TCJ ARCHIVE

The Shary Flenniken Interview

The Comics Journal #146 (November 1991) 

On the top of Magnolia Hill, just north of downtown Seattle, is a typical suburban house, housing a very atypical suburbanite — Shary Flenniken. The longtime cartoonist of Trots and Bonnie for the National Lampoon, Flenniken grew up in Seattle, the daughter of a career naval officer. In the late ’60s, the lure of underground comix was too hard to resist, and she moved to San Francisco, joining the infamous Air Pirates group. Her adult life has been a series of transcontinental crossings, with lengthy stops in California, Florida and New York, all the while freelancing for (and briefly acting as an editor for) the National Lampoon. I met with Shary Flenniken at her house in early 1991. After lunch at a venerable Seattle seafood joint, we settled down for a long talk in her living room. The room and the house as a whole still echoes the look of silent-majority ’60s, and the walls are covered with pictures of Shary and her sisters as children. The interview stretched out to five hours. Shary is a great conversationalist and an excellent host. For editing this lengthy interview, Frank Young should receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. — Robert Boyd

Edited by Frank M. Young. All images by Shary Flenniken unless otherwise noted.

GROWING UP

ROBERT BOYD: You grew up here in Seattle, in this house, right?

SHARY FLENNIKEN: I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, my family went to San Diego, California, then we went to Kodiak, Alaska; I was there from 1952 to ’54. And then we came here, and then in 1958 we went to Panama. I think it was April ’58 …

BOYD: Was your dad in the military?

FLENNIKEN: Navy. I’ve got his medals around here. That’s his picture there. My dad got the Silver Star. My family … [pointing to photos on the wall] that’s my dead sister Sally, and my mom, and Judy. She’s an English teacher down in Key Largo, and a treasure diver. They do treasure and lobsters; her husband’s a park biologist at the underwater state park down there. She married a guy who’s, in his own way, a captain, like my dad. Captain of his own boat. And my father was in submarines. And they were at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed.

BOYD: Really?

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, that was before I was born.

BOYD: You went to high school in Seattle, right?

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, I went to Queen Anne High School. I went to Magnolia Grammar School, Catherine Blaine Junior High, and Queen Anne High School.

ART SCHOOL AND THE RADICAL SCENE

BOYD: I’ve heard a lot about this Sky River Rock Festival. You were working for an underground newspaper and that’s where you met all the Air Pirates?

FLENNIKEN: Well, I ran away from home with my long-term boyfriend Ray after I graduated from high school in 1968.

BOYD: I guess it was normal to run away from home in 1968.

FLENNIKEN: It was the thing to do! “OK, I’m about to run away from home now.”

I discovered there was something outside of Seattle and I was really interested in that. I wanted to go visit this iron sculptor that I had met in Florida when I spent my birthday with my sister. I met this guy and I was so impressed. He was an artist; he was actually a blacksmith, but he called himself an iron sculptor. I came back here and said, “I’m going to Vermont.”

BOYD: Why Vermont?

FLENNIKEN: That’s where he lived.

BOYD: But you met him in Florida.

FLENNIKEN: Right. He was on vacation. And my boyfriend said, “I’ll take you back to visit this guy that you met, that you’re infatuated with.”

So we did that. We ran away from home. That was a whole trip in itself; it’s really funny. We went across Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway; we got there and it turned out that the guy’s wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, he had a five-year-old son, and [his wife’s attitude was], “What are you doing here?”

So that was a nice trip, and I came back and I started to think, “what am I going to do with my life?”

My parents sent me off to Florida again, then I went to Ithaca, New York after that, just following some friends, and was a fringie at Cornell for a while.

BOYD: A fringie?

FLENNIKEN: You don’t know about fringies? Fringies were what they called people that hung out at college campuses who didn’t really go to school. If you were a drug dealer at the University of Washington or something, you were a fringie. There was a whole scene here then. The whole campus, right by the stairs in the U District, that whole park was always covered with people smoking pot and selling drugs. For years. It was much nicer then. It was friendlier. They’d have love-ins in Volunteer Park. So I came back here and I decided to get serious about things, and I went to Burnley School of Commercial Art.

BOYD: Where’s that?

FLENNIKEN: It was at the corner of Broadway and Pine Street [in Seattle], kitty corner from Seattle Community College. And it was over a bank, an art school over a bank. They had the top three floors. And it was, in retrospect, great because they were serious people. It was not an artsy-fartsy school. It was a commercial art school, and you learned about commercial printing techniques. And their attitude was, “If you want to be an illustrator, don’t even go here. Just go to New York to do it.” They were completely discouraging. Their most successful students got jobs doing layout for the Yellow Pages.

BOYD: That’s pretty depressing.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah. Although, there’s a guy here named Doug Fast who ran Splendid Sign Company and now I think he’s been doing all the Rainier beer ads, all the really great, funny ads. He’s a wonderful artist and a really funny guy. I knew him when I was 15. He was going to Burnley and I just thought he was God. He started the whole sign painting movement here in Seattle, where they were reviving the old style of sign painting.

BOYD: I never knew there was a sign painting “movement” in Seattle.

FLENNIKEN: Well, it was all over America. Sign painting was done completely artlessly after a certain period of time. The ’50s completely whitewashed everything and made it kind of mechanical-looking. And Doug Fast and these guys were looking at stuff that was done in the ’20s or before, and reproducing that and those color combinations … They did a beautiful Rainier beer sign on the side of an old dilapidated barn on Snoqualmie Pass. Just real neat. Sign painting as art.

