Since its inception in a suburban Chicago newspaper in 1978, Nicole Hollander's comic strip, Sylvia, has evolved to become a leading expression of postmodern feminism in satiric form. Appearing daily in newspapers coast-to-coast, Hollander's popular strip has also been reprinted in many books, including such titles as I'm in Training to be Tall and Blonde, and Ma, Can I Be a Feminist and Still Like Men?
If the title character in Cathy Guisewite's Cathy strip represents the relationship struggles—romantic, parental, and inter-office—of a neurotic, thirtysomething working woman, Sylvia portrays a somewhat older, stouter, work-at-home woman comfortable with herself but at war with the foibles of contemporary society. Actually, Sylvia herself does not always appear in the strip that bears her name, a sly, surrealistic stream-of-consciousness in which Hollander applies her own witty touch to subjects both slight and substantial, from such comedy staples as pets and airlines to such fresher ground as gender inequality and goddess spirituality. Sylvia is a plump, fiftyish advice columnist who is as likely to be found conversing with her cats or a space alien as her nubile daughter, Rita, or her friend, Beth-Ann. Like many of us, Sylvia also talks back to the media: When a commercial on the radio announces, "Spray N'Wash gets out what America gets into," bubble-bathing Sylvia responds: "Send some to El Salvador!"
Nicole Hollander, the strip's creator, had also worked as an art instructor and book illustrator, but she found fame as a comic strip writer/artist when Sylvia, initially created for a suburban Chicago newspaper in 1978, was picked up for syndication by the Universal Press Syndicate in 1979. The increased visibility led inevitably to Sylvia books and a line of greeting cards; in 1981, another syndicate, Field Enterprises, bought the Sylvia rights and added a Sunday strip, since discontinued. For a time, Nicole Hollander incorporated herself as The Sylvia Syndicate and took over her own distribution. By the end of the 1990s, Sylvia was being distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, although Hollander retained the copyright on her daily creations. Hollander was featured prominently in a PBS documentary about contemporary female comic strip artists.
Although there are recurring themes in Sylvia, there are no storylines; each day's strip is self-contained. Her visual style is purposefully slapdash, in keeping with Sylvia's cutting-edge humor. What distinguishes the Sylvia strip is its celebration of the life of the mind of its heroine. As often as not, there is nothing happening in the strip per se except what Sylvia is imagining, in the fashion of a latter-day Little Nemo in Slumberland, except that she is wide awake both physically and ideologically. The strip's innovative fancies and conceits include "Menacing Supercops of the Future" such as the "fashion cop," policing errors of taste and style, or the "love cop," seeking to break up incompatible couples or prevent them from forming; the eternally annoying "Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You"; "Alien Lovers"; "Special Goddesses"; "The Woman Who Worries About Everything"; "The Cat Who Hypnotizes His Mistress"; "From the Diary of a Woman Who Never Forgets a Slight"; "Gender-Based Differences—How to Tell if You're a Gal or a Guy"; and "The Lonely Detective," in which Sylvia imagines herself a noirish Phillipa Marlowe-type private eye tackling contemporary societal issues.
Popular culture has always been a rich source for Sylvia's satire. At times, her advice column was featured in the strip—she once addressed one of her troubled readers as "Dear disgusting wimp"—although in recent years the column is seldom referred to directly. Other gambits have included Sylvia's proposals for TV game shows, such as the one in which recently divorced couples would have tried to guess each other's most annoying habits, or her extreme take-offs from The Three Faces of Eve, imagined dramas about women with three-way personality splits, one of which is always a housewife, as in: "housewife, snake-handler, and educator," or "housewife, hair stylist, and brain surgeon." Considering that Hollander's Sylvia strip has always been frankly feminist, multiethnic, multispecies, and unabashedly liberal in outlook, it is not surprising that it will sometimes refer to current events, although the "ripped from the headlines" approach has never been Sylvia's prime focus as it has been for strips such as Doonesbury. In any given year, however, Sylvia will manage to reflect—and have fun with—the mood of a small but hearty band of free-thinkers as they warily eye the shenanigans of the world at large.
—Preston Neal Jones
Hollander, Nicole. Female Problems. New York, Dell, 1995.
——. Hi, This Is Sylvia: I Can't Come to the Phone Right Now, So When You Hear the Beep, Please Hang Up. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
——. Mercy, It's the Revolution, and I'm in My Bathrobe. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
——. Never Take Your Cat to a Salad Bar. New York, Vintage Books, 1987.
——. Sylvia on Sundays. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
——. That Woman Must Be On Drugs: A Collection of Sylvia. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981.
——. The Whole Enchilada: A Spicy Collection of Sylvia's Best. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Horn, Maurice. 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York, Gramercy Books, 1996.
"This Is Sylvia's Home Page." http://www.suba.com/~sylvia. May1999.