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Comics: "Stone Soup"

Jan Eliot
Friday, October 24, 2003; 1:00 PM

Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by "Stone Soup" cartoonist Jan Eliot.

Tobin and Eliot were online Friday, Oct. 24 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Stone Soup" and the art of cartooning.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Suzanne Tobin: Hello, comics fans, and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Jan Eliot, who has been creating "Stone Soup" since 1990. Jan is joining us from her home studio in Oregon. Welcome, Jan, and thanks for joining us Live Online.


Jan Eliot: Thanks for inviting me! It's nice to be here.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Can you tell me a little about the process of getting syndicated? What was it like for you, personally? Do you have any suggestions on how to make my work stand out from the slew of submissions they get each day?

Jan Eliot: The process of becoming syndicated can be an exhausting one, fraught with rejection, discouragement, and long periods of waiting. BUT, there are the occasional overnight successes (but don't count on it) that give us all hope. First of all, you get to know the major syndicates (go to their online sites, where most have submission guidelines, or go through reference books like Writers Market at your library) and send out packets of your work (say 2-3 weeks worth) to them with a cover letter and resume that tells them a little about yourself. You won't hear back for a while, and you should feel free to send to several syndicates at once. You'll be told no thanks, and then you should try again. THIS IS THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUCCESSFUL AND UNSUCCESSFUL CARTOONISTS. Successful ones don't quit after the first set of "no"s.

But to back up? what is it you're sending? Hopefully, you've been cartooning a while, and have found some small publishing opportunity (local paper, weekly, church bulletin - which is where Schulz started btw) so that you're producing work consistently and getting feedback. Syndicates feel more comfortable choosing work that seems to have even a small audience already. Maybe you're online, or in humor collections, or magazines? or maybe you just have a broad test audience, like the people you work with (NOT your friends, who don't want to hurt your feelings). Take feedback generously, don't blow off people who say they don't "get it" ? look at the feedback and work with it.

I spent 16 years publishing in small papers, getting into humor collections, getting rejected from syndicates. But it was worth it. I've been syndicated for 8 years now, and it's as much fun as I'd hoped.

How to stand out? Be as original as you can, and be yourself.


Kansas City, Mo.: What's the best thing about being syndicated? How many women cartoonists are at your syndicate?

Jan Eliot: The best thing about being syndicated, for me, is that I get to work at home, I get to take credit (and blame) for all that I do, and I get to make people laugh. Being syndicated means that I get to make a living as a writer/artist... a rare gift that I very much appreciate.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: How far ahead do you write your comics, and how far ahead do you draw them before they are sent off?

Jan Eliot: I write approximately a month to 6 weeks ahead of my deadline. If all is going well... I can be as close as 2 weeks to deadline with dailies (not Sundays) but that makes me paranoid. No time for a bad day in that schedule, and we do occasionally have bad days.


Russia: I was born in Eugene, Ore., and I swear that I can see parts of that city in your strip. For one, there seem to be Bi-Marts. The one that was near my house still has the same ladies working there that were there 20 years ago. Anyway, am I right?

Jan Eliot: How fun to hear from you. Yes, you see Eugene in my strips. And you see BiMart, our local discount chain. I worked in Advertising before becoming syndicated, and they were a client. I really liked working with them, and they are local, so sometimes I include them in backgrounds.


Falls Church, Va.: You are my favorite! I just finished college and would love to find a job just like yours. What steps should I take to achieve my dream career?

Jan Eliot: See the first answer. Syndication is hard to achieve, but rewarding. Try everything. Books, cards, freelance... but try.


Pentagon City, Arlington, Va.: Hi, Jan, thanks for taking my question. How would you characterize the state of female cartoonists in newspapers today? Has it gotten better since you first submitted your comics? Are editors more open to the woman's point of view? It just seems strange that there are still so few women cartoonists represented in my daily newspaper.

Jan Eliot: When I first started breaking in, a syndicate said to me "We have Cathy, we have Lynn (FBOFW), why do we need you?" there's a perception that you only need a sampling of women to get the woman's viewpoint. Aren't we just cartoonists, with a cartoonists viewpoint? It's gotten better, but it still feels like a boys club.

Mostly you hear comments like women's humor is too "soft" or not "edgy enough" or, my favorite, not "universal". Or that we're just not funny. Well, that's bunk.

