Interview with Jen Sorenson
by Mason Adams


What's the worst thing anybody's said to you?
Someone wrote the editor of the San Diego paper and called me a cunt. It was like, "You all can go to hell, and the same to that cunt Jen Sorensen." That was definitely the angriest, harshest one. It was right after Bush had done his publicity stunt, landing on the aircraft carrier. I did a strip pointing out how goofy that was. I think that was what that person was referring to. There was also an article in that issue of the paper they were angry about. Although that's a sign you're doing your job. I think getting some hate mail is better than getting no hate mail. Maybe.

I know we're going chronologically then digressing in between. Going back to the comic, after Slowpoke #1 came out you started doing a weekly, then Cafe Pompous was a collection of those strips.
That's right. It was after the first book I decided I wanted to play to a larger audience. It seemed like weekly papers were the right format for me. I like doing shorter humorous pieces as opposed to longer narratives. Coming out of the tradition of doing a daily strip, doing Lil' Gus, it felt like a good medium to try my hand at. Immediately after the first book was published I started working on weekly strips and sent them to a paper called Punchline in Richmond. They picked it up, and it ran about 4, maybe 5 years before they went bankrupt. They had some really bad accounting skills there. But the editor was a very nice guy, and very supportive, so for a long time it just ran in Punchline. The Funny Times was the second paper. Unfortunately, since I've had a day job all this time, I really haven't had the time to promote the strip as much as I should. I have just enough time to draw it every week. That's about it.

How does it compare to when you were doing the daily? Is it less stressful because you're doing fewer strips, or is it more stressful because of the larger audience?
I think less stressful. It's a real grind doing a daily. Every single day you have to think of something. You don't have as much time to just relax and try and get inspired. I think the weekly format works better, because in altweeklies you have a bigger print area, whereas the daily strips are very tiny. You can't really draw in great detail. You can't make a side gag because they're so tiny people can't read them. In the alt weekly-type strips, you can work in little background gags. That format really works well for me. It can be difficult, if I'm busy, balancing that with a day job. I had to plan for my wedding this spring, and that was a real pain in the ass, having to do that and the strip. Somehow work just went by the wayside.

Are you with a syndication company now?
No. It runs in 6 or 7 papers now. As far as regular weekly type papers are concerned, it runs in Gainesville, Fla., Norfolk, Charlottesville, San Diego and Spokane, Wash., and the Funny Times. There's a leftist political magazine called Z that ran strips not too long ago. I'm going to start sending more stuff to them. Once a year I do a bulk mailing to all the alternative papers in the country. I picked up the C-ville Weekly from going to the AAN convention, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Every year they have this convention in different cities, where editors of different papers around the country get together and party. It's actually a lot of fun. This year it was in Pittsburgh. You just hang out together and drink. For me, the best part is getting to hang out with other cartoonists, like Ted Rall and Ruben Bolling, who does Tom the Dancing Bug. Since then I've picked up a couple papers just from them contacting me out of the blue. So it's a little bit here and there, through mailings, through going to conventions, and sometimes just out of the blue. Those are really the best ones, where someone e-mails you, "Hey I want to run your strip!" It seems too good to be true when that happens.

Do you deal with those personally, or do you have an agent, or do you go through Alternative Comics, or what?

For the newspaper end of the business, that's all me. Alternative Comics doesn't have a whole lot to do with that. Jeff helped me out with the Gainesville paper; he's sort of the comics editor for that paper. I handle the weekly strip myself, emailing it out and keeping track of paychecks. I've reached the level where I need to set up a spreadsheet to keep track of who's paying me and who's not. Fortunately they've all been pretty good. But I've been thinking having a syndicate would be cool. And in fact someone contacted me from Universal Press Syndicate a couple weeks ago saying they really liked my strip and wanted to get my book. I was trying to feel them out, like, "Well, you KNOW, I'm self-syndicated now, but I might be open to the idea of syndication if you were thinking about it." The problem with the big syndicates is they are mostly interested in dailies. It's pretty hard to get syndicated as a weekly cartoon. They want the next Calvin & Hobbes, something that's going to be 300, 400 papers around the nation. Except for Ruben Bolling, he got syndicated somehow. Ted Rall is syndicated, but he does three strips a week and they can pass as editorial cartoons.

