Kate Worley was the writer whose distinctive voice and natural storytelling skills made Omaha the Cat Dancer an international favorite and a landmark in the comics medium’s coming of age in the late 20th century.
After moving to Minneapolis from her native Illinois in the 1970s, Kate became one of the early contributors to the science fiction comedy radio program “Shockwave.” Called the Shockwave Riders, they were an impressive group that included future novelists, professional musicians and award-winning broadcasters. Kate found her niche among that fast company as an occasional performer and a writer with the wit to keep up and the organizational skills needed to edit the group’s freewheeling story sessions into a working script.
She also found Reed Waller, a cartoonist and musician with connections to several of the “Shockwave” company members. Mutual appreciation led to mutual attraction. Soon they were not only collaborating on songs, but had moved in together. Working with bands and as a duet, they performed at local clubs and were mainstays of the legendary Minicon music suites. Known for their tight harmony and impeccably polished performances, Reed and Kate also developed into skilled songwriters.
Reed had recently become the talk of the Twin Cities cartooning subculture when his adult comic strip Omaha made the leap from obscure local publication to a nationally distributed ongoing comic book series. But after a wildly inventive beginning, the scripting became increasingly difficult. Four pages into the title’s second issue, the writing ground to a halt. The work languished for months until Reed confided to Kate his mounting conviction that there would be no more Omaha. As she recalled it years later, over the next few days she offered a few tentative suggestions about directions for the storyline, new characters, anything she could think of that might help Reed break through his writer’s block. He responded with the simple question that would save his series and change their lives: “Would you like a job?”
Before that installment of Omaha was completed, Kate progressed from her original job as plotter to providing completely scripted pages. It was such a remarkably seamless transition, capturing Reed’s naturalistic dialogue and casually inevitable scene progression, that her contribution wasn’t readily apparent to the readership. During her early months on the series, she occasionally chafed at the perception among the uninformed that she was simply Reed’s girlfriend who’d managed to attach her name to his work. Eventually, even the most entrenched members of the boy’s club realized that the Cat Dancer’s stories were being told in a new and richer voice that gave the impression of eavesdropping on a group of fascinating characters
Reed’s original approach to the series was an entertaining blend of melodrama, explicit sex and romance that could have enjoyed a healthy run as an unusually appealing underground comic. Kate transformed it into an ongoing serial that dug deeply into the characters’ lives, introducing storylines about gay and handicapped characters that allowed her to broaden the series’ social themes. Her approach expanded the readership, including a phenomenal number of women and a growing number of fans who bought it for the stories even more than the sex. Freed of the burden of writing, Reed evolved into an artist’s artist, bringing Kate’s words to life with page after page of inimitably expressive cartooning and fluid inking that gave Omaha a look unlike anything else in comics.
Their work was a critical and popular success, with back issues and collections kept constantly in print, building a growing international appreciation in foreign editions. They weathered the publicity-grabbing police raids on comics shops of the 1980s and ‘90s by producing a series that was too humanistic and simply too well done to be labeled obscene. To many who hoped to see comics fulfill their potential beyond simple picture stories for kids, Reed and Kate were the poster children for the First Amendment among comics readers.
They were popular guests at conventions, Kate taking point and seducing the crowds with her approachable smile and tough intelligence, a tall willowy figure with vivid burgundy hair and endlessly moving, expressive hands. She loved being a rebel, and enjoyed being a star while Reed moved quietly along the periphery and turned out endless sketches for their fans. Even while their series was at its creative peak, they’d never stopped performing together, and their public appearances were as much a part of their act as their concerts.
Kate’s work wasn’t limited to Omaha. A dedicated feminist with a fierce social conscience, she contributed stories to Wimmen’s Comix and the benefit anthologies Strip Aids and Choices. She wrote magazine articles on censorship and sexual identity. With Reed, she created a light-hearted adventure series called “SpeakingStone.” With other artists, she wrote a special issue of Wonder Woman, served as the regular writer for a new Jonny Quest series, walked away from the science fiction series Primortals after one issue of maddening editorial confusion, and turned novelist John Jakes’ Mulkon Empire concept into one of the few examples of literary science fiction in comics. Flying in the face of easy perception, she was signed up as the regular writer of Disney’s Roger Rabbit comics and turned out a series of ingeniously witty tales for all ages.
She continued to work with Reed on Omaha after their relationship ended in the mid-‘90s, but collaboration became more difficult and the long-running story was left uncompleted. During that time, she married Kings in Disguise writer James Vance and left Minneapolis. She and Vance continued to write for comics and other media, both separately and as collaborators. Eventually, the realities of raising their two children slowed their creative output, but Kate continued to outline new projects against the day when time would permit her to resume writing full-time again.
She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001 and entered an aggressive program of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that drained her physically, but rarely diminished her spirit. When a publisher offered her and Reed
the opportunity to bring Omaha back into print – with the proviso that they at long last provide a finale to the story – she threw herself into the project, creating a detailed outline and writing key scenes that would anchor each chapter of the ambitious conclusion. The script was uncompleted when she died on June 6, 2004, but she had already provided for the characters to whom she’d devoted so many years of her creative life. At her request, Vance inherited the job of assembling the Omaha conclusion that Kate wrote and outlined, insuring that her vision of the stories and its beloved characters will endure.
The tall redhead is gone, but she left a body of work that still resonates in her own rich voice. The music she made will be heard for generations to come. Turn the pages of Omaha, and you can hear her singing still…


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