BOYD: Was all this at the same time you were going to Burnley?

FLENNIKEN: Doug was probably doing that a little earlier. I started going to that school in ’69 or ’70, and Doug had probably been doing the sign painting thing for a while. Gary Hallgren had been doing it for a while, but we didn’t know him yet. So there I was in this art school, the war was on, and I found out that my father had incurable cancer. I felt really disenfranchised from commercial art because of those things. I was so upset about my dad; it felt weird to go to some place where people weren’t predominately aware that other people were being killed — our kids were being killed in Vietnam. It got so intense; anywhere that people could ignore it seemed unreal. It seemed like they were trying to do that. That was part of the whole conspiracy thing that was going on in the Vietnam War. So here I was trying to design 7-Up ads … I couldn’t relate to it. So I would go to riots, I attended all the riots.

BOYD: Wait, how do you attend a riot?

FLENNIKEN: You actually, literally, attend. You go to the rally …

BOYD: That seems like something you can plan. Did they all turn into riots?

FLENNIKEN: A lot of them. Some people that I knew from Ithaca who had come out were really what you’d call outside agitators. I never understood what the connection was; it was partly because Seattle had this incredible political history that they seemed attracted to. There was the Seattle Seven; I think most of them were from the Ithaca crowd. So I knew them, and liked a couple of them a lot. It was partly being anti-war and partly wanting to hang out with the people I thought were coolest. We stopped traffic, just like they did in the Gulf War protests: traffic backs up to Bellingham because you stop cars on the freeway. I was doing that while I was in school, and through that activity I met the people from Ithaca. They tried to convince the people in Seattle to form political collectives, and there were houses that were collectives, patterned on this Red Chinese political way of life, so you would know people through their collective. And I met these people who wanted to do a paper and merge with the underground paper in Spokane which was called The Natural.

BOYD: There was a Spokane underground newspaper? I thought Spokane was reactionary.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, but they did have the paper there. Today, you hear how depressed Spokane is … it doesn’t even have any young people. They move just to get jobs. Maybe it was different then. Anyway, these people wanted to do [the paper]; they rented a storefront, and I helped clean it up. They wanted me to paint the name of the paper in the window of the storefront. So I hung out with them. They merged with the Spokane paper — there was some point to that, they were publishing both of them … there was some merge idea. And then, immediately after getting whatever there was to be got from those people, we broke off with them. I was just along for the ride at that time. My theory was that my body would be fodder for the revolution. It was the ultimate in low self-esteem. I would do anything anyone told me to do. I would go down and live with the Indians who were trying to take back their land and fishing grounds in Tacoma. The Indians would string barbed wire across the river at neck level to get the police that were cruising around in patrol boats. I was out of my mind. I just tried to look as tough as I could, be as tough as I could … which is not very tough. They had this paper going, and it had a couple of names. At one point it was called Seattle War-Whoop and Battle Cry. And I loved that. Then they changed it to Sabot. That means “wooden shoe.” In Belgium or Holland, the first anarchists threw wooden shoes into the machinery to make it stop working. It was 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. They started giving me stuff to do. It was there that I fell in love with the idea of having my artwork reproduced. To have enough copies to line the cat box. To me, it was art without ego. I still have some of this stuff around. I illustrated poetry; they’d give me the entire centerfold of the magazine. I had one plate to do besides the black plate. I could have one color or a bleed. It was great. I did a cartoon about hitchhiking and why it was good for the people. And I did a cartoon about abortion …

BOYD: Were these cartoon strips?

FLENNIKEN: The one about hitchhiking was a strip; the one about abortion was a political cartoon. I can’t believe I can remember these things. I did a couple of covers for them. One was really bad and one was pretty good. None of this stuff is around the house; my father burned most of my papers. He didn’t like it a whole lot. He used to say, “My friends are collecting their guns and they’re going to be ready for you.”

He was real antagonistic. It was just awful.

BOYD: Was this paper making you money? Did you get paid for this? How were you making a living?

FLENNIKEN: I was paying my rent with $15 a month back then, maybe $25. So it wasn’t a real rugged lifestyle. We all got food stamps together. We had very little expense. And you’d get paid in papers; you’d go out and sell the papers. You could do OK.

BOYD: How long did it come out?

FLENNIKEN: Probably less than a year. I was working on that when I went to the Sky River Rock Festival with the people from the paper.

BOYD: Where was Sky River?

FLENNIKEN: Sky River was down just south of the Oregon border. I think it was just on the other side of the border. There had been another Sky River Festival that was back by Woodinville. It was probably better than the one I went to. At this one, which was in September, 1970, I think Country Joe and the Fish were there, and they dropped a piano out of a helicopter.

BOYD: That seems pretty expensive. Anyway, you went down to cover this thing for the newspaper.

FLENNIKEN: One of the guys that was working for us was a dwarf. He had been an art director at NASA; his name was Maurey. He drove an MG, so he could reach the pedals. We took Maurey, a truck and a mimeograph machine with us to the rock festival; we were supposed to be turning out a daily paper at the rock festival, right? I don’t know if we expected to get money for it. You didn’t think in those terms back then.

BOYD: How long was the festival supposed to last?

