The Goodbye Girl: 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?
Guisewite: The freshman 15, followed by the sophomore 15, then the junior 10. How’s my math? I graduated about 45 pounds heavier than when I started. And that’s not good on someone who’s kind of short. I struggled with that a lot in college and then the first couple of years after college. A lot. Wrestling with body image and food and all that … I pig out on rice crackers now, not potato chips, but it’s still about having too much of something. The temptation is still there in all forms. There are many, many foods that are just banned from my house because I’m not mature enough to be in a room with M&Ms, no matter how well they’re hidden.
Heintjes: You’re disciplined enough to meet your deadlines for 34 years, but not enough to leave that cheesecake alone.
Guisewite: Exactly. I love writing about women’s issues with food. And I would say it began with my own issues with food, and I really did get to the point where I felt I was writing about a lot of women’s frustrations. Even after I got thin, I’m still a victim of the food industry like everybody else.
Heintjes: In 1998, you told a writer for Biography magazine—and I quote—“She’s not getting married.” What changed?
Guisewite: What changed, probably, is that I got married, and the longer I was married, the harder it was to write about Cathy dating. The richer material was about being married, and it was so hard for me not be able to use more of the material I was getting from my regular life. And the awareness that the vast majority of the people who were fans of the strip had long since gotten married and had children. They weren’t reading my strip anymore because it was about a single woman, and I wanted to catch up with them. I didn’t lie at the time I said she would never get married, but things just changed too much in my life. It was impossible to write about dating, because I wasn’t dating, and the dating world had changed. The last time I wrote about dating, there weren’t even cell phones, I don’t think. We had gotten answering machines and voice mail, but dating had become taken a complete new, nightmare that I hadn’t had to get into [laughter].
Heintjes: Once you opened up this new wellspring of ideas, did writing the strip become easier or different or freeing?
Guisewite: It was freeing, mostly. I really liked writing about Cathy and Irving. I like their dynamic, their tension, and in the several years before I had her get married, I had trouble writing about Irving. It had to go somewhere. They couldn’t keep dating and breaking up and dating and breaking up. I could go long, long periods without writing about him at all, but I missed writing about a consistent man in her life. As soon as she got married, of course, I could write about it nonstop [laughter]. Also, I married somebody whose capacity for complete denial was just as strong as my mom’s [laughter]. He could read the strip and not recognize himself, and that was a beautiful thing [laughter].
Heintjes: At times, your strip touched on politics, and newspaper editors don’t always appreciate that. What prompted you to get political, and did the syndicate prepare you for any potential backlash?
Guisewite: The only time in trouble with the papers was when I had Cathy’s friend Andrea actively campaigning for Michael Dukakis in the ’80s, because of his support for the family leave act. I had written many strips about the need for that because she had lost her job because she took more than two weeks of maternity leave. Everybody was fine with me writing about that. It was only when I had her campaign one-sidedly for a candidate that people were not OK with it.
Heintjes: What sort of reaction did you receive?
Guisewite: Some papers threatened to cancel the strip, some didn’t run it during that time, some moved it to the editorial pages. There was a little flurry of press about it at the time. The editors who were most upset about it were upset because they felt they had been blindsided. They didn’t buy Cathy to have it make political commentary. Suddenly, these strips just arrived, late as usual [laughter]; they had no choice to do something else with them, so they were forced into a situation that they didn’t think they should be put into.
Heintjes: Had Universal prepared you for what might happen: papers dropping you, etc.?
Guisewite: No, because they also didn’t know that I was doing those strips. To me, I was just going with the subject matter, and they weren’t radical to me. In retrospect, I think the strips I did were very one-sided, and I think the whole series would have been more palatable to everybody if I had expressed the other point of view. But I didn’t. I feel like a lot of the time, my strip made sort of political comments about the state of women, their expectations, the state of women in the office, being harassed, being held back, being utterly confused by the mixed messages we get from everything from what size to be, how to feel about ourselves, how to look. To me, that’s all sort of political. A lot of what I wrote about was the woman’s place in the world and the pressure we’re under to be a certain way, to think certain things, to have or not have certain opportunities.
Heintjes: In 1980, you wrote a story where Mr. Pinkney made unwanted advances to Cathy. Was that an expression of what women face?