There are a lot more women cartoonists in greeting cards, and our ranks are slowly growing in syndication. There are more female editors, which may help. I don't know why it's been so hard for women, but it has.


College Park, Md.: Thank you SO much for representing us single moms in the comics...sometimes I feel like the comics are still stuck in the "Ozzie and Harriet" zone in the '50s. (See Family Circus, Dennis the Menace, etc.) Lynn Johnston does a nice job of bringing contemporary issues into For Better or For Worse, but she still has that nuclear family. And while I know there are plenty of them out there, there are plenty of us single parents too!; Keep up the good work!;

Jan Eliot:
Interestingly, most of my early syndicate rejections came from objections to the single mom thing. I remember one syndicate rep saying "but isn't it just kind of depressing?" I thought to myself? I'M not depressed? I'm actually having some fun, although aspects of my life were definitely more difficult.

When I write I am writing first and foremost for single and working parents. I often felt very isolated and "put down" because of my circumstances (I was a single working mom for 10 years). I even had a teacher tell me that their school "was a better place before all the single moms arrived". My daughters both turned out fabulously, thank you, and I think I was a good parent. But the world likes to blame us for a lot of problems that really belong to society.

Anyway, thanks, I think that it's time Ozzie and Harriet took their place in fantasy history. Families are many things, and I enjoy representing the less idealized - but more realistic - circumstances.


Foggy Bottom/GWU, Washington, D.C.: I know you probably don't have time (like we full-time students) to read online chats, but I saw an interesting proposal in Gene Weingarten's Oct. 7 chat. Someone from East Falls Church suggested that "a simple rule for carrying a comic be put into use: Cancel any comic whose original author/artist is dead. That alone would free up a TON of space (think Peanuts, DtheM, Shoe, Blondie, The Soap Strips)." What do you think of this idea? Can you push this idea with YOUR syndicate?

Jan Eliot: This is a sore spot for many of us... the real estate of the comics page is so limited that new cartoonists have to compete heavily for space. If the work of dead cartoonists is carried on by studios, or worse, run in repeats, how will new cartoonists develop, how will the artform progress?? It doesn't bode well. When the funnies came into their prime, and these early cartoonists had their day, they didn't face this.

When a columnist dies, we don't repeat his or her work. You can buy it in a book if you want to read it. Leave the papers for new talent.


Baltimore, Md.: Hi, Jan. My daughter is an aspiring cartoonist. Do you ever do book tours? Would you consider putting "Charm City" on your next itinerary? I'd love to have her meet a real live syndicated WOMAN cartoonist F2F.

Jan Eliot: I'd love to meet your daughter, and I appreciate your desire to have contact with a woman in the field. There are precious few of us! While I do travel at times for book signings? I live on the West Coast and don't have much opportunity to get all the way East. I am hoping to do signings in the New York/Long Island/Newark area again sometime (I was there in 2000) but can't say when. In the meantime, your daughter is welcome to contact me by mail through my syndicate, Universal Press, or by email - jan@stonesoupcartoons.com.

A note here? I'm in the middle of launching a new web site for my books, and the above address may be temporarily out of commission. So if you're email is returned, please try again in a day or two.


Bethesda, Md.: I grew up reading Brenda Starr and was wondering if you ever met Dale Messing? Wasn't she the first woman to get syndicated even though she had to take a man's name to do it? (And silly me thought that we'd gotten past all that after George Eliot in the 1800s.)

Jan Eliot: Dale Messick is a wonderful woman who still lives in California. I have had the pleasure of meeting her. I can tell you that in her 90s she is still sexy and glamorous like Brenda. Her name was Dahlia, but she found continuous rejection as a young, pretty woman seeking syndication. So she changed her name to Dale, mailed her work in, and was accepted.

And speaking of George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), when I divorced in 1979, I took the name Eliot because I so admired her work, and was impressed by her need to publish under a man's name.


Brookland, Washington, D.C.: Hi, Jan: Will Holly and Alix ever grow up?

Jan Eliot: I'm on the fence about whether Holly and Alix will age. They are at ages now that I enjoy writing about. However, if I feel the strip is getting stagnant or I'm very bored, I might advance them a couple of years over the next 5 or 10 years. But for now, I love writing about middle school, and I like Max as a terrible two.


