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When life becomes a comic strip

(Page 2 of 2)

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."

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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."