FLENNIKEN: Eleven days. I was so dirty by the end. Eleven days with no bath. It was amazing. So that’s where I met Ted Richards and Bobby London, who had been working on the Berkeley Tribe; real cartoonists. Ted came from Cincinnati, and Bobby came from New York. He had worked on underground papers in New York. And Dan O’Neill was there. And Gary Hallgren was there. I was like, “Oh, yeah, cartoonists!” For some reason we knew that cartoonists were real radical and real cool …

BOYD: How did you know who they were?

FLENNIKEN: How did I meet them? It was probably something simple … I would hang out on the truck with Maurey because Maurey could stand on the back of the truck. It had a little roof and Maurey could stand and work the mimeograph; whereas a normal-sized person would be hunched over, he could stand up and do it. That was his office, the back of the truck. I was probably hanging out down there and they came up and introduced themselves: And they introduced me to Dan. They were like, “Can we draw for you? We’re cartoonists.”

I gave them a place to crash. I had a geodesic dome.

Somebody had said, “We’re going somewhere. Will you take care of our geodesic dome?”

It was made out of fiberglass and was originally fabricated to cover missile silos. It was great; you assembled it and it was like having a tent, only it was hard. It was real big. We hung, and then Ted came up to Seattle to work on the paper with me. Eventually, Bobby came up, and Gary was already here. Bobby and I had a little romance going, and he broke my heart, and then they all left and went down to San Francisco to be with Dan to do the Air Pirates thing. Then I went down to Berkeley to see my friends, not to see them. Bobby started hanging out with me, and invited me to come hang with the Air Pirates. It was just kind of like bring your girlfriend along, not like a working thing.

Dan O’Neil, Air Pirates #1, (1971).

Dan O’Neil, Air Pirates #1, (1971).

BOYD: Had the Air Pirates published something called the Air Pirates yet?

FLENNIKEN: No, that was still in the works. That whole thing started with us living in two rooms in a warehouse, no shower, a whole bunch of us. Gary Hallgren had a house in Marin county. His wife used to bring in hot rice and beans for everyone. It was really, really fun. They’d smoke hash and get into these wild pipe dreams, like the blimp distribution idea. Dan O’Neill kept trying to put out these tabloids, and he was always trying to do it with better distribution. His idea of how to distribute comic books was to hire winos. They’d come in the morning, he’d give them a bottle of wine and a police uniform, and they would go out and lay around the streets all day, wearing their police uniforms and selling comic books to people. And then it would be firemen, and then it would be something else. He wanted to get a blimp and drop the comics from a blimp.

BOYD: Those don’t sound like practical ways of distributing …

FLENNIKEN: But the cool thing was that he was thinking about distribution in a creative way. We should have more avant-garde thinkers in the country like that.

BOYD: Yeah, people who are creative aren’t warehouse managers.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, total right-brain. Well, this was just one of their tabloid schemes. They did some very interesting things in terms of teaching. There were a lot of people who came through that scene that didn’t stick it out. Dan got fired from the San Francisco Chronicle three times. The neat thing about working with him was that he came into underground comix and — he really is a genius — he recognized this stuff right away, that there was growth potential in underground comix that wasn’t being realized. The attitudes of people in underground comix were real artsy-fartsy. O’Neill had his artsy-fartsy side, but he was also into being the alternative Disney, and he knew that in order to do that he had to have some kind of production line and some kind of distribution … he was really a nice influence. Dan had worked with The Committee, this improvisational theatre troupe; they had these workshops where you’d learn to do improvisational theatre with them. Most of it I don’t find attractive now … they look like they’re doing something that they just made up but they’re not. They’ve been practicing it all along. But the idea of improvisational theatre is to get up and riff off each other on the stage and make it funny and entertaining, but also completely spontaneous. There’s a method to doing that. So it wasn’t just learning by memorization or learning a routine; it was learning to change your attitude. It’s still really pertinent, working with people. You had to be totally of the moment, you had to be very trusting, and you had to be not competitive. And, in order to do that, you had break a lot of old game playing. Dan took the concepts of game playing from improvistional theater and applied them to what we were doing at the studio. It was great; it was the best of the ’60s kind of ideas being carried through. We were living, eating, fucking, everything together. I mean, I wasn’t fucking all of them, but you knew when someone was fucking somebody. It was not a real private situation.

BOYD: In a two-room warehouse …

FLENNIKEN: Right. “Who gets the other room tonight?” It was really intense. Just getting a shower … We had to go to Glide Church. I had to go to the men’s room in this church. They had the only shower, and these priests were coming in and out of the men’s room.

LIFE WITH THE AIR PIRATES

FLENNIKEN: Ted Richards really helped me when we were still up here working on the underground paper. He taught me to look at Uncle $crooge comics if I wanted to know how comics should be written. It’s amazing how ignorant you can be with the craft. There’s a real craft to writing these stories. He taught me that there was a craft, to begin with. He would tell me things like, “Always keep the balloons above the characters’ heads; when you want to draw the little tail that goes to the person speaking, you draw a line from the very center of the balloon — with a blue pencil so it doesn’t show — to the mouth of the character, and that’s how you know where the tail goes.”Real practical stuff.

But Ted also came to really hate me. He used to call me “the general’s daughter” because I was an admiral’s daughter, and his family was a military family. He used to tell me that I was really spoiled … My dad was a cartoonist at the naval academy. I still have some of his stuff around. So I felt like I had a right to be doing that on my own; that came from my family to me. Not because I was somebody’s wife. Ted was so hostile to me, and Bobby allowed himself to go along with that. I would do parodies of their comic strips. I still have them here; I have a parody of “Dopin’ Dan” that I did. It really pissed [Richards] off. And I thought, “You guys can really dish it out, but you can’t take it.”

