Posts Tagged ‘blog: essays’.

How to Make a Calendar, Part 2

Writing (and more design)

Continued from Part 1

After composing each image, I like to print out each one to see how it looks on paper, then carry the papers around in my pockets for a while, scribbling on them whenever I come up with a scrap of verse. Taking walks is good for this — the rhythm of walking helps me think in poetic meter, but it’s also nice to be in front of a computer with and OSX’s OED Thesaurus widget open.

It’s tough but fun coming up with explanations for all the weird images — some flow right out and others are a real challenge. Again, sometimes I’ll just start writing and see where it goes; other times I’ll get an idea for the gag or explanation for the image, and then have to work backwards to fill in all the details within the structure of rhyme and meter. When I think I’ve got something that makes sense, I’ll run it by a few other folks to make sure it tracks and makes sense — thanks are due to my wife Nikki and to Kris for late-night help at key points in this process!

The next step is to lay out each card for printing. I know there are neat calendar-generating plugins for InDesign and Excel templates you can download, but I didn’t use any of those because my life is made stronger by challenges. Kind Twitter volunteer @dharmakate helped lay out the grids and updated the dates for 2010!

Each year’s calendar has some sort of overall design theme — nothing specific, just an aesthetic that’s represented in the choice of fonts, layout of elements, etc. For example, here are some elements from the 2008 calendar:

…Which, because I like to make things new and better and not at all because I am obsessed with reinventing the wheel every single time I do anything (not at all, do you hear me), I changed the format to a slightly more modern look for 2009:

And now, for 2010, I decided to go more modern still — after years of immersion in the ephemeral art of the late 19th Century, I’m now starting to become fascinated by mass media from the 1910s, and I think this year’s design reflects that:

The use of flourishes and ornaments also allows some nice touches such as the crossbar of the ‘A’ in ‘August’.

Each month’s title, as well as the entirety of the title cards, will be printed in gold ink, and they can’t really be done justice by a graphic — they look really sharp. (The other printing is done in black ink — this year on natural-white linen cardstock.)

The calendar grids are all laid out in Illustrator. I use the amazing program Cocoapotrace to create vector versions of the final collaged images for each month, then place them on each card with their verses. The cards are each 8.5″ x 5.5″ (half of a standard US sheet of paper), but the GOCCO printer can only print on half that size — so the cards have to be laid out so that each element takes up no more than half the space. Each calendar grid, and each image/verse section, will be printed separately using its own screen. (Since the monthly titles will be gold, they’ll need their own screen as well. More on this later). But at this stage, for compositional purposes, I lay it all out as a unit, so I know how each final card will look — then I print these out to act as reference for the printing process.

Here’s the final card design for the image in the previous post. Tomorrow we’ll prepare to start printing!

Tomorrow: Part 3: The Gathering Storm

OBLIGATORY STORE REMINDER: Today (Tuesday the 15th) is the LAST DAY for guaranteed domestic shipping at my TopatoCo store. I’m still shipping calendars through Sunday in my own store, but they’re gonna arrive when they’re gonna arrive.

How to Make a Calendar

This will be a daily series this week, as my wife and I finish up production on the 2010 Wondermark Calendar! But first:


TopatoCo was showing some of my books as “out of stock” as recently as yesterday, but I’ve received word that their coffers have been replenished — so, you know, have at. I should also note that they now have the only remaining copies of my very first collection, The Annotated Wondermark — less than forty remain before the print run (the fifth printing, if you can believe it!) is totally sold out, and we won’t be reprinting them until next year sometime.

Or, if you’d like to combine a book order with a calendar order, I do have copies of the two Dark-Horse-published Wondermark books in my in-house store. Look, I know. It is all very confusing! But, so is life.


I am leaving town for the holidays on the evening of December 20! That means that NOON PACIFIC TIME on the 20th is the order deadline for pre-Christmas shipping for anything purchased from my in-house store (including calendars). TopatoCo will continue shipping probably until the crack of Christmas Day or until their fingers fall off, whichever happens last. (Though some shirt sizes are already gone, as are some card designs. You got to get on this stuff!)

Okay that’s done. Thank you for indulging me this brief digression!



