Even for a cartoonist, Jen Sorensen has an uncommon gift for tapping into the signs of the times. Peer closely at the billboards and marquees and posters in a Sorensen work — the grace notes beyond the word balloons — and you see and hear signage forged with the precision of an irony-worker.
As Exhibit A, step into the world within her editorial cartoon titled “The Gentrification Cycle.” Want a vivid sense that hipsters are infiltrating this working-class neighborhood? Just look to the sign next to the shuttered bodega, gleaming in a frosted-pink tint, that says: “Artisanal Cupcake and Hookah Bar.”
Sorensen deftly guides us through each sign and scenario, as the hipsters are eclipsed by new-moneyed tech-heads scootering over to the “Hacker Hut” building, before the bankers and global oligarchs come into frame. In a mere four evolving panels, she has neatly landed enough smart-sign gags to fill an inspired “Simpsons” scene.
Her ultimate sign of the times, though, will be featured Tuesday evening at the Library of Congress. It will be the program that spotlights the latest winner of the Herblock Prize for political cartooning. The one that says: “Jen Sorensen.”
“The Gentrification Cycle” is among 11 cartoons that have earned her this journalistic honor, as well as the $15,000 cash prize, the fine Tiffany hardware and the affirming praise of her peers that come with it.
Her award is notable partly because Sorensen is the first woman to win the prize in its decade-long history. But her career is also a barometer of another shifting wind: She is the relatively rare freelancer who scoops up so many industry honors while making a living not by seeking that scarce newspaper staff position, but by patching together a political-cartoon portfolio of webcomics, alt-weekly works, magazine gigs (Ms., The Progressive, the Nation) and even the occasional corporate assignment.
As her outlets have increased in recent years — including the Daily Kos, NPR and Medium — so have Sorensen’s awards. She was a Herblock Prize finalist in 2012, won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award a year later, and just this month picked up the Society of Professional Journalists’ national cartooning honor. After a couple of decades at the board, Sorensen is enjoying a series of breakthrough moments on the larger public stage, even as she adapts to that reality.
“It’s always hard for me to tell — like I’m putting cartoons in bottles and pushing them out to sea,” says Sorensen, 39.
How did she quite get here? During her days at the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s, she had no plans for this line of work. “I actually came at political cartooning from a slightly different angle,” the Austin-based artist says. She was an anthropology major who dug underground cartoonists such as Crumb.
She began submitting to a women’s comic anthology while in Charlottesville, among other small publications, then in 1999 started drawing absurd short stories. “It was the first year of my strip, and it was fairly surreal and not terribly political,” she says. “Staff jobs as an editorial cartoonist hadn’t even entered my mind yet.”
Then, as a new decade dawned, everything shifted professionally. “It started with the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision,” says the left-leaning cartoonist. “That was so jarring to me. And then Sept. 11 and the march to war. I guess it seemed like suddenly, things got much more serious — I didn’t feel like doing frivolous, silly cartoons any more.”
Now she is one of the relatively few prominent female political cartoonists. “In my case, my male colleagues have been extremely supportive, and they’ve helped me lean in,” says Sorensen, even as she notes that many job offers come from feminist-themed outlets. “I’ve had a pretty good experience, [although] there are these subtle cultural expectations that I think we need to still examine.”
As her career continues to ascend, the Pennsylvania-born artist is still making the mental transition to such a big stage. “I’m still trying to get my head around the [thought of] Bob Woodward looking at my Web site.”
Woodward, the famed Washington Post reporter and now associate editor, will deliver Tuesday night’s Herblock Prize Lecture. “I have reviewed all of Herb’s cartoons from June 17, 1972 to Aug. 9, 1974 — from the Watergate break-in to Nixon’s resignation. There are 140 relating to Watergate,” says Woodward, who will illuminate the legendary Post cartoonist’s Watergate work during his lecture, titled “The Genius of Herblock: Understanding the Real Nixon.”
Sorensen respects Herblock’s legacy of speaking truth to power. She reaches for the same ideals, even while — inadvertently — forging a new path.
“It seems,” she says, “like I have finally reached some sort of critical mass.”