A Cosmic Ramble through Comics History, Part One

Posted by on August 30th, 2010 at 2:13 PM

Cathy Guisewite will end her landmark somewhat autobiographical comic strip Cathy on October 3 after a three-decade run. She says she wants to spend more time with her family; when Cathy started in November 1976, Guisewite had no family, and Cathy was the only syndicated daily comic strip about a single career woman being produced by a single career woman. It shattered a glass ceiling.

But now, Guisewite’s life is different: she’s married and a mother. In announcing the end of the strip, the cartoonist said: “After almost 34 years of meeting newspaper deadlines, I’m facing some personal deadlines whose requirements simply exceed my ability to procrastinate any longer—an 18-year-old daughter who needs a full-time mom to help her through her last year of high school and beyond, beloved parents I want to be able to visit more often, and a creative biological clock, which is urging me to try something else while I can.”

When Cathy began, Guisewite was scarcely playing the typical subservient coffee-fetching role usually assigned to women in the male-dominated universe of advertising. She’d graduated from the University of Michigan in 1972 and landed a job as a copywriter at a Detroit advertising agency. By 1976, she’d moved through another agency and was vice president at a third, W.B. Doner, one of the country’s largest independent agencies.

Guisewite’s family had moved to Dayton, Ohio, and when she wrote them, she often resorted to cartooning to relate her adventures at work. Her mother, Anne, thought the cartoons worthy of publication and urged her daughter to seek a publisher. When the daughter proved less than dutiful and pooh-poohed the idea, Anne Guisewite researched the syndicate world and recommended Universal Press in Kansas City. The daughter at last relented and sent samples to Universal; within a week, Guisewite had a contract.

Lee Salem, Universal’s editor and vice president, recalled the situation: “In 1976, the comic page was almost solely a male province. The day Cathy’s submission arrived in our office, we had a contract out to her in return mail; seven months later, the strip began in newspapers. Cathy brought a much-needed female perspective to humor comics that become a breath of fresh air. Women’s feelings of insecurity in relationships and at work weren’t discussed openly on the comic pages—or in many other places in the newspaper, for that matter. Cathy made it okay to be candid and open about these issues.”

At the time, Blondie, Brenda Starr, Nancy, Miss Buxley and the Fat and Skinny broads in B.C. were the medium’s chief female representatives. A Universal Press news release of a few years ago noted the watershed moment: “Launched at the height of the women’s movement, Guisewite’s character began as a voice for the conflicting emotions of women in transition and has continued to chronicle our changing and challenging world from a woman’s point of view. Cathy has taken on everything from sexual harassment and pay inequity to swimsuit shopping and fat gram counting—and all the large and small issues that affect women’s sense of accomplishment and self-worth in between.”

“The character was ordinary. In some ways that made the strip extraordinary,” said Lucy Caswell, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. “She isn’t a supermom; she’s no Brenda Starr reporter with a glamorous job. She leads a life that is very familiar to women readers. That’s what Cathy’s women readers—and most are women—liked about it.”
The comic strip’s genesis lay in Guisewite’s illustrating her own life for her family, and Cathy continued in that autobiographical mode. During the Washington Post’s online “Meet the Artist” session in February 2003, Guisewite was asked whether she used material from her own life or made up such matters, and the cartoonist jokingly explained: “When they’re really, really embarrassing things, I’ve made them up. When they’re examples displaying Cathy’s confidence and control over her life, then they’re actually my own life.”

Despite its pertinence on issues of interest to women (including but not restricted entirely to the “four basic guilt groups” for career women—mother, love, work and food), Cathy was only briefly as political as Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. During the presidential campaign of 1988, Cathy’s friend Andrea urged women to vote and, after due consideration, recommended Michael Dukakis because he had come out for a national day care plan, equal pay for women, and job-protected maternity leave.

