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All the Comics in the World: Cathy
By Shaenon K. Garrity
Thursday August 26, 2010 06:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
I know a lot of cartoonists whose families don't approve of it. Who still hold out hope that they'll get a real job. When Derek Kirk Kim won his first Eisner Award for Same Difference and Other Stories, he mentioned in his acceptance speech that his parents had been utterly disinterested when he won his Harvey and his Ignatz. After the ceremony, Jim Lee came up to him and confided that his parents still wished he'd become a doctor.

I never had that problem, because my mother expected me to be Cathy.

I didn't realize this until years later, but when I announced that I wanted to be a cartoonist, my mother, hope springing eternal within her breast, flashed instantly to Cathy Guisewite cracking wise with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Glamorous in long auburn hair and a little black dress, enthralling the audience with observations about bathing suits and shopping, Guisewite was an aspirational figure: an Everywoman people listened to. For my mother, who adored any man on television who could make her laugh, the image of the great Carson listening raptly to Guisewite, chin in his hand, was indelible.

Discussing Guisewite's TV appearances in light of her recent announcement to retire Cathy, Tom Spurgeon speculated, "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." For many fans, I think, the effect was the opposite: it was reassuring that this woman who looked so together shared the same neuroses they did.

After decades of mainstream popularity, Cathy is still widely disliked by pop-cult elites like you and me. It whirls eternally between the Scylla and Charybdis of gender essentialism: men don't like it because it's about girly stuff, and feminist women don't like it because it's about girly stuff. Anti-feminists don't have reason to like it either, what with the single-career-woman heroine who's always been as open as newspaper syndication will allow about her casual sex life. That leaves just one demographic: women who are all for liberation and being your own woman and all that, but can't quite figure out how to reconcile it with their actual lives. Women who never stopped feeling the pressure to cook like Betty Crocker and look like Donna Reed, and just added to it the pressure to change the world like Gloria Steinem. In other words, almost every woman of the Baby Boom generation.

Cathy is, above all, a Boomer comic, the cultural distaff of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. (They're both about equally well-drawn, for one thing.) People talk about Cathy's shopping trips as quintessentially female, but they're even more quintessentially Boomer. Cathy belongs to the generation that mastered the art of aspirational consumerism, buying for the person you want to be rather than the person you are, and this is the central joke of every strip about Cathy's shopping woes. Guisewite may not be a great artist, but she's a deft writer, and she especially shines when mimicking the Madison Avenue lingo used to seduce people into buying bigger and brighter new lives. In a 1987 strip, Cathy and Irving report on the pile of useless yuppie toys they've just bought, including an "industrial stainless steel pasta vat that will never see a noodle or a group" and "architectural magazines we don't read filled with pictures of furniture we don't like," after which Cathy observes grimly, "We've moved past the things we want and are buying those things that have nothing to do with our lives."

The hopeless quest for perfection is the running theme of Cathy. Reading the strips in collections, I always come away with a sense of relentless, aack-inducing pressure: to be successful, to be beautiful, to be thin, to have a great relationship, to have a perfect family. Being middle-class Baby Boomers, the characters, especially Cathy (although they're all susceptible) are endlessly lured into attempts to buy excellence on the cheap. The strip wouldn't work with a polished, alluring art style; it would be too much like the advertisements and magazine covers that sell those promises. We can sympathize with a scribble that wants to be Wonder Woman.

Launched in 1976, Cathy sold itself to newspapers as a strip by and for the modern woman, a creature not previously seen on the comics page. Cathy was a hard-working single executive who dreamed vaguely of marriage but had no concrete plans for husband or kids, a woman with her own apartment and microwave and consciousness-raising group. People today often comment that Cathy was fairly feminist for its time, but have times changed much? The millennial image of the modern woman is Liz Lemon, Tina Fey's protagonist on 30 Rock, a neurotic single woman with a lousy love life and an unhealthy relationship to food. She differs significantly from Cathy only by being hotter. In one episode, Tracy Jordon excitedly tells Liz that the newspaper quoted something she said; it turns out he was referring to a Cathy strip. Cut to Liz shouting, "Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Aack!!"

