Suburban Underground

Alive within Shary Flenniken’s two decades of Trots and Bonnie comic strips are the experiences and politics of late twentieth-century sexuality. Flenniken’s cuttingly funny and empathetic narratives examine menstruation, intercourse, circumcision, porn, rape, genitalia, objectification, masturbation, and even skinny-dipping with the goal of understanding the bare facts that inform our behavior. Flenniken employs a vernacular linear 1920s cartoon style that cloaks the difficulty of her narratives. Or, as she put it when I interviewed her in the summer of 2020, “I think people like my work because it pictures something intense or offensive in a style that is palatable—take your pill with honey.” Trots and Bonnie is now the subject of a titular collection edited and designed by Norman Hathaway for New York Review Comics. Ninety-two of Flenniken’s most accomplished strips from the comic’s 1972–91 run are accompanied by an amply illustrated interview with Hathaway focused on process and tools, with an eye on highlighting a vanishing cartooning tradition, as well as Flenniken’s “stories behind the strips” annotations, and an incisive testimonial by Emily Flake, a younger cartoonist who writes that she was influenced by Flenniken’s “cheerful willingness to be absolutely disgusting, [her] heady mix of raunch and innocence.”

Shary Flenniken, a panel from “Free Clinic Pelvic Exam,” published in Facts o’ Life Sex Education Funnies, 1972.

Flenniken’s cast comprises a trio of characters she imbued with a generous range of emotions, from reserved to lusty, depressed to elated: the naive, thirteen-year-old observer, Bonnie; Trots, her droll and wise dog; and her friend Pepsi, an adventuresome instigator, who, like Bonnie, remains an adolescent girl throughout all the strips. The comedic triangle was perfected early. In an installment originally published in the 1972 underground comic book Facts o’ Life Sex Education Funnies, Pepsi jump-starts the strip by announcing she’s gone to the free clinic to get a pelvic exam, and Bonnie takes a confused beat before asking if she passed; after Pepsi explains what a pelvic exam entails, Trots concludes: “It sounds easier than getting dewormed.” Flenniken was just revving up. In 1974 she drew a one-page strip, “Rape Survivor,” in which a naked woman is tossed from a car onto Trots and Bonnie’s front lawn, and says she’s been raped. Trots has to explain the term to a befuddled Bonnie, who wants to call the police; the victim retorts that her rapist was a cop. It’s a horrific strip about the inescapability of sexual violence, structured as a series of jokes, ending with Trots and Bonnie offering to walk the woman home, the trio sauntering safely down the suburban street disguised as football player, detective, and rabid dog. Behind this strip, Flenniken writes, “You might say I was taking the subject lightly here, but at least I was introducing this to an audience that wasn’t going to get to see anything like this anywhere else.” While these single-page strips emulate the format of 1930s Sunday funnies like Bringing Up Father and Popeye, those classics advanced a continuing multi-installment story or were one-off skits. Flenniken uses the page structure to introduce a loaded idea and then unpacks it through narrative. Her stories are dense with meaning (though never visually or thematically cluttered) and carefully plotted. They look as if we can glide by but demand we slow down.

Shary Flenniken, “Rape Survivor,” published in National Lampoon, 1974.

In these and all her comics, Flenniken probes gender roles and sexual customs, asking “why” in the tradition of writers like Elaine May and Lauren Oyler—purposefully befuddled observers of contemporary life—setting up a situation, asking the question, enacting an answer, then commenting on it. Flenniken is extremely funny and painfully honest, a suburban wiseass who emerged from a rich stew of the military-industrial complex and the counterculture.

Today, Flenniken lives in her childhood home in Magnolia, a Seattle neighborhood on a peninsula, which provides the settings for Trots and Bonnie. Flenniken’s father, a career military officer, exposed her to cartooning early on. His favorite cartoonist was H.T. Webster, whose folksy wisdom was widely published in books and newspapers from the 1920s into the ’40s. While at the Naval Academy, Flenniken père published Webster-influenced cartoons in the school’s yearbooks. Later, during his infrequent stays at home, he played drawing games with young Shary and introduced her to Webster’s keenly observed panel cartoons, which alternate between wry and sentimental. Decades later, Webster’s drawing style and the ambience of suburban All-American patriarchal goodness that he described and in which Flenniken was raised, became both the form and a subject of her avant-garde comic strip about female sexual identity.

