Interview with Greg Evans creator of comic strip Luann

The week of Dec. 4, 2016 will be a big one for cartoonist Greg Evans. After about 15 years of courtship, Brad Degroot and Toni Daytona will finally tie the knot in his comic strip LUANN. Their slow-burning romance began with Toni’s first appearance on Feb. 25, 2002, and since then they have had to deal with many awkward moments, years of will-they-or won’t-they to their eventual falling madly in love and now their upcoming wedding.

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LUANN is a comic strip that became syndicated in 1985, which focuses on a teenage girl, her friends and family.  Over the years the look and feel of the strip has changed, and even though characters age slowly in comic-time, they have matured and grown up in different ways.

Luann’s brother Brad is one of the great character evolutions in comics.  He went from sloppy couch potato and obnoxious brother to a grown up fireman and hero about to embark on marriage with his longtime love Toni. His journey to adulthood was inspired by the tragedies of 9-11.

In order to engage fans, Evans created an online competition to design Toni’s wedding dress with the choice being made by fans who participated in online voting.

Evans received the 2003 National Cartoonists Society Reuben Award for the strip. He has also been a staple at the San Diego Comic Con for about 25 years.

He now co-writes LUANN with his daughter Karen, who along with his other children served as the primary inspiration for it.  She was also available during this interview and added some great insights, as well.

Greg Evans took the time to chat with TheCelebrityCafe.com and told us about his work, the evolution of his characters, the three subjects he stays away from and more.

TheCelebrityCafe.com: Please tell me about your early life and educational background?

Greg Evans: I was born in Burbank, CA just blocks from Disney Studios. Because I was afflicted with Cartooning Disease, I spent most of my youth sitting in my room drawing Disney characters or riding my bike over to Disney and hanging around the gate. I guess I hoped Walt would come out and hire a seven-year-old. He didn’t, so I focused my art interest into becoming a teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Teaching Credential from CA State University Northridge.

TCC:  Please provide any information you want to share about your family?

GE:  My wife Betty and I have 3 children: Rhonda, Gary, and Karen, the youngest. We have 5 grandkids aged 2 to 30.

TCC:  Where are you located?

GE:  San Diego, California

TCC:  Please tell me in a sentence or two about LUANN for people who have not seen it before?

GE:  LUANN is about one young woman’s endless struggle to become an adult.

TCC:  How did it start?

GE:  At age 37, I had endured a dozen failed attempts to get a strip picked up by a syndicate (the strips I was sending seemed awesome to me at the time. Now, I can see why they were rejected). I was about to give up my dream of being the next Charles Schulz when I noticed 6-year-old Karen walking around dressed in Betty’s clothes, makeup and jewelry. The idea of a saucy little girl popped into my head (think female Dennis The Menace). As I began working up ideas, the name “Luann” emerged and the character became 13. Suddenly, instead of inspiration coming from my head (resulting in contrived strips like “2 crazy clowns!” and “weird used car salesman!” and “a bird and a cat who are BFFs!”) inspiration was coming from my heart, from experience, from my own family. That made all the difference. “Write what you know” yes, but I think it’s more important to “write what you feel.”

TCC:  How would you describe Luann’s evolution over the years?

GE:  She began as a 13 year old, insecure, plain, Charlie Brown loser-type whose main focus in life was the adorable and elusive Aaron Hill. Today, she’s a young college student who still struggles with doubts about who and what she should be. But she’s a lot less plain and more self-assured. Also, her world has expanded from a cast of around 8 in 1985 to a huge roster that I’ve lost track of!

TCC:  You don’t shy away from controversy…how do you decide what topics to cover?

GE:  Since Day One, I knew there were serious issues involved in telling the story of a teen girl. I wanted Luann to be a real person with real problems. So, over the years, I’ve found ways to do stories about menstruation, drugs, pregnancy, condoms, bulimia, drunk driving, cancer, etc. I’ve always wanted LUANN to be entertaining AND enlightening.

TCC:  What are your favorite story lines?

GE:  Characters who are sane, normal and pure are hard to write for; they’re boring. The fun ones are evil (Leslie Knox, Dirk), wacky (Knute, Goth Guy), obsessive (Bernice, Gunther) or totally clueless and self-absorbed (Tiffany and, sometimes, Luann). So when I can put a clueless with an obsessive or an evil with a wacky, sparks fly. Those are my favorite story lines.

