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Cathy Guisewite was a lonely, hard-working copywriter for a Detroit advertising agency in 1976 when she first scribbled out a simple cartoon figure and bits of dialogue.
On a whim, she began mailing them to her parents in nearby Midland, Mich.
"They were just explosions of frustration on paper," Guisewite said. "It was my mother who suggested that these very private, very embarrassing works could be a comic strip."
Again on a whim, and to end her mother's constant insistence that her daughter had real comic talent, Guisewite mailed off another package. This time she sent drafts of her comic to Universal Press Syndicate, one of the world's largest providers of newspaper content.
The rest is comic strip history. By the time Guisewite's eponymous "Cathy" strip rolled onto more than 1,400 newspapers nationwide, it was also the first time people heard legions of single, struggling women laugh at the funny papers in real, and sometimes anguished, earnest.
Now, after almost 34 years of writing and drawing "Cathy," the author is ready to retire the long-haired, diet-challenged, naive yet nervy heroine without a nose who cried the "Ack!!" heard 'round the world. As "Cathy" began its syndicated ascent, Guisewite placed a star near every city in which a newspaper published her strip. She still looks at that map, a token of pride her parents sent when "Cathy" was picked up for syndication.
The Salt Lake Tribune was one of the first, and many Salt Lake Valley readers are mourning in advance of Oct. 3, the last day the strip will run.
"Women of my generation [50-ish] have loved Cathy's spunk, her never-say-die attitude in dealing with wardrobe, friendship and romantic challenges," wrote Sallie Phelps in an e-mail to The Tribune. "No other comic strip has given me a much-needed good laugh so frequently."
For years, the strip chronicled the single woman's push-pull relationship with boyfriend Irving, mother Anne, workplace travails and an abiding love for chocolate. The sticky situation and dead-end rejoinder of life's most frustrating moments became a Guisewite staple. So did the surreal, when Guisewite's protagonist hallucinated about a plateful of chocolate calling to her from the kitchen as she watched television.
Speaking from her home in Studio City, Calif., Guisewite said she never meant the strip to mimic an ideological line, only the vagaries of real life as she lived it.
"The woman who pops out of bed to a one-hour workout and a life of endless success doesn't really need anything to make her feel good," Guisewite said. "I always wrote from the point of view that we need to be able to laugh at the small moments that make us stumble on the grand path we think we're on. If you can't have a sense of humor about those things, they can really trap you."
Social issues reared their head, sometimes ahead of their time. Years before Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas became household names, Guisewite pushed sexual harassment to the fore in 1980 when Cathy's boss, Mr. Earl Pinkley, downed a few drinks, then made unwanted advances. It ended with Cathy punching Pinkley in the nose.
Guisewite wandered into a political thicket again when Cathy's good friend took two weeks' maternity leave from her job, only to find it gone once she returned. Those 1986 installments presaged controversy surrounding the proposed Family and Medical Leave Act, which became a centerpiece of the 1988 presidential campaign between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush.
The more popular and iconic that Guisewite's strip became, the more some chided and criticized it for reinforcing the stereotype of the woman wracked by neurosis over body image, moodiness, guilt and a compulsion to shop. In an article titled "The 11 worst 'Cathy' comics of all time," the website guysim.com took Guisewite to task for story-lines it said reinforced the worst assumptions about women and men. The article, ironically, was couched between banner advertisements for men's sites of scantily clad women.
The energy of contradiction was always a force behind her strip, Guisewite said. She grew up in a household where her mother kept copies of Ms. and Brides alongside each other.
"Most women today live somewhere between those two impulses," Guisewite said. "It's the same as seeing the same magazine advertise 'Flat abs by the Fourth of July' next to 'Love your body the way it is.' Women believe a little of all of it."
In a dust-up that still makes the rounds of comic artist insiders, "Pearls Before Swine" creator Stephan Pastis lobbed barb after mocking barb in his own strip that took Guisewite to task for what he thought was tired humor and by-now-predictable story arcs. When Pastis won the 2004 National Cartoonists Society award for Best Comic Strip, he was understandably nervous upon learning that Guisewite would present the award.
"She was all class and grace," Pastis said. "If someone ever throws that many rocks at my windows in a similar way, I hope that's how I respond."
Pastis commends Guisewite also for retiring her strip from newspapers altogether, rather than put it on autopilot through reruns in the manner of classics such as Charles Schulz's "Peanuts." He's already penned four strips in tribute to the noseless heroine, he said, scheduled to coincide with Guisewite's final installments. Pastis declined to share details. Guisewite said she has no idea yet exactly how, or on what plot-line, she'll end her strip.
"She gives valuable oxygen to other talent out there by doing that," Pastis said. "The fact that a word like 'Ack!!' is so iconic really speaks to her impact. I don't know that it's possible for a single comic to be that influential anymore."
If Guisewite penned a dozen or more strips through November, she could send "Cathy" out on a good, round 34-year anniversary. The arbitrary quality of a number pales beside the joy of spending time with her aging parents and her 18-year-old daughter, Ivy.
"I could, but I want to be a complete mother for one year," she said. "I also wanted to be a complete daughter for one year."
Her energy is stored, too, for the comic artist who parks in the space that had been reserved for "Cathy" so many years.
"Write from your heart, maybe there will be a place for it," Guisewite said. "There are still very few women cartoonists."
Cathy Guisewite Bio
Cathy Lee Guisewite was born Sept. 5, 1950, in Dayton, Ohio, to Anne and Bill Guisewite, devout Presbyterians who later moved their family to Midland, Mich. Guisewite describes her hometown as one where "everyone attended church, PTA gatherings and Girl Scout meetings."
"I could never live in L.A. today if I hadn't grown up there," Guisewite said. She graduated 1972 from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor with a degree in English. Thanks to the success of her comic strip, she quit her job in advertising in 1978 to attend to "Cathy" full time.
At age 41 she adopted a baby girl, Ivy, but never once put her daughter in the strip. "I never wanted her to grow up thinking she was a cartoon character," Guisewite said. Similar to her character's namesake, Guisewite married late in life, at age of 47.
One of the enduring mysteries surrounding "Cathy" over the years is the question of why Guisewite drew her protagonist without a nose. Guisewite said she first drew her with glasses so big there was no room for a nose. When Universal Press Syndicate requested they be removed from the character all that remained were two round circles for eyes.
"I never did figure out how to add a nose," Guisewite said. "Because of that she's only turned sideways a few times in the last three decades. Her face looks like an egg!"
Now on The Tribune's comic strip menu: 'Stone Soup'
Hot on the heels of the Oct. 3 retirement of "Cathy," The Tribune will introduce Oct. 4 a strip new to most Utah readers, "Stone Soup."
The strip is written from a woman's viewpoint that should be familiar to lovers of "Cathy." Rather than chronicle the trials and triumphs of the working, single woman, however, "Stone Soup" takes its storylines from the milieu of a family of a working, single mother.
"Val and Joan share life with their opinionated mother, a middle-school diva and 10-year-old tomboy, a reclusive teenage boy, a wild preschooler and his new baby sister," according to the comic's online profile on Universal Uclick, a syndication service.
"Stone Soup" has been a familiar read to newspaper readers in other cities for about 15 years, and has grown more popular with each passing year.
"When I write, I am writing first and foremost for single and working parents," Elliott told The Washington Post in 2003. "I often felt very isolated and put down because of my circumstances (I was a single working mom for 10 years). I even had a teacher tell me that their school 'was a better place before all the single moms arrived.' My daughters both turned out fabulously, thank you, and I think I was a good parent."