The Wondermark Calendar, for those who’ve not seen it before, is a hand-made item that consists of fourteen cards resting in a brass easel. Besides two covers, there are twelve calendar cards, each featuring an image and a brief piece of verse. Here’s one from a few years ago:

Each card is screenprinted by hand using a GOCCO screenprinter (more on that later this week). We only print a small run of the calendars, and they’ve sold out each year. Each calendar is individually signed and numbered, and optionally includes the easel — or you can get just a “refill” if you’ve already got an easel from a previous year.

The last two years, I simply found images (in my collection of old books) that I thought might work well in the calendar, then used them pretty much unmodified, writing verses to fit. This year, however, I thought I’d do it a little different — I thought I’d make collages from separate images, similar to how I make the comic, to create unique scenes and make the whole thing a bit more interesting.

Now that I’ve done this a few times, I’ve realized that simpler images translate much better in screenprinting than do more elaborate engravings — so this year I kept my eyes open for smallish drawings with cleaner linework. Also, for the sake of consistency, I decided to pull the majority of the images from a single source: 1880s Punch magazine, which I have several giant bound volumes of (click for a closer look):

Those folks on the right-hand page look like good candidates, as do the figures on this page:

I ended up scanning around 60 different images and playing around with them in various configurations, combining and re-combining them in different ways, trying to see what scenarios and stories they suggested.

The way I work is different from many artists, and certainly many cartoonists. While I do often compose the comic’s images to match a previously-written script, I also have great fun at times simply building scenes like a puzzle, not knowing what’s going on until the very end of the process — and sometimes, in the case of the comics, occasionally not knowing what’s going on until I’ve actually written most of the dialogue! I like seeing where it goes and the directions that it takes by itself, and it’s almost more like sculpting with clay, adding pieces and taking them away, than drawing or painting.

Eventually I decided that these characters could work well together:

And with the addition of some objects from my go-to “prop warehouse”, the 1902 Sears-Roebuck catalog…

…An interesting and evocative scene began to develop:


And here are a few more scenes that I composed (you’ll recognize some of the other characters from those earlier scans as well):

I assembled each scene before knowing what would be going on in any of them. It makes the constructive process fun, because there’s no restrictions! Anything is fair game, and the goofier, the better.

The process continues tomorrow! In the meantime, you can get your very own copy of the calendar here (remember, I’ll be doing pre-Christmas shipping this week only, as I only have about seven days before I leave town). I’ll see you right back here tomorrow for the next installment of this series!

Tomorrow: Part 2: Writing & Designing Each Month

Essay: One More Chance.

This is a re-post, with photos newly added, of an essay I wrote a few years ago. It was originally published in the AOPA ePilot newsletter, March 2007.

My earliest memories are of pointing to the sky, having detected the far-off drone of a piston engine. Dad had been a pilot since before I was born. He flew a pea-green Cessna 172 from Rialto Municipal in Southern California. I can remember with crystal clarity those lazy Saturday afternoons at the airport, helping him push back the big hangar doors and leaning my small weight against the airplane’s struts as he pulled it into the sun.

I read him checklists, learning words like “aileron,” “magnetos,” and “pitot” that no one else in my first-grade class knew. I drew airplanes and helicopters all over every piece of paper I could find, proudly telling Dad that I was going to grow up to be a “helicopter designer.” I went to the library, looked up the addresses of every aircraft manufacturer I could think of, and sent them packets of drawings. (Grumman was the only one that responded, with a very nice letter and some glossy 8-by-10-inch photos of fighters.)

But, as a teenager, I had “better” things to do than hang out at the airport. I turned down invitations to fly out for breakfast — that would require getting up too early on weekend mornings. Eventually, I graduated from high school and moved away for college, beginning to build my life in a new city. I saw Dad less and less frequently. He talked occasionally about flying out to visit me, but then he lost his medical and sold the plane. At 75 years of age, he was grounded.

Over the next few years his health deteriorated further. He lost weight, and his energy flagged. When I did see him, he often sat slumped in his chair in a defeated pose I’d never encountered before.

