The Cathy Guisewite Interview
The comics page wasn’t home to many distinctly female voices in 1976, when Cathy Guisewite’s eponymous strip made its debut. But for the next 34 years, Cathy gave voice to its creator’s—and much of its readership’s—familial, professional and social concerns and preoccupations. On October 3, 2010, Guisewite retired her strip after 34 years. TOM HEINTJES talks to Guisewite about her career and the comic strip career she never expected to have.
Cathy could perhaps be summed up in a mere four words—food, love, work, mom—but they don’t adequately measure the extent to which Cathy Guisewite’s strip struck a chord with readers for 34 years. From its debut on November 22, 1976, the strip served as a form of self-therapy for Guisewite and a sympathetic drop-in for its audience, an amen corner of readers who found a kindred spirit in Guisewite, who reliably dispensed gimlet-eyed perspectives on dating, working, body image and even swimsuit shopping. (Guisewite also occasionally trod edgier ground, as when her boss sexually harassed her or when she got laid off, but forays such as these served to make her protagonist’s often-fumbling foray through life more relatable.) Guisewite always maintained that she never had a master plan for her strip, for example declaring in 1998 that the fictional Cathy would never marry, but reversing course in February 1995 when Cathy married longtime on-again, off-again beau Irving.
Few cartoonists have a roadmap for their characters that extends beyond a few weeks, but Guisewite was seemingly born with an ambition that would blaze her career path. The Dayton, Ohio, native moved to Michigan as a child, graduated from the University of Michigan and began working in the advertising industry, following in her father’s footsteps and eventually rising to the level of vice president at W.B. Doner & Co. Guisewite sent her parents letters in which she doodled herself—in a sense, a prototype of the character who would change her life. (One wonders if, in our era of e-mail, a modern-day Guisewite would have unwittingly planted the seeds that sprouted into her brainchild.) At her mother’s insistence, Guisewite assembled a submission package—seeking to placate her mother and confident nothing would come of it—and sent it to Universal Press Syndicate. For her trouble, and to her astonishment, she received a contract from Universal to produce a daily comic strip. The syndicate sensed its distinct voice and, presciently overlooking its artistic limitations, knew its themes and intensely personal point of view would appeal to female readers as few other strips did, giving voice to universally experienced daily frustrations. Armed with a contract and a steely ability to work around the clock, Guisewite maintained her duties at the ad agency as well as the grueling demands of a daily strip from 1976 until 1980, when she left the agency job and moved to Southern California to work on Cathy full time. With the strip’s success in syndication (peaking at around 1,400 client papers) came success in merchandising, a sideline whose success turned out to be a blessing and a curse for the workaholic Guisewite, who oversaw every aspect of the burgeoning operation while single-handedly producing her strip.
Apart from the greeting cards, shirts, mugs and assorted merchandise, Cathy caught the attention of television producers, culminating in a 1987 Emmy award for Outstanding Animated Program for the first of three Cathy animated specials. Her acceptance speech caught the attention of legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, and Guisewite began making regular appearances on the program, holding forth on relationships, food, mothers and in general the themes that she had tilled for years in her strip.
Ensuing years held more landmarks, personal and professional. In 1992, Guisewite adopted an infant girl, Ivy, and began striking the precarious balancing act of rearing a child while maintaining a demanding career. Rebalancing priorities is never easy but Guisewite did so without missing a beat, receiving cartooning’s top prize, the Reuben Award, the very next year from the National Cartoonists Society. But as her daughter grew up and her parents became older, Guisewite sensed it was time to shift priorities again, this time choosing to hang up her pen and retire the strip. (No doubt she could have allowed Cathy to become Cathy Classics, reuse 34 years of strips and enjoy a substantial income, but she opted to pull the strip and open up more than 1,000 opportunities for other strips.) Since the last strip ran on October 3, 2010 (with the revelation that Cathy and Irving are expecting a child), Guisewite has moved Ivy to college, spent ample time with her parents in Florida and—tellingly—wrote thank-you notes to each paper that had carried her strip. She is candid that the adjustment to the absence of daily deadlines has not always been easy, and her creative impulses continue to assert themselves. It seems reasonable to believe that Guisewite’s fans have not seen the last of her.—Tom Heintjes
Tom Heintjes: So, how does it feel to have gone from AACK to AARP?
