When Jan Eliot recently turned 60, she had a lot to celebrate.  “Stone Soup,“ the strip she’s penned for 15 years, is carried by 250 newspapers, which means she reaches 8 million readers each day.  And those readers are loyal. When one California paper tried to drop the strip last year,  Eliot’s fans kicked up such a fuss that the editors apologized and brought it back. The eighth collection of the strip—We’ll Be Really Careful!—has just been published, and the ninth will be out this summer.

(Photo: Brian Davies, for The Register-Guard)

Eliot is one of very few women who make a living cartooning and she loves her work.  “Being a cartoonist is the best job in the world,” she says. “I get to draw and color for a living.” She began the strip as a divorced working mom with two daughters to support. “It was launched just as ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ retired,” she told me. “New strips are always coming on the scene. The competition is fierce. But, amazingly, despite the all the changes happening in the newspaper world, the strip is still gaining real world newspaper markets after 15 years.” It isn’t so amazing to the people who know and love the strip. Eliot has a gift for finding and sharing the humor in the daily life of contemporary women.

“Stone Soup” is a family-oriented strip, but the Stone family is definitely a matriarchy, consisting of sisters Joan and Val (one widowed, one remarried) who live next door to each other, along with their kids, their mom, an adopted nephew, and Joan’s cool, loving, “nice guy” second husband. Eliot’s take on this “blended, extended family” is consistently sharp and funny.

And feminist. At its heart, “Stone Soup” is about three generations of strong women and their connection with and support for each other, covering topics from preteen angst to ageism. Eliot’s characters often use humor to cope. Unlike “Cathy,” Joan and Val don’t respond to life’s challenges with an overwhelmed “Aaak,” but with a wisecrack. Eliot, who has a degree in Women’s Studies, has given us a strip illustrating exactly how “sisterhood is powerful.”

“Stone Soup’s characters don’t age,  which means that Eliot, who began the strip when she was close in age to Joan and Val, is now as old as Gramma. “Gramma was a caricature of my own, and some of my friends’ mothers,” says Eliot. “Cranky and critical. As I became a grandmother myself, she’s morphed into something more representational of who I am now. I can write for her because she’s living my current life.” Gramma, like Eliot, loves to travel and volunteers overseas with Habitat for Humanity. There are strips that focus on how Gramma takes care of her family, but other story lines celebrate the freedom and fun she enjoys now that her daughters have grown. It’s a rarity on the comics page—or the front page, for that matter: a reality-based, positive portrait of a sharp, involved, active older woman.

Eliot is similarly pleased with life at 60. “I count myself extremely fortunate and I’m very happy,” she says. “I love this career as much as I thought I would. I‘m very grateful for that, because it is a very demanding job. It takes more time than many might suspect to breathe life into the cast of characters I’ve created.” When she began the strip, she was afraid she might run out of original ideas. “It hasn’t happened,” she says. Instead, the longer she’s been at it, the more confident she’s become. “My cartoon ‘muscle’ is pretty well toned,” she says.

Does she ever think about retiring? “Some days I resent the never-ending deadlines and envy my friends who are retired,” she says. “But  truthfully, I love to work. I’m good at it. I’m attached to my characters. It’s a fun life, working from home in a small but sunny studio.” There are financial incentives to continue as well. “At 45 years old, I got a late start in this career,” she points out. “So I have some time to put in to build up a good retirement nest egg. My husband is also self-employed, so there’s no pension there to fall back on. And I love the life pleasures that having made a success of  this affords me. Plane tickets. Dinners out. Helping out my daughters, who have families of their own.”

In the introduction to her book We’ll Be Really Careful! Eliot acknowledges that “Stone Soup” is not precisely the real world: “People don’t age, babies and dogs have wise thoughts, it always snows at Christmas. Men and women respect each other as equals, race doesn’t matter, everyone is healthy. The world as I’d like it to be.” It may not be entirely real but it’s a great place to go for a brief, funny break from your own reality.

You can read today’s “Stone Soup” online, for free, at gocomics.com. Better yet, pick up one of the books, and enjoy a full “Stone Soup” immersion.

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  • Sylvia Portnoy October 24, 2015 at 9:22 am

    We are saddened to see it absent from the daily Boston Globe. Stone Soup is clever, intelligent, relevant, and tasteful. It was one of the very few items n the newspaper that I enjoyed reading. Is it gone for good?

  • Barbara Pattee June 22, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Dear Jan Eliot,
    I enjoy reading your comment strip because the family dynamics are not the typical two-parents-two-children family. I especially enjoyed grandma marrying her Australian boyfriend and moving there.
    And now that her widowed daughter is engaged to an African American man I am an even bigger fan. I share the Stone Soup stories with my husband. We love the fact that you embrace the reality of an older woman getting married as well as interracial marriage. Keep up the great work. Can’t wait for your next book to come out.

    With thanks,
    Barbara Pattee

  • anita riccio December 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

    jan hi i have been to haiti twice i am a 70 year old granny of 3 teenage boys i so identify with your granny the past month as she plans to go to haiti again i too am returning at the end of january is there any way i can buy the collection of the stone soup granny in haiti collection i would like to give it to rebecca who is in charge of our group the federation for helping children ffhc

  • Constantine Koutsoutis March 4, 2011 at 10:10 am

    One of my favorite comic strips, I regularly go back to re-read STONE SOUP archives/back strips. Such an amazing comic, and Eliot is up there with Trudeau and Watterson as one of the best modern cartoonists going today.

    Great article.

  • Anonymous March 3, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Stone Soup! Who knew? I loved the book as a child. I will be reading her from now on. And, we’re agemates. Wonderful piece, Ms. Warren.

  • drpatallen March 3, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Thank you Roz for this thoughtful interview with Jan Eliot. I have been a Stone Soup fan for years and it is great to get to know how Jan created her alternate family, beginning at age 45. Eliot is just the kind of role model we love to read about here. At 60, she knows who she is. She does what she can and she loves what she has. Eliot also gets it that most of us are more interesting when we continue to work rather than retire.