BOYD: This was something that you just did privately? It wasn’t published?

FLENNIKEN: I did it and showed it to them. I would do things like posters: “Support chick liberation and you will always get laid.” It pissed off all these guys, all the revolutionaries at the house. There was an incredible animosity going on, so there was already an antagonistic situation. Bobby liked me for whatever reason he liked me, but it wasn’t because I could draw. O’Neill was the one who encouraged me to do that. O’Neill had no problem with that; he was not threatened. This is why I’m Dan O’Neill’s friend for life. When these other guys were mean and competitive — just being 20-year-old assholes — he was saying, “We need you. We need women. You have to stay here.” I’d get pissed off when they’d treat me bad and just want to leave, and O’Neill would say, “No, you have to stay here. You can’t go. The world needs women like you. It needs women to say this.”And he’s still like that with people. It’s really a wonderful quality that he has.

I drew my first comic strip down there on a paper bag. Finally, it was like a big deal — “give her a pen and some Strathmore.” It was the first time I was ever given a good piece of paper — because they had the paper, they took the money, they scammed from people and bought art supplies with it. And the first time I got good paper, it was a really big deal because I’d been drawing this whole story. And I’d draw it after they went to sleep. And it was good. There was never any question to me whether I could draw or not. I thought it was weird that men were artists. I didn’t think that drawing was something boys liked to do. Not the boys I grew up with. I’d read comic books when I was a kid, but I assumed they were created by machines or something. I liked Superman; J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars was a big favorite of mine; and also Aquaman and a lot of science fiction comics. I loved science fiction …

BOYD: Disney comics?

FLENNIKEN: Mary Jane & Sniffles was a big favorite; Gyro Gearloose I loved. I had a lot of those …

BOYD: Was working with the Air Pirates a difficult situation to be creative in?

FLENNIKEN: It was awful; they were just butts. In a sense, what was good for me was that it was a test of fire. You know, I met a Lampoon deadline the day after my father’s funeral. The Air Pirates really taught me that you meet deadlines no matter how bad you feel. It was like a sacred code of honor to meet your deadline. It doesn’t matter how you feel — you work, which was the kind of discipline I never had in my home.

BOYD: Your father, the admiral, didn’t have the iron hand at home?

FLENNIKEN: He wasn’t home. Or his mind was never at home. My parents neglected me. She [the sister] died when she was 11 in 1945 of rheumatic fever, and I think my mother felt guilty that she died, she felt that she made her do too much and that’s why she died. And my parents — either they were burned out or they were just glad I was alive and didn’t care about anything else. They didn’t care about my grades. I never got to school on time; I never, basically, went to school. I just did cool things —I could stay up all night and watch TV and sleep in, and my mom would write me an excuse. She was very lenient, and, in some ways, I think that’s good because it makes you really independent, but I’ll never know. I wish they’d forced me to go to college, or at least consider it. [Their, attitude] was like, “Who cares? Do what you want.”

BOYD: How did the Air Pirates stuff eventually got around to being published? How were you involved?

FLENNIKEN: I can only tell you my side of it, and it probably isn’t the most reliable side of it. Although you probably won’t be able to find an entirely reliable side. Everybody’s got their own attitudes. Frankly, I don’t remember how they made those deals.

BOYD: What was the first thing they published? Was it the Air Pirates tabloid?

FLENNIKEN: I think it was the book with Mickey and the little airplane on the cover.

BOYD: Were you in that, or was that before?

FLENNIKEN: I wasn’t in any of the Air Pirates books.

BOYD: You were in the tabloids, weren’t you?

FLENNIKEN: In one of the tabloids. But that was a different thing. You see, there’s the Air Pirates as the group, the studio; and there’s the Air Pirates as the anti-Disney thing. The Mickey Mouse books were what I think of as the Air Pirates stuff, what people know about. I was in Gary Hallgren’s The Tortoise and the Hare. I was in Merton of the Movement. That was referred to as Bobby’s book. Everybody was doing a book, so Ted was doing a book, Bobby was doing a book, Gary was doing a book, Dan was doing a book, besides the group efforts, which were the Mouse books. So they’d, in effect, be the editor of their book and do their own cover.

BOYD: So who was Left Field Funnies?

FLENNIKEN: I think that was Bobby. He did the cover for that, didn’t he? Yeah, because one of them had his character out chopping sugar cane … I can’t remember what the other one was.

BOYD: Those are really hard to find because they didn’t reprint them. They’re great comics, actually. I thought they were really funny. I guess they were really of the time.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, Bobby did that whole story about Jerry Rubin and stuff like that. We were very political at this time. I mean, Bobby was. And Bobby also did the Dirty Duck book. It was so funny because I used to think he was so stoned. He drew all the pages real big, and he forgot that the lettering would get reduced … So it was very difficult to read.

BOYD: So this is ’71 or ’72 that you’re starting to be in those comics. Were you involved in the suit?

FLENNIKEN: Not technically, no.

BOYD: O.K. Dopin’ Dan, you were in that. That’s a great story, “The General’s Daughter.”

FLENNIKEN: I did it because Ted Richards called me “the general’s daughter.” I had to do “The General’s Daughter.” I made it up from there.

BOYD: You told me that you knew some girl when you were growing up that had a glass eye

FLENNIKEN: Freddi Meyers, who’s now dead …

BOYD: Did she actually play marbles with her glass eye?

