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Cathy and Irving, the Honeymoon Is Way Over

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page C01

The implicit contract governing the comic strip "Cathy" requires that you must read it on Cathy Time, which means that you're never sure if Cathy is supposed to be 29 years old, or 52, or 38. She could be any of them. She's trapped, and so are you. In most comic strips, life is literally anachronistic, or at a standstill, and what you glean from "Cathy" is what you've always gleaned: Men are impossible (though not as bad as they used to be), work is crazy and disorganized, and swimsuit season approacheth -- whether it's 1978 or 1991 or 2005.

Cathy's wedding this week to longtime boyfriend Irving (nuptial vows were exchanged Saturday; the reception continues in this week's panels) ends a year-long story line by "Cathy" creator Cathy Guisewite, 54, who decided after 28 years that it was time for her perennially single, semi-autobiographical protagonist to tie the knot with the man who, through his insensitive, irresistibly chauvinist ways, has always turned Cathy on. ("It's like Charlie Brown finally kicking that football," mused a writer in the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

Cathy Guisewite made sure "Cathy's" wedding registry benefited a pet shelter. (Damian Dovarganes -- AP)

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In a strip the week before her wedding, Cathy was seen throwing out stacks of self-help relationship books, deciding to keep only her lovelorn journals. She'd apparently decided to re-read them, but too much self-reflection seemed to skeeve her out, or maybe she realized just how unhip she's become: "Fudge ripple, photos, favorite songs, love letters, scrapbooks, dream diaries, affirmations, candles, bride doll, and all the silly shoes I thought would make someone fall in love with me," she obsessed in a thought balloon. Soon she was back at Irving's doorstep. "I thought you wanted some time alone," he said.

"Too noisy," she said.

Cathy is seen in some 1,400 newspapers, according to Universal Press Syndicate, and on some old coffee mugs in the break room. Seen doesn't always translate to read. Among thinking people who slog through the comics pages every day (out of habit, mostly), it is a common stance to say that once you read "Cathy," but haven't in a long, long time. "Cathy" isn't even one of those strips you read just for the blech value, like "Family Circus."

But good things have come out of Cathy's wedding: A pet shelter in California raised $18,000 in donations from the online "registry" for Electra and Vivian, who, you should know, are Cathy's and Irving's pampered dogs. The wedding story line brought Andrea, Cathy's feminist friend from the 1970s, back into the fold (and promptly stuffed her into a garish pink bridesmaid dress), the mother of two bored teenagers. (Aha! So time has elapsed!)

The event has seemed sort of underwhelming -- not unlike the big wedding of a friend who just waited too long and missed the parade of big, churchy, four-bridesmaid weddings in her twenties, when everyone was doing that. By almost any social measure, Cathy is at that age where a small event, perhaps near a beach, would have been best, but she apparently owed it to her mother to go the Bridezilla route. If you assume Cathy is about 47 or 48 (don't go by the swimsuit seasons, or her annual tax preparations; just go by the actual years), then there's a lot Cathy shouldn't still be doing. She should no longer be wearing her hair long and center-parted. She should have a nose.

Oh, but she's Cathy, the Sisyphus of the office park and condo complex.

Some newspapers that run "Cathy" made some attempt to have fun with her special day, but it failed to play as a big pop-culture moment. The "CBS Evening News" had a go at it. Guisewite submitted to several media interviews in the last few weeks, but seemed to underplay it herself. It was just time.

"I know there are single women out there who feel abandoned. I would feel like that, too," Guisewite said in one interview, noting for the zillionth time that she herself took the plunge six years ago. "At least Cathy we could always count on to be single. To them, I would say, I'm sorry, I just have to move on to this next phase already."

(Next phase? You mean fertility treatments?)

Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post Magazine humor columnist who is also a self-appointed exegetical critic of what transpires on the comics pages, polled readers of his weekly online chat, inviting them to weigh in on Cathy's special day -- weigh in with baseball bats: What is the best explanation for why this whole marriage thing has been egregious -- worthy of ridicule, deserving of censure and requiring punishment?

(Possible answers included: "Appalling though it may be, it created something readers had a need to see through, like picking a scab," to a dismantling of "some 30 years of feminism in America" to "Oh, come on. This has all been kind of sweeeeeet." As of Tuesday night, 52 percent of 1,060 readers had opted for a fourth reason: "Because it has just not been funny.")

Ah, indeed: the dearth of funny. One of Weingarten's readers/chatters found a reason to rejoice in Cathy and Irving's good fortune, the gift of a new pop-culture term: "marrying Irving," whereby Cathy has performed the comic-strip equivalent of television's "jumping the shark." (Which, duh, refers to the seasons of "Happy Days" after a water-skiing Fonz jumped a shark, signifying banality and mediocrity itself.)

Comics readers can now use an easy shorthand for when a strip has loitered far past its once-humorous prime: It has married Irving. "Beetle Bailey" married Irving years ago. "Garfield" married Irving almost from the beginning. You read them every day anyhow. They all married Irving (unless they took early retirement), and in a sick but wonderful way, you also marry Irving, by reading them.

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