Cathy Guisewite: [Laughter] I don’t think I’ve heard anyone refer to it quite like that.
Heintjes: Has the reality of retirement set in?
Guisewite: The shocking thing to me is that there’s still plenty of AACK in my life [laughter], despite the fact that I’m now into the AARP phase. There’s just an endless amount of stuff that fills up the time I used to spend being panicked about the strip. Now I feel panicked about other things. The big thing, though, is that doing a strip really sets the rhythm of the week. There was a very specific rhythm, from mild hysteria to complete hysteria [laughter] to 15 good minutes at the end of the week, after I’d sent everything in, and then the gentle hysteria would set in again. So that rhythm is gone, it was extremely disorienting. I’m not whining—believe me. That would be repulsive to anybody reading this. But it was very disorienting not to have that rhythm of panic guiding my every moment.
Heintjes: What have you found to make you feel less unmoored?
Guisewite: One of the reasons I retired from the strip was that my daughter was starting her last year of high school. And I also really wanted to spend more time with my parents, who live in Florida. I wanted the experience of being a real, full-time mom for one year of my daughter’s life. And I did exactly what I set out to do in that way. I’ve been present for both my parents and my daughter in a billion ways that I wasn’t before, and it’s honestly been a really, really happy and fulfilling year, and I’m unbelievably grateful that I’ve been able to do it. I feel that this year with my daughter has been priceless. She actually leaves the week after next for college. There was a lot I missed with her because I was always worrying about my deadlines, so I’ve tried to smash 19 years of stuff we didn’t do into the last year, and it’s been great. And I’ve been back and forth to Florida six times, I think, since Christmas. To be free to come and go like that for short visits has been great.
Heintjes: Were you interested in the comics as a child?
Guisewite: I loved reading the comic strips. I usually read them with my dad. The ones I remember reading the most were Peanuts, Nancy, Henry and Blondie. It never would have occurred to me to put my thoughts into a comic strip if it weren’t for Peanuts. That strip was absolutely, 100 percent the guiding influence on my comic strip. I grew up reading Sparky’s strip about real anxieties and frustrations and humiliations and all those real human emotions, and he gave a voice to all those emotions on the comics pages. I don’t think there had ever been a strip before Peanuts that had dealt with real human vulnerabilities. When I was younger and reading the strip, I never thought it was planting the seeds for me to put my frustrations into picture form. I can’t believe it would have ever occurred to me to do that when I was in my 20s if I hadn’t read all those strips when I was in my early years.
Heintjes: Some of the nuances of Peanuts are beyond children. Did your father ever try to explain the meaning behind some of the strips?
Guisewite: I think I just kind of received Peanuts at different levels at different ages.
Heintjes: You can name the really successful women cartoonists on relatively few fingers: Nell Brinkley, Dale Messick, Marge, Lynn Johnston, Grace Drayton, Ethel Hays and a few other relative superstars. When you were starting out, how aware were you of the small number of women who made it in the industry? Did you see yourself as standing on their shoulders?
Guisewite: I was completely oblivious to the lack of women in comic strips. It never occurred to me that there weren’t female voices on the comics pages when I started out. Obviously, in history, there have been many women who tried, but I knew nothing about the struggle of women to get heard on the comics pages. I was coming from a place of complete ignorance [laughter].
Heintjes: You didn’t see it as a barrier, then.
Heintjes: You went to the University of Michigan, and after college you began your career in advertising. Your father also ran an ad agency. Do you think that prepared you for the career you were about to embark on?
