Luann, the sincere and engaging comic strip by creator Greg Evans, turns 35 this March. The strip began with an energetic, teenage girl, but has gone on to feature numerous dynamic characters and storylines and address countless important topics. The cartoon, which appears in more than 330 newspapers, is a tried-and-true favorite that has gone on to create a “Luanniverse” of Luann fans.
In honor of this big milestone, Andrews McMeel caught up with Evans along with his wife, Betty, and his daughter, Karen, who is now co-writer after decades of acting as muse to many of Evans’ plots and themes. In the interview, the Evanses affably discuss their work, highlights and prophesies for the future.
Briefly describe how Luann got started.
I was born with Cartooning Disease; always wanted to do a comic strip. After decades and dozens of failed (lame) submissions, the idea of a strip about a young girl hit me as I was observing my 5-year-old daughter. Luann was born! And the writing was now coming from my heart (genuine) instead of my head (contrived). That made all the difference.
What do you think it is about Luann and her surrounding characters that has kept her relevant and popular all these years?
Well, the heart thing, of course. Also, comic strips exist to help sell newspapers by entertaining readers. To that end, I’ve always tried to make Luann not just entertaining, but compelling, relevant, even informative to keep readers coming back. I love to create intriguing “what next?!” plots and juicy characters. Guess my evil scheme worked.
Tell us about your approach for more sensitive subjects. Are there any rules you follow?
From the start, I knew Luann would need to be about more than lipstick and shoes. I felt I had a responsibility to explore some of the real traumas of teenhood, but the newspaper comics page is perceived as a safe, family-friendly place. How could I address touchy topics without offending? The answer lies in humor and character. The strong characters in Luann, with their intrinsic humor and conflict, help tell sensitive stories in ways that make the reader focus more on the character than the topic. There are two subjects I do avoid, however: religion and politics.
What is your favorite Luann strip or storyline and why?
I’m most proud of the “Luann Gets Her Period” two-week story in 1991. It’s a huge thing in a teen girl’s life. My daughter was nearing the “event” and I wanted to do something in Luann first so as not to embarrass her. To keep newspaper editors calm, I had to avoid the words “period” and “menstruation.” So, I used a gimmick: When Luann tells Bernice the big news, she says, “I got my … (.)” Still, I was flooded with mail. Some critical (“The comic page is no place for such a topic!”) to supportive (“As a school nurse, I thank you. So many girls have no idea what’s happening to them.”). Letters like that go in the “Best Thing About Being a Cartoonist” file.
Greg, you received the Reuben Award in 2003. What was it like to receive that honor? What is your favorite thing about being a cartoonist?
There is no higher honor for a cartoonist. I walked on the ceiling for weeks, knowing that my peers voted for me. I love what I do, so it never feels like work. My job is to go to my comfy studio and write and draw funny stuff. Meanwhile, other folks are stuck in traffic on their way to their asphalt paving job. Cartooning as a career can feel particularly trivial, so recognition feels good. So does knowing I’ve touched someone with Luann. A few years ago, I got an email from a reader in Russia who said she’d had a hard life and was suicidal. She said Luann helped her. So, the best thing about being a cartoonist? There it is.
Karen, you began co-writing the strip in 2012. How does it feel to now be a direct contributor after so many years of inspiring the strip?
Growing up, I saw my dad work at his drawing board, stare out the window and nap in his recliner, and I assumed that’s what most dads did. Eventually, I realized “cartooning” was not a typical career, but the idea of working on the strip wasn’t born until a giant lightbulb cracked us over the head in 2012. Now that I have the honor of co-writing Luann with my dad, I understand the importance of all that staring and creative napping: Telling a compelling story, complete with punchline, in a few tiny boxes, 365 days a year, is challenging. The Luann characters have been family members for 35 years. I am in awe that I get to share the joy of creating for them and for our fans and couldn’t be prouder to work alongside my dad.
Betty, what has your involvement been in the strip over the course of its 35-year history? What is your perspective on how it has grown and evolved?
I’ve always believed in Greg’s talent. I’ve been his biggest cheerleader and probably his biggest critic. I serve as his sounding board, editor and storyline/character/continuity adviser. But it sure doesn’t seem like 35 years! Luann began as a “laff-a-day” strip about teens and has evolved into a wonderfully complex and nuanced dramedy. Greg’s a terrific storyteller, and he’s done an amazing job of slowly aging Luann and Brad and their friends — physically, emotionally and philosophically — into young adulthood. I’m proud of the topics he’s covered, especially given the restrictions of the comic page. The addition of our daughter to the team has really helped the strip grow in depth and breadth. I think it just gets better and better!
Greg and Karen, you drew yourselves into a strip several years ago to wish Luann a happy 18th birthday. What was the idea behind that, and what are your thoughts on breaking the fourth wall? Do you think you would do something similar again?
It’s funny and appropriate when Stephan [Pastis] does it in Pearls Before Swine, but it’s wrong for Luann because readers are deeply invested in the “real” Luanniverse. In 35 years, I’ve broken the fourth wall only a few times, and they involved appeals to the readers (submit to a contest, support MADD, etc.). The 18th birthday thing was an anomaly. Fun, but something I don’t do much.
What has been your experience working with Andrews McMeel?
I’ve been inordinately lucky in my relationship with syndicates over the years; from News America to King to United to AMS. I wanted to be with AMS all along, but Lee Salem kept rejecting all my lame submissions! Now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In my experience, AMS is simply the most creator-friendly, forward-looking syndicate.
What are your hopes for Luann in the next five, 10, … 35 years, and how will the evolving newspaper industry play a role?
Let’s see … In 35 years, I’ll be 107, so I’ll probably have cut back on the triathlons. Otherwise, I hope to still be enjoying delivering Luann to readers every day (assuming anyone’s still delivering newspapers). And since Karen will be 75, we may enlist my granddaughter, Julie, to help write; she’ll only be 44. What about Luann herself? Will she age? Probably. Or, she may remain a 70-year-old teenager.
Do you have any new Luann-related projects in the works that you can tell us more about?
I could tell a story that has the words “Hollywood” and “TV” in it, but that might jinx the whole thing. So, no. Nothing in the works …