In recent weeks, as Cathy Guisewite began to draw the last strips ever for "Cathy," the comic she created in 1976, her emotions paralyzed her at first, then tears began dripping onto the page as she visited the characters for the last time.
"It was very emotional to do the last strip," she said. "It was so hard to draw."
Today her fans will say goodbye to Cathy, Irving and all the characters who have paraded through the groundbreaking comic strip since it started chronicling the feelings of women in the 1970s, when women were either expected to be at home taking care of families or in the workplace fighting for their rights.
Guisewite remembers feeling alone in her empathy for both sides and her ambivalence about which camp she was in.
"I was definitely a full-on product of both," she said. "It created a lot of angst to me. I felt very alone at the time."
By day, she was a college graduate working at an advertising agency. At night she was waiting by the phone for "Mr. Wrong" to call. For therapy, she started putting those feelings on paper and sending them to her parents, who urged her to send them to a syndicate for publication.
The drawings "were very honest kinds of explosions of emotions ... for women at that time," she said.
Universal Press Syndicate executives sent her back a contract right away, thinking the concept and the writing would resonate with readers. However, they urged Guisewite to learn how to draw before the first one was published. So she bought some books on drawing cartoons and started practicing before the first strip came out about five or six months later.
Hers was among the first comic strips drawn by a woman that spoke to women of that time period.
Readers over the years related to Cathy's angst over dieting, shopping for clothes in a skinny woman's world, boyfriends, her parents, careers and the women who left careers behind to stay home with children. Guisewite has had the character revisit some of those women in recent weeks and wrap up dangling storylines.
"I identified with her," said Oklahoma City resident Mary Price, who connected with Cathy over the years as the character struggled to get organized by buying cute crates, tried to fit into bathing suits, rolled her eyes at her mother who was a lot like her and rationalized chocolate binges. "I've cut out so many 'Cathy' cartoons and sent them to my own daughter or put them on the refrigerator.... You just recognize yourself."
Still hanging in Guisewite's office today is a U.S. map that her parents drew for her in pencil, marked with stars for each of the cities that carried "Cathy" in its early days. The Oklahoman is marked with a gold star, meaning it carried the strip every day and not just Sundays or weekdays. You can find her final strip today in this newspaper's comics section, too. More than 1,400 newspapers eventually published the "Cathy" comic strip.
"I have loved this job. It's an incredible form of therapy for me," Guisewite said. "It's how I work out every problem. It's how I get back at the swimwear industry and sales people."
New focus on family
She's leaving it behind to spend time with her 18-year-old daughter, Ivy, who is starting her last year in high school, as well as to have time to visit her parents in Florida as they get older. For Guisewite, who turned 60 a few weeks ago, her personal deadlines outweighed the ones involved in drawing a comic strip every day of the year.
"I wanted to get to be a full-time mom for one year of her life. I wanted to be there completely for her," she said. "I will never get this year back."
Guisewite lives with her daughter in Studio City, Calif., and has a 14-year-old stepson, Cooper. Guisewite separated from her husband, Chris Wilkinson, a couple of years ago after 10 years of marriage.
Her daughter's response to the news of her retirement might have appeared in the comic strip itself.
"'Mom, if you're unemployed, how will I buy more clothes?'" Guisewite said, jokingly.
She believes that today her daughter needs her more than ever.
"It's not just activities. It's such a fragile time in life. It's so poignant to me," Guisewite said, adding that her daughter has one foot in childhood and one taking the next step into adulthood. Teenagers need a lot of guidance as they face decisions and "need reassurance of who they are and where they came from and what's important."
Guisewite said she's a writer at heart and wants to pursue other creative interests, including taking a look at women in comic strips.
"I really feel honored and blessed to have gotten to do this for a living. It's just been ... a remarkable life," she said. "I've gotten to be a voice for many, many, many women."
Starting Monday, Todd the Dinosaur will move to the colored comics pages. On Sundays, readers will see an expanded version of Slylock Fox.