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CSotD: One Last Serving of Stone Soup

A quiet end to a great comic strip, and if the last episode of Stone Soup reminds you of Calvin and Hobbes heading out for new adventures, that’s not entirely inappropriate: Jan Eliot got her break in the business — after four years of pestering the syndicates with submissions — when Bill Watterson hung up his pen in 1995, creating a massive gap on the comics pages.

Which brings up a point I would otherwise save for the end: Newspapers have limited space, but the Internet theoretically does not, and you can have both Calvin and Hobbes and Stone Soup classics on your GoComics page.

But “zombie” strips passed on from artist to artist or reruns published in newspapers take up increasingly limited print-format space that living, creative artists might otherwise be granted.

So I’m sorry Stone Soup is ending, but I’m glad Jan Eliot is bringing down the curtain, a move made possible when she turned down her first offer of syndication because she insisted on retaining the copyright herself.

 

So make another pot of coffee or perhaps a pitcher of martinis and settle in for a chance to click on a lot of links to further reading (and more Stone Soup strips).

That’s Jan along with Mark Tatulli, creator and cartoonist of Lio and who was, until recently, the cartoonist behind “Heart of the City,” which he handed over to Christina “Steenz” Stewart.

This was taken in John and Anne Hambrock’s kitchen the night before the opening of the 2015 Kenosha Festival of Cartooning, and you can read the write-up of Jan’s festival presentation here. And, as a bonus, Tatulli spoke the same day, so is included there.

 

And here’s a sample of “Sister City,” the early, locally-run strip that preceded “Stone Soup.” You can see that main-character Val and sister Joan were largely fleshed-out, but the families, and the living next door to each other, had not yet happened.

Jan explains herself in this piece that is attached to the current Stone Soup page and I hope won’t be disappeared when everything shifts to Classic mode, but if you’re coming to this late and get 404ed, you can read my 2003 interview with her here. (Yes, I got the date wrong when I reposted it.)

Here’s the critical quote from her self-interview:

In truth, most of the characters in Stone Soup are really some part of me. Alix is me at 9. Holly is me at 13. Val is named after my best pal Val, but her character is me when I was divorced and trying to make ends meet.  Joan is a younger me, when I had toddlers.  Gramma is me when she travels the world doing charitable work, something I have been privileged to do. Wally is a combination of my Dad and a good friend named Wally, but many times he echoes my beliefs and sentiments.

It’s a critical aspect of her work because good literature, in any format, is based on that sort of connection rather than “and then we’ll have a nerd and a jock and a cheerleader” cardboard cutouts.

James Joyce — or, rather, Stephen Dedalus — phrased it more formally in Ulysses:

Maeterlinck says: ‘If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend.’ Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.

 

This means that conversations between characters are really conversations with yourself, and, while I also enjoy more gag-oriented cartoons, there’s a potential for depth in story-strips that makes them a challenge.

Even a flimsy teen gag like this one gains some weight when the characters are fleshed out enough that you know Val is more uptight and Joan is more laid back.

 

And particularly when you know that, while Joan is divorced, Val is a widow.

 

I suppose the emergence of the grandmother, Evie, should have been a clue that the cartoonist was getting antsy.

Again, with less depth, Evie could have been that stereotypical tough-old-lady of the comic pages, but we knew her better than that and there was more going on with the character.

 

In fact, Eliot played with the character and with perceptions of age that lifted potential stereotypes into genuinely funny, believable moments.

 

Evie’s refusal to take to the rocking chair not only became a running thread in the strip but, once again, reflected the artist herself.

 

Eliot began building houses in various places around the world and worked her off-duty passion into on-going storylines for Evie. That’s her in the back row, wearing the blue cap, and the link is worth the click.

Nor is she a one-trick pony, and the strip doesn’t just reflect a suburban family but a thoughtful family with social concerns.

Besides Evie periodically taking off for Habitat adventures, the strip has addressed the difficulties of obtaining health insurance and other matters, sometimes very up front …

… and sometimes as quietly and organically as adding a biracial love story — eventually a marriage — without making that aspect of it a big deal.

I mentioned before that you can follow the Classic strips at GoComics, and I would add that Stone Soup collections are worthwhile because Eliot strings together her arcs in such a way that, in book format, they read as a continuing story, without starting each strip with a recap, and low on preachy drama but high on character-based humor and insights.

All the links are worth the click today but here are a pair of radio stories about her retirement: One from a local (Oregon) station this past week, and a longer piece from a different station earlier in the month.

And, in lieu of a tune, I’ll leave you with a link to the podcast interview with Jan that Tom Racine did five years ago at Tall Tales Radio.

That one is an hour long, so draw a bath or download it to listen to in your car.

Indeed you did, and you’ll be very hard to replace.

Community Comments

#1 Jan Eliot
July/26/2020
@ 9:22 am

Wow, Mike. Thank you so much. This article is one for the archive. I don’t think I have ever felt so appreciated or understood! You have done Stone Soup, and it’s creator, a great honor. Thank you!

#2 Sharon Sabolia
July/26/2020
@ 9:59 am

Lots of love Jan & A very happy retirement ??

#3 Steve Herberger
July/26/2020
@ 11:32 am

Wait, Kenosha Festival of Cartooning? What have I been missing — only half-an-hour away?

#4 Valerie Brooks
July/26/2020
@ 11:47 am

Thank goodness I have the real Jan in my life as my bestie. She always has something fun and profound to say about life and love and family and … you name it! Still, I’ll miss her Stone family. It’s been a privilege to have her use my name in her strip plus my hair, love of leggings, and attitude. Jan is never that snarky. :) Best to you, bestie. You’ve brought a lot of joy and insight with your strip. We’ll all miss you. xo

#5 Valerie J. Brooks
July/26/2020
@ 12:07 pm

p.s. Mike, I think this is the best piece about Jan I’ve ever read. You really captured her and the strip. Thank you!

#6 Mike Peterson
July/26/2020
@ 2:16 pm

*blushes*

I asked Dennis (DD Degg) weeks ago to back off this one because I wanted it.

But, much as I like to see fresh voices on the funny pages, I’m genuinely sorry that, with FBoFW long gone into modified reruns, we’ve now managed to lose both Pajama Diaries and Stone Soup.

#7 Mary McNeil
July/26/2020
@ 2:59 pm

Just a comics lover since childhood (70 + years ago.)

Thank you Jan – and enjoy your retirement !

#8 Patty Zowada
July/29/2020
@ 6:41 am

Thanks you Jan for your wonderful strip which I have read every day (now Sundays) for as long as I can remember. So happy for you in your retirement, I love the strips about grandma’s Habitat for Humanity travels and I’m sure you are going to love your freedom to continue this work. Thanks for seeing the humor in real family life and bringing it to us every day! I am really going to miss your characters.

#9 Kathryn Hutchison
July/29/2020
@ 1:27 pm

Sorry to loose my most favorite strip. It’s brought me hours of entertainment. But I’m happy for you Jan, your success, and now your chance to have a lot less responsibility in your life. ENJOY!!! Kathryn

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