It’s now three decades since Nicole Hollander’s cartoon character Sylvia—beloved by comic-strip aficionados and feminists alike—first shared her wisecracking, dry-as-a-martini observations on life, politics, and the male of the species. To celebrate, The New Press has just published The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama. Hollander joined us for a wide-ranging conversation about writing, smoking, The Woman Who Is Easily Irritated, and the challenge of creating a topical comic strip four weeks in advance.

How did Sylvia begin? Where did she come from?

She goes back to my mother and her lifelong girlfriends, Olga and Esther. The three of them met when they were teenagers and they all got jobs together selling magazine subscriptions door to door. And then they all married guys from same social club. They were three of the funniest women you can imagine.

I wanted to show the importance of friendships for women. That’s what keeps you going, that’s what gives you more than sustenance. It gives you pleasure.

Physically, Sylvia is modeled after Esther: bedroom eyes, very sexy, very witty. High-waisted with long legs and big breasts. But mainly it’s the attitude. My mother and her friends were very quick. Sylvia is like a 1940s dame, just like they were.

There’s an image in the book where my father—who was self taught because he had to drop out of school very young—is doing a crossword puzzle and he says to my mother, ‘What’s the name for a male swan?’ She had perfect timing, so she waits—and then she says, ‘A swine.’

So how could I do other than love words with the two of them as my parents? And to be political as well.

Where do the politics come in?

My father was a union member—he believed in unions. My mother worked for hospitals, she was always taking people home. This attitude that Sylvia has—and my attitude—is that politics is something that always has to be examined and watched with a very wry attitude. But if you do a cartoon, it also has to be funny. So I play with words, I play with her response. And she often undercuts her response to be ironic, and to give it a bit of a twist.

Then of course, I’m a feminist, and that [situation] hasn’t changed a heck of a lot, either. Incrementally, women have more opportunities now, but I think we’re still second-class citizens. You see it whenever women run for political office, the way that they’re attacked.

Everything that Sylvia hears on the television is true. I take everything from reality. And then she provides both the attitude and the commentary.

Almost everyone who’s written about the book has mentioned that when you see something in politics or government over a long period of time, you can see that our government has done the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t learn, no matter who’s in office. We don’t learn from anyone else’s mistakes, either.

[For proof of that, see the strips included in this story. Although all three read as though they were done in the past year or two, they date from (top to bottom) 2004, 1992, and 1995 respectively.  –Ed.]

About how old did you imagine Sylvia to be?

I was 40 when I started the cartoon strip. I imagined that she was ten years older, and that she would always be ten years older than me. But I couldn’t keep it up. I didn’t want to make her look old. I didn’t want to maker her look like the smoker she was, with wrinkles around her mouth. So she remained young. It was a complete turnabout. She remained exactly the same as when I created her, and I got older.

She’s still smoking.

She’s the last woman in America to smoke. And people complain about that. Every once in a while someone rediscovers it and says, ‘How can you do such a thing?’ And I say, ‘I created that character. That’s what she did. And that’s who she is.’ You’d have to kill her off to make her stop smoking.

She does occasionally blow [bubblegum] bubbles.

The other thing is that we live in a toxic environment. It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, cigarettes, we have the scientific evidence.’ But our environment is poisoning us in every possible way. It just feels better to say ‘This is the one thing that’s doing it.’

And yes, I know it’s terrible to smoke. But no, I’m not going to change her.

And she has a very unhealthy diet. She has this wonderful daughter, who I created to have a role reversal. So it’s Sylvia, the mother, who is completely irresponsible. And it’s the daughter who, I’m sure, balances the checkbook and keeps the accounts. And just in general tries to make her more healthy, at the same time keeping her supplied with doughnuts.

“Sylvia” is such a news-oriented strip. How far ahead are the cartoons done? How do you work with that?

I’m four weeks ahead with the cartoon strip. That means that if I pick something in the news to talk about it has to be an issue that’s going to around, or at least one aspect has to stay around. For instance, when all these men in government have to resign because they’ve done something so outrageous that even the president that they’re serving under finally has to get rid of them. They never say, ‘I screwed up. I’m corrupt.’ They say, ‘I’d like to spend more time with my family.’ There are certain themes that you can just use again and again, and you can see an issue in that way—so that it lasts, so that it has legs.

