharing her experiences of having grown up with Tourette’s. As someone who also suffers from Tourette’s, I was in town to give a talk at a mentoring brunch sponsored by New York City’s chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association.

The best part about hanging out at the brunch? I got to meet a lot of great people with Tourette’s, people who don’t define themselves by their tics but instead, are infinitely creative, smart and funny. And that’s the thing about Tourette’s. It isn’t just about twitching, it’s about creating art, music, books, and plays.

And sending imaginary pets into space.


Another Jeff

August 24th, 2011

1. Earlier this summer I’d been asked to visit Timothy McMahon’s MBA class at Creighton University to discuss social networking. The students had plenty of great questions and the informal discussion was fluid. Along the way, we got to talking about my cartoons that traveled aboard the space shuttle, which led one student to ask why space travel is important—a topic in which I am passionate. Along the way, I realized that Timothy was videotaping our conversation. Afterwards, I asked for a copy of the clip; unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented him from posting or sending the video.

2. A few nights ago, I caught Another Earth, a beautiful new film about the discovery of a duplicate planet, and one character’s desire to travel there. But more than a sci-fi story about space travel, Another Earth is a commentary on the human condition, one that confronts the question: how would it feel to meet yourself? One of the things I loved about the original Twilight Zone series was its focus on character development, not on special effects. Another Earth is like a gorgeous, full-length Twilight Zone.

3. While walking home from the film, the night took on a strange, ethereal feel. Maybe it was nothing more than the overcast sky, the lights of the city creating a strange glow, combined with the residual effects of having watched such a moving film…

4. I turned on my iPhone and discovered a message from Timothy—he was letting me know that he’d finally been able to post the video of my answer to the “why space exploration is important” question.

5. As I walked I watched a smaller version of myself, another me, professing my beliefs about the importance of space travel. As far as coincidences go, this was a small one. Yet, as I moved through the shadows of my neighborhood, my phone aglow with YouTube, I couldn’t help but smile and imagine that Another Earth had continued on, beyond the theater, out into the real world…

6. A big thank you to Timothy. Here’s the video (and yes, that’s a cartoon including Moammar Gadhafi in the background):

 


From Bono to Gaga

July 30th, 2011

It’s happened again. I seemed to be in the right place at the right time for a celebrity sighting. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t get that excited about such things. However, whether spotting someone like Bono or Lady Gaga, my inner journalist takes over. And although I don’t carry a camera, I do have a smart phone (I also often carry a sketchbook, but I’m fairly certain not even celebrities on the B list would wait around for me to do a sketch.)

Once, upon spotting U2‘s Bono at a bar in my Omaha neighborhood, I followed him outside to snap a photo. Unfortunately, my attempt to capture his image didn’t go so well. (Read about my attempt here.)

bono, jeff Koterba

This past Monday, on the very day I was celebrating 22 years as a full-time cartoonist (that’s at least 7000 deadlines, I’m guessing. Gulp.), I went for a walk and came upon a small crowd gathered in front of KFAB studios, a few blocks from where I live. As I approached, Lady Gaga arrived—she was there to give an interview. Memories of my botched photo attempt of Bono, of course, quickly came to mind. Coincidentally, Lady Gaga was standing just yards away from where Bono stood for my “photo” of him.

I have several good friends at the Omaha World-Herald who happen to be talented photographers. Their jobs seem glamorous. They get to cover everything from wars to championship sporting events, often gaining access to people and places the rest of us can only dream of. They also get to spend a great deal of time outside, not stuck at a desk or drawing table. There have been times when I’ve even fantasized that maybe I should have taken up photography. But then, all it takes is a moment like the other day, when I find myself among screaming—and in some cases, crying—fans, that I remind myself that I’ve made the right choices career-wise.

Here’s one attempt (Did I mention I was in sweaty running clothes? Humbling.)…

Jeff Koterba, Lady Gaga

 

Example number two why it’s good I didn’t become a professional photographer…

 

Finally, with the exception of someone’s giant hand that got in the way, a bit of success (though she’s probably thinking, “Who’s the dude in the sweaty workout clothes? Even the guys from TMZ dress better than that…”)…

Quirky side note alert: the way Lady Gaga’s hair is swirled around her face reminds me a little of the cover of Lisa Glatt’s novel, A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That. 


Farewell, Space Shuttle

July 21st, 2011

I’m pleased but saddened by all the attention the space shuttle is getting these days. While it’s reassuring to know that there is still a fervent interest in space exploration, it’s heartbreaking that the United States has no plans in the near future to send humans back into the heavens.

