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A cartoonist's life is a 'funnies' life

You must be able to draw well, but good ideas are even more important. The best advice: ' Write what you know,' says 'luann's' Greg Evans.

By Ross Atkin / February 15, 2000



Greg Evans loves his job. "It's so simple," he says. "You could end up on a deserted island, and as long as there's mail service, all you need is a stack of paper, a pencil, and a marker, and you're all set."

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Mr. Evans is a cartoonist. He's been drawing his "Luann" comic strip, about a teenage girl, for 15 years. "Luann" now appears in 350 newspapers.

Evans lives in San Marcos, southern California, and works at home. His studio used to be a bedroom.

What's it like to be a cartoonist?

He gets to work when he wants to, but he likes working from 9 to 5. He starts his day by checking his e-mail to see what Luann's fans are saying. Then he starts writing or drawing.

"The drawing is the mechanical part," he says. "I can listen to music. The writing part requires more quiet, private time. I'll drift around the house and sit in the corner." It looks as though he's doing nothing, "But I'm actually working very, very hard."

"Luann" is not a "gag a day" strip. His strength as a cartoonist is in developing story lines and characters, Evans says.

But it took a long time for him to come up with a good idea for a comic strip. He had to keep trying and trying.

Ever since he was a kid, Evans says, he wanted to be a cartoonist. In college he began sending his ideas to syndicates. (Syndicates are companies that promote, sell, edit, and distribute comics, columns, and puzzles to newspapers.)

Being a syndicated cartoonist was Evans's dream. "It's one of the easiest jobs in the world to apply for," he says, "but one of the hardest to get."

Each year, thousands of wannabe cartoonists send in sample strips. And each year, thousands are rejected. (A spokesman for King Features, a major syndicate, says that his company accepts only three new strips a year.)

Evans tried about eight times over the course of several years. He kept recasting a couple of clownish characters. After each rejection, it took months for him to work up the courage to try again.

Finally, a syndicate asked him to send in a second batch of cartoons about two female roommates. Evans, then a high- school art teacher, knew he was getting close. That's when he decided to use his daughter's experiences as a preteen as his inspiration for "Luann."

His daughter is grown up now. "Hopefully, she's left behind enough material for years to come," he says. "Otherwise, I may have to go out and rent a teenager."

The big lesson for Evans was: "Write what you know." That's his best advice to anyone who wants to be a cartoonist. "As soon as I started tapping into my own life, my own experiences, and my own home," he says, "my writing was much more genuine."

Evans also got some good advice from Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts." He read that Schulz said "You want your comic to be like a piano keyboard, with all the characters you need to play any 'tune' you can think of," Evans says. More characters also means more material. Every cartoonist faces the challenge of running out of material.

But, "If you have good characters," Evans says, "there's always a depth of material to dig into. You'd think the well would go dry after a while, but actually it gets deeper and deeper." Evans began with a handful of characters. Now he has about a dozen "regulars" in the strip.

Like all cartoonists, Evans works about two months ahead. That means he has to think way ahead about holidays he wants to work into the strip. During a very productive week, he might send his syndicate two weeks' worth of strips. No one else can draw the strip, so he must work ahead if he wants a vacation.

He can finish a daily strip in an hour. Sunday strips, because they're longer and in color, take twice as long. When he first started "Luann," no cartoonist used a computer. Today, some don't use pen and paper at all.

Evans isn't quite at that point. But he does use computers. Hand-lettering the strips is tedious, he says. So he wrote the alphabet and put it on a computer disk. After the strip has been scanned into his computer, he can type in the dialogue using the disk and it looks hand-lettered. He also uses the computer to add shading to the drawings and to color the Sunday strips. He sends his work to the syndicate electronically, too.

* For more information, go to the International Museum of Cartoon Art Web site at: www.cartoon.org Or try Hogan's Alley, an online magazine of cartoon art: www.cagle.com/hogan/

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society