For over three decades, syndicated cartoonist Nicole Hollander commented on the world from the couch of her foil, Sylvia. Now she’s sharing her own life in the graphic memoir We Ate Wonder Bread (Fantagraphics, Mar.).
What was it like to work on a memoir?
As I started, I started to remember, which is a pleasure, although you don’t know if your memories are true. The front part of our building was wealthier—people who had matching furniture. We lived in the part with smaller apartments. I see the courtyard so clearly. There was the guy who was the “6 for 5” man, who loaned money to gamblers and charged high interest. But in our neighborhood it didn’t matter because nobody had a lot of money. His wife wanted a fur coat.
How was writing this story different than working on your strip?
In the cartoon, I did political stories, so I created a character, Sylvia, who could sit in front of the TV and respond. She accepted herself completely and could say whatever she wanted. Publishing in the newspaper, I felt like no one could get to me. Today everyone can get you. There are trolls everywhere.
I saved my hate mail. One guy wrote, “I hate your comic strip.” So I wrote back, “Look, it’s really tiny, you could just skip it.” He writes back: “Your comic strip is like looking at a leper. The running sores captivate you.”
What gave you the confidence to become a cartoonist?
I was sure I was funny, because I was sure my mother was, and I was sure [her friends, who feature prominently in Wonder Bread] were. Women were expected to be the funny ones. The men sat quietly and listened. The men ruled in some ways, but they were also appreciators.
How did working for The Spokeswoman in the 1970s shape your work and worldview?
Before there was feminism, you had these feelings. Then feminism comes, and you see people who have more nerve getting up and talking, and it becomes more acceptable. The movement started and couldn’t be stopped, and I was thrilled. I’d been waiting. I was waiting in an egg that had a crack in it.
What was it like being a female cartoonist at a time when there weren’t very many?
I didn’t even know my career was impossible. We had features editors who were women but it meant nothing. The approval came from men sitting in an office saying thumbs up or thumbs down. There were what, three or four slots? Early women cartoonists like Brenda Starr were very feminine. Lynda Barry had a strong following, but only in alternative papers. With Sylvia, readers were always writing in complaining, saying they were “disgusted their daughter would have to read about disgusting things like having your period.” But I got away with a lot. There was so much independence in what I did.