When life becomes a comic strip

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

Cathy Guisewite thinks and speaks of herself as a writer, not as an artist; she's never taken an art lesson. But she was an English major at the University of Michigan, where she took creative writing classes and swore after all those term papers that she would never write again. Now lashed to a daily writing assignment she says, "I don't think any writer is ever satisfied enough to sit back and say, 'Oh, well, I'm doin' great.' I always am thinking about this strip; next week I'll be a little more concise; next week I'll be better."

Cathy Guisewite says she gets much of her inspiration from browsing through women's magazines -- not just the ones she herself is naturally interested in, like Ms., Working Woman, Self, Savvy, and Esquire. She also pans for gold in the kind of magazines her mother -- or someone's mother, she suggests -- would be interested in. She says, "I find them pretty entertaining." There is a wicked chuckle. "Magazines like Redbook and the Ladies Home Journal provide material because they have a way of setting down answers in such a perfect form that there is always some material in the contradictions between what you read and how it actually works when you try it. It's the typical '21 Steps to Improve Your Entire Life by Tomorrow at Three O'clock.'"

For example, she explains, "Cathy's mother in the comic strip took what she thought would be a cute little novel from her book club. It turned out to be Marilyn French's feminist tone 'The Women's Room,' which 'threw her into shock and horror' . . ., and because of that her mother's bridge group formed a consciousness raising group, and her mother was named leader. . . . She got an article titled 'Ten Ways Toward a Raised Consciousness,' which she found on the back of a beef stroganoff recipe in a women's magazine. Through the article, her mother is 'sort of trying to fumble around guiding all these women toward raised consciousnesses.'"

Ms. Guisewite, who is earning over $50,000 a year with her syndicated comic strip, is asked whether she'll go the route of other cartoon successes. Will there be Cathy bubble bath, Cathy-heart T-shirts, Cathy shopping bags, Cathy dolls?

She sighs. "Well in general I think I have a good agreement with my company that we'll try to control that. . . . We're going to try to stay away from the little figurines. But there is a line of Cathy greeting cards slated for next year."

There will presumably be no Cathyburger franchises, although her creator's idea of a great meal is scarfing down cheeseburgers in the kitchen. She also likes to ski, play tennis, and "I would like to be able to disco. I've said it. I think it looks real pretty. . . . I tried to take a class, and they wouldn't let me take it because i didn't have a partner. I said, 'How am I going to learn to dance.' He said, 'How do you expect to dance if you don't have a partner?' I said, 'How am I supposed to get a partner if I don't know how to dance?'

It's the sort of thing "Cathy's" male chauvinist boyfriend, Irving, would have said to her. Irving is the one who doubletimes her and dumps on her and tells her her morals are 500 years old. But, of course, she still loves him, especially when she's getting his clothes squeaky clean at the laundromat, while he watches 12 hours of football on TV. That emphatically is not Cathy Guisewite's idea of the ideal relationship. As a woman with a finely-honed sense of humor, she admits that laughter can be death to a romance.

"But I'm idealistic enough to think that I will meet somebody some day who will appreciate the way I think about things or communicate that to him. Too often my relationships have been founded on the old principle of non-communication, and I certainly have gotten a lot of encouragement from women who write books and [write] in some of these magazines that a relationship between a man and a woman should not be different from a relationship with a friend. There can be a real equality between you. The man does not have to be opening the door constantly, taking care of you. I'm not interested any more in a relationship where I feel I'm being taken under somebody's wing. In fact, I couldn't stand that."

Another thing she couldn't stand is being supported by a man. "I couldn't quit what I'm doing now. I couldn't, for instance, be supported by a husband. The relatively short time I've been working, seven years I guess, I love the independence simply that making my own money provides. It would be impossible for me to go back and be asking somebody for my allowance every week. In the same sense it would be impossible for me to give so selflessly [as her mother had] to children." She is reminded that her creation, "Cathy," is childlike, open, generous. She answers, in that low, scratchy voice, "Well, I would spend somem time with my children." Then she laughs, "They just couldn't have it all."

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