On the comics page, things have changed even less. Many print and online discussions have suggested Tina's Groove, a charming strip about a waitress by Six Chix contributor Rina Piccolo, as a possible heir to the valuable newspaper real estate that Cathy will vacate. Tina's Groove comes up so often because there aren't a lot of other widely syndicated strips by women. Aside from the self-syndicated For Better or for Worse, which followed Cathy into newspapers in 1979 and quickly joined it as the other titan of women's comic stripping, I'm having trouble naming many. A few of the strips that cropped up in the wake of Cathy to fill the "women's viewpoint" niche, like Sylvia, have survived. There are the gag strips Six Chix and Rhymes with Orange. Brenda Starr has always been drawn by a woman. Beyond that, to find women's names on the comics page, you have to get into small-circulation strips like Stone Soup, Between Friends and Arctic Circle. Again and again, I see Guisewite praised for breaking barriers at a time when "there were far fewer women cartoonists," as comics historian Charles Solomon told the Miami Herald. Fewer than when?

What Cathy really represented was part of a shift in newspaper comic strips from product to, believe it or not, art, from extrusion of craft to expression of self. For roughly two decades, the comic-strip business was dominated by old pros like Mort Walker, guys defined by a high level of cartooning craft and a near-total disinterest in making any kind of personal statement with it. For this generation of cartoonists, being able to hire assistants and buy gags was a badge of success, a sign that you'd arrived. Trudeau's ascension in the 1970s changed that; his squiggly, awkward, fervently political, adamantly personal Doonesbury heralded a new way of doing things. This was the way the Baby Boom generation was going to draw comic strips: badly, but with enthusiasm. Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston followed the new DIY approach. Johnston eventually became a much more polished artist, Guisewite never really did, but their comic strips were always, essentially, extensions of themselves. On Guisewite's Tonight Show appearances, Carson often commented with bemusement that she really did talk like that. Both Guisewite and Johnston were encouraged in their careers by Charles Schulz, the old master of making personal quirks and obsessions universal.

In the 1980s, the new movement in comic stripping threw up some geniuses—the aforementioned Johnston, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson—as well as some throwbacks to the product-centered studio approach (it's hard to imagine, reading Garfield, that Jim Davis was ever genuinely interested in cats the way Cathy Guisewite is genuinely interested in what constitutes a "kicky" high heel). Cathy endured.

The 1980s, the decade that enshrined greed as the unofficial American religion, provided the perfect milieu for Guisewite's fascination with consumerism as self-expression. The yuppie patois flew thick and fast. A typical Sunday strip from the era consists entirely of a waiter listing varieties of high-priced water: "Mendocino National Forest water cubes with lime selzer from Morocco? 1972 geyser cubes and 1963 Dayton dew cubes with a wedge of grapefruit crushed into rain gutter water from Westminster Abbey purified and blended with water from the Tittabawassee River?" The list of water crowds out the art and ultimately takes up an entire panel, a not uncommon occurrence in Cathy strips.

In the 1970s, Cathy frequently melted into self-abnegation while watching news stories about Superwomen who managed to have it all. By the 1980s, even the Superwomen were flailing. Reading Cathy as a kid, I always identified the most with Cathy's more outspoken, more obnoxious, and usually happier best friend Andrea, who first appeared dragging Cathy to transcendental meditation groups and assertiveness training sessions. Between the 1970s and 1980s, Andrea developed from man-bashing radical women's libber to equally strident mommy-tracker and supermom. I submit that only a female cartoonist could have recognized the lack of contradiction. In 1984 Cathy got overtly political, endorsing Dukakis for President based on his support for better workplace options for working mothers. (The previous year, the strip had stumped just as hard for The Big Chill, directed by Guisewite's college friend Lawrence Kasdan, a movie that has a lot in common with Cathy.) The introduction of young mothers and kids into the strip could have been disastrous, but the material seemed to inspire Guisewite (who adopted a daughter in 1992), and the strip opened up to include a larger cast and a broader base of material. The key to the successful transition was probably that Cathy herself didn't have a child; her direct experience of motherhood was limited to adopting a dog.

In the 1990s, however, Cathy contracted. Cathy began telecommuting, cutting herself off from her coworkers and the office humor that had been a feature of the strip since its beginning. It's easy to see why Guisewite wanted to get away from the office setting; she hadn't worked outside the home in decades and was out of touch with the new office culture, exemplified in the funny pages by newcomer Dilbert. Cathy's friends Andrea and Charlene dropped into the background, leaving Cathy, her mom, Irving and the dog to dominate. The strip turned increasingly domestic, focusing on the minutiae of the central characters' home lives. Irving's increased presence only made it clear that he had never really been a character, just a walking embodiment of all of Cathy's boyfriend problems (just as the strip's ubiquitous saleslady embodied all of Cathy's shopping problems), and with the couple's marriage he simply became a marker for Husband. Cathy's strongest and most dynamic relationships were always with the women in her life—Andrea, Charlene, Mom—and with only Mom left standing, the mother-daughter relationship grew stifling. The introduction of Irving's domineering parents only increased the sense of suffocation.

