Jen Sorensen talks about the process behind her cartoon, Slowpoke, and where she gets her inspiration

Jen Sorensen bends over a piece of paper, her blue pencil marking the boundaries of a 9-by-9-inch square. Using a ruler, she moves methodically, deliberately. She takes her time; that’s her nature. “I do tend to take a little bit longer than the average person to do just about everything,” she says. She chose Slowpoke as the name for her cartoon as a self-deprecating joke, a poke at her own pokiness.

“But it’s also my personal philosophy. I don’t think we’ve really benefited from increased speed and faster and faster technology,” she says.

It’s a philosophy rich with opportunities for satire. On a weekly basis, Sorensen (Col ’96) dissects current events and the fleeting tweets of high-tech culture with a few choice words and deft strokes of her pen.

Take health care, for example. In the same week that the Washington Post carried a headline saying “Economic Advisers Extol Benefits of Cutting Health-Care Spending,” Slowpoke explored the health care system in decidedly unextolling fashion. Readers followed a maze that led to a common end: the characters dying of gangrene.

“Sly, quick and smart, Jen Sorensen’s comic strip is nothing like its name,” Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, says on the cover of Sorensen’s fourth and latest book, One Nation, Oh My God! “Don’t be deceived—Slowpoke is going places.”

Sorensen already has covered some impressive ground. She’s won five awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and her cartoons have appeared in mainstream publications as well as alternative weeklies, including Charlottesville’s C-VILLE. She’s been profiled in the Washington Post, interviewed by the BBC and praised profusely by fellow cartoonists. Tom Tomorrow, creator of This Modern World, calls her “a maniacal genius.”

Back at the drawing board, Sorensen gives shape to one of her cartoon characters. Mr. Perkins, whose head looks like one of those elongated animal balloons, is a Slowpoke regular, with roles ranging from the country’s president to a politics professor. Drooly Julie, another regular, puts sex and sexuality into comic relief with her randy rants.

Before putting pencil to paper, though, Sorensen develops the latest adventure in Slowpokedom through serious vegging out.

“My creative process really looks like I’m taking a nap. I just lie down with my notebook or sit outside, but really, I’m working, I’m thinking,” Sorensen says. Once the words jell, then come the sketching, the inking, the Photoshopping, the …

Wait. Photoshop? That’s high-tech software. Isn’t it a double standard to skewer technology on one hand and embrace it on the other?

Sorensen acknowledges running with the pack. She uses Photoshop to color and fine-tune each cartoon. She’s on Facebook, has a Twitter account and keeps a blog on her Web page.

“But I do it with a skeptic’s eye. That doesn’t mean I can’t make fun of it,” she says.

Take Twitter, for example. In a cartoon poking fun at how the current “age of irony” differs from the greatest generation in dealing with economic travails, she depicts “Soup Kitchen Twittering.”

A woman in the soup line tweets: “Waiting in line for some beige-colored slop.” Two minutes later: “About to get the beige-colored slop.”

Guy with ladle then tweets: “Now serving beige slop.”

That sort of incisive wit, along with the cartoon’s visual style, sets Slowpoke apart, says Cathy Harding, editor in chief of C-VILLE. “Visually, it’s much more inventive than This Modern World,” which also runs in C-VILLE.“It’s drawn in a witty and clever way,” Harding says.

The range and breadth of her lens also distinguish Sorensen, Harding says. “It’s not just political; it’s not just about wars.”

Make no mistake, though—readers with an appetite for politics find plenty of fodder in Slowpokedom. Though she’s given liberals and Democrats a few nicks, conservatives and Republicans bear the bigger scars from her pen.

“I really try to be very empirical and tell it as I see it,” she says. “But, as the saying goes, the facts are biased.”

Her political activism belies her upbringing. Her parents were apolitical teachers in Lancaster, Pa. Her first significant political memory is attending a Ronald Reagan rally in 1984. But by the time George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988, her political views had solidified.

