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Posted at 7:30 PM ET, 08/13/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: CATHY GUISEWITE reveals why she's really ending her strip -- and why she won't abide 'Cathy Classics' reruns

By Michael Cavna

cathybio.jpg (Images courtesy of Universal Press Syndicate / Universal UClick)

In the mid-'70s, CATHY GUISEWITE submitted some loose drawings -- they didn't even resemble comic strips, she says -- to Universal Press Syndicate. Her style might have been rough, but her personal voice was emotionally clear. The syndicate signed her on the spot, and within seven months, Guisewite -- who was succeeding as a Detroit advertising writer -- was appearing in comics pages across the country. "Cathy" was born.

Now, 34 years and many chocolate binges and bikini blunders and crash diets and Irving go-rounds later, the ever-angtsy "Cathy" will bid the comics farewell on Oct. 3. Guisewite, who turns 60 next month, has decided to shed the deadlines in order to move on to some "personal deadlines" within her own life -- including supporting a daughter through her last year of high school, and spending more time with her own parents.

Comic Riffs caught up with the wryly funny and frank Guisewite this week to discuss her Emmy-winning comic's storied history, her title character's iconic status -- and whether we can expect to see "Classic Cathy" reruns in our daily comics pages come this fall.

MICHAEL CAVNA: So now that the news of "Cathy's" retirement has officially been announced to the world, how does it feel? .

CATHY GUISEWITE: It feels hideous. I'm sure it will feel better later, but it's still sort of shocking.

MC: Makes sense. But are you at a point where, say, you've started to reflect on this 34-year run?

CG: I have loved doing this job and feel blessed to have done this for a living, To be able to last this long and to be paid to turn every [personal] 'disaster' into money [is special]. To turn every bathing suit disaster -- to get back at some clerks -- and every calorie blunder and shopping blunder into a [comic strip] -- it's been great.

MC: You've before mentioned the "sisterhood" you feel with many of your readers. Can you speak to that connection?

CG: Generally, I liked feeling able to connect with millions of women on a very deep level. It felt special that women especially would cut out my strip and place it on a refrigerator. It"s been very moving and I feel lucky to be able to connect that way. ...

I think that with my strip, I got to reassure a lot of women that they weren't alone. I got to say a lot of the things. Because of the times [in the '70s, women] were supposed to have it all together. But with the strip, women were free to admit some things by seeing a character who struggled with some little blunders and dreamed of big things [at a time when] things could be confusing and when you might feel vulnerable.

MC: When you launched the strip in 1976, did you set out to speak especially to women in this way?

CG: As you know, I wasn't intending to create a comic strip to begin with. So I think I wasn't aware that when the strip started, there had never been a woman's voice quite like this in the newspaper. I wasn't aware that almost all the [comics page] cartoonists were men. I hadn't paid attention to it. But I think what I wrote in the strip was very typical of my generation: I graduated [from college] in 1972 and ... was reading Ms. Magazine but I was also reading Bride magazine. I had one foot in each world and was struggling with how it was.

But I wasn't expecting women to relate to it the way they did. I never imagined such a deep connection. But I love the connection that women, especially, have had with it.


MC: Given how much so many women identified with Cathy as a single woman, how difficult -- or not -- was it to decide to have her marry Irving?

CG: I can't buy a pair of socks without going to 12 malls. I was just tormented. It was such a huge decision. I keep going back and forth. For so many years, I said: I will [represent] the single woman and won't abandon you like so many of our [now-married] friends have. ... But then I hadn't been dating for years and it didn't feel honest to me. I had gotten married and had all this great [new] material that I hated to waste it.

MC: That's the thing with cartoonists, eh? For us, all life is potential cartoon fodder.

CG: That's the way we do it. That's the way we're programmed.


MC: So when did you seriously begin to contemplate retirement of the strip? Was this long in the works, or a fairly recent decision?

CG: I think it was really within the last year that I decided it. Any artist fantasizes about life without deadlines, but I had not seriously considered it. Then this year, I starting really looking literally [at ending it] and I felt the [strain of] deadlines more strongly. I had it in mind that it would be nice to do it through the 35th anniversary -- which would be next year. But this year I have a graduating high-schooler and parents who are of an age that they are blessed to be in good health, so I really just wanted to spend time with them. And I want to torture my daughter with my constant hovering and love [this last year of high school] while I can. If I wait longer, I'll never get this year back with my daughter and parents.

Then there's the wanting to create something else without this deadline. And I'm right down Main Street for a midlife crisis where I am.

MC: How did the folks at Universal take the news when you told them?

CG: Lee [Salem, a longtime top Universal executive] and everyone at Universal are the most supportive and gracious people. They really are. ... They understandn all the reasons this is a good time. I feel terrible about abandoning them except that for the sense that I'm not. ... I would love to do some other things with what exists already for a lot of projects, both with "Cathy" and not "Cathy." ... I would definitely like to do a book -- there's really a little history of women of my generation that [runs through] the strip. And Universal is great and inventive at finding new ways for comics to exist besides [traditional] ways.

MC: So does that mean there are plans to do "reruns" of "Classic Cathy," a la "Peanuts"?

CG: No, it was not my intention to do that. I feel like I have always been, and continue to be, humbled to have that space [on the page]. I feel like I need to earn it every day -- to do my best new stuff. Now, I love the idea of releasing my space to another cartoonist [who can] have a chance in papers. It wouldn't seem right to do reruns.


