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Friday, November 18, 2011

“Luann”: A Situation-Based, Character-Driven Comic Strip

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

“Luann,” by Greg Evans, features the teenage exploits of Luann DeGroot; her parents, Frank and Nancy; her brother Brad; Brad’s girlfriend Toni Daytona; Brad’s buddy T. J.; and Luann’s friends and high school classmates, including her best friend Bernice Halper; her romantic rival Tiffany Farrell; and her nerdy admirer Gunther Berger. Occasionally, other characters appear in the strip, including Aaron Hill, the boy upon whom Luann has an unrequited crush; Toni’s abusive ex-boyfriend Dirk; and Bernice’s handicapped, wheelchair-bound ex-boyfriend Zane. The comic strip is aimed at teenage and young adult readers, although its situations and humor appeal to a general audience. Much of the conflict is situation-based and, as the Internet website Toonopedia’s article on the comic strip points out, the strip typically concerns “the ordinary hassles of teenage life,” such as Luann’s or Brad’s interaction with their family and friends, although some sequences include serious or “touchy” issues such as menstruation, “drug abuse,” “drunk driving,” and “cancer” (“Luann”). With the exception of October 25, the theme for the sequence of the comic strip that appeared from October 25 through October 31, 2009, focuses on Halloween and shows the characters’ personalities as they are revealed by their reactions to problems and conflicts that arise from ordinary, everyday situations.

October 25, 2009

Halloween is a quintessential children’s holiday, and, since “Luann” appeals primarily to teenagers and young adults, its creator focuses most of an entire week’s worth of his comic strip on this festive occasion. The exception is the Sunday, October 25, 2009, edition. All of Evans’ Sunday strips are stand-alone works. They are not part of the daily sequence. Therefore, they must make sense by themselves. The strip for Sunday, October 25, 2009, shows Luann and her friends standing shoulder to shoulder at the front of their classroom. Behind them, the theme of the day’s lesson is written on the chalkboard: “Day of Service--How will you help others?” As their teacher, Mr. Fogarty, looks on, the students tell their peers what each of them intends to do during the Day of Service. Luann is the next to the last in line; Tiffany stands to her left. Each of the students except Tiffany plans to perform a more-or-less significant act of kindness and assistance. Bernice announces that she intends to “visit” a “disabled neighbor.” Crystal plans to “give manicures at the senior center.” Knute will “mentor at the skateboard park.” Delta hopes to “start a citywide volunteer corps.” Gunther intends to “donate extra time at the library.” Luann is going to “clean up litter.” Since all the other students have a relatively important and meaningful task in mind for the Day of Service, the reader anticipates that Tiffany, the last in line, will also have a noble and helpful task in mind. However, her announcement surprises both Luann and the reader. When Tiffany declares that she will do all that she “can to look incredibly gorgeous,” Luann turns to her, in the next panel, and asks, “How does that help others, Tiffany?” Although her explanation (“Uh. You all have to look at me, right? Duh.”) is obviously ludicrous, it reflects her shallow and narcissistic character, and, juxtaposed to her peers’ more important plans to help others, is amusing.

Octiber 26, 2009

The rest of the week focuses upon Halloween. In the October 26, 2009, strip, Frank and Nancy, seated across from one another in their living room, discuss what to hand out to visiting trick or treaters. Nancy confides to her husband, “I didn’t buy Halloween candy. I hate it that kids gorge on sweets, but I don’t know what to give. Carrots? Toys? Dimes?” Her practical husband suggests “garage stuff.” His response seems to surprise Nancy. “What?” she asks him. “We have junk in the garage we plan to sell,” Frank tells her. “Give it to the kids. Win-win.” Unimpressed, Nancy illustrates the absurdity of Frank’s suggestion. Pretending to give the garage items to visiting trick or treaters, she says, as if she were speaking to them, “A bent golf club for you, an ugly tie for you, a half roll of wallpaper for you, a broken lamp for you.” Her humorous protest prompts Frank to response, “See? It’s even kinda scary.” This strip uses a problem--children’s stuffing themselves with “sweets”--to set up a humorous attempt by the characters to find a solution. Nancy’s suggestions for alternative treats (“carrots. . . toys. . . dimes”) are serious, but Frank’s (“junk in the garage”) is both playfully self-serving and humorous. The strip combines a serious health issue with an everyday situation (cleaning out the family’s garage) and a holiday (Halloween) to appeal to a wide audience, which includes both children, adults, parents, and homeowners.