Guisewite: I thought advertising was great training for writing a comic strip. It made you condense big thoughts into short periods of time. A 10- or 30-second radio or TV commercial is a very short amount of time to say something, and in commercials you’re writing about something that everybody in the world has heard about a million times, with the goal of finding a different way to approach the subject. I always thought that was great training. Plus, there’s always a deadline.
Heintjes: You would send little doodles and sketches to your parents, and eventually your mother persuaded you to package these as a comic strip. I was curious about what sort of submission package you sent to Universal. What it what we would think of as a conventional submission packet, with some dailies and some Sundays? How did you find out how to put together a submission package?
Guisewite: Again, I did it from a place of complete ignorance. The samples that I sent were random shapes and sizes. There were several one-frame things, several two-frame things. There was nothing that resembled a Sunday. I don’t think I had any four-frame strips. I made a little booklet that talked about the world for women. It was not, “Here’s my idea for a comic strip, here are some characters, and here are some samples.” It wasn’t that at all. It was more like, “I’m a single woman and confused, and here’s what life is like for a woman.” It was more that kind of feeling.
Heintjes: You weren’t trying to mimic the conventional comic strip format.
Guisewite: My entire goal with my submission package was to get my mother off my back [laughter]. My goal was not to do a comic strip. It was to make mom quit telling me I could do a comic strip.
Heintjes: So what was your reaction to receiving a contract?
Guisewite: I was stunned to get a letter back almost immediately from Lee Salem, saying that Universal Press Syndicate wanted me to do this for the next 600 years [laughter]. I called my mom, and of course she had the grandest “I told you so” moment of her life [laughter]. I was stunned. I was excited, too. It really made me feel good to do these little drawings I had started doing about the disasters and frustrations of my life. It did make me feel good to do them. It was very cathartic. And I was thrilled and excited to try something new.
Heintjes: How did you get schooled in the dimensions of a daily, the dimensions of a Sunday, the panels that can be removed in the Sunday format, etc.?
Guisewite: I was working with Lee Salem and Jim Andrews. They told me that I needed to create six weeks of work in a conventional comic strip format, and that when I had six weeks done, their salespeople would take it out on the road and see if they could sell it. If they could, they would be selling it with a start date in November 1976. I think I sent my package to them in April 1976. Lee told me how big to make the boxes. I was just drawing on paper with a ball-point pen, so Lee told me that some people use Rapidograph pens on Bristol board. I bought those. Everything about the next couple of months was a constant panic and fun of learning to do everything completely from zero. Learning to draw with a pen, and I’m left-handed, so it was a pen that smears. And pen that clogs up every 15 minutes. A pen you have to hold straight up and down, basically [laughter]. Because I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t draw in pencil and go over it. I bought a book called Backstage at the Strips by Mort Walker, and that book was my bible of how to physically do a comic strip. I got great inspiration from that.
I bought tracing paper, and I developed a system of drawing the same picture on tracing paper over and over. Somebody told me about lightboxes, so I got a lightbox and developed a system that when I would get four frames that were decently drawn on tracing paper, I would use the lightbox to trace them in ink onto Bristol board. I never drew in pencil at all. That was the system I used to put together the first six weeks of strips, and that is the exact same system I used 34 years later when I drew the last strip.
Heintjes: You did all this while keeping your job at the ad agency.
Guisewite: Not only did I do all this while keeping my job at the ad agency, I was so horrified that somebody would find out that I didn’t tell anybody I was going this. So I just worked on the strip at night and on the weekends.
Heintjes: It’s nice to be young, isn’t it?
Guisewite: [Laughter] Three in the morning used to be so familiar. Now I barely see 10 o’clock at night.
Heintjes: I’m assuming you didn’t make the acquaintance of any cartoonists who gave you tips.
Guisewite: No, there was no one like that. There was Lee Salem, Jim Andrews, and my mom [laughter].
Heintjes: That’s not a bad trio. It wasn’t your idea to name the strip after yourself. How did you feel about having it named after you? Readers wouldn’t be able to see any daylight between you and the character you created, and that must have been a little troubling to you.
