Cathy’ comic strip creator bids farewell

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The comic strip “Cathy,” which has chronicled the life, frustrations and swim suit season meltdowns of its namesake for more than 30 years, is coming to an end.

Cathy Guisewite, 59, the strip's creator, said that deciding to end the comic strip was "excruciating." The comic has won several awards, including a1992 National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program in 1987, and at its height appeared in 1,400 papers. The comic strip’s syndicator Universal Uclick talked with Guisewite about her career.

Why have you decided to retire “Cathy” now?

CG: I’ve loved doing the “Cathy” comic strip and feel so honored to have had my space in so many papers for so long. This career has been a miracle — it let me turn every anxiety into art, be paid for it, and connect in such a deep way with millions of other women.

But after almost 34 years of meeting newspaper deadlines, I’m facing personal deadlines that are simply exceeding my ability to procrastinate any longer: a daughter who’s starting her last year of high school, who I want to be able to be there for completely while I still get a teeny vote…beloved parents I want to visit more often…and a biological clock that’s hitting 60 and panicking about doing everything else in life I haven’t had time to do yet.

How did the strip come about?

CG: My career is the triumph of the pushy mother.

In 1976, at the height of the Women’s Movement, I was feeling the full confusion of succeeding at the “new” dream of having a fabulous career in advertising, but failing at the “old” dream of having a relationship. I sent little stick-figure sum-ups of my frustrations home with letters to my parents.

My mother — who’d said everything I touched since birth was “good enough to be published” — insisted these new scribbles could be the start of a comic strip. When I refused, she marched to the library, researched comic strip syndicates, and typed a list of who I should approach.

It was only when she finally threatened to send the work herself with a “cover note from Mom” that I sent a package to Universal Press Syndicate, the company at the top of her list.

Instead of the rejection letter I was planning on, they sent me a contract. They said they loved the emotional honesty of my submission, and that they were confident I’d learn how to draw if I had to do it 365 days a year.

When you started, could you imagine “Cathy” becoming such a huge hit?

CG: The first day that “Cathy” ran, I spent most of the day hiding in the ladies room of the advertising agency in Detroit where I worked, praying that no one would read the newspaper.

Even though I’d been frantically working on learning how to write and draw a comic strip every night and weekend for seven months, I hadn’t told anyone except my immediate family that I was doing it.

The first strips were so personal and vulnerable at a time when women were celebrating such new confidence and empowerment. I thought I was the only woman in the world who came home from a day in her brilliant career and ate a pint of ice cream because Mr. Wrong didn’t call.

I couldn’t believe I’d ever shown my drawings to anyone, let alone that they were being published. Couldn’t imagine that anyone felt the same way. Could never, ever, have comprehended that “Cathy” would have so many biologically unrelated, deeply connected “sisters.”

How much of the strip throughout the years has been autobiographical?

CG: Pretty much, the more humiliating the admission, the more autobiographical it was.

The seven different sizes of jeans in one closet…the three-year, $75/month membership to the gym that I went to twice…the begging my mother to return the delusional New Year’s Eve outfit be cause I couldn’t face the saleslady again: all me. The visions of total organization, efficiency and clarity: not so much.

I didn’t want to call the strip “Cathy” be cause I wanted to at least get to pretend I wasn’t writing about myself. Universal Press thought that people would relate to it more personally if they saw the main character and I shared a name.

In keeping with the complete lack of decision-making skills that fueled my whole career, the strip stayed “Cathy” because I couldn’t decide on another name in time.

How do you go about creating the strip on a daily basis? What is your creative process like?

CG: My creative process has almost al ways started with me dumping my purse out on my desk, praying I’d written some partial joke on a fat-free energy bar wrap­per, and concluded with my deadline just hours away and me desperately calling my sister, Mickey, to ask if she thought any other woman ever experienced what I was writing about, or if it was just something women in our family did. Mickey’s the only person on earth I ever tried strips out on before they were published.

I’ve never once had that experience of just being out and about and having fabulous ideas flood into my brain. I can only write if I’m sitting in a room completely alone, with my phone set to speed-dial my sister.

Who are your influences?

CG: I never would have created “Cathy” if I hadn’t grown up reading “Peanuts.” It never would have occurred to me to work out my anxieties and insecurities in four little illustrated boxes. Charles Schulz not only opened the door for my whole career, but saved me thousands and thousands of dollars in therapy.

What has been your favorite part of doing the strip?

CG: I’ve loved creating something that helps women feel they’re not alone. I’ve loved creating something that men will never completely understand.

I’ve loved getting to connect with women where we live and aren’t usually seen: weeping on the floor of the swimsuit dressing room...planted in front of the freezer at 2 a.m. …stuck behind the desk in the fabulous power suit we couldn’t zip after lunch…standing in the ladies room rehearsing “date” conversations or trying to blow dry the part of the outfit that just fell in the toilet…and that secret special place in our brains that we go to where we can believe, just for a little bit, that the right new pair of sparkly, stiletto sandals will fix everything.

Looking forward, what are you hoping to do with your free time?

CG: For almost 34 years I’ve dealt with every frustration by writing a comic strip about it. So I imagine for quite awhile there will be a little trail of crumpled-up drawings following me wherever I go.

Besides finally being available 24/7 to hover over my 18-year-old daughter and parents and drive them insane with my love, attention and opinions, I want to pur­sue my lifelong goal of cleaning out the trunk of my car.

Most of my huge fantasies at this age involve the storage room: re-packaging the last 60 years into neat little plastic boxes...labeling and backing up five crates of miscellaneous family videos…all 45,000,000 digital and non-digital photos edited, organized and popped into pretty albums.

When I even think about it, I start seeing the words on the page. I know my next creative project isn'tfar behind.