Here’s a recent cartoon on the topic:

Jeff Koterba, cartoon, moon landing, space shuttle

And here’s an excerpt from a previous post you might enjoy:

When my memoir, Inklings, was released in November 2009, I had no idea that I would soon get the opportunity to write a new ending. At the same time Inklings was hitting bookshelves, astronaut Clay Anderson was making preparations for his second flight into space. Little did I know that just a few months later, I would be making my way to the Kennedy Space Center where I would watch space shuttle Discovery launch into space with two of my cartoons on board.

One of those cartoons was of Dogie—a dog character I had created as a child and one that plays a significant role in my book. Now, Dogie would have a chance at redemption. (For trivia buffs: according to NASA, the sketches that flew aboard Discovery marked only the second time cartoons made it into space. The first being sketches created by Peants creator Charles Schulz.)

jeff koterba, cartoon, space shuttle, snoopy, dogie the doggie, dog

On April 5, 2010, space shuttle Discovery—with Dogie the Doggie an extra crew member—was launched into orbit for a two-week mission.

After returning from the launch I had a discussion with my wonderful literary agent, Amy Moore-Benson. Why not write an epilogue for the paperback edition, she suggested, one that would come out later that year? My editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tom Bouman, loved the idea and before long, a new epilogue was written and added to the paperback, released in Novemember, 2010.

jeff koterba, jeffrey koterba, inklings, memoir

Buy Inklings with the special space shuttle epilogue here!


The Big Apple Revisited

June 28th, 2011

Not a gig goes by when I don’t think about the night my band, Prairie Cats, performed at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. Ten years ago this week, all eight members of the band, plus our road manager and “boy wrangler,” EmJay, squeezed into a van and deadheaded from Omaha to New York City where we would perform at some of the coolest venues we would ever encounter. We grabbed a few winks in Sandusky, Ohio, but otherwise, by the time we got to New York, we were going on no sleep for two days.

The first night, a Wednesday, we played an outdoor show at the Hudson River Festival at the base of the World Trade Center. After we unloaded our gear it was my job to park the van in one of the underground garages at the Trade Center. I recall the security guard eyeing me with suspicion, requesting to see my driver’s license. Ironically, the security booth reeked of marijuana.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

Oh, the glamour of the road…

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

Here’s a photo from that show, the Statue of Liberty in the background.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

And yes, in case you were wondering, that was the summer of my platinum blonde hair. Hey, we all make mistakes.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

I’ll never forget gazing straight up from our vantage point on stage, the twin towers directly in front of, and above, us.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

As the night went on, the view only got better…

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

The following night we performed at the Rodeo Bar—a roadhouse in the middle of the city. This isn’t the bar, but rather our luxurious band lounge area. Complete with peanut shells on the floor. Just like home. Left to right: Jeff Koterba, Erik Johnson, Josh Koterba, Craig Crilly.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

It was a wild, leopard print kind of night. And to prove it, our drummer, Jeff Schoening, played the sticks on Larry Frederickson’s standup bass.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

We used to do perform a French-ispired song, “Lover DuJour,” where we’d invite women from the audience to come on stage and play the role of our French backup singers. That explains the berets. The Krispy Kreme hat, however, I have no idea.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

At least St. Elvis was watching over us. Or maybe he was having a staring contest with Larry. Not sure.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

That’s Craig on the tenor sax. After the show, while we were loading our gear into the van, we elected Craig to deal with the very drunk guy harassing the band. Don’t mess with Craig, is what I’m saying.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

One of my favorite photos of T-Bone player, Jason Grotelueschen. This, from our show at Jack’s Joint, Times Square.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

No one wails on a trumpet like Kevin Linder.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11Setting up on Saturday night at the Greatest Bar on Earth, Windows on the World.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

Our view from stage.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

Dan Schoening’s turn to wail on the trumpet. Same berets, different “French” girls.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

A little accordion action from Jason G.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

I bought this window pane suit exclusively for this show. It’s a miracle suit. Since then, it’s been through Hell and still, ten years later, it looks new.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11

As far as I’m concerned, Windows on the World was, and is, the coolest place there ever was. In my mind, the Greatest Bar on Earth is still jumpin’, a decade later.

jeff koterba, prairie cats, new york, world trade center, swing band, 9/11
For more photos click here:Prairie Cats 2001 Tour.