A self-described restless and politically active teenager of the 1960s, Flenniken ran away from home with her boyfriend after graduating from high school in 1968, then returned to Seattle for a bit of commercial art school. She particularly admired local sign painter Doug Fast, who, like the Pushpin Group in New York, was reviving prewar styles of lettering, in defiance of the bland corporate modernism dominating graphics. Many of the styles we now associate with the 1960s are rooted in handmade graphics popular from the 1880s to the 1920s. This aesthetic shift from anonymous modernism to the handmade shared the counterculture’s (all too brief) rejection of corporate and political systems in favor of self-organizing and community. As an eighteen-year-old kid, Flenniken remembers, she had grand notions of herself as a revolutionary “willing to give her body to the Movement,” but she was also training in an old-fashioned craft requiring meticulous handwork, patience, and a deep knowledge of graphic style. This particular combination of craft and politics led her straight to the underground press, which in the mid-1960s developed into the national pipeline for youth culture, investigative reporting, and radical politics. She provided graphics and layout for publications like the Seattle War Whoop and Battle Cry, the Spokane Natural, and the Sabot1 because she believed in the possibility of real freedom through communication and transparency. The ideological and logistical conflicts typical of small newspapers and DIY publishing felt like necessary birthing pains for the new utopia.

Flenniken working at her kitchen table, 1980.

In late summer 1970, Flenniken, along with ten thousand other hippies, attended the ten-day Sky River Rock Festival, ostensibly to cover it for the Sabot by producing a daily mimeographed newsletter on-site. There, she met cartoonists Bobby London (whom she later married and divorced), Ted Richards, and Dan O’Neill, the veteran of the bunch—his Odd Bodkins enjoyed a cult popularity in the San Francisco Chronicle. During the festival, Flenniken stayed in a geodesic dome built from the lid to a ballistic missile silo. She invited the boys to get some shelter there, and they all hit it off.

The following year, she moved to San Francisco to be with London and company, a bit late to the party but there nonetheless. Underground comics were still cresting when she arrived. They first sprang to life in underground newspapers that featured comic strips, just like the “grown-up” press, and then in stand-alone comic books, jump-started by the sudden commercial success of Robert Crumb’s February 1968 Zap Comix no. 1, the first widely popular effort to employ the medium for purely personal expression. Underground comics were an unruly, hip form of entertainment that sold tens of thousands of copies per issue in head shops, record stores, and bookshops; in addition to Crumb’s visionary critique of America, the comics landscape of the era included psychedelic madness, crude horror stories, crisp comedy, political rage, feminist uplift, scathing autobiography, and unclassifiable weirdness. So it’s not completely nuts that cartooning vet O’Neill thought the kind of work he and his peers were doing could be sustainably organized into a somewhat more formal publishing model. He set up a live/work cartooning studio called Air Pirates that was intended to function as a cooperative and publisher that would produce well-crafted comics at a rapid pace.

Flenniken, London, Richards, and fellow Seattle native Gary Hallgren first congregated at a warehouse on Harrison Street in San Francisco, and then sublet a space from Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope company that was littered with props from George Lucas’s 1971 film THX 1138. O’Neill created a kind of cartoonist boot camp, instructing his protégés in comic strip history and production, and training them through exercises in which the artists collaborated on improvised comic strips using 1930s styles. Each of the Air Pirates ultimately chose the visual and narrative style of a 1920s–30s cartoonist to emulate in their published output. Flenniken selected H.T. Webster, finding her radical narrative self in her father’s favorite traditional comic. Each of the Air Pirates comic books were led by one cartoonist with the others featured as supporting players. Though Flenniken participated equally alongside the others in the anthology Air Pirate Funnies, the first edition of which was published in 1971, she was the only member of the group who did not lead her own book, gender bias being what it was in the often hypocritical world of radical culture and politics. Women were meant to liberate themselves into the kitchen while the dudes “worked.” At the time, the experience was infuriating for Flenniken, and in retrospect, amusing in its absurdity. The first Trots and Bonnie strip appeared soon after, in 1972, in London’s hippie-satire comic book Merton of the Movement.