Guisewite elaborated in an interview in Cartoonist PROfiles in March 1996 (No. 101): “My purpose in starting this particular sequence was just to get people talking about women’s issues in relationship to the candidates. Andrea had lost her job because she took more than two weeks off to have a baby and her company had no maternity-leave policy. I did a lot of strips involving working women, dealing with the lack of day-care help, the lack of parental-leave legislation, and so on. I thought these strips were completely in the spirit of the strip. And Andrea only came out for Dukakis because he stood for those issues I’d been talking about.”

Having opened this vein of comedy, Guisewite was soon persuaded to shut it off—mostly because of the reaction of newspaper editors. (A rumor at the time alleged that Universal Press pressured her into avoiding such controversies, but that is patently untrue: Universal has never shied away from controversy and has always supported its cartoonists whatever they want to do.) Said Guisewite: “Some editors pulled strips on the days when they thought I was getting too political or moved them to their op-ed pages.”

Thereafter, fitting-room freak-outs, overbearing-mother arguments with daughter, office drama, and chocolate binges prevailed. Until, that is, Guisewite gave up her single career woman status.

She adopted a baby, Ivy, in 1992, and in 1997, at the age of 47, she acquired a stepson when she married screen-writer Chris Wilkinson.

For 11 weeks in 1992, the daily Cathy went into re-runs while Guisewite took maternity leave to attend to her new-born, who had arrived early. “They found out she was going to be mine only a few weeks before she was born,” Guisewite said. “I guess poor John McMeel, the president of Universal Press, almost had a heart attack when I first jolted him with the news of the situation on the phone, but he and everybody at the syndicate supported me very helpfully during those weeks.”

Guisewite wrote the editors of her subscribing papers asking that they be “very low-key” about Ivy’s arrival, and not much changed in the cartoonist’s other creative department, producing a strip about a single young career woman. But when Guisewite married, change soon seemed inevitable. Because Cathy the character was based upon Cathy the cartoonist, subtle conflicting emotions emerged. “I felt like when I got married, I’d finally be free of my character,” Guisewite told Laura Dempsey at the Dayton Daily News in 2004. “My daughter was five when I got married, and I thought, ‘My life is finally different.’ The truth is, I’m writing the strip pretty close to home, and the longer I’m married, the harder it is to write about Cathy. Every time I sent her on a date, it felt like I was cheating.”

She assuaged the feeling by having Cathy get married—to her nerdish boyfriend Irving—in 2005. But now, five years later, at the age of 60, Guisewite wants to try other creative endeavors, and, as she said, she needs more time to be a mother and a daughter, and not, so much, a cartoonist.

The cartoonist and her comic strip have laurels aplenty. Guisewite collected a Reuben in 1993 when the National Cartoonists Society named her “cartoonist of the year” for 1992 and an Emmy for best animated television special in 1987. Something approaching 30 book collections reprinting the strip have been published. At the peak of its popularity, Cathy appeared in more than 1,400 newspapers; while that number has dwindled to about 700 today, it’s still a more than respectable circulation.

Mel Lazarus, a long-time friend of Guisewite’s and an admirer of her comedic skills, couldn’t resist saying a fond farewell in his own strip, Momma, which specimen we supply here and, just to show how much times change in 34 years, we follow with a pair of Cathy strips from 1977, the year after it began.

Oh—and, in case someone asks—comic strip Cathy sometimes has a nose. Not usually, but sometimes—when, for whatever compositional reason, the character must appear in profile (rarely), Guisewite is “forced” (she says) to give her “a little nose.” But it ain’t easy: “It takes me half a day to get the drawing right,” Guisewite said.

Next time: Why Some Women Are Happy to See Cathy Disappear

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2 Responses to “A Cosmic Ramble through Comics History, Part One”

  1. WLLilly says:

    …RC , have you seen the Candorville sequence that ran last week ?

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Alas, I didn’t see it until you nudged me in that direction; had I seen it before posting the foregoing, I’d have included some reference to it. Darrin Bell’s take is delicious.