The Arty Semite

Who Is Sylvia? What Is She?

By Benjamin Ivry

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In February, the Chicago Tribune stopped printing the syndicated comic strip “Sylvia,” by Chicago-based artist Nicole Hollander, and cries of outrage echoed across Lake Michigan.

The protesters included detective story author Sara Paretsky, who wrote to the Tribune: “There are precious few women cartoonists, and Nicole is the only one with a daily strip who presents the believable struggles of women in contemporary society.”

Hollander, born in 1939 to a Chicago Jewish family, has been writing and drawing “Sylvia” for three decades, as a quirky, humorous feminist statement of disdain for right-wing extremists, overweening men, and other blots on the horizon. As Jules Feiffer writes, Hollander “makes what’s depressing funny,” yet “because she is right, and she is funny, she has no power whatsoever.”

This praise appears in Feiffer’s preface to a new collection of drawings, “The Sylvia Chronicles” from The New Press, in which Hollander divulges some sources for Sylvia’s outspoken left-wing viewpoints.

Sylvia was inspired by one of her mother’s witty friends, while Hollander’s father, a labor activist and member of the carpenters union, was also a source of provocative behavior, urging little Nicole to eat a candy bar in front of pious neighbors on Yom Kippur, just to see their reaction. An archetype of ridiculous masculinity, Hollander’s father obsessively sang his favorite tune: “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” by the Jewish Tin Pan Alley team of Victor Young and Sam M. Lewis. Other inspirations for “Sylvia” came from the witty dialogue of Chicago author Ben Hecht’s “The Front Page.”

In one strip, Sylvia rewrites the Book of Genesis, reasoning that Adam must have been created after Eve was tempted by the Serpent to wish for an “irritating companion” who asks annoying questions like “Have you seen my socks?” A friend to such Jewish feminist ventures as Lilith Magazine, whom she allowed to reproduce one of her drawings on a tote bag for fundraising purposes, Hollander now ponders the problem of aging baby boomers.

Sylvia herself has been discussing health care of late, crowing: “Obama did the impossible — he got a health care reform bill passed with every Republican in Congress grinding their molars to a nubbin.” Despite Sylvia’s decades of indolent crabbing, refusing to get out of the bathtub, and other behavior symptomatic of a disappointed liberal, Hollander’s ultimate message retains a glimmer of hope.

Watch Nicole Hollander speak about aging in America to a Chicago audience in 2009:

Nicole Hollander talk at the Grand Opening of Lincoln Park Village from Nicole Hollander on Vimeo.


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