“Trots & Bonnie meet the General’s Daughter,” Dopin’ Dan #1, (May 1972)

“Trots & Bonnie meet the General’s Daughter,” Dopin’ Dan #1, (May 1972)

FLENNIKEN: I heard that she could take it out, that people had seen her do that, but I doubt it … That was one of the times Ted told me how to end the story, and I really liked the ending of that story. Don’t they end up just slapstick? She’s just rolling around …

BOYD: Trots puts on this shrunken guerilla head, and she’s got her shirt over her head so she can’t see, and the other little girl’s mother comes in and kicks her out and tells the general’s daughter not to bring home her slimy left-wing friends any more.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, Ted helped me a lot with that story …

BOYD: Even though he had this animosity …

FLENNIKEN: There I was in his comic book … I mean, who knew? I guess I wasn’t going to go away …

“Trots & Bonnie meet the General’s Daughter,” Dopin’ Dan #1, (May 1972)

“Trots & Bonnie meet the General’s Daughter,” Dopin’ Dan #1, (May 1972)

BOYD: Was he ever actually in the Army? I was wondering, these Dopin’ Dan things seem like …

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, I think he was in the Air Force; he was kicked out for smoking pot.

BOYD: Well, this is good revenge.

FLENNIKEN: He did real well after that. He’s an executive in a computer firm in Silicon Valley. That’s what Dan says.

BOYD: Really? I know Hallgren is still an illustrator and cartoonist of sorts; a lot of his illustrations are cartoony.

FLENNIKEN: Bobby London is doing Popeye for King Features. He worked for Disney before that — in the merchandising division.

BOYD: You’re kidding. What did the Disney people think of that? I guess they didn’t care …

FLENNIKEN: The thing about the Disney suit that I’ve heard since … I heard from Mark Evanier that the only reason that Disney sued to begin with was because — I think Gold Key was the comic book company — they had leased the characters to Gold Key, and Gold Key forced Disney to sue.

BOYD: Really? Disney has a reputation of just jumping down the throat of anyone who does the slightest bit of copyright infringement.

FLENNIKEN: This is what I heard, that they were asked to sue, that Disney wasn’t going to pursue it, that they just weren’t interested … who knows? They certainly don’t sue all the fine artists who put Mickey Mouse in their paintings …

BOYD: Yeah, although that’s a non-reproducible thing. It’s not like you can print a million copies. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Obviously, the catalogues that have the reproductions of the paintings are printed …

FLENNIKEN: They do, and if it’s defaming Mickey’s image of innocent delightfulness, as Disney said in the lawsuit; I don’t know. That’s just one story I heard and it made a lot of sense to me. It was just weird, these guys were running around feeling really paranoid: “Disney is a big bad guy, and they’re gonna … ” Still, I loved the concept of it, and I loved the concept of Disney being the facade of the military-industrial complex … you know the whole thing with Disney … Richard Schickel, who did that book, The Disney Version … Another thing that was going on was that in this group of people — the Disney stuff sprang out of that — there was a feeling that it was OK to draw like other people and to cop all these other styles …

BOYD: Yeah, that is kind of weird because no one else was doing that.

FLENNIKEN: Everyone was trying to develop their own original style, but, if you look, you can really see, like, Robert Crumb’s influences in Popeye and all that stuff. Everybody had those things, but nobody was very blatant about it. Part of Dan’s improvisational theatre games was to take a style of somebody and then work in that style. So when we did these jams, there’d be two people doing a jam, and the object of the jam was just for two people to get along on paper and not fuck each other up and compete. So you’d pick a drawing style, like Felix the Cat, and you’d pick, a nursery rhyme …

BOYD: These were just exercises? These haven’t been published anywhere, have they?

FLENNIKEN: I think a couple of them might have gotten published, you might see a couple around, but I can’t tell you where. I’ve got ’em in the basement. And I have a failed one that I did with this guy who wanted to hang out with us. It was like, “Well, let him do a jam with Shary. Ya wanna jam with a girl?” He was real upset about that, and it was on the paper. You’d choose which one goes first, and you’d do “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and then I’d do “Her Fleece was White as Snow,” and we’d be drawing it in Felix the Cat style, and then we’d do the whole story. We were doing “Jack and Jill” and he was kicking the characters all over and smashing them with hammers and throwing them into the well and doing all of these things, and he finally just stabbed the pen into the paper and left. He got mad at O’Neill and left.

BOYD: Was he anybody?

FLENNIKEN: He was nobody, no. Never went anywhere. But I’ve worked with people who are not emotionally capable of working with somebody. [These exercises were] literally like drawing in all these different styles. It’s muscles. Somebody said, probably Dan, “There are muscles in your hand; if you draw with a rapidograph you are not going to develop the same kind of muscle, the same kind of line as you do if you draw with a quill pen.” They were really into the craft aspect, and using the pen that was used for that particular comic strip. Or a brush, if it was a brush, for Walt Kelly’s stuff, and all that. And everybody thought Hallgren was God because he had all the sign painting experience and great hand muscles.

BOYD: A society of cartoonists is a strange idea. It’s usually such a lonely occupation.

FLENNIKEN: It was fun as hell. And it felt like it had a tremendous purpose, too.

BOYD: Well, it did, obviously. It turned out a bunch of cartoonists.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, and there was this incredible commercial purpose, getting this thing going and building an empire …

BOYD: But it stopped all of a sudden, it seems like. You became a National Lampoon cartoonist at the end of ’72, as far as I can tell.