Guisewite: Yeah, at that time, that was a specific thing of wanting to have Cathy go through what I was starting to hear about in the workplace. It’s hard to believe now, but everything was new about the concept of women in the workplace. Many women were treated poorly, and sexual harassment was a big new topic. In that case, I was simply writing about what I was hearing, what was going on, not something that was happening to me specifically.
Heintjes: What prompted your decision to have Cathy get laid off from her job at Product Testing? Was it a desire to shake up her status quo?
Guisewite: I wanted to shake things up and have her working at home, doing the home office for a while. I wanted her to have the experience that other people had had.
Heintjes: When did you realize, directly and personally, that Cathy had become a phenomenon?
Guisewite: [Laughter] Just now when you said it.
Heintjes: Well, when you go into a store and see your character there for the first time, that has to be a remarkable moment, right?
Guisewite: My whole career has been surreal, honestly. I’m a little bit stunned now, even, when somebody knows the character, and says the character had a big impact on them. I remember asking Sparky long ago, when I was starting the strip, how many years it would take until I could be confident that all the papers wouldn’t drop the strip. And he said, 10 years. And it’s true that after 10 years, I started to feel a little bit of security that the strip would keep going on.
Heintjes: What brought about the merchandising of Cathy?
Guisewite: Very early in the strip—maybe by my second year of doing the comic strip, the syndicate had somebody who was interested in merchandising. They came to me and wondered if we could license the rights to do T-shirts. And I was ecstatic. I always loved the idea of placing the character on stuff. So I was thrilled! I designed a bunch of designs for T-shirts, and they made them. I can’t remember if they sold any or not. From that point on…that was like year two or three of the strip, and I had quit the advertising job, and so merchandising the strip at that point immediately became my second job. The syndicate’s licensing company, which was at that time called Universal Licensing, was built based on my enthusiasm for doing merchandise, and we tried everything.
Heintjes: The merchandising mushroomed, so I can only assume that the marketplace response was healthy.
Guisewite: Actually, greeting cards were also one of the first things, and they got me a contract with American Greetings to do greeting cards. And it’s kind of connected to Tom Wilson and Ziggy, who was at American Greetings at the time. I think the greeting cards did well. For a long time, there was a lot of enthusiasm for doing Cathy merchandise. Greeting cards and calendars always did great, and they were the best. Almost everything else we tried had minimal success, but it had enough success that somebody else wanted to try doing something. My dream was to build a huge licensing empire. I wanted Cathy to be up there like Garfield and Peanuts. Why not, you know? I loved the idea of a woman at her desk having a reinforced AACK message of the strip on desk accessories, tote bags and coffee mugs and all that stuff.
Heintjes: It sounds like you evolved from working alone to being CEO of a small company, overseeing these different concerns.
Guisewite: In the beginning, all the business end of it was handled by Universal Licensing. I worked by myself until I moved to Santa Barbara, California, in 1980 and got an assistant. At that time, my assistant would color the Sundays and I started having him put Zip-a-Tone on the strips, and that gave me more time to work on the merchandise. Ultimately, he started doing some designing for the products. It evolved to me taking over and doing the merchandising myself and starting a licensing company called Guisewite Studios. At one time, I had eight people working for me. I had an office outside the house, and there were salespeople and receptionist and artists and designers. We handled other projects, too. We handled early licensing for Baby Blues and Roy Rogers, of all things, and a couple other random characters. And that was all pretty much a big mistake [laughter].
Guisewite: Because I learned a lesson many people in business learn, and that is, the farther you get from the truth of what it is that you do—in my case, me with a blank piece of paper and pen—I think that the messages were the clearest, the art was the cleanest, the designs were the simplest when it was just me. I think the farther I got from that, the worse the products looked, the less connected to the essential message, the less well things did. And I got more disconnected, anyway. After many, many years of trying that, I got in the position of having to sign up new licensees to get enough money to support the company that existed. So I wound up agreeing to put Cathy on things in ways that I really didn’t like, but I thought, “Oh well, we need the money, we’ve got to do that.” When you get in that situation, it’s not good.
Heintjes: How long did that situation exist?
Guisewite: I had the licensing company almost 10 years.
Heintjes: Did you develop a bible for merchandising purposes? How hands-on were you?