Guisewite: It was. In my submission to the syndicate, I had literally been drawing pictures of myself. She looked like me, and her name was Cathy. I was just sending them to my mom to let her know I was coping, or not coping. The syndicate felt it would make the strip more relatable if the character’s name and my name were the same. They felt it would make it a more personal strip, and it would help people to know it was a real woman who was going through these things. I hated the idea of calling it “Cathy.” The idea that these vulnerabilities were going to be published was…as I said, I was partly thrilled at the chance to do it and partly mortified that anyone would see it. So I had one foot in both of those worlds. And if I had called it “Ellen,” it might have put one more nanosecond of distance between me and the character, you’re right. I drew a few strips naming the characters other names besides Cathy. But the truth is, it was an extremely personal statement from me, and I kind of bought the syndicate’s logic that no one would believe it if I named it after someone else. As the years went on, what I wound up hating even more than the embarrassment of people thinking it was me, was the fact that it often was [laughter]. I also felt terrible that some people thought it was a grand ego trip, that I would name the character after me, and that all these products are a shrine to me. I hated that, because the strip was born and always came from such a place that was the anti-ego. It came from a place of insecurity and searching for truth and reason and answers. Not from a place of “I’m Cathy, here’s my comic strip.”
Heintjes: Walk me through what happened after you put the material together for the salesmen. What sort of reaction did they counter?
Guisewite: They miraculously got the strip started in, I think, about 70 papers in November 1976. That was really a lot at that time. Just last year, at my retirement party, they told me the struggles they faced selling it in the beginning and in the early years. The syndicate has always been so kind to me and so supportive. They’re just champions of creators. They didn’t fully admit to me until my retirement party how hard it had been to sell my strip. There were a couple problems. One was that the art was extremely primitive, and the comic strip editors were not used to seeing that kind of primitive-looking art. The second problem was that almost all of the features editors at that time were men, and it was a very different voice to be in the comics page. Pretty much at that time, except for Doonesbury, which spoke to more of a niche audience, comic strips were pretty much bought and sold on the basis of their wide appeal to everybody. The editors who were buying mine knew it was a much more specific market, and that was really new at the time.
Heintjes: As you got into the strip, you developed the themes that would fuel it for its entire run: love, work, parents and food. How did you settle on these themes?
Guisewite: I never planned anything [laughter]. I never even worked out one whole week of strips at a time. It’s astonishing to me that I never stepped back and went, “What do I want to do? What voice should there be?” I had utterly no plans for years. All I wrote about what was got me through the week [laughter]. Isn’t that horrible to say?
Heintjes: You’re very close to your parents, as Cathy was in the strip. But the strip’s relationship with her mother was so much more fraught with neurosis and intensity. From my own superficial observation, that’s not how you interact with your own mother. How did you develop the sort of relationship you depict in the strip?
Guisewite: The strip just gave me a chance to speak what was unspoken, maybe. I think the essence of Cathy’s relationship with her mom is very true to the essence of my relationship with my mom. We get along great. We laugh a lot; mom has a great sense of humor. We just drive each other insane in a loving, mother-daughter kind of way.
Heintjes: So your mother never said, “Oh, so this is how you really feel?”
Guisewite: No, she always deflected it and pushed the denial button. It was more like, “Oh, this is just like so-and-so” [laughter]. The themes that I kept coming back to were the ones that made me happiest to write about, and I loved writing about mom and Cathy and that relationship. The strip continued to be very cathartic for me. Anticipating going home for Christmas and coming back afterwards, all the vows we make about how we’re going to be different with our parents and then coming home 10 pounds heavier and having failed at many of the conversations we were planning to have. Those things kept happening over and over and over, and they were always just right there as subject matter.
Heintjes: You also appear to use the strip to address concerns that many women struggle with, even ones that you yourself don’t. For example, people who know you as a svelte person might wonder why you depict Cathy as struggling with her weight.
Guisewite: The people who wonder that didn’t know me when I was in college.
Heintjes: The freshman 15?