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Roomies strip One of Deana Sobel's "Roomies" strips. (©Daily Californian)

UC Berkeley senior Deana Sobel competes for comic-strip glory

 Deana Sobel
UC Berkeley political science major Deana Sobel has been cartooning since she was a child. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)

– Deana Sobel wants your vote. You've probably seen the UC Berkeley senior's work in the Daily Cal. Her strip "Roomies" appears on Fridays, and she also contributes pithy editorial cartoons. Now, if enough people vote for her in the first-ever "mtvU Strips" contest, Sobel will have a shot at being seen by a much larger audience: first prize is a development deal with United Media, a major comic syndicate.

Sobel is up against nine other cartoonists from public universities - four of them from Arizona schools - all with strips that, like Sobel's "Roomies," deal with the vagaries of college life. Unfortunately, although the online voting list isn't organized alphabetically, her submission falls last. "At first I was bummed," says Sobel. "Then I realized it was right above the 'Vote' button, so I thought it was OK."

From Nov. 10 to Nov. 17, visitors to the mtvU contest's site can sample several days' worth of each strip and then vote on their favorite. The top five semi-finalists will then be judged by "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams, David Rees of "Get Your War On," and United Media and mtvU representatives. The winner gets a major head start on the difficult career path of being a cartoonist.

Sobel, a political science major hailing from San Diego, has already won national recognition for her skills as an editorial cartoonist. Earlier this year she placed fourth in the competition for the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists' John Locher Award, the top prize for college editorial cartoonists. She also won a Mark of Excellence Award for her political drawings from the Society of Professional Journalists, placing first regionally and making it to the national finals for editorial cartooning. (Some of her editorial cartoons are reproduced below.)

Not bad for someone who's just now getting around to taking her first UC Berkeley art class. (Sobel, whose first name is pronounced like "Dina," not "De-anna," will graduate in December after nine semesters.) Her grandmother got her started in oil painting as a child, and she was turning out cartoon-like paintings by the age of 8. At 11 she submitted her first comic strip, "When Pigs Fly," to the San Diego Tribune - they rejected her with "a pretty nice letter" - and she drew for her school newspaper at Torrey Pines High School.

At Berkeley, she started contributing illustrations to Daily Cal articles in the fall of 2000. A few years and several political science classes later, she was ready to move into the challenging field of editorial cartooning, and has since submitted dozens of funny, often poignant, cartoons that inspire thought about current events. Her drawing style is mutable, ranging from spidery-realistic to childlike-magical.

"That's me figuring out where I'm going," laughs the diminutive Sobel. "I don't want to have to settle on a style yet." She draws in pen and ink, only recently adding a scanner and an electronic tablet that allow her to apply watercolor-like washes to the drawings.

Sobel started "Roomies," the comic strip entered in the mtvU contest, this semester for the Daily Cal. It's directly based on life at a seven-person group house in North Berkeley that she has lived in since sophomore year. For many years, the residents were six female and one gleeful male student named Ruben, and that's the setting for "Roomies." Several of the eponymous characters have since graduated and moved out, but Sobel got their permission to immortalize their relationships and foibles in the strip. Ruben, who's "kind of the star" of "Roomies," is now gone and thus has yet to read the strip - "although he'll probably finally see it now that it's in the contest," says Sobel.

Sobel does a terrific job of capturing the fluid interchanges of a group house, the "meaning-of-life conversations" at 2 a.m. in the kitchen and the way small irritations can grow into spats or laughing fits. Her goal with "Roomies," she says, "is to explore cultural themes with the dynamics of the house - we have such a great mix of different nationalities and ethnicities."

The strip will cease in December when Sobel graduates, however - unless she wins the mtvU contest and "Roomies" gets syndicated nationwide (as has Cal alum Darrin Bell's Candorville). Sobel's current plan is to move to New York in January, following graduation, and try to work for national magazines and newspapers there as an editorial cartoonist and illustrator. If that doesn't work out, she says, she'll think about law school. "Editorial cartooning has a lot in common with advocacy," she says, explaining that before you can draw a good editorial cartoon, you have to consider all the different sides of an issue. "Then you figure out the best way to get your message across. The difference is, with my editorial cartoons, I'm hoping to inspire thought. As a lawyer, I'd be trying to get people to think in a certain way."

Her dream career would be working on staff as a newspaper's editorial cartoonist, drawing a comic strip on the side, and writing and illustrating children's books every now and then. It won't be easy, as newspapers are dropping their editorial cartoonists left and right to cut costs. "I think editorial cartooning is really important to a newspaper," she argues. "It gives the paper a human face, and it can really focus attention on the issues, particularly local ones."

Get out the vote
Visit mtvU.com to see the other entrants in the college comic strip contest and cast your vote. (You don't need to be a college student to participate.)

Sobel hasn't even let herself think much about getting into the mtvU contest finals, let alone what would happen if she wins. "There are so many things in my career that seem to be coming together right now, but I have a long way to go," she says. Whatever happens, she intends to keep drawing. "It's just part of my life. It's how I make sense of things."

A sampling of Sobel's editorial cartoons (©Daily Californian):

Bush and Kerry woo Sleeping Beauty the undecided voter

Family watches reality TV

Nader divides the democrats


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