Guisewite: Because my artwork was sort of changing all the time, I never developed a specific style guide. I saw one for Garfield and one for Peanuts, and they went on for pages and pages, showing the characters from different angles. I never achieved that, but there were many, many drawings that would get stuck in the books as sample expressions. And I had a couple of different people who did a lot of drawings on the merchandise, and that was a pretty torturous process. People would have to draw things over and over and over and over and over. I couldn’t possibly do all the drawing that was required. But I still said OK to everything before it left. Nothing left—words or images—without me giving them my blessing. But I will say that my blessing sometime came at 9 at night when everyone was exhausted [laughter].
Heintjes: I imagine your background in advertising gave you a huge advantage in merchandising and licensing.
Guisewite: Yeah, it did. In that time, Cathy was the spokesperson for quite a few products, so I got to do commercials with Cathy on TV and radio. I mean, I loved doing all of that, but doing the strip always got squashed into the leftover time. Working was all I did, but it was all I ever wanted to do. I just loved working 24 hours a day.
Heintjes: You had a 24/7 work ethic that you had from your earliest career. When you adopted your daughter in 1992, how did you strike a work-life balance?
Guisewite: It was a big change. I still worked a lot. I could not work if I was in the same zip code with the baby [laughter] because I wouldn’t get anything done. I would drive to the office and have somebody watch her. I would come home at night and have quality time with her, and when she went back to sleep, I would go back to work. It was like that, like a lot of parents who work.
Heintjes: In 1987, you won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. How did the cartoons come about?
Guisewite: I think Lee Mendelson approached Universal Press Syndicate about doing a special. It was either somebody from our licensing company had the idea and contacted him, or he contacted us, but I have the feeling that he contacted us with the idea of doing a Cathy special. And I loved that idea. I wanted to write it. I argued for the chance to write it myself and have as much input as I could. Everybody was OK with that. I wrote one, and we worked with CBS, which was the network that Lee and Sparky were affiliated with. I had a lot of creative freedom. I received some notes from the network. I had never written a script for a TV show before, and it got rewritten a little bit.
Heintjes: How comfortable with you with constructing a longer story, with subplots and all?
Guisewite: I thought it was fun to write something that lasted longer than four boxes. I loved it. There was a bit of rewriting to make it a bit more into the structure that it needed, but it fun to watch it be animated. It was animated by Bill Melendez’s company, who did all the Peanuts animation. Working with that group in their office was a blast. Because we didn’t have a real style guide for Cathy, I did a lot of drawings for them, and from their storyboards, I would go over and do my version of their original pencils for the scenes, and they would animate from those.
Heintjes: You had to work out the usual problems that come from taking a character from print to animation: turning a character in space and showing them in different dimensions. How involved were you with that sort of problem solving? For example, you wouldn’t want to show the character in profile a lot, and that’s something you’ve always wrestled with yourself.
Guisewite: I spent a lot of time with them in the beginning. They would do things and show me. I remember going back and forth to their offices a lot to look at pencil tests and say, “This does or doesn’t look OK.” On the other hand, it was kind of shocking and thrilling to see the characters move at all. They immediately solved the no-nose problem by having her turn quickly. They kind of made a profile of her that was all right.
Heintjes: Speaking of shocking and thrilling, what was it like to hear your name called out at the Emmys?
Guisewite: That was shocking and thrilling [laughter].
Heintjes: How did you come to be invited on The Tonight Show?
Guisewite: Apparently, Johnny saw me give my acceptance speech at the Emmys, and he loved it. The next day, he told his people that he wanted to get me on the show.
Heintjes: I’ve been watching some of the clips of your Tonight Show appearances on YouTube. I don’t know if you want to hear this, but they’re up there for all eternity.
Guisewite: [Laughter] I didn’t know that.
Heintjes: I have to say, Johnny always seemed completely enchanted by you, and you always seemed so at ease. How did you seem so comfortable in that seat?
Guisewite: I prepared psychotically for going on the show. I would lock myself in my home for two days and speak to nobody. I would write out anything I thought they could possibly ask me, and I would practice answers for it. I would pace around. But sometimes I was horrible on the show, too, though. I would blab on too long, like I am with you.
Heintjes: I’m interviewing you—you’re supposed to blab.
