Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cathy Gets Erased At Last

The news that Cathy comic strip creator Cathy Guisewite is finally putting down her pen after 34 years couldn't have been more welcome.

Though Guisewite's artistic ability never improved an iota in over three decades, when it first appeared in 1976 the strip apparently resonated with the growing population of single women struggling with career and dating. Cathy was a somewhat blearier Mary Tyler Moore, obsessing about her weight, her boss, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Irving. Formless and somehow indistinct (she had no nose except in profile), she was a more neurotic but less succinct Zippy, who managed to get his point across in only one panel. Cathy is the kind of strip people read for its reassuring sameness, like Marmaduke or Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus, whose maestro Bil Keane has been content to run the same tiresome gags for nearly fifty years. Guisewite's schtick managed to endure for so long (there have been about 30 books of Cathy collections) that eventually she had to succumb to a slowly advancing story arc, finally marrying off the aging single to Irving in 2005 and letting them both settle down with two appropriately politically-correct shelter dogs. 

Lots of strips run their course, like Lynn Johnston's far more realistic For Better or For Worse, which started just a few years later than Cathy. Johnston's characters aged naturally, with the children becoming adults and having children of their own, the pets dying, and the parents experiencing mid-life crises. But when she decided to end her long-term endeavor, Johnston did something inexplicably self-indulgent: she started over, zapping the kids back to toddlerhood and turning the couple back into young marrieds. It was a bizarre move, like someone not just paging through their old photo albums but actually reanimating all those old memories. I personally have no interest in revisiting these characters for a second go-round, unless this time she plans to kill them all off in a series of unfortunate accidents.

There are, of course, comic strips that were so consistently well-drawn and finely-conceived that their early demise is still regrettable years later -- or, to use Cathy's trademark catch phrase: Aaaack! I could read Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes all day, even if it focused only on the suicidal snow people that Calvin sacrificed on his enlightened, TV-depriving parents' lawn to embarrass them in front of the whole neighborhood. The character's stasis as a precocious six-year-old could easily have continued for fifty more years because it was so thought-provoking, variant, and entertaining. The panel artwork could be pastorally pretty when Calvin and his stuffed tiger played in their close-knit suburban world, or sweepingly majestic when he explored the far reaches of the galaxy as Spaceman Spiff. Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County was similarly imaginative and intelligent, though far more topical. Both men knew when to close shop, leaving us wanting more, and I'd even venture that the ability to pull the trigger on a long-running cherished project might be more of a male trait.

So I'll give Guisewite props not exactly for knowing when to quit -- she should have folded Cathy's shaky tent a good 15 years ago -- but for choosing to focus on her family and parents at a pivotal time in her life. After decades of wide syndication and marketing tie-ins, I'm sure she can afford it. Perhaps she'll even find time for a drawing lesson or two. 

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