Sassy, brassy, irreverent, and sardonic, Sylvia-of Nicole Hollander's eponymous comic strip-was a must-read in up to 80 American papers during the cartoon's lifespan of 30-plus years. Unapologetically feminist, the comic strip and its author-artist took verbal and visual jabs at the absurdities of modern life and, in particular, the powers that be.
Though Hollander, now 79, discontinued Sylvia in 2012, she has not stopped producing acerbic and incisive observations, as evidenced in We Ate Wonder Bread (Fantagraphics Books), her graphic memoir of growing up smart, funny, and Jewish on Chicago's West Side in the 1940s and 50s. The book recounts in detail her preteen years at 3914 W. Congress Parkway, where she slept in the apartment's dining room and eavesdropped on conversations taking place in the adjacent kitchen between her parents and their colorful and highly expressive friends and neighbors.
These conversations, said Hollander, who still lives in Chicago, were critical in her understanding of human nature. And the people who paraded through her family's apartment-one of her mother's friends, in particular-formed the basis of the character that would become known as Sylvia.
"What I remember so vividly is being part of the life of my mother and her friends," writes Hollander early on in the book. "They were all witty women, fiercely loyal to their friendship, to the specialness of every woman in the group… Sylvia was conceived in the old neighborhood. If my mother hadn't had her friend Esther and if the women hadn't taken their daughters with them everywhere, I would never have heard their stories and made their language my own."
But you can't ascribe blame or credit to her mother, Shirley Mazur Garrison, for everything, Hollander said during a recent interview. While her mother liked to draw and doodle, particularly as she yakked on the phone in the kitchen, and was exceptionally verbal and quick-witted, it was Hollander's father and grandfather who demonstrated an artistic bent. Both were talented craftsmen, and Hollander recalls accompanying her father, Henry Garrison (the family's surname had been changed from Silverman, Hollander said), to the carpenter's union, where she sat in the car while he sought work. "He was the smartest person I knew," she said, recalling his insatiable curiosity and penchant for books.
But smart did not make for easy or pleasant. Hollander's father had an explosive temper, which could erupt at the most seemingly unexpected times. Once, Hollander recounts in Wonder Bread, as the family was preparing for a weekend outing, her father had a conniption when he noticed that the collar and cuffs on his daughter's outfit were not as pristine as he would have liked. He insisted on returning home to repair the situation.
"He removes the detachable collar and cuffs, washes and iron them and sews them back on," Hollander writes. "He does this very angrily and quickly and we are out the door. The effect of his tantrum hangs around, but this is what he is like and if we want to wrest pleasure from disaster we have to get happy quickly."
Hollander speculates that her father's deep-seated rage stemmed from losses he sustained early in his life. The son of one of the only Jewish families in a small town in Iowa, he was forced to cut short his high school education with the premature death of his own father, also a carpenter, and to go to work to support his family. He was, in every respect, self-taught, but his education did not encompass learning how to seek and hold onto happiness.
As crucial as her parents were in forming Hollander's artistic and literary sensibilities, so were the influences of others, including teachers, who early on noticed her talents. "If you could draw, you became the artist in the class," she said. "You got kudos for this. I drew the turkey for Thanksgiving and the Christmas tree."
By the time Hollander was a teenager in the mid 1950s, her family, like tens of thousands of other Jews in Chicago, left the West Side for points north. She spent her teen years in Rogers Park and went to Senn High School before going on to major in art at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
During a brief marriage to one of her sociology professors, Paul Hollander, a Hungarian Jew, Hollander earned an MFA from Boston University. She was working as a graphic designer at The Spokeswoman, a feminist publication, in the late 1970s when her cartoons, which she had been drawing on the side, began receiving attention. Sylvia, the syndicated comic strip, was launched in 1979, and almost 20 Sylvia-related books followed.
Hollander said that she regrets that her father, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, did not live long enough to observe his daughter's success and that he never really understood her feminist perspective. This is particularly ironic, she said, because she inherited her father's mighty defense of the underdog. "It's a very small step," she said, from defending the rights of others who are denied access to championing the rights of women who have been shut out of the system.
Although Sylvia was developed out of the cast of mostly Jewish characters that were so crucial to her understanding of the world, Hollander said, she never thought of Sylvia as Jewish per se. Nevertheless, she added, she does see herself as informed by a Jewish sensibility. "I actually do think my humor is Jewish humor," she said. "Something bad is on the horizon, and it will fall on you, so you might as well make the best of it."
Nicole Hollander will appear at the Printers Row Lit Fest, which will be held in Chicago on June 9 and 10. For more information, visit printersrowlitfest.org .
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.