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August 12, 2010

Ten Initial Thoughts About Cathy’s End


Yesterday it was announced by her syndicate that Cathy Guisewite was ending her strip Cathy after 34 years. This was accompanied by an interview where Ms. Guisewite declared that she was doing so to spend more time with her family. I don't think you have to like the strip -- and some people detest it -- to congratulate the cartoonist on her long and successful run, and to wish her the best of luck in all future endeavors. Here's what came to mind when I heard the announcement.

1. Before I even thought to congratulate the cartoonist or even wonder after why she was making this move, I'll be honest: the first question that popped into my head was "Holy crap: how many papers is she in?" The answer according to the syndicate is approximately 1400. That is the most papers having a spot open up without a legacy replacement since... Calvin and Hobbes, maybe?

2. However, the landscape is a lot different right now than it is when Watterson pulled the plug on his strip. For one thing, with prices being what they are and newspapers being in the state they're in, the biggest competitor for that slot may be "not replacing it with anything."

3. I'm also not sure -- and I'll be fascinated to see what they do -- how the syndicates are lined up for a natural replacement. My dad was a newspaper editor, and on those occasions when a strip was pulled from the syndicate end or had grown older in a way it might be considered lame or old-fashioned by the readership, he and his staff liked to consider a strip filling that same general role. They had their comics pages designed like a television network: with strips that might have special appeal to different groups. Cathy may have been the strip most sold as a woman's feature in the history of the comics page, abd I'm not sure I know anything that's strongly identified in that same way that might receive a natural boost. Six Chix? Betty? Tina's Groove? That last might be a possibility for a replacement sales push. Rina Piccolo's a strong cartoonist, and that's a strip that might seem new and fresh without being so new and fresh you don't know if it has any staying power whatsover. Maybe Greg Evans could move Luann ten years forward?

4. Cathy's legacy will be difficult to ascertain for a while. It was hugely popular, particularly in its first few years, and hit strongly with women who saw something of themselves in the lead character. It also enjoyed an enormous push-back from people who thought the character's obsession with food and dealing with mom-fostered guilt trips and landing a husband (not to mention she ended up with Irving, who would have been too schmendricky for notorious marry-below-herself icon Liz Patterson from For Better Or For Worse) were not exactly in the spirit of feminist empowerment. It's my understanding that the Peter Bagge/Robert Crumb parody Caffy was up on the bulletin board in the Chicago NOW offices for a while, likely the only comic by either cartoonist ever to be posted in such a place.

image5. A lot of people also had problems with the strip's craft elements, which never got better and never had anything quirky design-wise to them to ameliorate the lousier qualities. I was always very disturbed by the characters' hands, which looked fingerless and deformed. It was always distracting. I think most people skate right by that stuff, but it was definitely more ammunition for those who don't, and I think limited the range of certain things Guisewite might try.

6. I'm no Cathy scholar, but I wonder if Cathy didn't suffer a bit by the choice Guisewite made to slow down the strip and keep the character roughly the same age. Aging her might have given the author more material to work with over the years, and what I remember being charming about Cathy was the occasional generational stuff slightly outside the food and boys and job and mom stuff. Like I seem to remember she was one of the inspirations for the Big Chill group of friends and her characters obsessed over the movie for a couple of weeks back when it opened (the 14th Century, I think). Having her marry so much later in life might have been more poignant, too. Backseat driving other people's strips, particularly those who can afford solid gold shoes, is kind of silly, I'm the first to admit. But I think the character was iconic for one generation of women strip readers for one particular stretch of years, and going for the younger readers I'm not sure worked out as well as sticking with her own generation might have. It's probably not a very good example, but it's the only one that comes to mind: my mom stuck with Cathy Guisewite for about five years; she stayed with Ellen Goodman for more than twenty.

7. Cathy Guisewite was quite the comic-strip star at the height of her career: attractive, personable, a fine feature interview. I'm not sure how many times she appeared on the Tonight Show back when that meant something, but it was enough I'm sure it will appear in the first paragraph of her obituary. It's hard for me to think of any cartoonist today being that same kind of recurring guest.

8. Ironically, I think those Tonight Show appearances confused many of her fans, who were honestly baffled by the image of this rail-thin, amusing and glamorous woman and could never quite rectify it with the chubby, neurotic newspaper strip character. I'd like to put that all on the fans and suggest they just couldn't understand how an author might be different from her character, but I seem to remember that Guisewite did her own share of kvetching about Cathy-type things in person, in a way that made you think she really shared that worldview. I know that this divergence had an impact on people of my immediate acquaintance and how they viewed her.

9. Another thing I seem to remember about the strip that may or may not ring totally true upon examination is that the relationship between Cathy and her mother may have been something of a curiosity at the time -- there just weren't a whole lot of relationships between adults and older adults that weren't humorous or unexamined, and there was some satirical edge to Cathy and her mom, at least within the range of topics with which Guisewite chose to deal.

10. I urge every paper that is looking for a replacement to consider Cul-De-Sac. I think it's the finest strip going with a client list short of where it should be, but it really needs to sit in your paper for a while to have the best chance for people to pick up on its rhythms. It's not the kind of strip that benefits from replacing something that's been running and that has fans that could demand its return.

posted 11:55 am PST | Permalink

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