Interview with Jen Sorenson
by Mason Adams

Comic strips like Ted Rall's "Search and Destroy" and Tom Tomorrow's "This Modern World" are setting the standard for political cartoons in the 21st Century. And they're appearing in alternative weekly papers, not dailies.

Jen Sorensen is one of this new breed of cartoonists. She writes and draws "Slowpoke," which appears in papers from Florida and Virginia to California. She lives just east of the Blue Ridge mountains in Charlottesville, Va., and her work straddles the dual worlds of alternative weekies and underground comix. Sorensen started out cartooning for her college paper but after graduation moved into self-publishing. She's still gaining momentum, but her success so far offers a model for do-it-yourself publishers, writers and artists in New Appalachia.

You can find her work in "Slowpoke #1" and "Slowpoke: Café Pompous," both distributed by Alternative Comics, as well as several anthologies. For more information, check out her website at slowpokecomics.com.

At 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, August 16, at Jen Sorensen’s home in Charlottesville. I came in and she offered me a Boddingtons. In the living room I noticed a shelf of vinyl records. In the corner, with a pile of stuff to be moved out, was a blow-up doll with a George W. Bush mask, given to Sorensen as a practical joke for her wedding.

In the kitchen I read a "Tom the Dancing Bug" comic on the fridge as she got the beer.

How long have you been doing cartoons?
I used to do them as a kid, just for my own amusement. I used to read a lot of Disney comics. My favorite ones were the Disney adventure stories, like Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. I would model my own stories, featuring humanized dogs, after these comics. I'd send them on adventures around the world, like Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Eventually I grew out of that.

What was the name of the town?
I grew up in Conestoga, a very small town. It's right outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is sort of a medium sized city, so I wasn't totally out in the sticks. I think it was smaller than a suburb, like a rural town. This is in the eastern part of the state, where the Amish are. I spent 17 years in the same town. I did these cartoons as a kid, these fictitious adventure stories to amuse myself. There weren't many kids in my neighborhood to play with. And we didn't have cable TV. Maybe that's it.

Did you read comics in high school, or newspaper comic strips?
I read cartoons in the newspaper, like Calvin & Hobbes and the Far Side, that sort of thing. And MAD Magazine. I didn't get into alternative comics until I got to college. Then I discovered R. Crumb. I suppose R. Crumb was the first big influence. And Peter Bagge, and Basil Wolverton.

I have to confess, I'm more underschooled in alternative comics than a lot of alternative comics fans are. I go to conventions and know a lot of the people, but especially these days I feel a little bit underread.

Your cartoons seem to have more of a newspaper influence. Especially Calvin & Hobbes, I see some of that in your cartoons. Gus looks a little bit like Calvin in a way.
I used to kind of dress him like Calvin. He used to always wear a striped shirt and black pants like Calvin did, so I think that was an unconscious decision on my part. I changed his wardrobe slightly over the years. I drew Lil’ Gus as a daily strip in college.

Was Gus the first character of the three? How did you develop him?
This was my third year of college. I just did the strip for one year. I found doing a daily strip really exhausting. It was five a week, on top of coursework. I don't know how I did it. I don't think I could do that anymore. I just didn't sleep.

I developed the concept the night before the first strip was due for the newspaper. Basically something bad always happened to Lil’ Gus. The strip always ended with him getting blown up or bamboozled in one way or another.

I was really schooled in the old newspaper comics. I've read some of the alternative stuff lately. But when I read your strip, it reminded me of some of the older strips I used to love.
It's true. I really do feel like I straddle these two markets. The alternative comics scene is a lot smaller and very different from the newspaper world. I get the sense that there's a little bit of bias in the alternative comics community against anything too mainstream.

Are you known in that community? Do people recognize your work?
I go to a convention and I have a lot of people coming up saying, 'So when's the next book coming out?' It's been a few years, so I'm going to get that again next month, when I go to SPX.

That’s the one convention I don't miss, the one I go to every year. I just feel like there are 2 different markets I have to appeal to. I'm a little partial to the alt-weekly scene.

I want to touch on that a little later. Let's get back to Lil' Gus.

