For more than twenty years, my colleague in editorial cartooning here in Cincinnati has been Jeff Stahler. Jeff spent most of those years drawing across town at the Cincinnati Post, the smaller afternoon newspaper, and now he works remotely for the Columbus Dispatch from his studio above his garage in a leafy old suburb here called Wyoming.
Yesterday we had lunch together at a cozy cafe near his house on a glad-I'm-alive sunny autumn Thursday. The trees were every color between yellow and red outside the window. As we drank coffee and talked I found myself appreciating how lucky I've been to have such a genuine friend as Jeff to compare thoughts with over the course of my career and to push me to do my best work.
It would be pressing it to call what we have a rivalry. We frequently talk to each other on the phone as we ink and are pretty open in sharing our thought process with each other, falling about a foot-and-a-half short of actually disclosing the idea we're working on. Jeff is a quick reactor to the news and often has a cartoon in the paper just as I'm beginning to focus on the topic. I think of myself as a ponderous cartoonist, opting for the deeper thought if it takes an extra day to cook. For that reason, Jeff has jack-rabbited past me on a regular basis, and in today's quick-cycle news world that is an approach that has its benefits.
Jeff built a new garage two years ago for the purpose of perching a studio above it. This was my first visit. It's a large eaved room with a couch under one set of windows for reading, which he does around 7:30 each morning after walking with his wife Jeannie for an hour in their neighborhood. ("On Mondays we always take a flat route. By the end of the week we may venture up a hill," he says.) His drawing board and computer are nestled in an opposite corner with an adjoining desk for organizing his piles of work. He stays in touch with his editor in Columbus via a small laptop and files his stuff electronically mid-afternoon. There's soft jazz on the radio. And there's quite a large open space in the room. "For pacing," he says.
Jeff draws his Dispatch cartoons, a weekly Wednesday cartoon for USA Today, and the daily panel Moderately Confused, a feature NEA syndicates much as it had Jim Berry's Berry's World. It's a lot of work, but Jeff shrugs it off with his big easy grin. I can't remember ever seeing him flustered or panicked. The stuff seems to roll right down his arm onto the paper.
Stahler is one of the most under-appreciated cartoonists around. Every cartoon works. His ideas are absolutely water-tight, insightful, funny, sophisticated. And he draws in that deceptively simple the-sparer-the-better style that demands every line be exactly where it should be. His characters always have life, nuanced expression and great natural movement. Somehow, after drawing fifty thousand couples saying something to each other in front of a TV, he still breathes life and uniqueness into each one. And the kids he draws feel like they've been lifted directly out of the house next door.
I don't know how momentum builds around certain cartoonists to be finally recognized with the prizes and awards they deserve, but I wish it would build around Jeff. His quiet and graceful style may always be the gentler party in the room when judges gather. But name me an editorial cartoonist who hits for a higher average. Jeff Stahler's cartoons deserve a Pulitzer Prize and I hope someday soon the spotlight shines on him.