TCC:  What are some of the most controversial storylines?

GE:  In 1991, six years into the strip, I’d begun doing less gag-a-day and more storyline stuff. I also knew that, as a teen girl, Luann would face some issues that were hard to avoid. Karen was 12 and her “big moment” loomed on the horizon. Should Luann have her moment? I worked up 2 weeks of strips and sent them to King Feature, my syndicate at the time. They were horrified. Readers don’t want to be exposed to menstruation over their morning eggs!! But I felt this was an important topic so I re-worked the strips in a way that would be obtuse to young readers and wouldn’t even use words like “period” or “menstruation.” The syndicate still feared the some editors would cancel LUANN and asked me to create 2 weeks of benign, alternate strips that would be offered to nervous editors. In the end, out of 250 clients, 2 papers opted for the alternates.

The response to these strips was bigger than I’d expected. Dozens of papers called for interviews and ran stories. Girls Inc. teamed with Tambrands, makers of Tampax, and used the strips in an outreach program. And I got a ton of mail. 90% of it was supportive: moms, nurses, school counselors, thanking me for providing a conversation starter. But the other 10% felt that the comics were no place for such a conversation. “How do I explain this to my seven-year-old son!?” was a typical response.

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TCC:  Have you been threatened to be removed from papers?

GE:  Papers don’t threaten. They just drop. There’s no contract, no allegiance. If a comic survey ranks you low, out you go. Or if an editor (or his wife) hates your strip, out you go. I lost many papers in the early years, mostly because I didn’t advance it quickly enough. I spent too many years re-hashing the same themes. Sometimes, readers will agitate against a strip. During the Delta Cancer Story a group of teens somewhere in upstate New York lost a classmate to cancer and felt I was making light of the subject. They actually picketed their local paper. Today, I get no drops thanks to deep reader loyalty.

TCC:  How often do you attend a Comic Con type event? Is that common for cartoonists?

GE:  I’ve attended the San Diego Comic Con every year for about 25 years, but have not been to any others. The National Cartoonists Society has a booth at 3 cons: San Diego, New York and Anaheim. Some cartoonists love going, others never go.

TCC:  Please tell me about the evolution of a few storylines–Luann’s first period, Delta’s cancer, and Brad’s initial failure, but becoming a successful grown up who is about to get married? And the Brad/Toni relationship?

GE:  Delta’s cancer story was inspired by the experience of a friend. Brad’s entire saga was the result of the 9-11 attacks and the bravery of the firefighters at Ground Zero. It felt like a good time to have schlumpy Brad do something worthwhile. Why and how Toni came to be, I’m not really sure. Many times, characters simply do things I don’t expect. I didn’t pre-plan the Brad/Toni relationship. It just evolved. This is one nice thing about having Karen aboard – we actually think and plot ahead. I’d been a “jump, then look for my parachute” kind of story teller.

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TCC:  Please tell about the wedding dress contest? How many submissions? How was it decided? How many votes?

GE:  When we decided it was time for Brad and Toni to tie the knot, we were both excited and uncertain:  how do you make a wedding interesting and fun for readers?  Karen suggested we do a modern version of a contest I ran for a fashion show storyline in 1995 where readers mailed in over 16,000 designs for characters to wear. With the internet, we could invite fans to submit a design for Toni’s wedding dress and then allow readers to vote.  We created LuannFan.com to host the contest as well as collections of Brad & Toni’s long and complex dating saga for fans who may not have been reading all those years or who wanted to relive their story.

We received 600 creative dress designs, ranging from fairy-princess style to coveralls, computer designed to drawn in crayon.  By the end of public voting, we had over 46,000 votes cast and a very close final race between the top designs.  I have done my best to recreate the winning design per the designer’s specifications, and fans will see Toni in her dress for the December wedding in the strip.

Now that voting is over, fans continue to engage with LuannFan.com by sharing their stories, signing Brad & Toni’s wedding guestbook, and donating to FireHero.org, the charity the characters have chosen to support in lieu of gifts (we’ve had over 600 guests click the link to donate!).  What started as a simple contest has turned into an enthusiastic community of passionate fans.  We feel very grateful as creators to have such creative and committed readers.

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The winning wedding dress design by Philip Gust, from Redwood City, California.

TCC:  Please tell me about Shannon? Why is her storyline so important?

