'Cathy' Retires After 34 Years: Interview with Creator Cathy Guisewite

It's quitting time for Cathy.

The ultimate "working woman" comic strip is about to take a well-deserved, indefinite leave of absence after being on the job for over three decades.

'Cathy' is being retired by her artist creator, Cathy Guisewite, after 34 years chronicling her comic strip alter-ego's travails and misadventures through work, relationship and swimsuit frustrations that spoke to all women. Its debut at the height of the Women's Movement in the 70s touched a nerve within many women, chronicling their well-hidden insecurities and daily personal struggles.

'Cathy' and Guisewite won several awards over the years including the 1992 National Cartoonists Society's Rueben Award and also a 1987 Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program. At its peak, 'Cathy' appeared in 1,400 newspapers. As Guisewite, 59, approaches the final 'Cathy' strip scheduled to run on Oct. 3; the artist spoke candidly about what led her to bring her popular, semi-autobiographical strip to an end, her reflections on her beloved two-dimensional friend and what new creative horizons lay ahead beyond the drawing board.

Q. Why are you ending the run of 'Cathy' after so long, and how hard was it for you to come to that decision?

A. It was agonizing to come to this decision. This comic strip has been my life, my therapy, the rhythm of my life and the structure of my life. It's been the way I get back at every sales clerk and bathing suit designer and the way I deal with every relationship... so, it's been very hard to decide to end it.

On the other hand, I'm hitting that, "if not now, when?" phase of life that a lot of people in my age bracket are experiencing. My daughter has one year left of high school and I really want to get to spend as much time as I can with her, hovering and smothering and teaching her everything she needs to know that I haven't been able to teach her yet. Also, my parents are both healthy and very active and I want to spend as much time as I can with them... and it's hard to do that with a (publishing) deadline. Finally, there's just a lot of other creative things I would love to do that I simply can't with this comic strip deadline.

Q. What are some of the things at the top of the list that you plan to do with this free time?

A. I'm going to clean out the trunk of my car and organize all my closets. I figure just cleaning my purse and sorting that out will take me probably through Christmas. I think this age inspires reflection and I want to do that, and I know my next creative thing will come out of all of this.

Q. How did the Cathy the character come to be?

A. My mom told me ever since I was the age of 2, that everything I touched was good enough to be published. After college, I had a fabulous career in the advertising business and a miserable love life... and I used to sum my frustrations with all of that with drawings and kind of illustrated my story and would send the drawings home to Mom to let her know I was coping and still had a sense of humor. This was 1976 at the height of the Women's Movement and it was not cool to admit vulnerability and not cool to kind of feel like you had one foot in the camp of the liberated woman, and one foot in the other camp. But, that's where I was. So, it made me really feel good to sum up all of my conflict with all of that in pictures."

"So, Mom told me the drawings were good enough to be published, even when I pointed out that these were humiliating private admissions just sent to my mom. But, she said she was sure there were a lot of women who felt just like I did. So, she went to the library and researched comic book syndicates... and she picked a list of syndicates and sent it to me. I sent a submission to Universal Press Syndicate just to get Mom off my back, and instead of the rejection letter that I expected, they sent me back a contract.

Q. How difficult was it, at the beginning, to let your personal frustrations be made public through the character of Cathy?

A. It's a funny thing, because it felt so good to admit this stuff on paper. It was so cathartic to get it out that I was compelled to do it, and the first time I did it, I just loved the feeling of it. However, truthfully I can't even imagine why I ever showed them to anybody. The first day the strip came out, I hid in the ladies room of the advertising agency I was working for because I was humiliated that anybody would see it. I think that early on, I just kind of developed that little creative wall where that was Cathy, and this is me and we're not really, really the same person even though we look exactly alike and have the same name. It's that little creative wall of denial.

Q. In your opinion, what has been the allure of 'Cathy' to generations of women?

A. 'Cathy' deals with the little things that are always present. A woman's relationship to the doughnut hasn't really changed no matter how empowered we get. The rest of our lives, we're still pretty much humbled by the doughnut. Our relationship with food and that (ongoing) struggle has remained constant and it only gets more conflicted the stronger you get in every other area of your life. I also think that my strip has always served the function of saying what women felt, but either had nobody to say it to, were embarrassed to say it, or didn't even know they were feeling it until I wrote about it.

Q. Women obviously relate to Cathy, but what has been the reaction of men to your strip over the years?

A. Men have loved learning that their wife or girlfriend isn't the only person who feels the need to have 16 pairs of virtually identical black shoes in the closet. I think that when (men) read 'Cathy,' they have told me it helps them understand their wife, their girlfriend, their mother and helps them maybe have a sense of humor about aspects of these women that weren't otherwise apparent. I think I've been able to be the voice for a lot of frustrations that women have had in their relationships with men, with their pets, with their mothers.

Q. You've referred to 'Cathy' as having been a source of therapy for you for 30 years. What has 'Cathy' helped you with the most?

A. Honestly, doing the strip has forced me to keep a sense of humor because I have a deadline... and because I would have to take what was before me there in my life and find a sense of humor about it. That's been the most therapeutic thing.

A. I'm most proud of the personal connections I've made with people, especially women. I love that 'Cathy' has been posted on so many refrigerators. That she's been mailed between so many mother and daughter teams to help them understand each other and speak to them. I love knowing that women have Cathy strips tucked in their wallets or desk drawers that are their little private connection between me and that person where we've shared the same thing. I've loved the letters I've gotten from women who have told me that reading a particular strip helped through a really hard lonely time, in the exact same way that writing that strip helped me through that exact same time.

Q. What has it been like meeting your fans face-to-face?

A. I feel overwhelmed. I've had women come up to me with tears streaming down their faces saying that they feel like I'm their sister and they feel like I understand them completely. They come and hug me and it's really wonderful and meaningful."

Q. Is there a chance that Cathy could return someday?

A. Never say never. I will do some more things with Cathy... I will meet with (my publisher) and talk with them about doing some things with material that exists already. I would love to do some sort of reflective book about the changes that have happened with women. I don't think Cathy will return in this (comic strip) form, but she might not go away completely."

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