Of course, I’ve been caught when something big happened and I was four weeks ahead and I made the wrong call.

Over the years, you’ve introduced other women characters into the strip. How did that come about?

When I want to write about something, I often think about who’s going to say it. Sylvia has a certain way of attacking a problem. The Woman Who’s Easily Irritated immediately is furious and goes into a rant about something. So that’s her place and her attitude. And she has this wonderful husband, who’s always there waiting with a Valium or a martini to calm her down.

And then I have two women who talk over a table with food. That’s really my mother and her pals. Because that’s what I originally thought of the strip as being about: what women say when they’re talking alone together and really relaxed.

Another character who has a really important place is Mary Frances. Mary Frances’s adventures are the only continuing adventures. She’s always tired of her profession. She must have had dozens of different ideas of what she would do for a living. It goes from being a cat psychic to being a bodyguard that watches these guys who’ve committed financial crimes. She stays with them so that they can get out on bail. I mean, this is a very obscure thing, but it actually exists—there is a job like that, where you keep track of them and you live with them until they come to trial. So Mary Frances usually has three or four strips in a row. And she’s the only character that’s like that.

Then there’s the Woman Who Lies in Her Journal. I think she’s the newest character. She was created so I could write about something that had already happened—a way of outsmarting the strip’s four-week lead time. Sometimes you’ll hear her say, ‘Oh, I’ve been trying to get Sarah Palin for weeks.’ That’s a way of taking something that happened in the past and bringing it into the future. The time element is played with. So she’s calling Sarah Palin a month after Levi and Bristol getting back together hits the news. She’s calling her and saying, ‘I’ve been trying to get in touch with her. Finally I got her.’ And then she’s able to say what I would have wanted to say in a daily, if I was up-to-the minute.

What is the comics and cartooning landscape like now for women?

Space is very tight in newspapers. I don’t see new women getting in. But I see that women are making other places for themselves. I see that there are women who are doing online cartoons. I don’t know how they make a living from it, but they are online. I see that women write humor. And I see that women do stand-up.

Writing was always a good thing for women, because you could do it on the sly, in between doing everything else. Writing was always the place where you could hide your gender identity and make a success of it.

The younger generation—of which there are many under me—have their different ways of coping, and of being incredibly creative, and of caring for other women. It’s just that I would think it shouldn’t still be such a big job, that it should be such an effort. That there should be more equality than there is.

Among everyone, of course. To be old in this country, or black, or gay, or a woman. At the beginning of the book I say, Getting old in America: Best to do it somewhere else.

France, maybe? But I wasn’t smart enough to learn the language.

What do you enjoy about this time of life? What do you find challenging?

I find that having this book is just a great pleasure. I mean, it was really hard to do. I had to go through thousands of cartoons, reorganize them into categories, throw some out, and do it over and over again. But it’s a tangible record of what I did all these years. And that has given me enormous pleasure.

And look, I’m still doing what I love to do. Which is playing with words, playing with politics, and taking something which is serious and making it funny. I get a chance to do this puzzle. Now, I won’t say that it doesn’t drive me nuts to have a deadline every week, and to be making less and less money. But when it comes down to it, the pleasure of figuring out how to transform the words into a political statement and a humor statement is something that you don’t get tired of.

What’s next for you and Sylvia?

I’m going to be doing a blog in which Sylvia and Nicole talk. We think we’re going to call it Bad Girl Chats, after the two women in the strip.

Is it online yet?

No, but it will be. Check at NicoleHollander.com, or the Sylvia page on Facebook.

Thanks so much! And congratulations again on The Sylvia Chronicles.

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  • Eloy Bristle March 10, 2015 at 1:11 am

    Great Article!. Very well written and truly enchanting.

    Reply
  • sharon Karp August 24, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    What a wonderful well written article about someone who has done so much for Women. I really enjoyed it.

    Reply