FLENNIKEN: I’m trying to think of what ended it … I know we moved to a bigger warehouse and it was wonderful. It was the Zoetrope warehouse, Francis Ford Coppola’s warehouse. His office was not very far away in San Francisco. They had done this movie, THX 1138, and all the costumes for the movie were there, stored in boxes, and all the scripts were in another room … there’s a scene where they’re growing babies not in test tubes but in jars. All the jars with the baby dolls were there in the warehouse. And it had a kitchen and a bathroom and a shower. Of course, it was a big step up to us. You could drive trucks into this place. And it had a whole balcony around it and all our drawing boards were set up on desks around the balcony. Oh, it was beautiful. We could all sit up there and draw … there used to be a ping pong table down below. Groupies would come down from Seattle to visit the guys. It was just terrific. And Dan just lost it one night. He had the most amazing nervous breakdown I’ve ever seen in my life.

BOYD: Because of the lawsuit, or just because of working so hard?

FLENNIKEN: Everything … But, oh God, he was so dramatic. He came back one night and took one of the baby dolls and tied it in my hair. He said, “Put your hands behind your back.” And I said, “All right, Dan.” He ties the baby doll in my hair, and he goes, “This is what they did to Irish women; they hung their babies.”

It was totally weird, and we were all just thinking, “Oh, God, O’Neill’s gone nuts.”

And that was the night he tried to swim to Ireland. He jumped in the San Francisco Bay and tried to swim to Ireland … just all this wonderful dramatic stuff.

BOYD: Who saved him?

FLENNIKEN: I think the Coast Guard plucked him out of the water. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see him try to swim to Ireland, I just heard about it. He may or may not actually have done that, truly, but I believe that he did. I mean, he used to do things … one time he followed his dog all over the city just to see where the dog would go … The dog went to this one intersection and sat there for 15 minutes, and eventually this female Irish setter walked by, and they met up and fucked. It was like Dan’s Irish setter knew that this female Irish setter would be walking by. That’s what he said, anyway. It’s kind of cute. It was sort of amazing that we could stay together as a group as long as we did. But it was because Hallgren was very even-tempered, Bobby was very even-tempered and very loyal, and everybody was pretty motivated to stay together, but it was almost like it was something that wanted to burst apart, and it was being held together by these good qualities. The trial was really unpleasant, what there was of it. I mean, it was cute when Dan wore a banana in a holster into the courtroom, he tried to, and they made him take the banana out of the holster and check it at the door. Because the judges kept getting shot by Black Panthers … so they made him check his banana. He picked it up on his way out. He left it on a table outside the courtroom.

NATIONAL LAMPOON

Cover to National Lampoon (October 1978)

Cover to National Lampoon (October 1978)

BOYD: The earliest cartoon I could find that you did in …

FLENNIKEN: The Playboy bunny one, the little girls?

BOYD: Yeah. Is that the first one?

FLENNIKEN: Probably … I think they had me do a cartoon and a half-page comic strip, the one where the dog is talking. Have you seen that?

BOYD: No.

FLENNIKEN: I think it might even have been in the same issue, actually. It’s just a gag to introduce the fact that the dog talks. Bonnie says, “See the fabulous talking dog.” And the dog won’t talk while people are around, and then when the people go away, then the dog talks.

BOYD: How did they know you?

FLENNIKEN: There’s a really neat guy named Michel Chocquette who was doing a book called The Someday Funnies. It was a collection of comics done by famous people about the ’60s. The cover of it was a middle-America family watching Jack Ruby shooting Oswald on their TV, and the woman is saying to the man, “Someday we’ll all look back on this and laugh.”

That was the concept of the book. [Chocquette] got all the artwork together … and he had things like comics by John Lennon, incredible stuff … he had the book, all the pages done, overlays, what the pages would look like in different languages, all this stuff. He had a problem with finishing projects, and this is just another one that he didn’t finish. And a lot of people were kind of pissed off at him about this, because he left town with all the original artwork. But he was still living in New York, he was working at Lampoon, he was writing “Son of God,” I think. He and Sean Kelley, I think, were working on that. He did a bunch of stuff. You see his work in the early [magazines]. Chocquette came and visited us, and wanted a whole page by the Air Pirates, and we all did stuff for him, which I guess he still has.

BOYD: This is for The Someday Funnies?

FLENNIKEN: Uh-huh. The original artwork … I don’t even remember what I did. And then Bobby and I went back to New York after we were married and hung out with Michel; we stayed at his apartment. He took us up to the Lampoon offices and we hung out with the guys. They looked it over, took our work around to different people, and they looked at the comics and said, “Yeah, this is great. Do more. Send us some more for ‘The Funny Pages.’” It was so nice. He started giving us a lot of work right away. And that was Michael Gross, the art director. He’s a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor. He just really made that magazine. Total professional.

BOYD: And after this, it’s like there are no underground comics ever again. You told me that the underground comics didn’t pay any money, that National Lampoon paid good money.

FLENNIKEN: They paid $25 a page, similar to what Fantagraphics is paying now.

BOYD: I know. Although they sold a lot more than we sell.

FLENNIKEN: It’s really sick, isn’t it?

BOYD: Well, I don’t know if anyone was getting rich off of it.

FLENNIKEN: Back then?

BOYD: Yeah. There’s no underground comics millionaires or anything.