When feminists of the 1970s said "the personal is political," they meant that women's personal problems are often not unique to them, but symptomatic of larger problems in society. You're not the only one getting unfairly passed over for promotions, struggling to balance work life and home life, realizing that somehow you're always the one who does the dishes. Cathy was the political turned personal, all the frustrations and anxieties of women of the Baby Boom generation incarnate in a single flailing mass of scribbled lines. And if Cathy still echoes the zeitgeist, the current problem of Boomer women is that, after 35 years of buying into one ideal after another, their lives are a little too cramped. It's that maybe they'd like to get out and get some fresh air.

I don't imagine most women of my generation identify with Cathy. If we have a voice in comics, it's probably among the chatter of webcartoonists, in autobio and semi-autobio cartoonists like Danielle Corsetto, Meredith Gran, Erika Moen, Lucy Knisley. They all draw more beautifully than Guisewite ever did, but maybe that's just because my generation never challenged that pressure to be perfect. They don't say, "Aack," but that's because we cuss. They're not on The Tonight Show, but what the hell, it's still pretty glamorous to be a cartoonist. Maybe our mothers understand.

Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.

All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010

 

Comments

NoahB (1 year ago)
 
I've always cordially hated Cathy. This article doesn't exactly change my mind, but it does sort of make me glad Cathy existed just so you could write about it.
 
 
Trenton (1 year ago)
 
Excellent article, Shaenon (and well-researched, too!) Tina's Groove would be an excellent replacement for Cathy.
 
 
janeliot (1 year ago)
 
With all due respect, your article is full of inaccuracy. Hard to speak to the issue without good facts. In the following text...
On the comics page, things have changed even less. Many print and online discussions have suggested Tina's Groove, a charming strip about a waitress by Six Chix contributor Rina Piccolo, as a possible heir to the valuable newspaper real estate that Cathy will vacate. Tina's Groove comes up so often because there aren't a lot of other widely syndicated strips by women. Aside from the self-syndicated For Better or for Worse, which followed Cathy into newspapers in 1979 and quickly joined it as the other titan of women's comic stripping, I'm having trouble naming many. A few of the strips that cropped up in the wake of Cathy to fill the "women's viewpoint" niche, like Sylvia, have survived. There are the gag strips Six Chix and Rhymes with Orange. Brenda Starr has always been drawn by a woman. Beyond that, to find women's names on the comics page, you have to get into small-circulation strips like Stone Soup, Between Friends and Arctic Circle. Again and again, I see Guisewite praised for breaking barriers at a time when "there were far fewer women cartoonists," as comics historian Charles Solomon told the Miami Herald. Fewer than when?
You inaccurately state that FBOFW is self syndicated, astonishingly far from the truth. Both Stone Soup and Between Friends are in more papers than Tina's Groove, and are excellent substitutes for Cathy, both being drawn by and about women. Sylvia is past it's prime and in very few papers... she was leading edge in her day and still very original, but not on anyone's radar for this. You completely missed Pajama Diaries, and excellent strip.
The newspapers list of Stone Soup is coveted by many, and I couldn't be happier with what Universal Uclick, also the distributor of FBOFW, has done for it. Please, if you are going to write about "us", do some research first.
 
 
icarius (1 year ago)
 
I just finished reading through the archives, and as it is 2 in the morning, have forgotten the small yet eloquent essay that i was going to submit here. It amounted to pointing out the scattering of web comics that you have referred to during the course of your article, noting the very small overlap between the comics you mentioned and the comics I have read, and wondering exactly what constitutes your proverbial pull lists for web comics. In short, which web comics do you visit every time they update? Do you for that matter, read any on something akin to a consistent basis?
As you may have surmised, I am happily obsessed with the medium, and have thoroughly enjoyed your forays into the untamed mass of obscenity that populates so much of the internets. Thank you for mutant gerbils, multi ethnic zombies, and cross dressing bishonen. You have made the tubes a better place.
 
 

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