The comic strip Sylvia has been appearing in comics pages for over 30 years now, but it’s never been the sort of strip that people tend to think about as their favorite comic. As creator Nicole Hollander acknowledges, her artwork isn’t the slickest on the comics page, and her characters are as shallow as can be – and that is very much for design.
But I had a weird reaction after reading this 125-page retrospective of the strip: I really liked it.
This book isn’t a collection of Sylvia strips as much as it’s a retrospective by Hollander of the strip. That gives the book a unique sort of feel, as if we’re watching the artist present a fun little slideshow history of the strip and her relationship to it. I enjoyed that autobiographical feel as it gave the pieces more of a context in both Hollander’s life and in American history.
One of the reasons I liked this book so much is because it’s like a trip through American history of the last 30 years. Hollander has always worn her liberal politics on her sleeve – the strip originated in a feminist publication called The Spokeswoman. So a great many strips in this collection are about political issues with a leftist viewpoint.
From jokes about women carrying guns, through jokes about the Iran/Contra Scandal of the mid-1980s, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton and the first President Bush, all the way to a few jokes about Barack Obama, this collection of strips is completely uninhibited in its comedy about the news of the day.
Hollander delivers her jokes with a kind of deadpan biting drollness that often makes even the most biting comments seem humorous. She loves the image of two women – almost always women – chatting with each other and making droll comments about the events they’re discussing. It feels a bit like going to a party with a small group of pretty humorous women, women with whom it would be nice to spend an hour or two.
It’s almost dignifying Hollander’s artwork too much to call it art. Hollander will never be confused with Berke Breathed or Bill Watterson, but her work is effective for the strip.
She makes jokes about using Xeroxes of her recurrent characters, and that fact is very much on display. But rather than detracting from the strips, her artwork just allows readers to pay attention to the work she mentions.
It’s often startling to read this book and be reminded of the historical events she mentions. There’s a comment about Dick Cheney made long before he would become our controversial Vice President, and a mention of the Unabomber is kind of startling. Some of the name-dropping is a bit obscure – only a person with a great memory would remember figures like Zoe Baird or Sam Nunn, and Dan Quayle and David Souter are pretty much lost to history. Also, there are many jokes about the Contras, which is a startling reminder of a controversy that seems completely forgotten these days.
But that’s a big part of why this book is so much fun. It’s great to reminded that even the worst controversies of our age will be historical footnotes in a few years.
Sylvia gives us perspective and helps remind us to laugh, damn it! No matter how bad the events of the day might be, we always can laugh at them. Hollander gives us a nice share of droll humor.