October 27, 2009

The October 27, 2009, edition of the comic strip continues the situation that the previous day’s installment established: what to give visiting trick or treaters on Halloween. Again, Frank and Nancy are seated opposite one another in their living room. Nancy opens the conversation between them: “I think I’ll bake sugarless bran muffins for Halloween treats.” Frank offers an interesting alternative. At first, it sounds ridiculous, even a bit cruel: “Here’s a better idea. Take one of our 500-piece jigsaw puzzles and give each kid a handful of pieces.” However, in the next panel, he explains his reasoning, and the idea doesn’t seem as absurd: “The kids will have to get together to assemble the puzzle. They’ll make new friends! It’ll strengthen the very fiber of our neighborhood!” Nancy’s response is based upon a play on the word “fiber” that Frank has used. “My bran muffins are all about fiber,” she observes. “Yeah,” Frank replies, “but it’s the kind that tends to separate people.” His response suggests that the fiber in the muffins will facilitate the children’s need to use the bathroom, since fiber has a laxative effect on people, and their doing so will cause them to “separate” rather than to “assemble.” This strip shows that both Nancy and Frank care about the welfare of children. Nancy has their health in mind, whereas Frank is concerned with their social wellbeing. Their proposed solutions to the problem of what treats to hand out to children on Halloween also show them to be creative. The conflict between them is gentle and rational, rather than harsh and emotional, showing that they are mature and logical adults. Like many of Evans’ other strips, this one, based upon a specific situation, reveals the traits of his characters’ personalities.

October 28, 2009

The October 28, 2009, edition of the comic strip continues the same situation, as Frank, discovering a kitchen “drawer full of rubber bands from the newspaper” to which they subscribe, suggests to Nancy, as she pours a cup of coffee, “Let’s give these out to the trick or treaters.” She asks a logical question in response, wondering what the recipients “are supposed to do with a rubber band.” In the next panel, Frank explains, “Honey, they’re kids. They’ll think of things.” Nancy agrees, but her rejoinder suggests that the “things” of which the children are apt to think to do with the rubber bands may be undesirable and, potentially, hazardous: “Yeah. Like zing you upside the head as you close the door.” Frank’s suggestion is based upon his understanding that children are imaginative, but Nancy’s comeback addresses another facet of adolescent behavior. Children, she suggests, are also unruly, and their rowdiness could cause unpleasant or dangerous results. It is evident that both characters, as the parents of Luann and Brad, understand children well. The strip also seems to imply that, in caring for children, two heads are better than one, because both Frank and Nancy contribute to an awareness of the nature of children which is truer and more developed than either of their perceptions would be by itself. Children are imaginative, as Frank points out, but they are also immature and disorderly at times, as Nancy indicates.

October 29, 2009

The October 29, 2009, edition of “Luann” is atypical in that it is not humorous in itself. Rather, it sets up the strip that is to appear the next day and, as the inclusion of a web address in the lower right corner of its single panel indicates, it is more of a public service effort than it is an attempt to tell a joke or to express humor. This time, the action, such as it is, occurs in Luann’s bedroom, as her dog, Puddles, sleeps on her bed and her best friend, Bernice, reading a magazine or a book, lounges on the floor, her back against the side of the mattress, while Luann contemplates a large collection of books in her bookcase. Bernice reads to Luann some facts that have captured her attention: “Wow. In America, kids collect almost 3 billion pieces of candy on Halloween.” She finds this information disturbing because of the hazards to children’s health that it represents: “That’s a lot of hyper, obese, bad-teeth kids.” Luann, contemplating her bookcase, says, “Look at all these old children’s books of mine. Wonder what I could do with them?” A teenager, she has outgrown the “children’s books.” What were once welcome diversions are now undesirable clutter to her. However, possibly because they have sentimental value to her, she doesn’t appear to want to simply discard them, for she wonders what she “could do with them.” The strip for the next day will provide the solution to her problem.

