- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Goodbye to the Battle Ax, and all that. Farewell to all the animals of city and suburb, forest and veldt, who speak with a wit and insight that Washington’s pols can only envy. Peter Steiner, whose daily cartoon has been a fixture on these pages for 21 years, is returning to the planet from which he sprang, in a galaxy far away.

He leaves an eclectic cast of characters in newspaper limbo.

Animals of all kinds talk to Peter. The cats are the smartest, naturally, but his dogs are the most endearing. Lions, tigers and horses offer insights and speak them out loud, in a way that Homo sapiens, even the most pompous and arrogant of the species that abounds in the nation’s capital, never would.

He is giving up cartooning, the craft that has fired his imagination since he was 4 years old, drawing childish figures in the spaces between photographs in the sales books his father brought home from his job at the Cincinnati Sash and Door Co.

“I’m going to draw cartoons when the spirit moves me, but not for money, and not to meet a deadline,” Peter says.

He leaves next week with his wife, Jane Cook, for their summer home in the Loire Valley of France, where he has spent vacations in summers past. Sometimes he drew his topical political cartoons from there, even touching on local issues in the District, and neither suspicious editors nor unsuspecting readers could tell that he was drawing from a 3,000-mile remove.

When he’s not drawing for his own amusement, he will be working on a sequel to his first novel, “A French Country Murder,” published last year by Thomas Dunne Books, to enthusiastic reviews. He will continue to paint as well; his paintings have been exhibited in one-man shows in the District and New York, and his cartoons were displayed at an opening in Warsaw.

But that leaves the Battle Ax abandoned, with the Washington pomposities and all those talking animals lost somewhere between memory and imagination.

“I’ve never quite figured out whether Peter Steiner sees the world through the long end of a telescope, examining the denizens of the planet at the widest possible angle,” Wesley Pruden, the editor in chief of The Times, wrote in a foreword to a collection of Peter’s cartoons a decade ago, “or with a microscope, the better to see the entire range of foibles that makes those denizens endlessly fascinating, up close and personal.”

Peter’s wit is actually subtle, not angry, and his sallies usually gentle, not brutal, though he doesn’t see his work quite that way. “I don’t know when I turned mean,” he says. “But by junior high school I had discovered that when I made cartoons I got attention and exacted a measure of revenge at the same time. Malice is still the first impulse behind most of the cartoons I make. Certainly the best ones. I do not know why that is.

“So where does this malice come from? It is, I think, a constitutional peculiarity. It is not so much that I feel malice toward particular people. It is rather against certain ways of thinking and being — moral rectitude, smugness, sanctimony, superiority — that I feel driven to take my revenge. Perhaps it is because I sometimes see and dislike those qualities in myself.”

Peter was born in Cincinnati 63 years ago to Austrian immigrants who had fled the turmoil that would erupt into World War II. He drew cartoons throughout junior and senior high school, and won a scholarship to the University of Miami with the help of a university official who took a particular delight in discovering cartoonists. True to the contrarian instincts that drive cartoonists and newspapermen, he majored in German and bedeviled university officials with cartoons in the student newspaper. The rest is history.

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