FLENNIKEN: Robert Crumb would have gotten rich if he hadn’t been such a bozo.

BOYD: And Gilbert Shelton … what I mean is, I don’t think there’s someone getting rich off of other people’s labors.

FLENNIKEN: No. Gilbert had a thriving business, as far as I know. He was using his own ability as a base. I think it was great. I’m sure that there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know about, how they ran their business, the fact that they bought that web press …

BOYD: Yeah, that is insane.

FLENNIKEN: And they had a real business. They had a bunch of people who were employed and motivated, and Gilbert was consistently wonderful. A bunch of great people who all got along and were wonderful people. And the whole thing functioned so well! They were buying houses, which was pretty good, especially at that time.

BOYD: I was just saying that it’s not like people at Print Mint or Last Gasp became millionaires printing comics and paying starvation wages.

FLENNIKEN: No, it wasn’t that, but there was definitely … I never did like the artiste attitudes. I disagreed with that. It was mostly people with outside incomes saying that your art has to remain pure, don’t think about money. Which is like saying, “You can’t join our club if you care about how much you’re getting paid.” This is a real thing.

BOYD: It’s a real thing now, believe me. It’s not gone away.

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, and there’s Artie Spiegelman, who — and he still does this, and I really like this guy — yet he makes his money from Topps gum cards and tells people that they should work for him for free to stay pure. I think, as a feminist, I just don’t believe in volunteer labor. That’s just the way it is. See, I come out of all this political stuff and … the whole communist ethic, this whole ethic … it’s not like I was in a serious communist situation, but I hung out with people who felt that you should be fed by the state, and you should work because you love your work. My feeling is that if you really love comics and cartoonists, and you really believe that comics are art and comics have value, then you will try to do what is best for everybody. You don’t ask people to starve for their art. My Air Pirates buddies said, “You gotta go out and get a book deal. You’ve gotta go on your own, you know.”

I was supposed to get on the bus and go by myself to Print Mint in Berkeley. And I’m sheltered. I’ve been around, but it was still scary … I got my artwork and my portfolio, and Larry Todd went with me. It was really nice of him to do that. There were various people hanging around the Air Pirates, and Larry Todd was one of them whom you could consider successful at hanging around. You didn’t mind too much, and he was a wonderful person.

BOYD: He comes off like Mr. Nice Guy when you read his comics. You expect him to be that way.

FLENNIKEN: He’s a great person … And Willy Murphy, who died. My favorite strip of his — I’ve never forgotten it — was the one with the Indian, the great big Indian with the little teeny head.

BOYD: Yeah, he was in Dopin’ Dan, too.

FLENNIKEN: He was very good at hanging out. He was really good at being part of the crowd. And, there were a couple of other people — Jim Osborne?

BOYD: There’s a guy who did some incredibly sick comics.

FLENNIKEN: He is such a sweetheart.

BOYD: His comics are sort of like S. Clay Wilson’s. Almost more disturbing, though.

FLENNIKEN: I always thought he was just a wonderful, sweet person. I remember him lecturing me about using a correct pH shampoo on my hair. [laughter] You know, Don Donohue had a human head in his office … Apparently he traded a two-headed goat, or something, for a human head. They used them to dissect in medical schools. It still had the skin on it and everything. I remember seeing this. It is not a figment of my imagination. This man pulled this human head out of his closet. It was wrapped up like a mummy in burlap, and he unwrapped it, and there was this human head.

BOYD: So you came back from New York.

FLENNIKEN: We went from New York to Florida, and we did some work in Florida, and it was beautiful. All of a sudden, we’re not slaving, we’re making good money for the times. We could easily survive on what we were making. We were comfortable, and we didn’t have constant crisis going on around us — constant crisis being created by people we were dealing with. I didn’t want that in my life … and I guess that studio — there was another studio where Hallgren and Ted were, and they wanted Bobby to be involved, too. After we got the job with Lampoon I was really not into spinning our wheels in the underground.

BOYD: And you’d gotten this promise, or contract, to do a solo book?

FLENNIKEN: There was no contract.

BOYD: And then there’s a couple of comic books here that actually have ads for a Trots and Bonnie comic.

FLENNIKEN: Don Donohue at Apex Novelties agreed to do my book after Bob Rita had turned me down. Rita had said, “You should be drawing children’s books.” I was totally insulted.

BOYD: The humor of Trots and Bonnie is so obvious; it’s such an ironic thing to have what Pepsi’s saying coming out of the mouth of an 11 year-old. I thought that was part of the point.

FLENNIKEN: You know, it’s like not everybody got the joke. They have not figured that out. Some people got it, and some people didn’t, I guess.

BOYD: I’m surprised there’s never been a book published of any of the Lampoon comics; they only did those anthologies.

FLENNIKEN: I thought about that. I talked to people about it. It can’t have to do with the ownership [of the work], because they didn’t own Claire Bretecher and they did a book of her work. I don’t know what that was. I always thought it was really ridiculous, and then when I was actually up there and dealing with that kind of stuff, they had no book deal with anybody. See, they originally had a book deal with Simon & Schuster, to edit and put together their own division, and they did all those stinking parody things that didn’t sell very well.

BOYD: Oh really? When I was in ninth grade, I thought that their Sunday newspaper parody was the funniest thing I had ever seen.

