When cartoonist Cathy Guisewite turned 60 this month, it was a liberating event.
"Sixty feels different," Guisewite says. "It's way different than turning 55 or 56. There was something very freeing about it."
The milestone marked the beginning of a new direction for Guisewite's personal life, and the end of her semiautobiographical comic strip "Cathy."
For more than 30 years, the self-obsessed, somewhat neurotic, not-yet-good-enough female character has found a home on the comic pages of newspapers across the country. On Oct. 3, Guisewite will end the strip that has been heralded — and sometimes criticized — for its analysis of a young career woman in American society.
"It was an agonizing decision to end the comic strip," Guisewite says. "I'll miss two things equally. One, doing the comic strip is such a great way to cope with everything and save on years of therapy. I'm also going to miss the incredible connection with people — especially the millions of women who never met me but feel like I'm their friend."
A character to relate to
Indeed, Cathy is the kind of friend who knows what it's like to be overweight. Loved but criticized by mother. Dumped by boyfriends. Snubbed by sales associates. Defeated by chocolate. In 1976, many women could relate to her life as the dawning of women in the workplace began and the women's empowerment movement reached new levels.
"The timing was right," says Lee Salem, president and editor of Universal Uclick (formerly Universal Press Syndicate), the strip's distributor.
Salem was the first to predict the kind of impact "Cathy" would have on the public.
"There was only one other female strip and that was 'Brenda Starr,' " according to Salem. "But there was nothing of humor with women on the pages. It seems to me that 'Cathy' showed the roles of women are not so tightly defined. [Guisewite's] writing had special qualities and her sense of character, the situations she put her characters in, was attractive to us."
So attractive that Salem put a contract in the mail the same day he saw the strip. Seven months later, on Nov. 22, 1976, "Cathy" made its debut.
Ironically, it was Guisewite's mother who suggested she send Universal her work.
"I used to write letters home and illustrate them with sparse stick figure drawings at the bottom of the letter," Guisewite recalls. "My mother thought that the sum-ups were reflective of other girls. She researched comic-strip syndicates and typed me out a list in the order I should submit it. To get her off my back, I sent the strip to Universal — the first one on the list."
From advertising to cartoons
A graduate of the University of Michigan, Guisewite was a 26-year-old advertising agency employee in Detroit when she signed the contract with Universal.
Yet, the Cinderella story had one wrinkle for both editor and creator. Guisewite's drawings were not as smooth as those of other syndicated cartoonists. Salem had real reservations about the art, he said. And Guisewite says she didn't have much confidence in her drawing.
"The art was so cryptic," she said. "I had long straight hair and big glasses and that's how I created 'Cathy.' I was drawing two sticks on the side of her head for her glasses. After awhile, they told me to lose the sticks and just go with the big eyes." The results were that the art improved, but 'Cathy' never was drawn with a nose.
While she loved the opportunity to do the strip, Guisewite couldn't quite let go of her advertising career — until a year later when it became apparent that "Cathy" would not take a back seat. She left Detroit and ultimately settled in the Los Angeles area, working on animated specials, chumming with "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz and making guest appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Her TV work garnered an Emmy for animation, and the strip received honors from the National Cartoonists Society, among other accolades.
Humor is important
Guisewite also picked up criticism from some women who thought "Cathy" had too many poor self-image issues.
"I feel like the character served a real function for women to keep a sense of humor about the small things in life and to be available for the huge things in life," Guisewite says. "It would have been glorious to have a character who lost weight when she said she would, wasn't taken down by the insurance lady or travel plans. But truthfully all of the little moments stop us. I think that the comic strip wouldn't have been funny as a confident character."
"Cathy" was always somewhat autobiographical for Guisewite, who jokes that the more humiliating the strip is the more autobiographical it is. When Cathy finally married her longtime suitor Irving, it was because Guisewite was in the thick of married life.
Now separated from her husband, Guisewite says she'd like to spend more time with her 18-year-old daughter, whom she adopted before marriage. She admits that desire to spend time with her daughter and her parents was a big influence on her decision to end the strip.
And just how will it end?
"I'm still writing so I don't know," Guisewite says. "But I am a happily-forever-after person. Cathy and Irving will stay together."
Angela Bryant Starke is a writer in Tennessee.