Richmond: I am a relatively new reader of your strip, so I'm not familiar with its early history. How many characters have you added since the inception of the strip and do you plan on adding or dropping some as you go along?

Jan Eliot: Stone Soup began in 1990 as a weekly, and the original cast included Val and Joan, sisters and working moms, one divorced and one widowed (Val)...their three kids Holly, Alix and Max, and their mother who came to live with Val. Joan showed up on Val's doorstep after her husband Leon went out for milk and ended up in the Virgin Islands.

I added Wally when I became syndicated in 1995, and made him a love interest across the fence for Joan. Then came Officer Jackson, the zen motorcycle cop who followed Val home after not giving her a ticket and asked her out. Finally, I added Andy, Wally's nephew who for various reasons couldn't live with his parents.

There's Ms. Wingit, the middle school teacher, and Rena, Val's office mate, and more. It's a big cast, so I'm not adding any at the moment. Some characters, like Andy, don't have a big spot in the strip at the moment, but I never know. In some ways, they drive the process, and insinuate themselves into my consciousness at different times.

I like have a lot of characters because it gives me a variety of things to write about. The downside is it's more complex, and perhaps a tougher sell for the syndicate.


Greenbelt, Md.: Will Gramma ever find romance again?

Jan Eliot: You bet. I just don't know where, or when. (Isn't that a song?)

Some readers think Gramma should get together with someone younger. In the tradition of many great women, including George Eliot, I think that could be a lot of fun.


Lyme, Conn.: If you were not a cartoonist, or, if you are able to attach a second career to your current one, what else might you have done or still might do?

Jan Eliot: I began my art career in ceramics at Southern Illinois University. I still miss having a pottery studio, and fantasize about building one again in my retirement. Whenever that might be.

Besides cartooning, my other true passion is travel. I want to visit all continents before I die... but that's not a career, it's an expense that my current career is trying to pay for. But if I could do ANYTHING... with money as no option, I'd travel.


Mitchellville, Md.: What, initially, sparked you to draw cartoons?

Jan Eliot: I was working in my first job after college and my divorce. I had two small children. I drove a bookmobile. I was only 29. I was creatively bored... and broke, so not much money was available for artistic pursuits. A friend of mine thought that I was funny and suggested drawing cartoons. I discovered that it was
1) a cheap form or art (paper, pen, pencil)
1) very cathartic, because I wrote about what Iknew... my struggles as a single mom.
My friend challenged me to submit my work to a local alternative paper, and they shocked me by taking it. With a weekly spot, and weekly deadline, I was off and running. It was hard at times, but I built a body of work and became addicted to publishing. Because I love to both write and draw, cartooning is perfect for me.


Arlington, Va.: I stumbled upon your strip online about a year ago, and read it faithfully since. I wanted to thank you for a comic that deals so well with "real life" without seeming mean. Plus, I adore Biscuit!

Keep up the good work (and hope to see you in the Post someday!!)

Jan Eliot: Thank you so much for your kind comments. I'm glad you mentioned Biscuit, who I forgot in my list of characters in my answer to an earlier question.

Biscuit came to be about 7 years ago when I had my first puppy, a schipperke. She was energetic to say the least. In my frustration, I realized she was something I could "use". She's been in ever since, and has her own fan base. Because Schipperkes are completely black and tailless, I made her look more like a Jack Russell mix. Since they are the most active dogs around, it fits.

I strive to deal with "real life", because that's all there is, and it doesn't need to be sugarcoated. Thanks for reading!


Washington, D.C.: So what's up with Officer Jackson and Val? Please don't marry her off... it would be totally demoralizing to all us single mothers.

Jan Eliot: DON'T WORRY!!!
Val will never marry Officer Jackson. She is a female head of household with her hands full. Besides, she had the love of her life (who died pre-strip), and isn't anxious for more involvement than she currently has with Phil.

I thought long and hard about marrying Joan to Wally. It seemed to be a wrong direction for the strip... but Wally is such a nice guy and readers really wanted him to be happy. I'm finally comfortable with it, but that's all the marryin' you'll be seein'!!!

I know lots of happy single women, and all in all, Val is one of them.


Alexandria, Va.: I loved the name of your book, "You Can't Say Boobs on Sunday." Where'd you get that title? And when's your next book coming out?