I know Rall, Tom Tomorrow, Red Meat and The City, those are all ... everywhere I've gone they've got 'em.
I think all three of them are self-syndicated. Derf is self-syndicated. Tom Tomorrow is firmly self-syndicated. Once you reach a certain point, and have a lot of papers under your belt, there's no need for a syndicate. There's no need for you to split the profits. I'm at the point where I could probably use the promotional boost, simply because I don't have quite enough time to do it myself right now. But once you have a couple dozen papers, why split the profits?

You do address a lot of national political issues. How do you stay informed?

I've gotten pretty obsessed with following the news, especially since the 2000 election. I subscribe to the Washington Post, which I read every day. They've become kind of Republican assholes though.

That's the trend, it seems. Everyone's trying to compete with Fox News so they're moving to the right to try and grab that audience.

It's weird because there's this schism in the Washington Post between their news reporting, which tends to be very good — they do some very good investigative reporting — but then their house editorials are a joke! They somehow completely contradict the news on the front page. Just last week they had this article on the front page about how much the evidence for Iraq having a nuclear arsenal was exaggerated. And then on the inside, in the editorials, they were criticizing Gore's speech, saying that was conspiracy theory stuff from people who think the truth was somehow manipulated. But it's on the front page of your paper! When I'm at work I read the New York Times online. I read Tom Tomorrow's blog every day. He has a pretty good blog. He summarizes all the stories you might not hear in the news.

Where do your political views come from? Is that from your parents, or what you read in the paper, or from campus? Everyone always blames the "liberal professors" these days.
I spent most of my life in fairly conservative environments. Lancaster, Penn., is a very conservative area, very religious area. I consider my parents very moderate Democrats. They're not liberal activists by any stretch. They think Bush is stupid, and they like Dean, but they also only watch NBC News. They were for the war in Iraq. The best description is maybe a middle American viewpoint, and I guess if you subtract the religious right, you're left with my parents. My mom is a little more of a Democrat. Being a teacher, you know, teacher's unions tend to go Democrat. Then I went to UVA, which as far as universities go, it's still a little more conservative. I'd say it's kind of a balance. Half the people are into the whole frat scene. Then you get this mix of other people that aren't into that. I think it [the political view] just kind of came from within. I remember the Dukakis/Bush race in 1988, and I remember I got really into that. I guess I was 13. I remember watching the Democratic National Convention on TV. I was a young budding progressive. I can't say exactly when that started or why. As long as I can remember I've leaned left, I guess.

Do you ever look at what's going on in Charlottesville and think about politics on a smaller scale, on a local or regional level?
That's something I should think about more than I do. I read the C-Ville Weekly. My strip runs nationally, so I can't really address local politics in it. My focus is more on national news.

It starts with national politics I guess, and it's all interconnected at some point. But industrial manufacturing is on its way out. Suddenly these small towns are losing 1000 jobs factories, and tourism is becoming a larger industry, that sort of thing. It starts nationally but is having a huge impact at the local scale.
I've heard that's happening. Where I grew up, it's largely agricultural, and they still have a pretty good economy up there. And then, in Charlottesville, we've got the university, and that keeps things going. Although around here, it's really tough to get a job right now. There's some tech stuff here in Charlottesville. I guess it's something I really haven't experienced first-hand.

For couch progressives, what do you recommend for people to get involved in stuff?
If I didn't have the comic, which pretty much takes up all my free time, I would probably get involved with a political campaign. That just seems like a good way to go and a good way to meet people too. I agree with what you said, you have a lot more impact at the local level. It's true. I do feel a little absurd sometimes just talking about national politics, when all I can do is vote. And as far as that goes, in the state of Virginia, my vote is never going to count because everything goes to the right. In Virginia it really doesn't matter what you do. Though I do feel pretty strong in this next election. I think the Democrats need every last vote they can get. As pitiful as they've been, I'm hoping Nader doesn't run this time. I think people have to unite against Bush, and that's the only way it's going to happen. Because Republicans are united. They are very strategic. They don't splinter. For this next election, I really support Dean, and I hope he carries it.