And then, one morning, I got the call that the ambulance had come in the middle of the night to take him away. I rushed to the hospital and met, for the first time, a thin, sad figure that I hardly recognized as my father — so different from the strong, robust figure of my childhood. I drove him home that day, driving as carefully as I could, and knew that he was weak when he never once bothered to comment on my driving!

That night I told my then-girlfriend (now my wife) about how much I regretted passing up the opportunity to fly more with Dad when I’d had the chance. I mentioned that in the back of my mind, I’d always thought that I’d become a pilot someday. I’d just never done anything about it.

A few weeks later, for Valentine’s Day, she surprised me with a $49 introductory flight at a local flight school. I grinned like a chimp as I climbed into the school’s Piper Cherokee. When the Lycoming engine barked to life, it was as if a spark had jumped a gap in my heart — the love, vigor, and excitement of my childhood came rushing back.

As the instructor led me through some simple maneuvers, I realized that flying had to be part of my life again. The instructor complimented me on how comfortable I seemed in the sky and how sure my movements were — I told him that I’d done this before.

Before I left the airport that day, I bought a logbook and had the instructor sign the first line. I was working an evening shift at the time, so I worked flying lessons into my morning schedule. Within three months, I had my private pilot certificate and was as happy as I’d ever been.

But by now, Dad’s condition had gotten worse. His energy was very low. I’d told Mom about the flying lessons, but I didn’t tell Dad — I wanted it to be a surprise.

Dad still liked to go to the airport now and then to watch the airplanes and perhaps chat with some of the pilots. Mom told me about a fly-in breakfast that was coming up and said she would make sure he’d be there. When the day came, I took to the air, flying the one-hour cross-country to my hometown. As I taxied from the runway to transient parking, I found Mom leading Dad across the ramp toward me.

The first words out of his mouth were, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I laughed and gave him a hug.

The next thing he said was a string of admonishments — “Always watch the weather. Don’t spend too much money. Always be careful taxiing. Take the time to do a proper preflight.” Once I heard his strict tone, I knew that the old Dad was back, if only for the day.

Mom coaxed him into the cockpit, and I gingerly steered the plane onto the same runway that was featured so heavily in my favorite childhood memories. With a roar the Cherokee pulled us into the air, and a trip around the pattern rushed by all too quickly. On final, I asked him if he wanted to go around again. Feeling the stress of the flight, he declined. I let the plane down gently, pulled off the runway, and taxied back to parking.

Mom and I helped him climb down the Cherokee’s wing, and Mom asked him about the flight. “Sure, David’s a good pilot,” he said. Coming from him, this was high praise.

In the months that followed, he weakened further. I took any opportunity I could to visit him, even as his speech and breathing became labored. We discussed where I’d flown recently, and he told me stories of notable trips he’d taken. He continued to warn me about the hazards of not watching the weather, a lesson I’ve taken to heart.

Dad passed away about four months after the fly-in. My first flight ever had been as his passenger, and his last flight had been as mine. I continued to revisit the little Southern California airports that we’d been to together.

At Apple Valley, an airport in the desert northeast of Los Angeles, a restaurant wall is decorated with handwritten messages from 60 years’ worth of pilots who’ve passed through. Names and dates fight for space on the long, painted brick expanse. I remembered this place. I wondered if I’d written anything there.

I spent 15 minutes searching the wall, trying to find my own name. Instead, I found Dad’s — dated five years before I was born.

The ink had faded over the decades, and the name was partially covered by newer additions. I borrowed a marker from the waitress and inked over his signature, smiling as I recognized his familiar scrawl. I colored in his name and date, and then added my own beneath it. Mine was a little bit smaller, a little bit newer, a little bit sloppier — but it was right next to Dad’s.

The Comic Strip Doctor: Final Thoughts.

(Click any of the smaller images to zoom in on them.)

The Comic Strip Doctor is done. Sadly, it’s not because my job is finished; newspaper comics today are largely as insipid as ever. For better or worse, though (pun intended), I don’t regularly read newspaper comics anymore, and as I told my CSD mailing list, digging through online archives searching for the worst examples of Ziggy just so I can write a column isn’t how I want to spend another Saturday, ever.

