Sylvia's Secret Self

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LOUNGING IN AN OVERSTUFFED ARMCHAIR in her northwest Chicago loft, Nicole Hollander is chatting in her oddly soft voice. Odd, at least, to those familiar with her comic-strip alter ego, Sylvia—that hard-drinking, chain-smoking, wisecracking dame whose voice, one imagines, would be as coarse as the wild hair she tames with her trademark scarf. Then again, Nicole and Sylvia do have the same dangling earrings, the same blowsy look, the same shoot-from-the-lip sarcasm. In a recent strip, for example, a psychic counsels Sylvia on the course of love—"uncontrollable lust" followed by "warm, cozy feelings." "And the irritability stage...when do I get to that?" Sylvia snorts. The seer replies, "All in the same evening!"

Thus speaks Hollander, who, at 53, is the most outspokenly feminist cartoonist in mainstream publication. Sylvia is syndicated in some 60 newspapers, from the San Francisco Chronicle to her hometown Chicago Tribune, and has also inspired a line of greeting cards, a play and 13 books. Hollander's latest book, Everything Here Is Mine (Avon), is a collection of car-toons inspired by her first feline, the late John Hollander, who bears an eerie similarity to the black-and-white puss that perches on the edge of Sylvia's bathtub.

Raised in Chicago, Hollander says her sense of social justice came from her carpenter father; from her mother, a hospital administrator, she learned to appreciate life's little absurdities. While studying painting at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, she married sociology graduate student Paul Hollander. They divorced four years later, in 1966. She developed her first strip, The Feminist Funnies, in 1976, for a journal called The Spokeswoman; a book of cartoons, I'm in Training to Be Tall and Blonde, came out in 1979. Sylvia was born a year later when syndicators picked her out among Hollander's eccentric cast of characters.

Sylvia, along with cats Buddy and Izzy, keeps Hollander in good company. ("I'm not currently seeing anybody without fur.") She adds that Sylvia "speaks for the stronger part of myself—the part that laughs at an Oil of Olay commercial." But hey, who wants to be perfect anyway? "I don't think perfection is desirable or possible. But I do feel women are just a tiny bit more perfect than men."

PAULA CHIN
LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago

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