Jan Eliot: You Can't Say Boobs On Sunday is from my first bit of syndicate censorship. (I've had very little). I submitted a strip with the word 'boobs' in it, a Sunday strip. My editor called to say that while I could use the word boobs Monday through Saturday, "you can't say boobs on Sunday". I thought that sounded like a fabulous book title, and indeed it's my best seller.

My newest book is out now. It's the fourth collection of Stone Soup, from Four Panel Press, and it's called "Road Kill In The Closet". You can find them in bookstores, or online (Amazon has all) or at www.stonesoupcartoons.com


Alexandria, Va.: What kind of trends have you been noticing in either the style of artwork or the subject content in comics these days?

Also, as a suggestion to the future syndicated comic strip writers: don't forget college newspapers as a good starting point. (Doonesbury got started this way.)

Jan Eliot: Of course you're right, college newspapers are wonderful training grounds. As to trends... well, the size of the funnies these days (very small) dictates the artwork a bit... more talking heads, less to no background, not much action. Watterson did amazing things with the tiny space, but few have his talent. As to subject content... wry humor seems popular, but you can't predict. I'm a Get Fuzzy fan, and who can explain his humor? I often ask myself why it's funny. His artwork adds a lot... look to the little things, the details of rumpled clothes and hair and the wicked face on that cat. It all adds up to funny somehow.

I strive to keep as much of the 'art' of cartooning as I can in my tiny canvass. I think it's what separates cartoons from jokes. But the space is limited, and getting more so.


Dallas, Tex.: What is your routine for writing? Do you walk around with a notebook and jot down ideas? Or do you like a certain environment when you're writing? How do you decide which characters to feature in a particular strip?

Jan Eliot: I write every Monday, mostly, and I just sit down and do it. I write nonsense if necessary. Eventually good stuff emerges...I also scribble notes on napkins and backs of receipts when I'm out and don't have a notebook... and make a pile of 'possible' ideas on my desk. I write at home mostly, but sometimes I sit in coffee shops. If I'm totally dry I read classic comics for inspiration, or go to the mall and eavesdrop on shopping moms, or visit a school to observe kids. There's not magic formula, except to put one's butt in one's chair and begin.

I write about a particular character because I have an idea best expressed by them. Or, sometimes, because they have been absent too long and need some 'air' time.


Arlington, Va.: So, Jan, since you love to travel, are you going to take your characters to any interesting places in the near future?

Jan Eliot: This has been suggested by many, including my accountant, who reminds me that I could potentially 'write it off" when I travel. But, the reality is, my characters live in a family of modest means. So unless they win the lottery, or Val has some exotic business travel, they won't go far.

Val and Joan did take a road trip together a few years ago, and I had a lot fun with that.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a transplanted Oregonian, and my sister back in Portland introduced me to Stone Soup three years ago.

I share a wedding day with Joan! Have a bunch of your strips up on my office wall, and all my friends now recite "First the chardonnay, THEN the family drama" when needed.

Thank you for such an interesting strip!

Jan Eliot: Thank you! and Congratulation. And... thanks for reminding me of the 'chardonnay" line... a good motto for all of us!


Lubbock, Tex.: How would you characterize your audience based on your fan mail? And do you answer it or do you have someone else who does that for you?

Jan Eliot: I answer all my own mail. I get mail from many parents, as well as kids (11-13). I hear from men as well as women, and from lots of moms. I also have a huge senior fan base.


Burtonsville, Md.: Since you said you were a "single working mom for 10 years," I take it that you've married again. How has that affected your outlook, since you're writing about a single mom?

Jan Eliot: I worried that it would change things for me (yes, I've married again, very happily). But 10 years as a single mom sticks with you. The part of me that is Val will never be gone. The hardest part, really, is having my own kids grow up. They no longer live at home and feed me great material, so I rely on friends and neighbors.


Portland, Ore.: I have two words for you: MORE BISCUIT!

Jan Eliot: You got it!


Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Jan, for your thoughtful answers to our readers' questions. I hope all of you join us again in two weeks for another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." And, for all you "Bloom County" fans, you may want to mark your calendars for Nov. 21, when Berke Breathed will join us to discuss his new "Opus" strip, which launches Sunday, Nov. 23.


Jan Eliot: Thanks for having me! I had a blast.


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