Besides, there’s enough snark and commentary out there without me adding my blowhard opinion into the mix. I was prepared to let the whole matter drop and call it a day, but then I had an interesting weekend, which inspired me to write one final column. Instead of lashing out with personal attacks or taking anyone to task, I’m going to allow some of those whom I’ve (fairly or unfairly) maligned to speak on their own behalf, and leave any judgments to you, the reader.

Over the weekend, I read a book called Your Career in the Comics, by Lee Nordling. I recommend it highly as an introduction to the nuts-and-bolts business of syndicated cartooning. Less an actual written book than an edited series of interview snippets, Your Career in the Comics gathers the collected opinions of Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Jeff MacNelly, Bill Amend, Scott Adams, and many other cartoonists I highly respect…as well as Mell Lazarus, Johnny Hart, and a few others whose work I’ve spoken critically of in this column.

All in all, it’s a strikingly comprehensive look at the business and lifestyle of syndicated cartooning, and though some of the information is a bit dated (the book was published in 1995, and thus, says next to nothing about the Internet, which continues to transform the industry), it’s still a great window into the minds of the people who made the system work for them. Also, as far as I can tell, the material is exclusive — Bill Watterson, who famously hasn’t given many interviews, speaks at length in this book, and while his insights largely mirror other material that’s been published elsewhere, it’s still interesting to read his thoughts (at a point at which he had not yet officially retired, but was clearly considering it).

While the pros’ opinions differ on many points, the consensus is that in order to succeed, an artist must be extraordinarily dedicated and must produce good work. With respect to comic creators who’ve been working for decades (and many of whom practically died at the drawing board after working in comics their whole lives), it’s hard to question their dedication (with the exception of Mell Lazarus, who validates my opinion of him by coming off as a scribbling hack). As for quality, however — the book quotes syndicate executives who bemoan the dearth of good material that finds its way to their desk. But if I sent in Momma as a submission to United Features today, do you think I’d get a contract?

After reading the book this weekend, I then read the Sunday comics, and talk about whiplash! In Your Career, creators, syndicate execs, and newspaper editors explained to me for over two hundred pages how important it is to create quality product. The art has to be exceptional, I was told. The characters have to be relatable. The dialogue has to be snappy and the punchlines have to be consistently hilarious. The only comics that make it in this cutthroat business, I was told, are the very best of the best of the best.

Perhaps my standards for quality are too high, but when I turned from the talk about what comics have to be to the newsprint where I saw what comics are — I felt lied to.

The point of this column has never been just to make fun of bad comics, but to try and tell you that you shouldn’t settle for crap. If you’re a critical reader, turn to webcomics. Put down your newspaper. Follow the good syndicated strips online. Don’t support bad strips with your wallets. Newspaper people wring their hands over the continuing death of their beloved medium. But all I have to say in response is, “Well, duh.”

And if you’re a comic creator — do as the pros say, more then as they do. Namely, make better comics. Garfield is funnier today, three years after I called it out for being awful, than it has been at anytime in the last decade. There is always still hope.

The late Johnny Hart, on page 13 of Your Career in the Comics, perhaps put it best:

I think our challenge is to elevate the integrity of art and humor in the industry.

There is a certain thing that has been established throughout the years. Each artist copies the last artist and improves on the style, and it gets better and better and better. At least, I think that’s what the challenge should be, to try and uphold what has already been done and to improve on it, lend to it, add to it, refine it.

Hart has since passed away, yet his comic continues, assembled by his daughter and grandson using art from old episodes of the strip. It’s a bizarre backwards time-capsule of irony, or something. His words, a decade old, are no less true for his estate’s utter disregard of them, but it works backwards too: his strip — his legacy! — is no less dumb for his having had some potent insights.

Below I’ve reproduced some further quotes from the book and juxtaposed them with the comics created by the speakers of the quotes. You be the judge of how well they (or their estate) follow their own advice.

The comics I’ve selected to reprint are just the current comic at the time of my writing. I haven’t hunted for particularly good or bad examples. They just are what they are.

Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey):

…I find I write myself into a corner, and I can always come up with a funny solution. You don’t know where it’s going, when you start, and it works real well. I can sit down and do thirty ideas a day, without any trouble at all. They’re not all good. Usually, I write all those down, and then I draw up about ten. The better ones. (p.206)

Johnny Hart (B.C. and The Wizard of Id):

I want each gag to be the funniest. Everything we do has to be better than anything we ever did before. It’s like trying to climb a mountain that doesn’t have a top, which is better than falling into a pit that doesn’t have a bottom. (p.11)

Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace):

…As far as humor is concerned, you look for clarity, for impact, and an element of surprise. Does it fit your characters? Did we do it before? Is it current? A lot of these little things are judgment factors that are sitting in your head, that come into play when you’re making these evaluations. You must have a very, very low acceptance ratio, because you are a tough, tough editor. (p.30)

Mell Lazarus (Momma):

I have absolutely no ego in my work. […] I’ve drawn complete strips. I might have thought they worked in the writing and the penciling, and then I inked them completely, and they don’t work, and I throw them away. And I do it readily. In fact, I’m kind of pleased when I come to that conclusion, because it reassures me that I’m paying attention. (p.27)

I hope that, if nothing else, you’ve been inspired to look at the comics a bit more critically after reading my columns. As one reader put it to me in an email: “Well, gee, forgive a guy for just wanting a little smile over coffee in the morning. Does everything have to be analyzed to death?? They’re COMICS. GET OVER IT.”

Guess what, dude? Thanks to me, you’ll never look at Marmaduke the same way again. And you know what else? You’re welcome.

Thanks for reading, everyone. It’s been fun.

— September, 2007

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Cathy


(Click any of the smaller images to zoom in on them.)

A Universal Press Syndicate interview with cartoonist Cathy Guisewite calls Cathy “the first widely syndicated humor strip by a female cartoonist.” The transparent qualifiers “widely syndicated” and “humor” are not mere press-release puffery; they are, in fact, quite deliberate, for without those qualifiers, the statement is inaccurate.

A casual reader of the statement may come away with the impression that Cathy was the first syndicated comic strip by a female cartoonist. (In fact, that honor goes to Dale Messick, for Brenda Starr, beginning in 1940.) But being the first at something is a powerful branding tool, and with enough qualifiers, anyone can be the first at something.

Cathy is widely regarded as the first comic strip that spoke to a generation of working, struggling women in a voice that resonated as one of their own. In the mid-1970s, Guisewite was a successful advertising copywriter with typical insecurites about her love life, her relationship with food and her weight, and the hassles and stresses of work. She doodled little characters expressing her angst on letters to her mother, who pushed her to submit to syndicates. As she puts it:

Universal Press was really looking for a strip that addressed these [women’s] issues, and while they had had many submissions from men, they thought that my work had an emotional honesty that the men just couldn’t approach. […] I think I got a contract to do “Cathy” faster than anyone has ever gotten one in history.

When the strip first appeared in 1976, women’s rights were being newly asserted both in the workplace and in the arena of relationships. The character of Cathy was a young, single, independent woman with the same fears, uncertainties, and challenges as an entire generation. Guisewite again:

I get way more feedback from people who say that they love Cathy because she’s not afraid to admit that she doesn’t have it all together every day […] they say it’s refreshing to read Cathy and know that there’s somebody else out there who’s still hauling around a 40-pound purse full of dreams.

Bathing suit doesn’t fit? Cathy’s got your back. Mom driving you nuts? Cathy’s been there too. Men just don’t understand you? Oh, Cathy — it’s you and me against the world.

And so every petty dilemma in a woman’s life, every mundane struggle and boilerplate annoyance, suddenly became an “AACK!”-worthy crisis.

Since 1976, the role of women in society has changed dramatically. An entire new generation has arisen that doesn’t give a second thought to working for a living, for example, or more broadly, taking responsibility for one’s own happiness and fulfillment. The average marriage age is older than ever before, as young people — and young women, in particular — are realizing that they don’t need to define themselves in terms of their role in a relationship. Women of today’s generation are every bit as comfortable with technology as men. And yet Cathy AACKs her way through her job, her relationships, and her shopping obsession, puzzling over Irving’s “male brain” and turning every visit to the mall into a sweat-soaked, cookie-fueled, nuclear-grade emergency.