It's just kind of a surreal absurdist strip. I ultimately got tired of destroying Lil’ Gus at the end of every cartoon. The second semester, I introduced Mr. Perkins, who came about as a doodle. I was just experimenting with drawing different shaped characters. I showed my doodles to my roommate, who really liked Mr. Perkins. I have to say there's no intention on my part making Mr Perkins a phallic symbol.

You've used him as that.
I guess I've done a strip or two, where he's been the president; the symbolism is very undeniable.

There's that one: "And if erected I'll..."
Yeah. That was after the fact. After everyone else was like, "oh yeah he's a phallic symbol" I said alright I'll MAKE him a phallic symbol! But that wasn't my initial intention.

And Gus and Drooly Julie have their personalities whereas Mr. Perkins is sort of Phil Hartman to your strip's Saturday Night Live. He plays roles more than Julie and Gus do.
I often use him to play unsavory characters ... the president, or a corrupt CEO. He's uptight and haughty. He has this authority figure thing going.

You did the strip your junior year. What type of reaction did you get?
It was great. I met a lot of people through it. It was mostly guys that were into it. I guess Gus getting destroyed appealed to a certain aspect of the male psyche.

Were there any strips that people got upset about? Like the one with Garfield hanging himself?
It wasn't too controversial usually. Sometimes it would get a little bit morbid. The paper was pretty good about not censoring it. Maybe once there was a swear word they didn't let me use.

How many strips did you put out in those 2 semesters?

One for just about every school day. Except I stopped about two weeks before the end of the school year because I had to study for finals. I just learned my entire semester's worth of coursework in that last two weeks. Certainly I wasn't doing anything while I was doing the strip. I gave up doing that for my fourth year and instead just did some illustrations for this weekly news magazine at UVA called the Declaration. That was a little better for me because I had to write my thesis that year. I wound up writing it on humor in alternative comics drawn by women. For that I relied on a book called "Twisted Sisters,” which featured the work of women underground cartoonists from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Crumb's wife, was one of the Twisted Sisters, and Leslie Sternbergh was one of my favorites.

I got to live on the Lawn my fourth year. The Lawn is the original, historic area of the University, designed by Jefferson. People apply to live in one of the 54 rooms, and are chosen on the basis of their contributions to the University. Fortunately for me, one of the judges must have been a Lil' Gus fan. Come to think of it, they picked a lot of creative types that year. In the past it had been mostly politicos -- student council types, future bureaucrats. The bathrooms are outside, so you have to walk around in your bathrobe.

How'd you go from doing the daily and weekly stuff to your own comic?
I think it was the summer after my second year of college. I was contacted by Sarah Dyer, the long-time girlfriend of Evan Dorkin, who does "Milk and Cheese." She was putting out a new anthology at that time called "Action Girl," an anthology of female cartoonists. She had seen something I did for a UVA publication and she asked me if I wanted to contribute to the first issue of "Action Girl.” That was my first foray into the world of professional cartooning, doing something outside a school setting. So for the next couple years of college I would contribute to Action Girl. That's kind of what got me thinking, 'Oh, I could do my own comic book.' By the time my last year of college came around, I was obsessed with doing comics and burnt out on academics. By the time I got out of school I was just really gung-ho about putting out my first comic book. I started doing a lot of humorous short stories. I didn't really have a clear format in mind. I was using Crumb as a model. You know how he had really short, one-page strips, and then six or seven page stories. That's where Drooly Julie came along. She was introduced in that comic book.

How did you come up with her?

I was inspired by Crumb. She was my attempt to turn the tables on Crumb and his humorous cartoons about lusting after women. I don't really have a huge problem with objectification. It's just that it needs to go both ways. So, I think, why not celebrate the male form? Have a female pervert.

There's a distinction to be made between Drooly Julie and a slut. A lot people say, 'Yeah, Drooly Julie, that character of yours, that slut' but a slut is someone who just sees herself as an object, allows herself to get used, whereas Drooly Julie is the female gaze. She is the subject and men are the object.

She seems more proactive.
Exactly. Unfortunately Drooly Julie never really gets ... I don't think she's ever gotten what she wants. Sort of like the coyote and road runner, she never really quite catches her prey.

