If you’ve heard the name Jen Sorensen, it may be because she’s the 2014 winner and first female recipient of the prestigious Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning—or because she’s been published in C-VILLE Weekly for more than a decade.
“I went to UVA as an undergrad and wound up sticking around Charlottesville for many years after I graduated,” Sorensen said in a recent phone interview. “I think it was in 2002 that I wound up coming into the C-VILLE Weekly office for a meeting with Cathy Harding, the editor then. It was kind of scary, but she gave me a chance, and it was the beginning of my getting published by alt weeklies.”
Today, Sorensen’s work appears in The Progressive, The Nation, The Austin Chronicle, NPR, Ms., Politico, activist website Daily Kos, and alt weeklies around the country. She’s known for pointed observation of thorny issues like gun control, racism, income inequality, health care, and sexism.
After being a finalist for the Herblock in 2011, Sorensen told the Washington Post that she admired the prize’s eponymous artist because “he cartooned from a definite moral perspective—and a good one, at that. Too many daily editorial cartoonists go for the easy-breezy sight gag or contemporary movie reference without actually saying much. Herblock took the job seriously.”
Sorensen often tackles the telling of difficult truths with a strong first-person narrative. Her point of view is an easy stand-in for “the little guy,” oft-maligned by big business or murky government policy, and her careful explanations of complicated issues expose convoluted logic for easy scrutiny. The results are factually substantiated arguments for or against politically controversial subjects. Take her widely read 2012 piece “An Open Letter to the Supreme Court About Health Insurance.”
“I drew [‘An Open Letter’] right before the Supreme Court was ruling on the Affordable Care Act,” Sorensen said. “I just wanted to say that as a self-employed person I’d had a lot of problems with health insurance over the years. My husband got denied because he had plantar fasciitis. My insurance costs were skyrocketing.”
The piece went on to win a Robert F. Kennedy journalism award for editorial cartooning, and her 2014 follow-up comic, “My Experience with Obamacare: A Freelancer in Texas Applies for Health Insurance,” went viral after being featured on NPR.
“I was trying to combat some of the conventional wisdom about Obamacare and share a story that many people aren’t hearing,” Sorensen said. “Yes, it’s annoying that the website went down yesterday, but I think that pales in comparison to the benefit of people like me being able to receive care.”
Sorensen’s commentary ranges from coverage of Democratic conventions and Sarah Palin rallies to cartoons about “the coup against President Sullivan and the corporatization of higher education,” she said. It’s an evolution she might not have foreseen as an undergrad.
“When I got out of college my biggest influences were Robert Crumb and B. Kliban, people who had an absurdist sense of humor,” she said. “That’s how my strip started out in the late ’90s. Then the 2000 election came along, and the political climate changed so dramatically I felt compelled to draw about it.”
When asked if she misses creating lighter fare, Sorensen mentioned the book of Gary Larson wiener dog art she has lying around her house. “I look at all these fake paintings and think, ‘This is pure humor just for humor’s sake,’” she said. “I still love doing strips about pop culture and technology, but politics are an endless source of inspiration. I can’t help myself.”
Sorensen and Bob Woodward will speak at the annual Herblock Prize ceremony at the Library of Congress on April 29. See page 31 for this week’s comic.
*A previous version of this story mistakenly cited Pete Levin, not B. Kliban, as one of Sorensen’s biggest influences. It also said that Gary Larson art appeared on her walls of her home instead of in a book.