July 05, 1982 12:00 PM

In this, the 11th year A.D. (After Doonesbury), comic strip heroines are no longer confined to the pleasant but innocuous likes of Blondie, Nancy and Daisy Mae. Now readers of the “funny” pages in 250 newspapers likely encounter a semi-hip young woman trying to cope with love, work and angst in the ’80s. Any resemblances between her fictional alter ego in Cathy and her own life are strictly inevitable, shrugs 31-year-old Cathy Guisewite (rhymes with rice-white). “My comic strip is always on my mind,” she says. “More times than I care to admit I’ve run into the bathroom to write down jokes about breaking up with my boyfriend. In moments of tender passion, I’m figuring out how to draw my date so he won’t recognize himself.”

Fans—mostly women 18 to 44, according to surveys—seem to identify with Cathy’s tribulations. Guisewite reportedly earns more than $100,000 a year from syndication, plus another bundle from six books (including The Cathy Chronicles and What’s a Nice Single Girl Doing With a Double Bed) and a host of spin-off mugs, dolls, underwear and greeting cards. She sees the strip as humorously reflective of the problems younger women face today. “It’s a confusing time,” says Guisewite. “We’re getting a lot of different signals. I was just getting used to the ‘Me Decade,’ starting to revel in putting other people’s needs second, when suddenly they pulled the rug out from under me by proclaiming the ’80s the ‘We Decade,’ with the family unit making a comeback.” The strip, she points out, is not entirely autobiographical. “If it was, I couldn’t go out in public.”

The daughter of a Midland, Mich, advertising executive, Guisewite learned irony young. “My parents always said my sisters and I were perfect just as we were, but if we tried a little harder, we’d be even more perfect,” she recalls. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English, she worked in a Detroit ad agency by day and sketched at night as therapy for a mixed-up love life. At her mother’s insistence she sent her stick figures to Universal Press—the syndicate that carries Doonesbury, Ziggy and Tank McNamara—and they bit. “I was shocked when they bought it,” says Guisewite. “I’m still shocked when I see it in the newspapers.”

Like her cartoon character, Guisewite still hides dirty pans in the oven and has trouble with deadlines (“I haven’t sent a piece of mail in the last five years that wasn’t Federal Express”). She dates but has no steady beau. And although she recently moved from Detroit to a small Victorian house in Santa Barbara, Calif., she is cautious about changing her life too much. “A lot of my material is based on my neuroses,” notes Guisewite. “If all that vanished, it would be ‘bye-bye career.’ ”

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