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'Cathy' Comic Strip Creator Cathy Guisewite Shares Scenes of Isolation

In a new book, the cartoonist tackles pandemic anxiety and shows all the ways Cathy coped. Aack!

By Lisa Kanarek

In 1976, when male cartoonists dominated the funny pages, "Cathy" debuted alongside the classic strips of "Peanuts," "Beetle Bailey" and "Blondie." Created by Cathy Guisewite, "Cathy" featured a single woman focused on what she dubbed the "four basic guilt groups" — food, love, mom and career. At its height, "Cathy" was syndicated in 1,400 newspapers around the country. The strip ended in 2010.

Two colorful Cathy comics. Next Avenue, comics, Cathy,
Credit: @2021 Cathy Guisewite (Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Guisewite didn't set out to become a cartoonist. She already had a successful career at a Detroit-area advertising agency. One evening, she drew a cartoon about her frustration with dating and mailed it to her mom. After researching newspaper syndicates, her mother sent her a list of where her daughter could submit her work. Guisewite sent a few drawings to Universal Press Syndicate in Kansas City and was offered a contract.

Full disclosure: In the mid-80s, I worked for Universal Licensing, a division of Universal Press syndicate. My job was to match manufacturers with the cartoonists our company represented; one of them was Guisewite. Her character appeared on a collection of items, including mugs, T-shirts, desk accessories and trinket boxes (my mom still has one in her guest bathroom).  

"Our stories of this dark time won't be told through diaries but through our online order histories."

In 2019, Guisewite, 71, released a collection of humor essays called "Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault." In the book, she shared relatable insights about being caught in what she refers to as the "panini generation," between her aging parents and her daughter, Ivy.

In her new book, "Scenes From Isolation," Guisewite shares the one-panel cartoons she created during the pandemic. Poems like "Another bubble bath, another cup of tea, I will be safe from the virus, but I'm oh so sick of me" are nestled in between one-liners such as "Our stories of this dark time won't be told through diaries but through our online order histories."

I caught up with Guisewite to discuss pandemic anxiety, comfort food (chocolate, of course), decluttering and how her still-relatable cartoon character is reaching a new generation more than four decades after introducing the world to "Cathy." 

Next Avenue: In 'Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault,' you wrote that you wanted to spend more time with your daughter and your parents. Did that work out as planned?

Cathy Guisewite: Absolutely. Right when I retired, it was the big year where everything was shifting. My parents were turning ninety, and my daughter was starting her last year of high school. I was longing for a life without deadlines. 

I had a wonderful year with my daughter. Except for, of course, I finally had time to be there for her one hundred percent, exactly at that moment when she wanted nothing to do with me anymore. But that's okay, we can make our fantasies work for us, no matter what. And I did wind up spending a lot more time with my parents when I started commuting between California and Florida. It was wonderful.

In 'Scenes From Isolation,' you express what all of us were feeling during the pandemic. What was your goal in creating the single-frame cartoons?

When the pandemic started, it was just like when the comic strip started, where I had all this anxiety and had to dump it somewhere. And for me, it was just natural to dump it on paper. It was a new dumping format because it was just a one-frame thing. Then, I started hearing from people who really responded to them and were happy to see "Cathy" again after all these years. 

People were baking bread and cookies, and that was their comfort zone. My comfort zone was putting myself on a seven-day-a-week deadline, where every single day, I felt I had to be posting something or it wouldn't count. I was waking up in the morning and panicking about what I was going to draw for Instagram and how to take the aggravations of yesterday and turn them into a one-frame cartoon. 

A colorful Cathy comic. Next Avenue, comics, Cathy,
Credit: @2021 Cathy Guisewite (Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Eventually, I tapered off and didn't do it seven days a week, but I did a few hundred of them. Then I pulled a bunch of them to include in the 'Scenes From Isolation' book. 

What I loved about being able to compile the panels in a book is that the pandemic has been such a wrenching time for all of us in different ways, and very similar ways. That book serves as a little diary of them and what we survived together, because most of the scenes that I wrote were things that people could relate to. 

Your book features poems and panels surrounding the pandemic.

Yes, 'Scenes From Isolation' takes us through the beginnings of the pandemic when we first planted ourselves in the home office, which, in my case, was sitting right in front of the refrigerator. Suddenly, I was afraid of everything and the horror of trying to eat a bowl of cereal and wondering: Did you wash the light switch? Did you wash your hands? Did you wash the cupboard, or not? Did you wash the counter? 

Then there was the hoarding of the toilet paper, of course, and the planting of the tomatoes. Everybody else planted potatoes; I planted chocolate.

And then, the eating. A poem I wrote was one of impatience. It says, 'When will this be over? No one has a hunch. So, I demand this answer. How soon can I eat lunch?'

It's just been a uniquely bizarre, wrenching, sad and scary time for everybody. I feel like my new book is a little reminder and a reflection of what we survived, whether it was one too many Amazon packages on the porch or just the real fear of droplets coming out through the phone if you call a friend. Nothing felt safe. It was all unknown. 

