It was my good luck twice to benefit from Nicole Hollander’s bad luck—in 1990 when the Sun-Times dropped her comic strip, Sylvia, and in 2010 when the Tribune, having immediately picked it up 20 years earlier, dropped it as well. Sylvia’s audience was small, if passionate, and numbers prevailed over feelings.
But I happily talked with Hollander each time by phone and got to know her some, the creation of any comic strip being a strange and exceptional process in my view and the creator of Sylvia, therefore, absolutely special. (Sylvia, I wrote in 1990, is a strip “we will not attempt to describe to anyone who’s not familiar with it.”) Hollander was wry, hurt, and angry.
In 2012, after Sylvia had vanished not only from her hometown but from other big cities as well, Hollander decided to bag it. Ending the 30-year-old strip involved “not quite as many stages as dying, but it’s in there,” she told me then. But she had some promising news. She’d begun drawing pictures of herself as a little girl in charcoal on big sheets of paper, with an eye to creating a “graphic memoir” of her life growing up on the west side of Chicago.
The other day we met for coffee and she gave me a copy of the memoir—which had just come out. The back cover of We Ate Wonder Bread strangely calls it both a “graphic novel,” which it isn’t, and a “coming-of-age- memoir,” which it isn’t exactly either, the age-she-was-coming-to part being perfunctorily disposed of in a a couple of pages at the end—brief marriage to an academic, Mexican divorce, early job drawing for a feminist newsletter.
Even so, the story of her youth is a story of her origins. Wonder Bread is a short book, lavishly illustrated, and the stories it tells are ones that—as they say—bent the twig. It’s amazing how much complexity can be conveyed in a few lines of prose and a few lines of charcoal.
When we sat down Hollander began talking about how she and her friends used to sit silent and wide-eared at a table in the deli while their mothers gabbed. I didn’t appreciate how vital a memory this is until I opened Wonder Bread and spotted a sketch of the women yakking, another of young Nicole sitting primly before a corned beef sandwich and a jar of dill pickles as the grownups dish. “We were avid listeners,” says the text, filling in details you sense from the art, “fearful of interfering with their talk, hoping they wouldn’t notice us so they would keep on talking. They were all witty women, fiercely loyal to their friendship, to the specialness of every woman in the group.”
Her mother, Hollander tells us, had no use for any woman who’d send her children off to school in the morning without a good breakfast inside them. But “Esther would look at her dryly and say, ‘I don’t get up until noon.'” And Hollander’s mother would reply, “But that’s you.” And what this meant, writes Hollander, was, “All of you are special and cannot sin in my eyes.”
Decades hence, Sylvia, a woman of a certain age, sat in a chair, smoked, and pronounced snarkily on the world and its absurdities. And her message to her loyal readers was roughly this: “All of you are special and cannot sin in my eyes.”
Hollander directed me to another episode. Remembering the dining room table, her writing is sketchier than her art. “I hid under it with a blue-eyed child who should have been my brother,” she writes. A little further on there’s this: “My parents try to foster two boys on separate occasions. Finally my mother becomes pregnant with my sister.” And then there’s the drawing: A pleasant looking boy in a striped T-shirt and running shoes says to little Nicole, “Do you think your mother would mind if I carved my initials under the dining room table?” And she replies, “She’ll love it! Should I get you a sharp knife?”
From these breadcrumbs we tease out tragedy. “The little boy was with us a very short time,” Hollander told me. “He was going to be a foster child but he scratched my mother’s table underneath. And instead of talking about that, I’m talking about how I’m giving him permission to do that because I like him so much. He says, ‘Would your mother mind?’ and I get so excited I want to encourage him, and it leads to our doom.
“I really was kind of mad about him. And maybe it had to do with being bad. Because I was a good child and I always admired badness in others. I wanted to have more family. I wanted to have more kids who would be friendly to me.”
She directed me to a second drawing. It’s of the yard behind the apartment on West Congress in East Garfield Park. “It was full of broken glass and stones. I worked tirelessly to clear it,” Hollander writes. She’s drawn herself surveying this domain and asserting, “I can clean this up and turn it into a beautiful garden.” But nothing ever grew. It turned out flowers don’t simply spring to life—you have to plant them.
The yard Hollander has drawn isn’t merely junky; it’s hallucinatory chaos. There are labels in the chaos that say “Bedsprings.” “Bloodstain.” She said, “I like that drawing because it has all sorts of mysterious things in it. I imagined a whole story of what kind of gruesome things might be hidden in that yard.”
As for the titular Wonder Bread, Hollander has nothing much to say about it beyond a drawing of Nicole sneakily squeezing a loaf to a pulp while her mom in the next room tells her not to. Why waste words (or charcoal) on Wonder Bread? Wonder Bread boasted it could “build strong bodies 8 ways.” It’s enough to say your mom back in the day made sure you ate plenty of it. We can fill in the picture.