The central relationship in Cathy’s life is her love/hate affair with consumption. Like many women, Cathy suffers from a poor body image, and struggles to conform to society’s unreal image of ideal femininity. She wages seasonal battles with the latest trends in swimwear, formal dress, and shoe fashions; she also fights herself internally, rarely motivating herself to exercise but often guiltily binging on snacks. Her endemic weakness for food, apparel, and tchotchkes makes her unremarkable at best and pathetic at worst.

And yet this sad figure is held up as a beacon of commiserative hope for women? Cathy’s weaknesses reinforce whatever stereotypes they are intended to bolster sympathy against. By saying to women, “Don’t worry, I feel bad about my weight too,” Cathy is saying, “Feeling bad about your weight is something that women do,” and excluding positive, healthy thoughts from the realm of “what women do.” By saying, “Ha ha, sometimes I buy too much stuff, just like you do,” she is saying, “Shopping compulsively is a trait of women in general,” and excluding those who exercise self-control as not real women, or at least not “normal” women. Because Cathy is a “normal” woman, and to be a “normal woman” in Cathy’s world, you have to obsess about your thighs, hate your mother, carry around a precious little dog and marry a doofus.

The aforementioned doofus, Cathy’s husband Irving, is a shallow foil for Cathy’s various neuroses. Like the ever-present Saleswoman, more about whom below, Irving exists mainly so that Cathy‘s readers can sigh knowingly, say “Oh, men!”, and put the comic on the fridge for their longsuffering husband to read. Irving likes golf, gadgets, and against all odds, Cathy herself, despite the fact that she is a shrill, bitter harpy. Her one redeeming personality trait is her silence on how abjectly dull her husband is.

Irving was Cathy’s long-term boyfriend for many years, until Guisewite decided to reintroduce Cathy to the dating world; then, after a string of cardboard beaus, she decided to marry Cathy off to expose a rich new vein of comedic material. Re-enter the longsuffering Irving, the “nice guy” with no identifiable personality beyond his general “maleness” — in other words, an aversion to housework, an impatience with shopping, and an affinity for gadgets:

Irving, and in fact the entire male species in Cathy‘s universe, exists merely to frustrate women. And any currency that Guisewite might earn for her portrayal of Modern Woman as a complex, nuanced creature with desires and hopes and fears underrepresented by mainstream media is spent by her repeated, “good-natured” slogs through Stereotypeville, U.S.A.:

The Saleswoman character is Cathy’s nemesis. Never named, never personified except by her attempts to batter Cathy’s willpower, she typically tries to push a product on Cathy that Cathy doesn’t need. Cathy’s resistance is therefore an act of heroism against the Establishment:

But any sign that this self-control is a redeeming character trait on Cathy’s part, or that it’s part of Guisewite’s campaign to empower or encourage the Modern Woman against the tantalizing forces of consumerism, is obliterated as soon as Cathy reverts to Stereotype Mode:

The preceding two comics were published three days apart, and yet they are diametrically opposed in terms of worldview. Can Cathy have it both ways? Is she the modern, Empowered Woman, or is she the giddy girl who can’t pass up a shopping bargain? Guisewite appears to remain on the fence about which female stereotypes she wants to indignantly shatter and which she wants to giddily indulge in. Equal pay for equal work, but can’t we gals still go shopping? Can we diet away from our cake, but still eat it too?

Guisewite may be exploring this contradiction by painting her character as conflicted, but a more likely explanation is that the entire “shopping” construct is merely an artifice for a series of lame gags, and that there is no character development happening whatsoever.

Logically consistent within that premise is our earlier assertion that Cathy‘s main import has been to elevate the mundane, typical bothers of daily existence into a sort of pseudo-operatic cacophany of global prosecution, in which every personal tic and foible has the booming quality of an Aristotelian tragic flaw, and every interaction with one’s husband, mother, boss, or dog is a clash of titans. Department store dressing rooms become gauntlets of terrible trials, and bikinis must be tried on with one hand while the other defends oneself from the fierce, flaming arrows of The Entire World Against You, your plaintive, bellowing “AACK” reverberating forever in the Halls of Eternity.

