Jen Sorensen: Using Humor as a Political Tool

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Jen Sorensen began her career as a cartoonist while studying at the University of Virginia, where she drew a daily strip called Lil’ Gus. After graduating with a major in anthropology, she became obsessed enough with comics and cartooning to opt out of attending graduate school to create her first comic book, Slowpoke #1, which was published by Alternative Comics in 1998.

Her work is published in a number of alt-weeklies as well as in The Funny Times and Ms. Magazine. A full-page cartoon she created appears in the October 2005 issue of The American Prospect, and her newest book, Slowpoke: America Gone Bonkers, is available in stores. Her Slowpoke strips, which often feature her distinct characters dealing with absurd and ironic political situations, won her a first-place 2005 AltWeekly Award for cartoons appearing in fewer than five alt-weeklies, though it runs in more papers now. Sorensen lives and works in Charlottesville, Va.

Describe the process of drawing a strip. How much do you do by hand and how much by computer?

Most of the strip is drawn by hand. First I do a very rough drawing in pencil, and then go over that in ink and add the details in ink. Then I scan it in and add certain elements in Photoshop, like the panel borders, the Slowpoke logo and the shading. I correct any mistakes in Photoshop. I don’t use whiteout anymore, which makes for some interesting-looking originals.

How important is format in telling the story?

Like many other cartoons in the alt-weekly genre, my strips tend to be more complex than a daily comic. Typically they are four panels, although I sometimes will do six panels or one big panel. I like having enough space to have fun with the artwork and to throw in side gags, which would be difficult if Slowpoke were confined to a daily-newspaper strip format.

The linear, three-panel strip format works very well for people like David Rees, the author of Get Your War On, and Max Cannon, who does Red Meat. It’s excellent for the quick, punchy one-liner.

How many strips do you do at a time?

One per week. Some cartoonists do a few extra to get ahead, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do lately, to have some backups in case I’m sick or traveling. But with political cartoons about topical subjects, you obviously can’t plan too much ahead. When Hurricane Katrina hit, for example, I dropped the cartoon I had been working on and wrote an entirely new one the day before my deadline.

Do you feel like you try to make a political point with your comics?

My strip has certainly evolved into a more political strip in the last few years, and that’s a reflection of where my mind has been. I’m not alone in that, I think a lot of cartoonists who used to do more social commentary now find themselves doing more political cartoons.

Lately I find myself wanting to get back into writing social-commentary strips in addition to the political cartoons, partly to keep the strip from becoming predictable. Also, there are lots of silly trends out there begging to be mocked. It’s hard to get away from politics, though, with the appointments to the Supreme Court and Katrina and all the Republican scandals. Readers expect to hear what you have to say about those things.

Where do you get your ideas? Do you watch the news?

I generally try to avoid TV news; if I do tune in, it’s more to see how something is being reported than to actually get the news. I read a lot of news online. I read The New York Times, the progressive blogs, and, of course, I am obligated to read The Onion.

Ideas tend to occur while you’re walking around going about your daily business, so it’s important to keep a notebook and write ideas down as you get them. Although that’s advice I don’t necessarily follow myself. [Laughs.] I tend to think of ideas while I’m driving or shampooing my dog—any activity that does not lend itself to grabbing a pen and paper.

How do you cope when you aren’t feeling funny? What do you do to get back on track?

I tend to work better under pressure, so when that sense of panic kicks in, I force myself to come up with something. Sometimes when you do that, you don’t realize whether a cartoon is a good idea or not. You just start doing it. Often cartoons I thought I was just eking out at the last minute turn out to be reader favorites. "Funnel Cake Lovers for Truth," one of the cartoons I entered in the AltWeekly Awards contest, was one that got a good response. The creative process itself is fairly unglamorous. [Laughs.] It often resembles taking a nap in my case.

One way or another I manage to work it out. Certainly there have been moments of panic on several occasions, but knowing that I can’t miss that deadline makes me produce something. I consult my notebook, and usually there will be an idea to use in there, or the seed of a cartoon.

How does humor come into play? Does it help people to identify with what you’re saying?

Definitely. Humor is a more effective political tool than anger. While anger certainly has its place, getting people to laugh at something is more effective than just yelling at them. When I write my cartoons, making them funny is at least as important to me as making a political point. It’s easy to just say something that people will agree with, but the real challenge is to pose the idea in an original and funny way.

Who are your major artistic influences?

My first major influence was Carl Barks, who drew a lot of the Donald Duck cartoons I read as a kid. They’re actually very sophisticated; there’s a lot of adult humor there. I read MAD magazine as a kid and I liked Jack Davis. There’s also a great book called Humans by Mike Dowdall and Pat Welch, which came out in the ’80s. I must have read it dozens of times. Later I got into Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge and Basil Wolverton, who did weird drawings of twisted mutant-like people.

What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

Don’t necessarily go with the first thing you write. Do a lot of editing. I have to admit that my strips often have a lot of words, but it’s best to strive for the most meaning in the fewest words possible.

Also, working on your lettering is important. A lot of people do it in Photoshop, but I prefer to do it by hand. I like the natural look of doing it by hand. Having neat, clean, legible lettering that holds up when editors shrink the strip down is important.

As far as promoting a strip is concerned, the two basic things that cartoonists can do is to send out samples to the papers listed on the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ Web site, maybe eight samples once or twice a year. I’ve found that going to the AAN conventions has also been helpful. It’s a little expensive but it’s been worth it for me.

Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.

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