A comic drawn by Flenniken promoting an October 1970 women’s issue of Sabot.

Flenniken embraced the cartooning lessons she picked up from the Air Pirates studio in Trots and Bonnie. Like H.T. Webster, she eschewed any cinematic effects, expressionistic lines, or symbols for motion or madness. Instead, Flenniken focused on the setting and the body language of her characters, conveyed through her elegant pen line. In “Bonnie Gets Drunk” (1983), for instance, an upward swoop, downward curl, and final quavering horizontal describe Bonnie’s guzzling, stumbling, and eventual unconsciousness. In order to make the characters live, they have to first work as lines. She drew on Strathmore two-ply plate finish paper with the Hunt #101 fleur-de-lys point: “It’s the only one that holds ink long enough. It’s a super-flexible point. It can give you a little teeny fine line, or you can apply more pressure to stretch out the point and make a big swoop,” she told Hathaway. Flenniken’s cartooning is not, like Crumb’s, the chunky, urban kind brought forward into painting as “cartoony figuration.” Rather, her genteel, well-crafted lines mask the roiling emotion within the narratives. Flenniken’s aesthetic doesn’t telegraph the themes of her stories, demanding we read and see beneath the surface.

Flenniken first developed Trots and Bonnie as a vehicle for writing, which is apparent in her structures and subjects. The sexual freedom of the hot ‘n’ heavy late ’60s and early ’70s meant “everyone slept with everyone else but talking about orgasms and the body itself was far less common,” she told me. In her comics, Flenniken set out to address what wasn’t being discussed. A 1972 strip, “Nude Beach,” has Trots and Bonnie at a cliffside beach, chatting while stripping down for a skinny-dip. Three silent panels show Bonnie staring at a boy Adonis undressing before she stumbles and trips over a log; Pepsi, ever the progressive, lectures her for objectifying his body. In this single short strip, Flenniken shows that girls can be horny (then still a subversive notion), politicizes the sexual gaze, and gently pokes fun at righteousness on all sides. Besides the sharp acting, what makes Flenniken’s comics so effective is the clarity of their structure, allowing her to convey a lot of story within a very compact format.

“I put a lot of naked boys in my comic strip,” Flenniken told Hathaway. I’m like, into equal opportunity nudity in the comics—but it’s not simply equal opportunity objectification. I wanted men to feel what it’s like to feel self-conscious about their bodies the way women do. Because it would be nice if men had more empathy, and it would make the world a better place, wouldn’t it?” Flenniken’s feminism is one of no secrets, no shame—equality for better or worse. For Flenniken and her cohort, a kick in the nuts was more feasible than an HR complaint: a woman couldn’t rely on institutions for help, only her friends. Flenniken’s comic strips are about trying to live through the experience of being a woman and come out emotionally whole on the other side. Her emphasis on empathy, nuance, and social politics made her an outlier in underground comics, even among the small community of female cartoonists at the time. “Looking back, especially since I had come from an ideologically oriented, anti-war, underground newspaper, I saw being published as a kind of soapbox for social change,” she says. That said, the feminism of Trots and Bonnie is focused on the white suburban world of Flenniken’s youth and then the also mostly white world of comics and humor in the 1970s.

Though Flenniken kept her hand in underground comics, contributing a cutting Bicentennial-themed cover to the feminist comic book anthology Wimmen’s Comix no. 6, for example, she found a long-term home in the pages of the National Lampoon in 1972, and moved back to Seattle soon after. The National Lampoon is best remembered today for movies like Animal House (1978) and Caddyshack (1980), but in the early 1970s, it was an incredibly smart magazine that mercilessly and profanely satirized mainstream culture. It was also of that culture, which underground comics were not. The Lampoon was founded in 1970 by three former Harvard Lampoon editors who worked with an investor to launch a glossy, adult riposte to “the man,” albeit one with a circulation of around 800,000 copies a month that published advertisements for hi-fi equipment. The Lampoon paid $125 for a half-page strip and $250 for a full page. Underground comic books typically paid $25 a page. Success was part of the goal of the magazine. Making a living as an artistically ambitious cartoonist back then was rare, so the Lampoon became a life raft for quite a few of that generation’s best. The underground was populated with a handful of art school refugees, dropouts, and people who resolutely did not want to be involved in sales of any kind. In 2019, while I was researching his forthcoming biography, Robert Crumb told me that the Lampoon was “college boy stuff,” not revolutionary. Despite the slew of remarkable comics that appeared in its pages, he was right; Flenniken remembers fellow Air Pirate Richards tearing up a copy of the magazine in fury. And like the undergrounds, it was dude-centric. In a 2003 interview, Michael Gross, the art director responsible for the Lampoon’s “Funny Pages” section, said of Flenniken, “it was so refreshing to have a girl’s point of view of dealing with pubescence, sexuality, and stuff.”