MC: So can you share what any of those future projects, specifically, might be?

CG: I don't know, beyond cleaning out of the trunk of my car. I know I will fill up the new blank page with something. I really want to resist committing to another deadline for a little while. I want to try to be a full-on mom and watch my daughter grow [toward adulthood] as best as I can.

MC: Does your daughter draw? Might she want to inherit your strip as happens with so many legacy strips?

CG: She is wonderful at drawing, but she rebelled. Now, she won't draw anything...

MC: Speaking of motherhood, it was your mom, of course, who encouraged you to turn "Cathy" into a strip. Can you speak to the birth of "Cathy" and Mom's role?

CG: Mom said everything I touched was good enough to be published, so this wasn't the first time. Although she said that, she also taught me to write in journals and to keep my feelings private by putting it in writing. After college, I kind of had the feeling of frustration of trying to succeed in a new world with a fabulous career in advertising and failing in the old world of trying to have a relationship. ... So after awhile in my journals, I couldn't write the same pathetic thing, so I drew of picture of what [my life] was like and [in letters] to let Mom know I was coping without telling everyone about my feelings. It made me feel better to do it. I summed up my traumas and sent it to her.

Before long, Mom -- who had always taught me to keep my feelings private -- said this could be a comic strip. She even put Universal Press Syndicate at the top of her list. She knew that they represented "Doonesbury" and "Ziggy" and she loved both strips. I of course expected to be rejected -- what I sent it didn't even resemble a comic strip. It was a drawing of a girl who looked like me. I wore glasses so I drew Cathy with big glasses, but my artwork was so poor that [the syndicate thought] they were just two giant eyes. And Cathy never had a nose before I never figure out how to put it in. Only three or four times do you ever see her in profile because I couldn't resolve those [artistic] problems.

MC: According to lore, Sparky [Schulz] never liked the name "Peanuts," which was coined by the syndicate. I've heard a similar thing happened with you and title "Cathy."

CG: Once it was going to be published [as a comic], I wanted my name off of it [as a title]. I didn't want people to [always be aware] that I was writing about myself. Universal felt as they it would help people relate to the strip if the character and I shared the same name. I tried all sorts of different names but ran out of time to decide, so I stayed with Cathy. Over the years, beside people assuming it was literally me, which is often true, I didn't want people thinking that -- it seemed like an ego trip, which in fact it was the opposite. It was such a lack of ego that created the strip.

MC: The strip's being named for yourself heightened the sense that the strip was largely autobiographical. So how much was Cathy your balloon-spouting avatar, as it were?

CG: That depended on how humiliating the subject matter was that day. I could create distance that day or not. The best strips are the most honest. That's just the truth of it. I need to be able to go to that place. And my younger sister [Mickey] was a fabulous sounding board -- I would try comic strips out on here to find if she thought many women did something, or whether it was just me.

MC: So did you use her as a sounding board about your decision to retire "Cathy"?

CG: I did. She offered the massive support of confusion. She said: "Why are you quitting?"

MC: So do you yet know: Do you plan to end "Cathy's" long run with a dramatic or nostalgic flourish -- be it a sweet ending like "Opus," or a sentimental "For Better or For Worse" (pre-rerun) tie-up, or a sense of never-ending story like "Calvin and Hobbes"?

CG: I have no idea. After all these years, I still can't think more than two weeks ahead. Deadline has always been a combination of creativity and panic. 'Sparky' [Schulz, the "Peanuts" creator] always used to call it running from in front of a train.

"I'm only in a good mood for nine minutes each week. [She laughs.] It's always right after I send in [the strips] on Thursday afternoon. Then it all begins again. ... Even now, I've known for several months that the end of the strip was in the works and instead of working ahead so I could be nice and contemplative, I'm just clawing [to the finish] to meet the deadlines.

MC: Well, then, I'll urge you to be contemplative for a moment now. What are some of the highlights, personal and professional, of your 34-year run with "Cathy"?

CG: The coolest thing was meeting Charles Schulz -- that was like meeting God. That was incredible. And being on "The Tonight Show" was so cool -- I was so terrified but Johnny Carson was great. I really had a great time and he had fun with [talking about] male-female relationships. But I've had so many astounding things happen because of doing the strip. I met a president [Jimmy Carter] and have had an unbelievable life [during the strip's run].

I'm also profoundly grateful for all the papers that ran me, who stood by me from the beginning. And for the syndicate support when I didn't know how to draw. There was the screaming voice of some editors, but the syndicate was steadfast in supporting me as a different voice in the papers.

I'm just had an amazing life with "Cathy." The opportunity to turn all my disasters into [artistic] therapy and connect with people. What, am I crazy? Why am I leaving this?

MC: So as you depart the newspaper comics page, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of newspaper cartooning?

CG: I love comics and I can't imagine life without them. I love newspaper comics. I've got to get them in the newspaper, not online ... and I can't imagine them going away. I appreciate the new world for comics, but I love holding the printed comics page in my hand. And I'm hopeful.

As for me, it means a lot to have people read "Cathy." I feel honored to have gotten to appear on the comics page for this long. I've blown away to have had that chance.

cathys.jpg (1999 file photo)

By Michael Cavna  | August 13, 2010; 7:30 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Comic Strip  | Tags:  Cathy, Cathy Guisewite, Charles Schulz, Universal Press Syndicate UClick  
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