Voluntary Gestures

May 18th, 2011

It’s not every day I’m asked to appear in a documentary. Let alone a film that explores the connection between Tourette’s Syndrome and creativity. And although I don’t let my having Tourette’s Syndrome define me, I was excited for the chance to work on a Tourette’s-related project with a talented filmmaker and artist from Toronto, Stefan Morel.

When we first discussed the project, it was clear that Stefan wanted to focus on the creative process, while Tourette’s would play a supporting role. This resonated with me because it was the same approach I had taken when writing Inklings. Yes, Tourette’s is a part of me, but it’s certainly not the first or even the fifth thing I think about when defining myself. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that I would be able to write, draw, and play music, if not for my quirky neurology.

Stefan and I spent nearly a week together. And while the experience was at times intense, Stefan set my mind at ease; not only was the experience enjoyable, I learned a great deal about myself in the process. Also, there were some amazing coincidences that occurred during filming—coincidences I’ll share later.

Still, it’s a bit surrealistic to see oneself in a film. I mean, it’s tough enough while in the recording studio, listening back to my vocals and guitar playing, but seeing myself so up close…especially seeing myself for how I really am. Not the guy holding in the tics, but sometimes letting go, letting myself twitch.

The film is part of a series for the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada. And although the film is still in the editing process, you can see an excerpt here: Voluntary Gestures


Contest Launch

April 4th, 2011

When my memoir, Inklings, was released in November 2009, I had no idea that I would soon get the opportunity to write a new ending. At the same time Inklings was hitting bookshelves, astronaut Clay Anderson was making preparations for his second flight into space. Little did I know that just a few months later, I would be making my way to the Kennedy Space Center where I would watch space shuttle Discovery launch into space with two of my cartoons on board.

One of those cartoons was of Dogie—a dog character I had created as a child and one that plays a significant role in my book. Now, Dogie would have a chance at redemption. (For trivia buffs: according to NASA, the sketches that flew aboard Discovery marked only the second time cartoons made it into space. The first being sketches created by Peants creator Charles Schulz.)

On April 5, 2010, space shuttle Discovery—with Dogie the Doggie an extra crew member—was launched into orbit for a two-week mission.

After returning from the launch I had a discussion with my wonderful literary agent, Amy Moore-Benson. Why not write an epilogue for the paperback edition, she suggested, one that would come out later that year? My editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tom Bouman, loved the idea and before long, a new epilogue was written and added to the paperback, released in Novemember, 2010.

To commemorate the occasion of Dogie’s launch into space one year ago today, I’m holding a special contest exclusively for my followers on Twitter. I’ll be giving away five packages—one per day—that will include a signed paperback edition of Inklings and a signed cartoon print of the Dogie cartoon that flew aboard the shuttle. (I’m happy to personalize either, as well.)

Here’s what you need to do to win: Starting April 5, 2011, tweet the following:

I just entered to win a copy of @jeffreykoterba’s Inklings & a signed cartoon. Click here: www.jeffreykoterba.com/koterblog #koterbacontest

Winners will be chosen at random, one per day, beginning April 6, 2011, using www.random.org, and announced daily via @reply and/or DM. (Winners please DM me with mailing information.)

Tweet early, tweet often. The more times you tweet, the more chances you have to win. You may enter as often as you wish (if you win, however, I ask that you don’t enter again to give someone else a chance.)

And if you’d prefer to help celebrate Dogie’s anniversary now, you can buy Inklings with the space shuttle epilogue here!

Start tweeting and good luck!


My Life As a Cartoonist: In Words

March 10th, 2011

In Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, an urban legend exists that I’ve been struck by lightning—twice. The truth is I have been hit by lighting, an incident I write about in my memoir, Inklings. But when I explain to friends and strangers alike that I’ve only been struck once, I often sense their disappointment. And who can blame them? After all, when your belief is that someone has survived two lightning strikes, anything less just isn’t as compelling.

I have no idea how this story morphed into what it has become. Still, as an editorial cartoonist, I’m used to misunderstandings, shrugging off the occasional assertion that I’m either a conservative or a liberal (I consider myself a passionate centrist, taking shots at both sides of the aisle). It’s understandable to see how such perceptions come about. Most of us are inundated with information; in our busy lives our subconscious selves package the world into this category or that, attempting to make order out of the chaos. I’m just as guilty. How often I have concluded whom the culprit is based on a newspaper headline only to read on, beyond the first few paragraphs, discovering that the story is far more complex than I first thought, discarding all my initial cartoon ideas.