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How would you say 'Cathy' has changed from when you first created her?

Here's how she hasn't changed. I think that 'Cathy' is just a voice of truth and a voice of relief for people. That's mostly what I hear from people. From the beginning of the strip it's been, 'Oh, thank heaven somebody else feels the same way I do.' 

Something I noticed in 'Scenes From Isolation' is that 'Cathy' has more of an attitude of 'This is who I am, and that's okay.' I didn't know whether that was a progression or just my interpretation.

No, I think that's true. I think we've all grown in acceptance of who we are. And truthfully, learning to turn the irritation on the world, not on ourselves.

Comic illustrator Cathy Guisewite. Next Avenue, comics, Cathy,
Cathy Guisewite  |  Credit: Courtesy of Cathy Guisewite

That was also the theme of '50 Things That Aren't My Fault.' But yes, accepting that here we are, I am coping and I am proud and strong. And if it turns out that the way I'm coping today is to put my face flat down in a bowl of mashed potatoes, that is the very best I can do today and I'm proud of it. So yes, I think you're right.

Do you feel you have more to write about now? 

One of the other reasons I quit the strip in 2010 was that I wanted to do other creative projects that didn't have to be in the format of the comic strip. This is why I loved writing my book of essays. The older I've gotten, there are endless amounts of things to write about. 

It was liberating to write the essays where I suddenly was free of four boxes to really embellish subjects. Doing 'Scenes From Isolation' once again put me back into summing up a giant day or week into one little box — not even four boxes — but one little box. That's a little bit of backward self-expression, but that's what I love to do.

In reading the comments from your more than nineteen thousand Instagram followers, I noticed they're not just fans from when the strip started. Who do you hear from? 

I am hearing from people of all ages and from the children and grandchildren of women who used to love my strip back then. I'm hearing from many people my age, who grew up with the strip and considered 'Cathy' like a soul sister. And that's been wonderful. 

But then, I also hear from younger people who maybe hadn't seen the comic strip before. That's great. But a really happy thing is I've heard from people who hated the strip then. They said to me, 'Oh, now I'm really a lot like 'Cathy,' and maybe I was before, but I didn't want to admit it.' That's kind of nice to hear. 

What do you think about Aack Cast hosted by Jamie Loftus?

I mostly loved Jamie Loftus's Aack Cast. It was a little bit hard to listen to all the criticism of Cathy, but it was wonderful to hear Jamie encourage the critics to really read and appreciate the words of the strips in the context of the time in which they were written. I loved Jamie's reflection on the stages of the women's movement, loved the deep research she did on the evolution of women's voices in cartooning, loved the thoughtful and insightful way she wound it all into a piece that resonates so personally for women of her mother's and my generation as well as hers.

"I think that 'Cathy' is just a voice of truth and a voice of relief for people."

In November 2020, you posted, 'The Cathy Store is Open' on Instagram. What prompted the sale, and are you going to offer more items?

I have two giant storage rooms filled with 'Cathy' products from the years we did a lot of licensing, and one of my pandemic projects was to clean them out. My daughter made it work. I said, 'Well, this is perfect, together we'll go through the stuff in the storage rooms and really make peace with it.' 

So, we decided to set up the store on a website, and it was a blast to do.

It was shocking that everything sold immediately. There is still a little bit of merchandise, but we sold a lot. My daughter was looking at me and saying, 'Are you kidding, Mom? Nobody is going to buy this,' and then it sold immediately. 'Well, how about this shirt?' I asked her. 'Nobody is going to buy that, she said. It's gross.' And then it sold immediately. 

The pandemic inspired me to make peace with my life, to go through stuff and sort things. Part of it was just feeling some control over something. And many of the comics in the 'Scenes From Isolation' express that. 

Book cover of Cathy Guisewite's, "Scenes From Isolation". Next Avenue, comics, Cathy,

I loved the post your mom put on Instagram after '50 Things That Aren't My Fault' was published. How much inspiration do you draw from her? 

My mom is now ninety-nine and in fantastic health. She still lives alone and had her driver's license renewed for six years on her ninety-eighth birthday. And she has always been this great combination of a 1950s housewife and a liberated woman.

She's always cheered me on in the grandest way, to do everything and be everything I could be. And at the same time, from the time I was a kid, she had that copy of Bride's magazine tucked behind her, just in case.

Are you working on any new projects?

All I did for the last three months was plan my daughter's wedding that we had already canceled twice. Suddenly, it seemed like it was safe to have the wedding this fall. So while I was visiting my mom on Mother's Day, we rebooted the wedding.

This year marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the 'Cathy' comic strip and Andrews & McMeel, my publisher, is doing a giant retrospective book from the beginning. It won't have every strip, but it will have a third of the strips and other little things in it. 

That's due soon, so that's my next big project. It will come out sometime next year, which will be a year after the anniversary. But that's perfect for 'Cathy' to have the book be a year late.

Lisa Kanarek is a freelance writer. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Wired, Reader’s Digest, and CNBC. Read More
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