Is there much of yourself in these characters or are have they come alive to you, or is it something different?
There's probably a little bit of myself in all three. None of them is explicitly me. Lil' Gus is kind of my existential side. He's always full of ennui, and unpleasant things are always happening to him, so he's sort of that side of me that's like, "Oh god, not this, not again." Mr. Perkins is uptight and chooses his words very carefully, and I think I have a bit of that, especially when speaking into a tape recorder. He represents my anal-retentive side. Drooly Julie's kind of a combination of women I've known through the years, college friends. I think there's a lot that doesn't get revealed publicly. There's a lot of sexual frustration among college females, at least when I was in school. Maybe people are taking care of that these days.

I saw it on both sides. I had both male and female friends that were very frustrated and talked about it a lot.
I think women tend to talk about it with each other. So she's not just me, but numerous women who are pining after various men. It's easy to think, well, hey, for a woman that's not a problem, but it's not as easy as people think it is to meet that guy. But it finally worked out for me. After four long, bitter years in college I finally met Scott in class my last semester. We started dating that summer. So we were together almost seven years and got married this June.

What does he think of all this? Does he adamantly support it?

He's really supportive. He's been a big fan of comics over the years too. He's probably got a larger collection of cartoon books than I do. Our collections combined make for a very nice library of cartoon books. The people he likes are B. Kliban, Gahan Wilson, Crumb, more absurdist humor from the ’60s and ’70s. The Far Side. Calvin & Hobbes. He has all the Doonesbury books from strip one. Like me, he's not as much up on the latest thing to come out of the alternative comics world.

I've been working on my collection through used bookstores. They're easy to find through the 70s, and then in the 80s they start to get scarce. So, tell me how you got the first issue of your comic published.
In summer of ’97 I went to a comic convention in Atlanta called ... don't laugh ... DragonCon. I got to talking to Jeff [Mason] and Jon Lewis, who does books for Alternative Comics. Peter Bagge was there that year so I was introduced to him, though he doesn't remember it. After that Jeff agreed to publish the book. Though technically the way it worked was, I self-published it, but he distributed it through Alternative Comics. Both the first book and Cafe Pompous are technically self-published because I financed it myself.

How did you raise the money for the first one?
It didn't really cost that much. I printed about 3000, and I think altogether it cost me maybe $1,400 or so. A lot of it came out of the sales, but I had some savings to pay the printing. But the first book paid for itself.

So what was the response for Slowpoke #1?

It was pretty good. I was fortunate in a number of ways with the first book. I got a good placement in the Previews catalogue. It highlighted Slowpoke as one of the cool new features for that particular month. I got a lot of buzz out of that. It got my preorders pretty high, and I actually made a profit off of it. I didn't get reviewed in the Comics Journal, so there are only really a couple reviews out there, but they were positive. And I got a lot of fan e-mail from it.

Did you get any hate mail?
Not from the first book. I think as the strip became more political, I definitely started getting hate mail. The positive emails outweigh the negatives about 10 to 1. But occasionally you get that really ugly letter that disagrees with you and does it in a very impolite way.

What's the button you push that seems to get the most response?

During the buildup to the Iraq War I did a couple of strips that were very critical of the president. I got some email from someone saying, "This is nonsense. Good luck doing backup pencils on 'Garfield' the rest of your life." That was a more humorous one. Usually they're not that clever. Usually it's like, "We're at war. You need to support the president. Blah blah blah and you're an idiot." The hate mail I get is not as bad as what some people get.

Like compared to Ted Rall.

He gets death threats all the time. I think my stuff is pretty light-hearted. I don't try to be radical. I don't try to be abrasive. I think you actually accomplish a lot more by just having a sense of humor about things. But I don't want to infuriate people. It always surprises me when someone chooses to attack me.

It's like out of all the different targets, they pick you.

I probably get a small percentage of the hate mail that these people get. But still. Do you know Andy Singer by any chance? He has a one-panel strip. It runs in CVille Weekly and in alternative weeklies around the country. But he's the nicest guy and his strips are rarely inflammatory. He might make a political point. But even he was telling me a few months ago, "I just got a death threat over e-mail."

Have you got any death threats yet?

No. Not yet.

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Copyright 2003 Jen Sorenson