GE:  Shannon is the impish, impudent daughter of Toni’s brother, Jonah. When Toni and Jonah were kids, their parents died and they were raised by an aunt. Jonah was a wild teen and got a girl pregnant. The girl split, leaving Jonah with Shannon. Unfortunately, Jonah is an absent dad and so Shannon ends up with Toni and Brad a lot. Will Toni and Brad adopt her? Stay ‘tooned.

TCC:  While retiring characters may not be the right way to put it, but some have gone away — long time crush Aaron Hill, Delta is away at school and Rosa is in Peru — how do you decide who goes away for a bit?

GE:  Karen and I spent a lot of time pondering this. Once we decided to leave high school, we had a problem: where do all the characters go? It would be unrealistic if they ALL ended up at the same college. It was clear that they’d need to be scattered, that some new characters would be introduced and that some characters would “retire.” But who? Delta was always a hard character to write because she’s too good (giving a minority character negative traits is always problematic). She was shown has having big aspirations so it seemed logical that she’d leave Luann’s little world. Gunther felt like a one-note character who’d outlived his usefulness so we wrote a story in which he followed Rosa to Peru — and was never heard from again. But when we got to showing them on the jet, we both realized that Gunther had suddenly become interesting and we needed to follow his story. Aaron Hill had definitely run his course. With a relationship story you eventually have to either consummate it or end it. You can’t keep up the “will they/won’t they” thing forever.

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TCC:  How do your characters age? For many years Luann was a teen, but it seems like in recent years she has aged a bit more rapidly, how did you make that decision?

GE:  I’d never planned to age Luann.  But when you have a story-driven strip, you eventually use up and outgrow all the jokes for a particular age.  She was 13 for 14 years. Then she had a birthday in the strip and turned 16, where she stayed for 15 years until she graduated high school. Now, I don’t reference her age, but I think of her as 18 or 19. Still a teen. Meaning she’s been a teenager for 31 years! In real time, she’d be 44. Lots of strips use this weird time-shift template in which characters either don’t age at all, or they age at a glacial pace. Many newer readers think LUANN is like For Better Or For Worse, in which characters age roughly in real time. But that’s not the case.

TCC:  You seem to have a pro-woman stance in your comic where do you gather inspiration?

GE:  I’ve always been a big fan of females. I think they’re far more highly evolved than males. All women inspire me. I also think females are far more interesting than males. Men are bricks; women are flower gardens.

TCC:  Are there any boundaries you won’t cross regarding your characters growing up? Sex has been implied, but not directly addressed.

GE:  Sex, politics and religion are 3 things I can’t address in at strip like LUANN, which is perceived as a “family strip.” Recently, I drew a dog dressed as Donald Trump (long story) but that’s about as much as I’ve ever done politically. Religion is a definite no-no. I avoid using “Oh my God!” and “Jesus!” Even “Jeez” or “Geez” triggers disapproving emails. So I use “OHMGAW” or “Yeesh!” As for sex, it’s truly the elephant in the room when writing about healthy young adults. It’s been a problem all along with the Brad and Toni relationship. I’ve danced around it, hinted at it, made innuendos and double entendres, but I always make sure there’s no concrete evidence that indicates sex occurred. Readers can assume all my characters are either pure as snow OR are romping off-panel.

TCC:  What kind of jobs have you had?

GE:  1. School teacher for 4 years. Two in El Centro, CA and two in Australia (Oz was recruiting teachers in the early 70s).

  1. Promotions Manager for KRDO TV/Radio in Colorado Springs, CO
  2. Self-employed owner/operator of MAXWEL, a radio-controlled robot who entertained at conventions, parties, fairs, etc.
  3. Cartoonist (at last!)

TCC:  Have you done any other strips, political comics, graphic work, etc.?

GE:  I have a drawer full of a couple dozen rejected comic strips, a bunch of half-done children’s books, sketches for graphic novels, TV show ideas, movie concepts, etc. My only success at cartooning, besides LUANN, was a modest mail-order business I did for 8 years in which I sold comic strips to school papers.

TCC:  Why do you think comic strips are relevant?

GE:  Are they? I wonder about this all the time. There are so many entertainment options, including short-form tidbits that compete with comic strips for our attention (I’m looking at you, YouTube) that I’m frankly amazed that strips are still around. They’re static, silent, often in black and white — and yet they endure. Maybe it’s because they’re so simple and not in-your-face that they have appeal in our cacophonous world. I really don’t know. But I’m thankful every day that papers keep buying and running comics.