Jen Sorensen Photo by Luca DiCecco

Still, humankind in general more than politics in particular absorbed Sorensen, so she majored in anthropology at U.Va. Her childhood love of drawing evolved in cartoons like L’il Gus, and she was published in a collection of women cartoonists titled Action Girl. She traces the origins of Mr. Perkins to doodles done while she lived at Monroe Hill/Brown College.

Her fourth year proved significant in several ways. She lived on the Lawn, and she met Scott Johnsen (Grad ’07), an anthropology grad student who now is her husband. She also wrote a thesis on underground women cartoonists. “I started thinking, maybe instead of going to grad school I should practice what I’m preaching in my thesis and draw some myself.”

Anthropology professor Ellen Contini-Morava remembers the “wonderful comics” that Sorensen drew for that thesis. “She was an inspiration to my own daughter, who had always been interested in comic art, even though my daughter didn’t wind up doing it for a living.”

After cranking out a book of cartoons, developing a regional following in Punchline in Richmond and finding a national niche in Funny Times magazine, Sorensen landed her regular weekly gig in C-VILLE in 2002. People noticed, demand for her work grew and in 2005 she went freelance full time.

Pursuing a career as a cartoonist means picking passion over practicality. As Sorensen put it in a BBC interview, “Most of us do this because we have to. Cartooning doesn’t pay well financially, but it does pay well existentially.”

One of the existential perks is cultivating the slow life. Until recently, Sorensen and Johnsen grew and cooked “a fair amount” of their own food at their home in the Monticello area. They began the summer on a leisurely adventure westward to Seattle, where they have family.

“I’m completely mobile. I can work from anywhere,” Sorensen says. “We were ready for a change of pace.”

The sputtering economy has taken some steam out of Slowpoke’s growth. At her peak, Sorensen was in more than 20 publications; that number has dropped to the mid-teens, she says. She’s been diversifying her artistic portfolio by drawing for non-Slowpoke clients.

She’s also developed a sizable online audience. Take, for example, reaction to “A Pixelated Past,” a Slowpoke strip mocking virtual reality. A social bookmarking site in Iceland picked it up, and Sorensen started getting thousands of hits. “I calculated that 1 percent of the population of Iceland saw the strip that day.”

So, given the cultural appetite for satire, and given the nature of politics and the foibles of human endeavor, Sorensen will always have an audience and material.

“I’ll continue to draw Slowpoke as long as it’s feasible, as long as there are papers publishing it.”

Back at the drawing board, that elongated balloon head develops into a futuristic Mrs. Perkins looking at three different monitors while zipping around on what looks like a jet-propelled surfboard.

The setting: “Deep in an alternate universe is a society in which life is lived solely through electronic gadgets.”

The punch line: A man touts the new “Bindle” (aka a plain old-fashioned book) that operates without power, then he promotes another breakthrough device (aka a marker and clipboard) where “one can compose text without a keyboard!”

Slowpoke scores again.

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The Artist and Her Influences

If you want to trace the roots of Jen Sorensen’s influences, look no further than the ducks of Walt Disney.

As a child growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Sorensen drew adventure stories patterned after the ducky adventures of the late Carl Barks, aka “The Duck Man.” He created Disney’s Duckburg, which included Donald, his nephews, Daisy and Scrooge McDuck. Barks also drew Disney comic books from the early 1940s to the late 1960s.
Things took a turn for the twisted in the ’60s, when Robert Crumb—aka R. Crumb—hit the scene. Mr. Natural and other R. Crumb characters fed a groundswell of underground cartoons that found favor in the counterculture and later caught Sorensen’s eye.

Fast forward to Matt Groening (Life in Hell, The Simpsons) and the surge of alternative weeklies during the 1990s, and you’ll find more Sorensen influences. Now, Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Roz Chast (The New Yorker), Ruben Bolling (Tom the Dancing Bug), Tom Tomorrow (This Modern World), Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte—even TV satirists Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report)—help keep an edge on her wit.

Among mainstream editorial cartoonists, Tom Toles of the Washington Post earns special mention. “He is one of my favorite editorial cartoonists,” says Sorensen. “I think he’s one of the best working today.”

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