Could you talk a little bit about how you ended up getting the Xeric grant and publishing Cafe Pompous?
The Xeric Grant is a grant put out by the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to fund comic book self-publishers. I actually applied for it once before for the first book, although at that time the book wasn't really complete and I sent in a hodge-podge of stuff. So I didn't get it that first time and tried again for Cafe Pompous, when I did have the majority of the book completed. In October 2000, I got the fat envelope back from the Xeric Foundation, and they gave me everything I'd asked for to put out my book, which in the end turned out to be a few hundred dollars short. That's OK. That was a big boost. That raises the profile of the book. You can always say you are a Xeric Grant winner. "Xeric Grant-winning author Jen Sorensen." They do a wonderful job helping self-publishers.

How's the response been on this book?
It's been pretty good. I got a lot of responses back from people saying it was funny. One slight irritation was the Comics Journal review of it. If you're familiar with them, they're known for their harsh style of criticism, and they made a point about the comics industry that just really gets to me. They said because it touched on political issues, like topical issues, that made it mainstream, and therefore banal. The Comics Journal is all about raising the medium to this high art form. That's why they really like existential, artsy comics, which I don't have a problem with. But there's this sense that if you do something topical or just not artsy, per se, that that's kind of mainstream and a lower form of art. It struck me as unfair. Aside from that, all the rest of the feedback I've gotten has been pretty positive.

I thought it was right up my alley. If you make a political statement, and if you mix humor with it, you can always deflect criticism by saying, "Oh it's a joke." How do you balance your humor with accountability in making a political stance?
I try to take pains not to make it political all the time. What I do best is more social commentary, making fun of things you see in the culture. I have to resist the temptation to constantly do political strips, because that's what's on my mind a lot these days. My goal is not to make it just a straightforward political strip. For me the more important thing, above all, is just to be funny. There was this panel of editorial cartoonists that came to UVA this spring, and they kept saying that it didn't matter so much if it was funny, so long as it made a point. Whereas I feel it's the other way around — sometimes I want to make a point, but not if it's not funny. Even if an issue upsets me, if I can't turn it into an amusing strip I'm not going to do it. I don't want to be seen as didactic and preachy.

I think being funny and carrying that humorous element is a good way to comment without being preachy.
Again, I have to check myself. Sometimes you just want to state your opinion and be very straightforward but I always try to follow the "show, don't tell" policy. I think that's a lot more effective, as strong as that impulse might be to just rant. Although once in a while, I'm guilty. This past week's strip was pretty much a straight-forward rant, though I tried to make it funny too. I don't feel that being funny undermines the political message; I think it enhances it. It exposes the irony and hypocrisy of whatever it is that I'm talking about. Humor is more of a tool than an impediment to making a point.

How's the response been among your peers?
Ted Rall included me in an anthology called "Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists." He contacted me through the Funny Times. He turned to them to find some of the cartoonists for his book. I was very fortunate because I had just sent stuff off to them, and, I think, a couple weeks later he contacted them asking for the names of people. Ted has been really supportive. I've gotten to hang out with Tom Tomorrow a couple times too. He's spoken highly of my strip to editors, I gather, which certainly doesn’t hurt. And Ruben Bolling has been supportive too. Tom the Dancing Bug is one of my favorite cartoons. I think he’s very funny. I like the way he makes political commentary. It's always playful, and he tells goofy stories instead of just hitting you over the head with his point.

I know you've talked about it, it's on your website, but can you talk a little bit about what the title Slowpoke means?
It comes from my personal philosophy of avoiding the rat race and not moving unnecessarily quickly. That's not to be confused with laziness or apathy. I guess it's more of a stop-and-smell-the-roses approach to life. I like to take my time and do things right, and it seems like it's getting harder and harder to do that in today’s world. The pace of life is increasing, and you have to work hard to not get drawn into that.

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Copyright 2003 Jen Sorenson