TCC:  Do you think comic strips are in danger of extinction?

GE:  No. But if print newspapers die and are replaced by digital papers, comics may need to evolve into something more engaging, such as mini-movies. Imagine an animated GARFIELD, speaking and leaping about. Or a live-action LUANN, in which real people act out each day’s installment.

TCC:  Who are some of your favorite comic strip artists?

GE:  Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Gary Larson, Jim Borgman, Chuck Ayers.

TCC:  What do your fans typically write you about?

GE:  The commenters at GoComics tend to be a good group, mostly positive and supportive. I stay out of the way and keep to myself so they can feel free to say what they want. But, boy, if I make a goof or stray off onto a “boring” path, I hear about it. Commenters also love to prognosticate, spending lots of time laying out their views on what will – or should – happen next. I take all of this as a great compliment. Readers are genuinely invested in LUANN and see these characters as real.

TCC:  How do you prefer for fans to connect with you?

GE:  Facebook/LuannComic

TCC:  How did Karen get involved?

GE:  Karen has always been a creative writer. Like me, she has drawers full of aborted projects. One day, in the car, we were talking about the future of LUANN. None of my children had ever expressed interest in taking over and I didn’t want to be one of those dead cartoonists whose creation falls into the hands of hired guns. I figured the strip would just die with me. Suddenly, a huge cartoon light bulb flashed over our heads. I know, it seems obvious now, but it was a true epiphany at the time.

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TCC:  What does she do with the strip, then and now?

GE:  Since 2012, she’s been a co-plotter and co-writer. We meet 3 times a week and spend a few hours brainstorming story ideas and hammering out daily strips. She brings a nuanced, emotionally-connected, feminine aspect to the strip. I bring the yuks. We’re a good team! And her inclusion comes at a good time; Luann is now a young woman. So is Karen. Duh.

TCC:  Who is your audience? What are the numbers?

GE:  Our audience is “anyone and everyone.”  Truly.  If you look at the data on our Facebook fans or online readers, they are about 60% female, almost equally represented across age-bands from 18-80, and live all over the world.  Every time we get a new fan on Facebook we say, “That’s what a Luann fan looks like!”  And every time it is different.

We work hard to bring a bit of humor and storytelling to as many people as possible: we are in 400+ newspapers and have over 100k page views a day at LuannComic.com. We also have the strip translated in Spanish and run “LUANN AGAINN,” a retro replay of early strips.  Recently we added LuannFan.com to host a wedding dress contest for Toni and plan to continue to add unique content there to feed the interest of our most dedicated fans.

TCC:  How did your other children inspire Luann?

GE:  Gary, her older brother, was the model for Brad. Not in looks (Gary is tall and skinny) but in the sibling quibbling that occurs at that age. The mom and dad are basically Betty and myself. Although, to be honest, the “smart wife, dumb husband” trope is one I hate and try hard to avoid. Trouble is, it’s so often true. It’s just become too prevalent in our culture. All the other characters in LUANN are based on no specific people, but are sides of me.

TCC:  How did Karen feel about being an inspiration for your work?

GE:  I’ll let Karen chime in here:

Karen Evans:  Since I was only six when LUANN started, it seemed “normal” that my dad worked at home drawing a comic strip.  It wasn’t until I was in my teens did I really appreciate how unique that is.  I often get asked if I am Luann but she’s more like someone I grew up with rather than someone who is ME.  She has her own personality, friends, family, drama.  Sometimes things from life show up in the strip, but I appreciate that dad has always been careful not to put anything too personal or embarrassing in the strip.  I was, and am, incredibly proud of his work.

Having inspired the very character whose world I get to help create now?  Surreal.  Discovering how difficult it is to write complex stories for multiple characters in just a few words a day?  Humbling.  Getting the opportunity tell creative stories with my dad?  Awesome.

TCC:  Will this strip adapt into Luann getting married and having kids and continue to go on, or is there an eventual end in sight?

GE:  Good question. Ask me again in ten years.

TCC:  Do you do any other kind of art or graphic design other comics?

GE:  I paint watercolors and do lousy caricatures.

TCC:  Have you won any awards?

GE: In 2003 I won the National Cartoonists Society’s highest honor, “Cartoonist Of The Year.” In March 2015, the California Legislature gave me an Assembly Resolution, recognizing my work. Last May, I was given an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by Calif. State University San Marcos.