Flenniken drew for the magazine until 1991 and was a contributing editor from 1979 to 1981. The characters Trots and Bonnie remained the same, but Flenniken’s range and depth expanded. Some bits, like Bonnie’s mother’s outlook on sex and menstruation, needed years to surface; others responded to current events, like “Safe Sex” (1987), a plea for contraception in the era of AIDS. This raunchy strip plays out across thirteen panels of shrubbery and dialogue. We never see Bonnie and her beau in the act, just rustling bushes and increasingly heated word balloons. There are two lengthy pro-pornography strips, “Rags to Riches” (1985) and “Out of Print” (1986), in which the crew tumbles through making sex films and pictures, all in good fun. At times, Flenniken’s strips got much more ambitious, stretching out into lush color (painted as overlays) and telling surreal stories, as in a 1987 episode in which Bonnie pairs off with a murderous nerd named Clyde for (what else?) an old-fashioned tires-screeching, guns-blazing crime spree. “Even better,” Flenniken comments in the new anthology, “than the 1967 movie with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.”

Shary Flenniken, the first panel of “Out of Print,” published in National Lampoon, 1986.

At the center of the entire two-decade project is the cognitive dissonance inspired by Bonnie and Pepsi: two girls drawn cartoon cute, projected into a mid-twentieth-century lily-white space filled with contemporary mores and situations. These characters giving blow jobs, critiquing materialism, and jerking off remain just thirteen years old forever. And yet, according to Flenniken, she didn’t receive a single letter or phone call about the actual ideas in the comics. “I was like an oddity, like a nice-shaped lamp. I was good looking, but one of the guys. More interesting because I was a woman, less interesting because I was a woman.” The lack of substantive response at the time and the relative obscurity of Trots and Bonnie today could be easily explained had the strip appeared in a small-press periodical. But it was published in one of the most popular magazines of the 1970s, and has always been fondly remembered by those who read it at the time. And that was the problem—Trots and Bonnie remained trapped in back issues of a once-funny magazine that transformed into a frat house brand. The National Lampoon company and assets were sold in 1991, and the new owners were uninterested in Flenniken’s work. They published the magazine intermittently until finally shuttering it in 1998. Having taken a break from cartooning to care for her husband, who died in 1995, Flenniken and her strip fell out of public view. But Trots and Bonnie remains a jarringly relevant, insightful work of art, one that predicted the path forward for contemporary explorations of sexuality and gender by numerous cartoonists over the last decade, among them Lauren Weinstein’s frank autobiographical strips and the female-led genre stories of Katie Skelly. Very few comics have ever offered such a nuanced vision of sex in America. It was progressive then, and seems prescient now.

 

1 The Sabot was a short-lived paper published by the Seattle Liberation Front. The name refers to a type of wooden shoe commonly worn by Northern European peasants. As Flenniken described in a 1991 interview, “In Belgium or Holland, the first anarchists threw wooden shoes into the machinery to make it stop working. [The newspaper’s. name was chosen] because these people wanted to consider themselves anarchists as opposed to communists. They were anarchists, which was definitely the thing to be. They were definitely the coolest.” Robert Boyd, “The Shary Flenniken Interview,” The Comics Journal, November 1991.

Shary Flenniken’s radical comic “Trots and Bonnie” brought feminism to the pages of the National Lampoon.Read MoreArt in America, Features, Comics, National Lampoon, Shary FlennikenARTnews.comRead More

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