You see, everyone alive today has problems. Of every sort. Some of us figure out how to get past them and not let them take over our lives. For the rest of the world, I suppose, there’s always Cathy.

I am going to break form here and abstain from my usual habit of re-writing a specific comic strip. I have no interest in making Cathy funny. *(See “Update,” below.) I will, however, comment on a rather peculiar thing I found in my mailbox recently: it seems that Cathy has teamed up with the U. S. Postal Service, as a way of educating postal customers about the many services available at your local post office.

There are four, or maybe six, different postcards, featuring postal-themed Cathy strips on the reverse; I’ll spare you the full brunt and merely show the strip on the reverse of the above mailing:

Seriously, a money order?

Despite the obviously sociopathic tendencies of this strip’s protagonist (typified by an unhealthy fixation on low-grade, overpriced packing supplies) it is recognizably the same character from the non-commercially-licensed version of the comic; she has the same frenzied compulsion to buy everything in sight. (Modern Woman, take heed.)

In the past, Cathy’s shilled for Betty Crocker and the wedding website (the latter in the form of product placement within the newspaper strip itself); she’s also spoken for (oddly enough) Glamour magazine and McDonald’s. I don’t recall the McDonald’s ads personally, but I imagine they were something along the lines of, “McDonald’s food is so healthy, even weight-conscious Cathy is happy to indulge herself. Go on, insecure women of America; stuff your freaking face.” I’m sad to report that the message seems to have worked.

Divorced by time and progress from whatever socially progressive message it may once have had, Cathy lives on as a cutesy, tape-it-to-your-cubicle strip that gives voice to the myriad ever-present annoyances that seem so very important but are really no more than the normal bumps on the road of every day. By doing so, it has encouraged a culture that treats every slight as a mortal wound and every bother as a tragedy; it echoes (or is echoed by) the petulant cry of a nation that can’t develop, say, a healthy resistance to advertising, or a stable relationship with another human being based on compromise and understanding. What was once a novel voice of understanding to a generation finding its way is now a shrill whine that grates on the ears of a new generation.

Do you smell that, Cathy? It’s the winds of change …

Oh, wait. You’ve got no freaking nose.

UPDATE: I have been taken to task for shirking my Hippocratic oath and refusing to treat this patient. Thus, the following.

My initial opinion of the above comic was that it made no freaking sense. My second consecutive use of the adjective “freaking” in as many column inches is testament to the fact that I have no idea what is happening in this comic.

Originally published on January 13, 2006, this strip finds Cathy and Irving sharing a tender moment on the couch. At this point they’ve been married for eleven months. Irving is utterly content to wallow in filth, watching TV. At first I thought he was playing video games, because both of his hands are engaged, but the second panel punches in to reveal a remote control (or Wiimote) in his hand.

Every remote control that I’ve ever used was designed to be operated one-handedly. That is the basic principle of the remote control. Yet Irving cradles the remote in his left hand and jabs at it with his finger. He’s leaning forward in his chair, a wide, earnest grin on his face; if this strip were my first introduction to the character, I’d have him pegged as a ‘tardder.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s a nervous wreck, perched with her hands twitching on her knees, looking at everything that has to be done — sorting through papers, cleaning up after the dog, “re-doing” that “whole bookshelf.” Generic particles of unidentified nast float through the air and come to rest on every surface.

In the second panel, Cathy turns to Irving. We know what she’s thinking; we read her whole novel about it in the previous panel. His head whips around, his giddy enthusiasm unconcerned with which activity it’s focused on. He’s clearly been waiting for any excuse to pounce amorously on Cathy — perhaps his viewing choices have “primed his pump,” so to speak. Maybe that’s why Cathy anxiously seeks out something — anything — else to focus her attention on.

I can see the conversation from earlier that evening progressing somewhat like this:

Irving: “C’mon, honey, it’ll be fun, it’ll get us into the mood…”
Irving (sighing): “Okay, well, I’m gonna put in the DVD — just give it a chance, okay? It’s really not –”

By panel three, Irving’s finally gotten the chance he’s been waiting for — he’s been spring-loaded for an hour now, just waiting for the barest sign that Cathy’s finally come around, or is willing to at least play along to keep the peace. At this point, he doesn’t need cooperation — all he needs is acquiescence. He seizes the opening.

