YOU WOULDN’T THINK Luann DeGroot and Joe and Marcy Cobb would be such rare elements. After all, Luann is a white teen-age girl with the usual teen-age girl problems, whether trying to handle her crush on Aaron Hill, her friendships with Bernice or Delta or her antagonism with dorky older brother Brad.
Meanwhile, the Cobbs are a loving black couple, precariously balancing their respective jobs as a policeman and nurse, the mortgage payments, their rambunctious daughter Sunny and their impending baby boy (or so they hope).
Teen-age girls and black couples, though, are scarce figures in the comic world. Cartoonists Greg Evans and Robb Armstrong bring their creations to the Contra Costa Times’ comic pages starting today. Evans’ “Luann” and Armstrong’s “Jump Start” will replace the departing “Shoe” and “Fusco Brothers” daily and will fill the Sunday slots vacated by the “Fusco Brothers” and “Geech.”
The family strips, syndicated through United Features, ground themselves in their creators’ personal lives. Evans’ daughter Karen (and her occasionally antagonistic relationship with brother Gary) helped guide the cartoonist through the complex ups-and-downs of a girl growing up in America, from peer relationships to a changing body. Most of what goes on in those frames, though, comes from Evans’ imagination and the characters’ own independent evolution.
“The key to a good comic strip, I think, is having characters who have conflict, and you rub them together and they produce sparks, ” says Evans, 50, who has been writing the strip for 13 years. “There’s no humor in compatibility and happiness.” Besides, Evans points out, with his kids in college, “I have no more in-house sources of material.”
Despite the success of “Luann, ” talking about teen-age reality can still draw protests. The most controversial was the series five years ago when Luann experienced her first menstrual period.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve written in the strip. When you’re doing a strip about teen-agers, I feel I have a responsibility to deal with more than the agonies of makeup and dating, ” says Evans, who lives in San Marcos. “Being a teen-ager these days is life-threatening.”
Armstrong understands about dealing with human issues. “Jump Start, ” which he has been writing for nine years, is the story of the hard-working and middle-class Cobb family. Armstrong, 35, deliberately chose the professions of police officer and nurse because, he thought, they were accessible occupations that everyone thinks they know something about. The strip’s heart, though, lies in Joe and Marcy’s relationship.
“It’s not about cops, it’s not about nurses. It’s about humanity living in the real world, ” he says. “I’ve seen enough couples down on the institution of marriage.” Armstrong, who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Dresher, borrows freely from his marriage with Sherry, whom he met in college, and his relationships with daughter Tess and son Rex. As the youngest of five children raised by his single mother, a seamstress, he values being a husband and father. “I loved being married; it saved my life. It certainly gave me fodder for my career. I’m fascinated by marriage, and I’m fascinated by being a father.”
Armstrong regularly loans out the Cobbs as role models for campaigns sponsored by the American Diabetes Association and the American Cancer Society. He also makes the rounds at churches, libraries and schools, which he finds incredibly gratifying. “I’ve had experiences speaking in front of people that go beyond unbelievable. In two cases this summer alone, I had two teen-agers that told me they were considering suicide before they heard me.” His example and the example of his creations touch people of all ages.
Readers can see past strips of “Luann” and “Jump Start” on www.unitedmedia.com. The site also lists book compilations, including Armstrong’s illustrated novel on Joe and Marcy’s previously unpublished courtship or Evans’ newest “Luann” gift book.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times