TCC:  What kind of software or equipment do you use to make your strips?

GE:  I went all digital about 12 years ago, so no more paper, pens, ink, Wite-Out, etc. I now draw on a Wacom Cintiq that’s hooked to an AirMac. Lettering, drawing and coloring are all digital. The upside is, it’s far faster. The downside is, I am no longer producing original art on paper.

TCC:  Do you keep a notepad nearby for ideas?

GE:  A notepad has been by my bedside since Day One so that I can jot down those brilliant, hilarious ideas that come just before sleep. In all that time, I’ve had maybe 7 good ideas. Mostly, I’ll groggily jot something and then in the morning read: “dog of shoe, meatloaf.”

TCC:  Where can people find your strip?

GE:  LuannComic.com is where to read it daily. LuannFan.com is where to find a bunch of fun “behind the scenes” stuff.

TCC:  What if someone wanted to start from the beginning?

GE:  Two ways. At GoComics.com/Luann, there’s an archive calendar where every single strip can be found. There’s also GoComics.com/LuannAgainn which each day displays the strip that ran on this date 28 years ago.

TCC:  Has Luann ever been adapted into anything? If so, how was it received?

GE:  There was a heyday of comic strip collection books in the ’80s and ’90s. During that time, almost all strips got a collection book published. That’s ended. I doubt there will ever be another print LUANN book. But, there are a total of 23 LUANN collection books, all out of print, but they can be found on eBay. Also, there are currently 6 e-book collections for sale. There’s a link at GoComics.com/Luann. Outside of print, there has been interest in a LUANN TV show multiple times, never going anywhere. And I wrote a musical, “Luann – Scenes In A Teen’s Life” that’s available to produce through Samuel French (go to SamuelFrench.com and search for “Luann.”).  It’s always fun seeing the characters “live” on stage and getting an audience reaction.  Otherwise, dolls, tees, games, etc… nope. Luann isn’t a very licensable character like, say, Snoopy or Garfield.

TCC:  What’s the best part about creating comic strips? The worst?

GE:  The best: knowing that millions of total strangers visit LUANN every day because they get something positive out of it – a chuckle, an insight, a moving moment – is very gratifying to me. I’ve received some very touching letters from pent-up prisoners, frazzled single moms, unhappy teens, lonely senior citizens and lots of ordinary people, telling me that LUANN is a high point of their day, or they cut out my strip and stuck in on the fridge. Doesn’t get better than that!

The worst is when I inadvertently do something in the strip that hurts someone. It hasn’t happened often, thank God –I mean thank Gaw!

TCC:  Is there anything you want to add?

GE:  We know that LUANN is a complex universe and can sometimes be hard for new readers to catch up — it’s like jumping into season 4 of a sitcom and trying to figure out all the inside jokes.  But this rich universe is also what we think makes LUANN unique and brings us such diverse and dedicated fans.  We’re grateful to do this work every day and look forward to entertaining, enlightening, and keeping readers guessing for many years to come.

TCC:  Thanks and good luck to you and all in your LUANN universe.

Check out the Luann Fan page here to check out the Brad and Toni courtship.

Review of Luann comic

Video by John Weber, The Punchline with the Comic Strip Critic

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Michelle Tompkins

Michelle Tompkins is an award-winning media, PR and crisis communications professional with more than ten years experience with coverage in virtually every traditional and new media outlet. She is currently a communications and media strategist and writer, as well as the author of College Prowler: Guidebook for Columbia University. She served as the Media Relations Manager for the Girl Scouts of the USA where she managed all media and talking points, created social media strategy, trained executives and donors and served as the organization’s primary spokesperson, participating in daily interviews with local, regional, and national media outlets. She managed the media for the Let Me Know internet safety and Cyberbullying prevention campaign with Microsoft, as well as Girl Scouts’ centennial Year of the Girl To Get Her There celebration in 2012, which yielded more than 800 million earned media impressions. In addition to her extensive media experience, Michelle worked as a talent agent in Los Angeles, California, as well contracting as a digital content developer and her writing has appeared in newspapers and online. She is passionate about television, theater, classic movies, all things food and in-home entertaining. While she has lived and worked in NYC for more than a decade, she is from suburban Sacramento and gets back there often to watch the San Francisco Giants on TV with her family.

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