October 30, 2009

In the October 30, 2009 strip, Frank and Nancy are still trying to resolve their problem as to what to give trick or treaters in lieu of candy. This time, they are seated at the dining room table. Nancy names “apples” and “stickers” and other possibilities. Frank, once again, suggests an absurd alternative: “paper clips.” As her parents struggle with the issue, Nancy listing their ideas on a sheet of paper, Luann approaches them, carrying a tall stack of books. “How ‘bout givin’ my old children’s books?” she suggests. In the next panel, the parents are alone again, Luann having left the stack of books on the table. Her mother and father stare at the books, speechless. In the last panel, Nancy tosses her crumpled list as Frank offers the strip’s punch line: “It’s scary when she’s more clever than we are, isn’t it?” Although this strip, considered in isolation from the previous editions in the sequence, is not all that amusing in itself, its humor becomes funnier because it builds upon the continuing situation that previous days’ editions of the strip have developed, this one becoming, as it were, not only amusing in itself but the punch line for the whole series of related strips to date. Because Frank and Nancy have considered a series of possible alternatives to the giving of candy to visiting children as Halloween treats without success, Luann’s casual resolution of their long-running dilemma is also amusing, since she is a teenager, while they are adults. Usually, the parents solve problems, but, in this strip, the roles of parents and child are reversed, which helps to fuel the amusement.

October 31, 2009

The October 31, 2009, edition of the comic strip represents the culmination of the Halloween-based series as children visit the DeGroot household to trick or treat. Luann hands out the books. “Just for you,” she says to a girl in a witch’s costume, naming the title of the book she is giving her, “If I Ran the Zoo.” Her announcement of the book’s title brings her father running, as he cries out, in horror at the thought of the loss of the book, “That book is inscribed by Ted Geisel inside!” His announcement shocks Luann, who stares wide-eyed and speechless. “Ted Geisel” is the actual name of the author who has written a popular series of children’s books under the pen name “Dr. Seuss.” The fact that he has “inscribed” the book that Luann is giving away suggests that the volume may be worth a fair amount of money. As such, it is not something that is appropriate to be given away to a child, which explains Frank’s horror and the speed with which he intervenes, as well as Luann’s own shock. Luann’s diplomatic way of resolving this crisis is to offer the child two books for the one that she originally gives her, and the girl gladly accepts, so that, at the end, everyone--the girl, Luann, and Frank--is content with the outcome. Luann’s actions show her to be sensitive, kind, and tactful. She may be a teenager, but she is maturing well emotionally and morally, her behavior suggests. She is also witty, because her dialogue, constituting, as it does, a rhymed couplet, in her offering of two books for the one she originally gives the girl, resembles the rhyming couplets in which Dr. Seuss’ books are written.

Just as she earlier solved her parents’ dilemma concerning what to give trick or treaters instead of candy, Luann now resolves the crisis of reclaiming the book she originally gives a child in a diplomatic, and even witty, manner. Although her parents are obviously mature adults--Frank provides for the financial necessities of a family of four, just as Nancy keeps house for them, and both parents show an understanding of and a concern for both their own children and children in general--both Nancy and Frank can also act childishly on occasion, as is indicated by Frank’s panic at the possibility of losing a book signed by a famous author and his grabbing it out of Luann’s hands the moment she retrieves it from the trick or treater and Nancy’s earlier insistence that her bran muffins are superior to Frank’s suggestion for a Halloween treat because her muffins would be “all about fiber.” The comedy of “Luann” springs from Evans’ display of his characters’ personalities through their responses to the problems and conflicts which arise from specific situations related to everyday life. Such humor appeals to children, teenagers, parents, and other adults alike.

Works Cited

Evans, Greg. “Luann.” Comic Strip. The Las Vegas Review-Journal.
25 Oct. 2009-31 Oct. 2009: C8. Print.

Markstein, Don. (2009). Luann. Don Markstein’s Toonopedia. Retrieved November 4, 2009, from
http://www.toonopedia.com/luann.htm .

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