Guisewite: Well, you’re giving me a long time, but on that show, you only have a short time, and you’re supposed to say witty and short things. I always hoped there would be something that I’d practiced that I could talk about. The challenge was being there and trying to remember what I’d practiced [laughter].
Heintjes: Once in a while, you’d turn and send a zinger Ed McMahon’s way, and it was self-assured in a way most cartoonists wouldn’t be, since they’re not accustomed to that sort of audience.
Guisewite: Johnny always made it clear that he liked talking to me. I always knew I was going there at his invitation. He had a lot of actresses as his female guests, and he loved having a female who wasn’t an actress on the show. He liked reading my strip, he loved talking about relationships between men and women, and I was somebody who could do that in a different way. It was nice.
I never spoke to him offstage, except for once. He came and introduced himself to me before the first time I went on, when I was in the make-up room, getting ready. He introduced himself to me so I wouldn’t have a heart attack when I saw him onstage for the first time, which was sweet. He did his best to put me at ease. He knew I was terrified.
Heintjes: Were your repeat appearances less stressful?
Guisewite: No. Every one was extremely stressful [laughter].
Heintjes: On August 11, 2010, you announced the decision to end Cathy, and on October 3, 2010, the final strip ran. How long had you been considering ending the strip?
Guisewite: For about a year. I talked to the syndicate about it in January 2010, maybe even the fall of the previous year. They had a lot of warning.
Heintjes: How does one go about ending a major strip? Did Universal try to persuade you to sleep on it and come to your senses?
Guisewite: First of all, Lee Salem is a very gracious guy, and that’s who I called. He got me started, and he’s who I called in the end. I think I prefaced my conversation by talking about how I was going into Ivy’s last year of school, and a lot of things were moving into a different phase. For a long time, my contract had been automatically renewing for two years. When I really started to think about quitting the strip, it was an unbelievably bizarre concept—it took me months to be able to speak that to my own brain, never mind Lee. But I looked at my contract, and I saw that the last automatic renewal was ending on September 30, 2010. So we would have to be doing a new renewal. I saw that in print, and I had been thinking, “Gosh, I just wish I could have this last year with my daughter.”
Heintjes: You opted for canceling the strip rather than running Cathy Classics or something like that, a decision that made you the hero to aspiring cartoonists everywhere. Why did you decide against the strip going into reruns?
Guisewite: I wanted to be the hero to aspiring cartoonists everywhere [laughter]. I wanted to be remembered fondly.
Heintjes: After 34 years of writing material, retiring can’t be like throwing a switch in your brain. Do you find yourself still concocting gags in your head, thinking, “Oh, that’s a great idea”?
Guisewite: Yeah, I do. And it hurts to think of a joke and not need to use it.
Heintjes: What future plans do you have?
Guisewite: I wanted to give myself the gift of going brain-dead this last year, which I pretty much have. I wanted to get back to an actual blank page in my brain. And I wanted specifically not to have the next thing that I wanted to do figured out. I want to be open to whatever that is. But I feel it welling up in me. I’m going to need to create something in the near future. I definitely want to do some things with existing material that I didn’t ever have time to do: books, different compilations, things like that. I’d like to write something else, maybe using the characters, maybe not.
Heintjes: You’ve been in the industry for more than three decades and have seen huge changes in the media, newspapers, and the way we consume media in general. What advice would you give to an aspiring cartoonist now, and how has that advice changed over the years?
Guisewite: Hmm…my advice [laughter]. On the one hand, we’ve never needed cartoonists more to give everybody a sense of humor about the world, about life, about relationships. To me, the need for comic strips has never been greater. I know everybody in this business is struggling to find new ways to find comic strips to be seen besides the newspapers. I love the print newspaper; that’s still the way I read my comics and the way I prefer to read them. But the reality is that business has changed dramatically and probably isn’t ever going to go back to what it was when I started, which was two or three huge papers in a town competing for strips. Those days probably are gone, so cartoonists and syndicates have to find different ways for their work to be seen. But boy, the need for a sense of humor, the need for cartoonists to be able to sum it up and make people feel good about what they’re going through and feel compassion and relief, that’s never been greater.
Editor’s note: You can purchase a copy of Hogan’s Alley #18, where this interview first appeared (and with much more artwork and photography), here.