So I guess it should have come as no surprise when a few readers came to my book expecting a graphic memoir. After all, it is the recollection of a cartoonist. And doesn’t the cover include a drawing by the author? What threw me was that a few readers seemed to have a difficult time reconciling that a cartoonist had disavowed drawings in favor of words. (Inklings does include a few sketches. More on that later).

Truth be told, it never occurred to me to go the graphic route.

On the surface, my reasons were simple. After nearly two decades as a full-time political cartoonist, I wanted to spread my wings. As much as I enjoy creating a daily editorial cartoon, let’s face it, the space can be limiting—cartoon word balloons with too many characters are unsightly and cumbersome. On average, readers spend roughly seven seconds with an editorial cartoon. Here’s the setup. Here’s the punch line. Bam. It’s over. How about a little time for exposition? Character development? Foreshadowing?

On the other hand, finding myself in the thick of things while on deadline, working closely with editorial page colleagues, has provided an invaluable education on the art of writing clearly. It is said that in good writing one must put every word on trial for its life. How often this principle has forced me to hold court at my ink-blotted drawing table—beyond passing judgment on various political figures—employing bottles of correction fluid and X-ACTO knives, smothering or flicking to the floor, superfluous words.

Aesthetic Madness

When I first tried my hand at creative nonfiction—over a dozen years ago—I was at once intimidated and excited for the possibilities that existed on all those blank pages. Even though I was writing on a computer, that’s how I saw it—a towering stack of paper reaching into space. There was no limit to what I could write, for a thousand pages if I wanted, going off on as many tangents as my brain would allow. And then some. Eventually, of course, I would discover that even in literary writing, one must limit one’s words, depending on the story at hand. Still, it was intoxicating to know that I could draft sentences more complex than any string of words I might put into a cartoon.

In some ways, I suppose, I also believed I had something to prove. Certainly, to those who knew me only as a cartoonist, to those in the newsroom, to readers of my cartoons, but especially to myself—that yes, I am capable of  “real” writing.

Most importantly, there was an aesthetic method to my madness. Ironic as it may sound, because I so wanted to create a book rich in visual landscapes, I realized that it was words that could deliver me, not drawings; I didn’t want my artwork getting in the way of the visual aspect of my story. Some of the strongest images in my mind have come not from viewing a painting in a museum, or from reading a cartoon in a newspaper, but from absorbing a story rich in description and detail. I not only see the image in my head, but I sense it, feel it, in my bones, on my skin. Whether we draw or not, I like to think that most of us have a vivid imagination, capable of filling in the blanks, consciously or unconsciously forming images in our heads.

As intimately as possible, I wanted to show readers what I had witnessed as a child, in the home where I grew up—a small working class bungalow near the packing houses of south Omaha—its rooms congested with the stacks of broken TVs my father repaired and sold from our front porch. Some TVs had been gutted, their veins and organs strewn about or jumbled in cardboard boxes. Others flickered and glowed, throwing strange shadows throughout our living and dining rooms. Wedged in among the TVs: my father’s drum kit where he occasionally smacked out his life’s frustrations in big band style, the cymbals hovering above the junk like flying saucers, shimmering and wavy from the light of the TVs. I wanted to show readers not just what I saw, but how it felt to be there, from my point of view, in the present tense, with all my senses.

The Unconscious Cartoonist

A drawing is limiting and can only be expected to work so hard. Besides, to have created a graphic memoir showing every scene from my point of view, as though my eyes were the lens of a movie camera, would have been tedious, visually speaking, for the reader. This approach would have prevented the reader from ever seeing me, only everyone and everything else in my path. Besides, I did want readers to visualize what I looked like, and everyone else in my book, in their own way, based on just enough details. This was more than respecting the bond between reader and author. I wanted this memoir, about a cartoonist’s life, to engage readers’ imaginations, and the visual parts of their brains. In other words, I wanted to connect with the readers’ unconscious cartoonist.

