A gently humorous era comes to an end later this month when Eugene cartoonist Jan Eliot retires her popular family cartoon strip Stone Soup after 25 years of national syndication.
Eliot, who had previously drawn cartoons for the now-defunct Willamette Valley Observer as well as Eugene Weekly when it was published as What’s Happening, started drawing the strip — then titled Sister City — as a weekly item in The Register-Guard’s Sunday Oregon Life section in 1990.
In 1994 she got a development contract with Universal Press Syndicate, and Stone Soup began publication in 1995. The strip is loosely based on Eliot’s life as a single mother with two daughters.
The final Stone Soup is to appear in newspapers around the country on July 26.
EW talked with Eliot by telephone about cartooning.
How many readers did you have with Stone Soup?
It was in 300 newspapers at its height. I don’t know how many readers that is. I mean, millions of readers, right? Stone Soup was fortunate to get into some very large papers. From the very beginning I had New York Newsday, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Montreal Gazette, the Newark Star-Ledger. So that really helped me kind of get off my feet.
How many of those 300 papers do you think still exist?
Well, most of the big ones, right? Does The Register-Guard exist or not?
I’m not going to answer that question. Looking back on Stone Soup after 25 years, what have you learned in the process of creating it?
Well, I have learned that there’s no magic. You know, everybody always asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” And there’s really no magic to creativity other than sitting down and working every day. Right? I mean, some people are funnier than others. Some people have bigger imaginations than others, but the truth is, keeping up, not a regimented schedule, but a fairly regular schedule, and working every day is really the secret to producing.
Did you ever get in trouble with readers?
Oh yes, a few times. One time I did a joke about gluten-free bread. Honestly, gluten-free bread! And I wasn’t making fun of gluten-free bread. It was kind of a Eugene thing where Val and her mother were sitting in a restaurant trying to figure out what to order. And, you know, you can’t have the chicken unless it’s free range and you can’t have the beef unless it’s hormone free and you know, all the restrictions. And they finally settled on gluten-free toast.
I got mail for days from people who were so offended. And I think not even on their own behalf, they were offended on behalf of other people they didn’t even know who had celiac disease. Anyway, finally I got a letter from the Celiac Disease Association asking if they could reprint it, because they loved it.
And then, once I brushed really close with saying, “There is no Santa Claus.” And I got email from all these readers. It’s like, “Oh my God. Don’t do that! Don’t you know, there’s kids out there who still believe in Santa Claus?”
The negative is I did receive some very racist garbage from people when Val and Phil [a Black police officer] started dating. I even had to call my syndicate at 7:30 in the morning once to say, “Look on the website quickly and remove that comment.” Someone had written, “She should be worried about this man. They just want to eff-blank-blank-kay their way to white.” Like, really?
That kind of shocked me, but I mean, it shouldn’t shock me considering what we’re going through.
What’s the best response you got?
I did a series where [Val’s daughter] Holly had her first period, while the family’s camping, and I had to come up with all these euphemisms for that. You know, “We have a situation,” and then, “We need situational supplies.” It was a very sweet series, and I got this two-line email from a girl: “Hi. My name is Ashley. I’m 13. I got mine, too, and I was embarrassed just like her.”
What are your plans?
I just want to fart around. I’ve been working pretty much since I was 12 years old and I’m really loving not having any specific deadline. I was planning on doing a lot more travel but unfortunately it’s kind of been back-burnered by COVID. When I get to do that again, I do have lovely friends and family in many parts of the world. And that’s one of the things I really want to do is just, you know, go visit my good friends in Scotland and my daughter in Germany and all my friends in Africa, but at the moment, I’m not going anywhere.
One last question and I’ll let you get back to your farting around. And that is, in this really bleak time, what gives you hope?
The [BLM] protests give me hope. I’m very impressed that they’re still going on. I hope they don’t stop. I appreciate the fortitude of the protesters. We need dramatic change, and it gives me hope that people are out there demanding it.
See more about Eliot and Stone Soup at StoneSoupCartoons.com. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.