I’m off getting a magical new hip that will allow me to leap tall buildings in a single bound. While I’m recuperating in a place of dubious connection, here’s an interview I did in 2003 for the Post-Star of Glens Falls, NY. The cartoons were added in 2010 when I replayed the interview for Comic Strip of the Day.
They say “Write what you know.”
With Jan Eliot, it’s “Cartoon what you know.” Jan Eliot knows all about stone soup.
As a comic strip, “Stone Soup” is Eliot’s popular feature about two sisters, their kids and their lives as single moms (though one recently remarried). Eliot has been down that road, which is where she encountered metaphorical stone soup.
“I had 10 years of pretty hard times, divorced and raising two girls in a depressed economy,” she recalls. “I struggled quite a bit to get by; I held nine jobs in 10 years, and the longest of those was two years, but I was never fired. It was almost 100 percent because of companies folding or downsizing or moving out of town. It was hard, but I had a lot of friends in the same boat, and we did a lot to support each other, and that was where the stone soup aspect carne In.”
The reference is to the old folk tale in which a traveler makes a thick, delicious, nourishing soup out of nothing but a stone and some water, plus the odds and ends that various people discover they can add to the pot after all, once they let down their guards and decide to be generous.
In the story, not only is the meager broth turned into a full meal, but the curious onlookers are transformed into a joyous gathering, and Eliot does not allow her strip to be anything less. You might say she prefers a soup story to a soap opera, even when the strip takes a serious turn, like the current story line.
“I’ve been hearing from readers a lot about Val being laid off, and a lot of them are people who have been laid off themselves,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent are positive, though I did hear from one woman who had been laid off and said she didn’t want to have to read about it on the comics page, too. And I understand that. I think the funnies are good for escape, but I also think they can be there to help us cope with some of the hard things in life, if those things are dealt with sympathetically.”
Eliot was just concluding that story arc in her Eugene, Ore., studio Wednesday; readers will see the results in about a month.
“It will be resolved in a mostly positive way,” she promises, “but it will also contend with some of the real things that are facing workers today, like problems with health benefits.”
Her recipe includes a light touch and a daily joke, whether the topic is Val’s workplace problems or the more commonplace issues of raising kids.
Joan’s son, Max, is 2 and, since the characters do not age, Max will always be 2. This limits his interaction somewhat.
“Max is almost like a pet,” Eliot says. “He’s a little sprite, meant to be always clinging to Joan’s leg, that little piece of chaos which is the reality of a mom’s life. He’s not a ‘ball and chain’ because I’d never be that negative about him, but he’s part of the reality that, when you have a small child like that, everything has to center on him.”
Val’s challenges are more vivid, in the very vocal persons of Holly, 13, and Alix, 10.
Though the girls are the daughters of the strip’s main character, they aren’t without their own dimensions, and, when The Post-Star surveyed readers about comic strips, “Stone Soup” proved a favorite among Holly and Alix’s real-world contemporaries.
“That pleases me, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Eliot reports. “I get lots of mail about them. I try to write material for Holly and Alix both ways, both from their own point of view and then other times from the point of view of Val, about how hard it is to raise middle-school kids.”
Eliot avoids humor that would reflect on young girls’ feelings about an absent parent. Joan is divorced, and her silly, irresponsible ex occasionally shows up to borrow money and sleep on the couch, but Val is a widow, a decision originally intended to spare Eliot’s own daughters from humor that might seem to reflect on their real-life father.
Eliot also spared them by adding a bit of a delay to her use of home-inspired material.
“I was careful to postpone using the funny things that happened to them for a couple of years until they were over it,” she says.
Now grown and gone, the girls are proud of their mother and of their part in her work, “but they don’t enjoy having people say, ‘Are you the one who …’ ” Jan Eliot reports. “And, anyway, it’s not all autobiographical. It doesn’t have to be. There’s material all over the world. All I have to do is spend a day hanging around the mall during ‘Back to School’ shopping season and I’ve got a ton of stuff!”