Panel four neatly sums up Cathy’s relationship with the world. The perfectly reasonable idea that a husband may occasionally be forward with his lawfully wedded wife is trumped in favor of Cathy’s crippling obsession with life’s minutiae. Are receipts really that important, Cathy? So important that not only would you choose it over a romantic evening with your prefab, cardboard husband, but you’d in fact be bitter should he not see things the same way?

We’ve already established Cathy’s love affair with consumption. Now a new facet emerges: that it may in fact supplant any real relationships in her life. She is clearly uninterested in giving herself wholly to the man with whom she shares a house — not emotionally, not experientially, and not, as we can see from this strip, physically.

Upon first reading of this strip, I didn’t really understand the last panel. How could she be more excited by the prospect of vacuuming up dog hair from the carpet than by spontaneous romance? This speaks to a personality disorder so severe that I couldn’t bring myself to believe that I wasn’t reading the strip wrong and missing some obvious punchline.

But now, after puzzling out this whole disturbing backstory that implies a crippling (and thoroughly unsurprising) frigidity on Cathy’s part, I can’t conceive of any other explanation. Cathy is a broken person. And what’s worse is that according to that smug smile in the last panel, she’s happy about it.

I cannot overemphasize this final point enough. She doesn’t see anything wrong with the way she feels. As we’ve established, freaking out over every petty annoyance is considered “normal” for Cathy (and, by extension, for Modern Woman, according to Guisewite’s twisted logic). But now we see that the freakouts are part of a larger defense mechanism — by obsessing over receipts, she never has to deal with the more pressing question of intimacy. By doting on her dog, she never has to enter into a mature, adult relationship with her husband. By making a full in-basket at work into a life-threatening event, she never has to examine her life goals in a broader sense, never has to re-evaluate whether her career is leading her down a path she’s sure she wants to tread. She fills her days and her nights with distractions, because it’s easier that way.

The empowerment that Guisewite has devised for Modern Woman has become her prison. She spent so much time fighting to get into the workplace that she never stopped to think about whether it was what she really wanted. I don’t mean to appear critical of women’s rights in general; I think women should have every avenue open to them. But in Cathy’s case, every aspect of her life — from her job to her marriage to her purchases — feels prescribed; like she’s going through the motions of the life she feels she should want, and filling up her days with mindless busy-work because she’s scared to face the bigger questions.

When Cathy is on her deathbed, the things she will regret will be unrelated to the size of swimsuits.

Perhaps it’s a latent patriarchical fear of speaking out of turn, or a simple reluctance to admit that the doors opened by “empowerment” lead to hallways into which the light does not penetrate. In any case, Cathy’s shrill superficiality is a mask that hides a scared child, terrified of real risk or change or of exposing any sliver of vulnerability. Irving likely does not necessarily realize this; he doesn’t seem like a white-knight type, hoping to fix her with his broad, strong shoulders. He seems instead like a decent dude, who’ll absorb the high-volume abuse tight-lipped for days and weeks and years, and at midnight on their twentieth anniversary it’ll take every ounce of resolve in his body to not reach slowly over and snap her neck in her sleep.

Here’s my first suggested revision for this strip:

The assumption here, based on the Kevin Smith reference, is that what Cathy dumps on Irving is his comic book collection. However, this assumes a baseline familiarity with comic collecting on the part of the reader. Part of the difficulty faced by Guisewite and other mass-market cartoonists is the urge to make every single strip as broad and accessible as possible. In this case, I’ve stepped too far in the other direction.

One of the many advantages that I enjoy relative to cartoonists like Guisewite is the ability to revise the work. Once the strip’s in a newspaper, that’s it; it’s done. Guisewite has to hit her deadline, and whatever state the comic’s in when that bell tolls, that’s what runs in the paper. But online, there is no such finality, and no need to abandon work that can still be improved. Here’s my final version.

Until next time… I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— January, 2007

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