When life becomes a comic strip
Not since the New Yorker's Helen Hokinson so deftly pruned the world of garden club ladies has there been such a successful woman cartoonist. She is Cathy Guisewite (pronounced "Guyswhite"), the creator of the syndicated comic strip "Cathy," which runs in 150 newspapers around the country.Skip to next paragraph
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Her Cathy is a muffin-shaped girl-woman who semi-copes with contemporary life. Coping includes what to do about: her boyfriend, a self-satisfied jerk named Irving; her inordinate passion for Oreos, Twinkies and fudge ripple ice cream; being dumped on as the token woman at work; her feminist chauvinist friend named Andrea; and a proctective mother who's ready to pour soup on the guy who robbed Cathy. Cathy wears her heart on her collarbone and her hair in her eyes.
Cathy's creator, the leggy brunette who has not yet had to cope with a 30th birthday, says the roots of the cartoon strip are in her childhood. As children , she remembers, "we were forced to make greeting cards for each other, for family members. You could not buy a birthday card or Christmas card. In fact, you couldn't buy a present, really. It was only a meaningful gift it was something you made. So over the years I've drawn a lot of little cards and little books. We always used to make little books for each other for presents. I was dragged into this from childhood." She laughs, a low laugh; there's nothing like being dragged into a smashing success.
She was already a successful advertising copywriter as vice president of a Detroit agency when her cartooning started. She began sending drawings instead of letters home to her parents to let them know how it was to be on her own, single, with heer first job, and apartment. Her mother thought the cartoon letters so terrific she threatened to take them to Universal Syndicate if Cathy didn't do it herself. Universal took and look, bought the strip, and sold it off the bat to 66 newspapers.
The Cathy you see in the comic strip, although named for her creator, doesn't look much like her. Cathy Guisewite in person looks like a young doe, with large brown hair. She is 5 foot 2 inches, small-boned, slender, agile, not the lovable klutz that Cathy is.
She appears for an early morning interview wearing a royal blue, tissue tweed dress, spindly black suede high heels, and a brave smile. It is, after all, 9 a.m., a difficult hour for most writers to be articulate. Her voice is a surprise. It is not the breathy, little gilr, early-Jackie Kennedy voice you might expect of "Cathy." It is the voice of an older woman; in fact it sounds amazingly like the comedienne Alice Ghostly, low, with a hint of stifled laughter, and a midwestern twang around the edges.
Cathy Guisewite is in town for a benefit showing of her comic strips at a local art gallery to benefit the Equal Rights Amendment. She appears to be a shy, non-public kind of person, the sort who would wince at show-biz appearances and interviews to publicize her work. When she's on tour does she feel like a fish thrown to the public?
?No," she says, shaking her head so that her hair falls like theater curtains over her face. "I understand I have the choice not to do any interviews. A lot of the whole point of Cathy is to communicate the feeling that all women, all people, are struggling with the same kinds of issues. They get hung up on the same petty little kinds of things, and I would like people, by reading 'Cathy,' to get the sense of: 'Gee, I'm not alone in this. It's okay if I've failed this time, but I'll keep trying, and next time, in the next relationship I'll do better. The next time I ask for a raise I'm not going to be so nervous about it.' And for that reason I think it's very important for me to interview. I never want people to think . . ., I mean, I'm not different . . . well, I'm different only because my work gets published every day.I'm not working any harder than any other woman."
When she's working on her comic strip, Cathy Guisewite is plugged into her own private world. First, she sits down at the drawing board in the morning in the three-bedroom condominium in suburban Southfield, Michigan, she shares with her dog, Trolley. Then she puts on the stereo earphones and plays music that's her own equivalent of an isolation booth. It's generally music that reminds her of people she knows well or places she's been, a familiar sound so that she's comfortable in her "Cathy" world.
"Usually when people ask, I qualify it as depressing music," she deadpans. She listens to Janis Ian, Kim Carnes, a little of Emmylou Harris. "What it does is: it helps isolate me, and i really feel the need to feel like I'm completely alone, to get alone physically to do the work."