Jan Eliot, Creator of Stone Soup

12 November 2004

   Bumpy, rocky and full of delays, the road to comic strip syndication was a rough ride for cartoonist Jan Eliot. But through her boundless artistic talent, sharp sense of humour and dogged determination, the creator of Stone Soup reached her goal. The delightful Stone Soup launched in 25 newspapers in 1995 under the auspices of Universal Press Syndicate.

    An art major at Southern Illinois University, the young Jan found the arts scene at that time to be a man’s world. The teachers were men, the students were mostly men, and neither was particularly welcoming to women in class. She happened across a different arts group working in pottery and found her niche as a ceramics major. Jan took an intermission in her schooling to become a wife and mother at age 19. The young family moved to Oregon to live and work on a farm where they opened a pottery. A few years later, Jan gave birth to a second daughter. *(1) Along the way, Jan also returned to school, earning her degree in Women’s Studies and English from the University of Oregon.

    After nine years of marriage, Jan and her husband divorced. Jan worked at different jobs, from car sales and bookmobile librarian to copywriter and designer, to support herself and her girls. She happily worked for seven years at an advertising/design agency. In the meantime, surviving and laughing through the turmoil of family life, she decided to become a cartoonist, sending in freelance work with great hopes. She found some work with greeting card companies, magazines and through book publishers who needed illustrations for textbooks and computer manuals. *(2)

    Developing her first comic strip, Jan created “Patience and Sarah”, featuring the routine foibles facing a single mom and her daughter. The strip found an audience in a few weekly and monthly newspapers and it ran for five years. It didn’t earn much money, but it did earn Jan an offer of syndication in 1982.

    Jan turned it down.

    The offer was “a bleak contract with a lot of very stiff copyright clauses where I would be giving up everything forever,” Jan said on the Illustrator Showcase of nrm.org. *(3)

Stone Soup 2

   It meant that if the syndicate wanted to, Jan could lose control of her own comic strip, that someone else could be chosen as the cartoonist and she would have no say at all. She gave up her cartooning dream for several years.

    Building on the theme of the first comic strip, the determined Jan began another strip in 1988, entitled “Sister City.” (She also married her second husband, Ted, in 1988.) The second strip had an enlarged cast and more plot lines. Running in the Eugene, Oregon newspaper for five years, “Sister City” was a boost for Jan, giving her a larger audience and strict deadlines. She sent “Sister City” off to Universal Press Syndicate for their examination; the editor declined the strip but sent a long letter explaining the rejection. (Very unusual.) At first, she was told that they didn’t need any more women cartoonists – that they had enough female perspective with Cathy Guisewite, Lynn Johnston and Nicole Hollander. Thankfully, the bias evaporated over time.

    Jan began to submit sets of strips to the syndicate every six months, and in the last few submissions added the positive words “This is my year”. After four years of promoting "Sister City," Jan was offered a seven-month development contract from Universal Press. They gave minor suggestions for improvement of the strip, but the major issue they found was the name; the title “Sister City” did not sit well with certain groups. Jan and her family brainstormed, coming up with Stone Soup. Jan used the development time to come up with new characters, such as the Grandma, and to learn how to create 20 strips a month, rather than the four she was used to drawing. Stone Soup involves several different family structures with a feminist flavour and is often praised for being “so real” by its fans.

    Stone Soup made its entrance into 25 newspapers in 1995 and is now read in 175 newspapers, with slow but steady growth. Jan’s sixteen years of trying were definitely worth the effort.

    Using Jan's own life, her kids and "unsuspecting friends," Stone Soup's strength and humour lies in the relationships and troubles of daily life. The comic touches the hearts of fans who see their lives mirrored in the strip.

    Mondays, for this admired cartoonist, are spent writing, with the plan to come up with several more ideas than she needs for the week. The next day, she draws the pencil sketches, getting critiques from her husband on which are best or which don't quite make the grade. Another day is spent inking the six dailies and Jan uses the fourth day of the week to create the larger colour Sunday strip. *(3)

    On the speaker’s circuit, Jan is available to speak to groups on a number of topics, such as “Surviving Criticism and Rejection”, “Publishing and Syndication” and more. Stone Soup is now published in several book collections through publisher Four Panel Press, and assorted merchandise available for sale.

    Her daughters now grown, Jan and Ted live in Eugene, Oregon with their two pooches, Lily and Sydney.

Develop a new daily friendship with Stone Soup:

Read a delightful interview of Jan with Tom Heintjes of Hogan’s Alley:
*(1) http://www.cagle.com/hogan/interviews/eliot/home.asp

Home site of Stone Soup:
*(2) http://www.gocomics.com/stonesoup/home/index.phtml

Jan Eliot as part of the Illustrator Showcase at the Norman Rockwell Museum:
*(3) http://www.nrm.org/ (Link to Jan Eliot broken)

Stone Soup
© Susanna McLeod 2004
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)