Life Imitates Art for Cathy the Cartoonist

Times Staff Writer

The Cathy abode is typically a mess--a slob's paradise where the oven is a holding tank for dirty dishes, the dresser warehouses used panty hose containers and the refrigerator is a shrine to Sara Lee, who the cartoon character claims is "the one woman who will never abandon me."

But here, near the top of Laurel Canyon off Mulholland Drive, at the spacious, modern, and rather luxurious home/studio of cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, there appears to be nothing but pure peace and quiet. And--get this-- ultra-tidiness . No clutter to mar the minimalist decor. Fresh flowers in nearly every room. And a knock-your-socks-off view of the canyon that you'd swear is closer to Colorado than Chinatown.

Chaos, or what passes for it, is confined to a corner of Guisewite's home where the Cathy empire is created and preserved. A portion of the hall serves as the unofficial Cathy museum, displaying dozens of products from mugs to appointment books to dolls--everything but Cathy underwear. Two other work rooms include a large, slightly disheveled office in which Guisewite draws the cartoon strips and works with a part-time secretary and graphic designer, the latter primarily for the licensed products and coloring of the Sunday strip.

Here, unlike the rest of the house, inspired discombobulation is encouraged if not required.

"I need a certain level of anxiety in my life to do my job. I depend on it," said Guisewite, 36, offering a tour of the more public spaces of her home.

It was a need for more confusion and craziness in her life that led Guisewite to leave Santa Barbara for Los Angeles 2 1/2 years ago.

"I moved here because Santa Barbara was too perfect. . . . I felt I was settling into more of a vegetative state than I wanted to be in. . . . Santa Barbara is the most tension-free city. I really couldn't stand it. At least people get mad here. I remember calling a plumber in Santa Barbara who told me he couldn't help me because it wasn't his karma to do plumbing that day. I got angry and he very nicely suggested I should 'mellow out.'

"L.A. offers a real feeling of creative competition. I like that spirit. There's nothing I dislike about L.A. . . . except the 4.5 million stunning blondes. OK, that's a problem."

Guisewite, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, and reared in Midland, Mich., is well aware that her semi-reclusive, top-of-the-canyon existence has its similarities to Santa Barbara. She observed it may overly protect her from the everyday stresses her character Cathy and her readers routinely experience. And she pointed out she has little need to venture out into the real world for much more than research. So she's devised a handy cure: "I sometimes on purpose go out in rush-hour traffic just to get aggravated."

Life Hasn't Changed

But to hear Guisewite tell it, all her success--the cartoon strip in more than 500 newspapers, an animated TV special which airs May 15 on CBS, books of her cartoon collections, a monthly strip in Glamour magazine, profits from the licensing of Cathy products and even a recently published advice book by her mother (for which she provided illustrations)--hasn't changed her life that much.

Appearances would indicate otherwise.

She is considerably richer than her cartoon alter ego. (Success magazine estimated her annual income to be about $200,000 in 1983; she and her syndicate editor refuse to comment on what it is now.) And she is far thinner than Cathy (Guisewite is 5 feet 2 and 105 pounds--about 50 pounds lighter than when she more closely resembled her namesake).

But Guisewite insists she's still the same, often insecure, ever vulnerable creature that she was 11 years ago when she was vice president of a Detroit advertising agency and drawing the strip on the side. The last impression she wants to leave her public with is that she is one of those women who has Got It All Together.

"When I read about a woman who has it totally together, my reaction is to go home and eat a carton of Cool Whip," she said, adding that she and Cathy still "turn to food to solve every problem. The difference is that Cathy will eat an entire cheesecake, whereas I'll only eat half of one."

But what about this thriving Cathy industry? And the stunning surroundings in which it's allowed its creator to live? Isn't this a rather major change?

"I don't feel that different than when I was living in an apartment like Cathy, " Guisewite said. "Then I was paying rent. Now I'm paying a mortgage. If anything I've found that the more successful I get, the more pressures there are on me to accomplish things and the more I get behind in my own schedule. And it seems like the anxieties just expand to match your personality. And the basic insecurities never change: Do I look OK? Am I capable of going on a date and being anything but totally incoherent?"

It is only in the area of personal, intimate relationships that the creator seems to be less successful than the product. Asked how the two compare, Guisewite replied, "( Cathy ) is actually more settled than I am. . . . She's talking about living with Irving. . . . I've never lived with anybody, but I'm interested in trying it out in the strip."

Own Relationship Problems

Irving, she added, is a compilation of many men and the character on whom she conveniently drops all relationship problems.

And what about her own relationship problems? Is she presently involved in one?

"I think I've said enough," she responded, laughing. Later, however, she emphasized that she maintains a strict policy of not using the men she dates as fodder for the strip. At least not for a while. "Certainly, I would never draw anything about a current relationship. . . . I would never illustrate last week's date in the comic strip. . . . I'm very honest in the strip about my own insecurities. That's plenty."

Her parents, however, are open game. "I quote them about anything. I'm flat out about the parents."

But because Guisewite would like to keep both generations reading her cartoon strip, it's unlikely readers will see Cathy and Irving in bed together, the cartoonist said. "I sort of like keeping it vague so both generations are able to interpret it their own ways."

There have already been a few complaints from readers objecting to the fact that Cathy is even considering living with Irving, said Lee Salem, Guisewite's editor at Universal Press Syndicate. But not as many, he said, as there were in Cathy's early days when feminists routinely wrote in to say Cathy didn't represent them.

Hard, Hostile Line

As Guisewite sees it, "Cathy never took the hard, hostile line. The message (from complaining readers) pretty much was, 'The last thing that the world needs is another vulnerable woman' and they were particularly amazed that a woman would create a character who was vulnerable in the ways women are stereotypically vulnerable."

Yet Cathy continues to be super vulnerable. Consider Guisewite's description of the plot of her upcoming animated special: "Cathy is up for Employee of the Year Award, Irving's out of town and she's basically groveling for a date."

Guisewite is well aware that it is precisely that sort of vulnerability that has created the loyal Cathy following.

"My real art is my ability to torture myself in my head. The strip is how I work out my anxieties. . . . The most important thing is to write from the heart, not guess what could be sold. Without exception, the ones (strips) that I like best are ones that have that. They're the ones where it looks like the person who drew it had no choice but to draw it."

Copyright 1984, Universal Press Syndicate. Reprinted with permission. All

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