Generally, graphic memoirs don’t work this way. Yes, the narrative is written in first person, but the panels often include drawings of the narrator, usually shown from another point of view. In this way, graphic memoirs are like movies—perhaps more specifically, like foreign films with subtitles. We are then watching the narrator’s story unfold, from across the room, or from across the yard, or from high above, going back and forth, to the words, to the images, again to the words. We see the narrator’s expression, her every twitch. But we are not in it, inside the narrator’s head, feeling that twitch right along with her. There is space, air, between the reader, or at least the view of the “camera” in the panel, and the narrator. We, the reader, are out “here,” looking in on the storyteller.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite books are of the graphic variety, including Alison Bechdel’s touching Fun Home and certainly, Art Spiegelman’s work of genius, Maus. I can’t imagine either existing in any other form. The bluish-green images of young Alison and her family’s gothic house and its inhabitants are exquisitely rendered. And the stark black and white and horrific scenes depicted by Spiegelman are as compelling and moving as anything I’ve seen on celluloid (I’m also a fan of foreign films). I suppose one might argue that it is the very separation between the written word and the image that engages the reader, not to mention that the artist’s particular style can save plenty of words by evoking a mood by something as simple as color choice. And yes, to invoke a cliché, often, a picture can speak a thousand words, the drawings showing the details of a room, the expressions on a face without having to describe them in words (Conversely, sometimes a few sentences can do the job of a full page of drawings.)

Ultimately, I’m not saying one approach is superior to the other. It’s just that a graphic memoir wasn’t the right approach for me this time around, for this particular book.

Indeed, I’m not ruling out creating a graphic memoir in the future. For one thing, despite the rigors of deadlines, I enjoy drawing. Especially after the pencil sketch is finished and all that’s left is inking, when I can lose myself in the lines, daydreaming or meditating. It’s tempting to believe that a graphic memoir or graphic novel wouldn’t take as long to produce as a written narrative. I admit this is a delusion, a fallacy, especially for someone like me who is practically addicted to revising.

As I was writing Inklings, it didn’t occur to me to include drawings. It wasn’t until after I had completed a rough draft that the concept of including sketches within the text of the narrative suddenly made sense. I remember talking to my literary agent, Amy Moore-Benson, about the possibility of including a few drawings inside the pages. Amy was enthusiastic about the idea and this became part of the proposal she sent to Becky Saletan—at the time with Harcourt, and later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—who acquired Inklings. Becky loved the idea of incorporating drawings within the text, images that wouldn’t appear predictably at, say, the start of each chapter, but rather, would be sprinkled throughout—little surprises. My words, therefore, would become the cake, a really good and tasty cake—the drawings, an occasional dollop of frosting. Soon I was clearing my desk of my laptop and putting on my illustrator’s hat, pen and paper at the ready, imagining I had just been handed someone else’s manuscript, rereading the pages with fresh eyes, taking notes as to what might make for an interesting sketch.

I knew right off that I would avoid showing myself and the other people who appear in my memoir; instead, I would focus on the objects that play a role in my story, objects that often carry a talisman quality. My father’s fedora, for example, makes an appearance during a pivotal scene. Also, my mother’s wigs on her Styrofoam heads. And a Dizzy Wizzy, a toy my father invented.

One incident I attempted to capture in ink, but eventually abandoned: the moment I was struck by lighting. I just couldn’t find an image that came close to expressing the piercing flash of light, the power and magnitude of that electrical charge that entered and exited my body, the instantaneous crack of thunder that rattled the earth when I was seventeen and watching an approaching storm.

Some things are better left written.


Christina Taylor Green

February 21st, 2011

I honestly don’t know where cartoon ideas come from. I mean, I can tell you that I read read read the newspaper, catch a bit of TV news, always keeping my ear to the ground, letting the news and personal observations swirl around in my head—

Pencil and paper. That’s not where the idea starts but that’s where it comes out. I know that much. Most of the time it just happens. Might take a few seconds. Might take a few hours. But eventually, the idea appears. And when it does, I sometimes laugh out loud. Of course, when you laugh at your own idea, you worry that coworkers will suspect you’re being egotistical. But the truth is, I’m often just as surprised as anyone by the ideas that show up.

Rarely, however, do I ever get emotional when an idea comes, choking back tears.

But that’s what happened when I drew this cartoon about the nine-year old girl who was killed during the assassination attempt on U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. When I learned that Christina Taylor Green had been born on September 11, 2001, I couldn’t help but think of those heroic firemen who lost their lives that day. The idea came so quickly I worried that maybe it wasn’t good enough to publish. But sometimes the ones that come quickly and without notice are the best ones.

The cartoon appeared in print; I moved on to other topics.

Now I’ve learned that the cartoon made its way to Arizona and to Christina Taylor Green’s family.

And I got choked up all over again.

May you find peace, Christina Taylor Green, and may the angels and firemen protect you.


From Murphy to Mubarak

February 11th, 2011

It’s my personal Murphy’s Law of cartooning: whenever I’m away from the newspaper for a few days, inevitably some big story happens and I miss out on a chance to comment. Fortunately, I drew this one a week ago, before taking time off…enjoy!


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