Nicole Hollander, Creator of Sylvia

18 April 2003
Sylvia 1

   On first glance, Sylvia appears to be a coarse comic strip. The art seems simplistic, with drawings of characters starkly contrasted in severe black and white. The backgrounds appear to be cluttered with stuff, large and small. In a majority of panels, there are lines and lines of words covering any white space It is initially difficult to focus on the message that the cartoonist is attempting to make.

    But it is worth a try. Sylvia, created by cartoonist Nicole Hollander, takes on the political issues of the day and the daily grind that women face with a jab of sarcasm and a big poke of fun.

   The star of the comic strip is the sharp-witted feminist Sylvia, who has a lot of entertaining things to say about the state of the world from her position at her old-fashioned typewriter… or from her comfortable reclining soak in the bathtub. The character is most often drawn on profile: a big woman with big hair, a big nose and a big, shining smile.

    Hollander derives her humour from the media, transforming news and events into an entertaining comic strip. To the mix, Hollander added eccentric friends and quirky family members, each sketched in a one-dimensional manner. While the drawing at first seems raw and undeveloped, closer examination shows Hollander’s skill and individual style. All that clutter in the background is quickly-detailed line work: typewriter, books, television, cups and dishes, plants, pictures, fish, pets… and the list goes on. It could look a lot like home. Maybe just like your desk at work.

   One set of characters in the comic strip play a predominant role, perhaps occasionally even more than Sylvia. Hollander created a pair of sassy male cats, again drawn flat with minimal expression - a lot like real cats that just sit there and stare intently at their humans. The charming felines hold up dialogue signs in answer to their owner's questions and most often produce gales of laughter from their responses. A series of strips end each installment with one of the cats massaging his owner’s angry head after the cat has “saved” his mistress from some perceived danger. “She’ll thank me for it later, when she’s calm again,” the cat says. Hollander has handily spun the popular felines into many successful books, some of which include “My Cat’s Not Fat, He’s Just Big Boned,” published 1998, Hyperion/Source Books, and the latest, “Everything Here is Mine: An Unhelpful Guide to Cat Behaviour,” published 2000, also by Hyperion/Source. Cat lovers are thrilled.

    Distributed under the Tribune Media Services since 1979, Sylvia is published in over 80 newspapers. On her web page, Nicole Hollander has commented on the challenges of creating her cartoon, in which she said, “On one hand, I have one of the best careers in the world: a chance to mouth off about everything and draw while I am in my pajamas. But, on the other hand, having to come up with a strip six days a week every week with no vacation, there is always the possibility that I won’t come up with an idea.” *(1)

    Attending the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and Boston University, Nicole Hollander graduated with Master’s Degree in Fine Art. She had no intention of taking up the cartooning pen. While working as a graphic designer, she participated in the re-design of a feminist magazine. “I started doing illustrations and it turned into a comic strip…. It was the atmosphere at the time that helped my work evolve,” she mentioned in Columbus Alive in 1997. *(2) “I didn’t want to be a cartoon artist,” Hollander said, “I wanted to be a great painter.” *(3)
    Nicole Hollander has also written and/or illustrated a number of books, articles and musicals, with a portion of them based on the characters from her Sylvia comic strip.

Sylvia 3
Sylvia 2

    “Sylvia’s Real Good Advice” and “ Female Problems” are two of her musical adaptations. Her books, including Sylvia strip collections, numbering almost two dozen, written from the humourous feminist point of view. (There are quite a few jabs at the male population.) She has contributed articles to The Washington Post, The New York Times, along with articles and cartoons to Mother Jones Magazine.

    Generous with her time, Hollander gives speeches and advice on art and cartooning – and donated the first years of her cartoon work to Ohio State University’s Cartoon, Graphic & Photo Arts Research Library.

     The Chicago area is home for Nicole Hollander.

Nicole Hollander’s home page – read past strips, check out her book list, or buy an adorable rare Sylvia doll here:
*(1) http://www.nicolehollander.com

Article about Nicole Hollander in Columbus Alive:
*(2) columbusalive.com/1997/19970930/artscene.html (No longer available)

A second article about Nicole Hollander:
*(3) ccchronicle.com/back/2003-03-03/campus4.html (No longer available)

© Susanna McLeod 2003
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)