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The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama

Nicole Hollander

(The New Press; US: Jul 2010)

Sylvia for President

A lot of Americans have suddenly decided to scream in the face of politicians, galvanized over national health care when they were unmoved by an administration that lied its way into a war. Is the Tea Party movement the primary expression of American populism? Does moral outrage belong to anti-health care “Mamma Grizzlies”, alleged feminists who hate feminism and think wanting low taxes makes them moral heroes? Will you lose all higher-brain function if you have to hear about one more Sarah Palin Tweet?


If politics leaves you pissed off and you are looking for some acerbic, left wing wit to get you ready for the coming election season, Nicole Hollander has what you need. For 30 years the Chicago-based artist has been churning out her comic strip Sylvia. Her title character is a middle aged, chain-smoking, perennially unimpressed wiseass whose observations on gender, politics, and social mores are more insightful than a boatload of political scientists with some Brookings Institute Fellows thrown in.


The new collection of the strip entitled the Sylvia Chronicles is less a collection and more a retrospective on how Hollander has used Sylvia and a cast of unforgettable characters to make fun of Presidents, poke and prod the powerful, worry aloud about the environment, critique misogyny and give dating advice to politically incompatible couples.


Arranged by presidential administration, The Sylvia Chronicles is a portal in time to some of the most controversial and the most absurd moments in American political and social history. Remember when John Ashcroft had coverings placed on the semi-nude statues in the Justice Department? How about when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling on wives to “graciously submit to their husbands?”


The bad news is that both events were not so long ago. The good news is that Hollander’s characters perform surgical strikes on these cultural targets of opportunity that will actually make you laugh about them.


Gender and the environment are two areas where Hollander’s characters are unstinting in their criticism and profoundly reflective in their humor. The strips’ ongoing indictment of Exxon, Mobile oil and their right-wing apologists read like a prophecy of recent events in the Gulf.


Many of the strips are a kind of public conversation about sexism and discrimination, both in attitudes and in American institutions. In this vein, Hollander never forgets that public health is a women’s issue. Readers will be struck by a set of panels from 1995 in which Sylvia worries about the health effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy, fears realized when these therapies were found to substantially increase the chance of breast cancer.


Its almost impossible to get tired of Sylvia herself as she barks at the evening news and makes fun of the implicit sexism of most American advertising, but Hollander has a whole world of returning characters. “The Woman who Lies in her Journal” describes conversations with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield. Then there is the Love Cop who tries to keep apart, for their own good, the liberal sophisticate and the pick-up driving, American firster who loves the Oak Ridge boys but has dreamy eyes. If you should tire of any of the comic creations, you can always enjoy Sylvia’s cats, including her “Malicious Cats with Hypnotic Powers” “Manipulative Cats and Suggestible dogs”.


Part of what gives these short strips their real heft is the unvarnished moral fervor that explode out of the humor. The jokes come sharply barbed, and Hollander has poison under her tongue when she skewers the powerful. She takes a few cheap, but legitimate, shots at Reagan and Bush the second’s intelligence. She also comes loaded for bear when she goes after morally corrupt frauds like former Bush Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. Her humor sometimes feels like the Hebrew prophets reincarnated as borsht belt comedians, embittered comedy made transcendent by a thirst for social justice.


Don’t pick up The Sylvia Chronicles for the art. Hollander’s drawing is the simplest of pen and ink doodles with some of the early stuff looking almost Xeroxed. Its sometimes so bad that Hollander herself has joked about this. Even if you are a devotee of the graphic arts, you’ll find that this art does nothing to distract from your experience, though. It’s all about the humor, the insight and bitter anger sugared by characters that are just so damn funny. You want real American populism? Come get some.

Rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting (October 2011) and Vampira, a cultural biography of America's first seductive horror host forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2014. He's inordinately proud of his record and comics collection. His website is monstersinamerica.com. Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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