FLENNIKEN: Oh, that was really good. That was P.J. O’Rourke. He did their hot stuff. P.J. did the yearbook, and he did the newspaper parody, with John Hughes doing most of the writing. There’s a reason why [those projects] were good. You see, P.J. was coming from Ohio, middle America. His work wasn’t like the stuff done by the New Yorkers. They were somewhat isolated — culturally isolated in terms of their schooling. Real prep school.

BOYD: So after you decided to get out of San Francisco, what did you do?

FLENNIKEN: We bought a Volkswagen bus for $300 in Berkeley, and drove it up here with another cartoonist named Gary King.

BOYD: Was he published in undergrounds?

FLENNIKEN: He was one of the people that hung around us and worked. He was younger than us, and he was tuned in to the kind of ’70s teenager thing. He did a lot of drugs. He bought heroin from one of his high school teachers … But he had a definite voice, and he was really very funny. So he came up here with us, and I don’t know what happened to him. After a while, he went back to California. We were up here from 1973 ’til ’76. We broke up and Bobby went back to New York.

COLOR STRIPS, SKETCHBOOKS AND SELF-PUBLISHING

BOYD: Starting in ’75 or ’76, you were doing a bunch of …

FLENNIKEN: … color stuff, the color story?

BOYD: Yeah, “Blood Test” is in ’75, it’s in color, and the cover of Wimmen’s Comix #6 is in ’75.

Cover to Wimmen’s Comix #6, (December 1975)

Cover to Wimmen’s Comix #6, (December 1975)

FLENNIKEN: For Becky Wilson.

BOYD: Right. And The Simpleton. I don’t know what that is …

FLENNIKEN: Yes, The Simpleton was [published by] my friend David Tatelman who does Homestead Publishing in Seattle. He’s a publisher and a comics distributor. He decided he was going to do a comic newspaper. And that was The Simpleton. I think two or three issues came out. I did the cover for one. It showed Trots and Bonnie walking down a path, and they’re saying something like “Seattle is the cultural Mecca of the ’70s.”And these two guys showed up here one time, and they said, “We were moving here because Seattle is the cultural Mecca of the ’70s, we heard.” And that was cute. I think there’s some others; I think I did Video Verite in New York.

BOYD: What is Video Verite?

FLENNIKEN: A comic strip about the first video equipment … when video cameras were attached to a VCR-like machine. But it was before people had VCRs in their homes to watch movies on cassette, you had a camera, and then you had the VCR recording system. It was at that stage of technology, and I had the girls go out and photograph in the windows of their neighbors’ homes.

BOYD: Was this a color strip?

FLENNIKEN: Yes. I did that around the time I went to the convention in New York.

BOYD: Right; you drew part of a jam that was something like “Walt Dismal Versus the Air Pirates” … It’s not a comic strip. It’s a jam drawing of a bunch of characters, including Trots chopping down a beanstalk that has Mickey Mouse on it. What was Drought Chic and Shary Flenniken’s Sketchbook?

Drought Chic © 1977

Drought Chic © 1977

FLENNIKEN: That came later. That was ’77, I think. I stayed in New York and then I toured the Orient with my mother, and then I came back here. I was first inspired by Holly Turtle’s sketchbooks. Every page is a little joke. I love to see people’s sketchbook work. I started keeping a little notebook in my purse to sketch in when I quit smoking and I needed to do something with my hands. I have a travel book of stuff from that trip with my mom and another of traveling through Europe on an American Express tour bus with my family. It was great to go to the Louvre and see the sketchbooks of this French artist, Delacroix, who kept one of his travels through North Africa. That’s how I did Shary Flenniken’s Sketchbook.

BOYD: Didn’t drawing in a sketchbook put a shield around you? People wouldn’t walk up to you, would they?

FLENNIKEN: They either keep their distance, or it gives you something to talk about. It’s not really that protective a thing, but it’s sort of compulsive. I’ve gone back through my sketchbooks and I’ve plucked a lot of stuff out of them to use for other projects when I need an idea. A lot of my sketchbooks have one-line ideas that got turned into strips.

Shary Flenniken Sketchbook © 1977

Shary Flenniken Sketchbook © 1977

BOYD: Do you still draw the sketchbooks?

FLENNIKEN: Yeah … I have a current one in my purse. Now, the other book … I decided to do Drought Chic because the drought was going on. The first big drought down there [California]. At the same time.

BOYD: Right. Before it became common everyday occurrence for them to have a drought every year.

FLENNIKEN: Everybody keeps telling me I should get those books out again … I have boxes full of them down in the basement. I wanted to have it in Hallmark shops. I didn’t know anything about this stuff. It wasn’t perfect bound. Certain places don’t carry things that aren’t perfect bound. Some people didn’t think the drought was funny. So I was selling five copies here, 10 copies there. It’s a lot of work and I didn’t want to drive around and deal with that. It made its money back. I wasn’t unhappy with doing it. It was kind of a transition to where I was getting back enjoying working again and not feeling so defeated all the time.

POLITICS

BOYD: The next thing that I have you doing is “Trots and Bonnie In Whiteface.”

FLENNIKEN: Yeah, that was around the same time. I was still in San Jose.

BOYD: That was a pretty extreme one.

FLENNIKEN: I received a tape from a Nazi in Milwaukee telling me what a wonderful strip it was.

BOYD: I figured you did it to be a punk …

FLENNIKEN: No. I do think out all the stuff I do politically, believe it or not. I wanted to do a strip about Idi Amin. And I thought — I still think — it’s relevant. I think that it was just my failure to communicate — that’s something I do a lot.

BOYD: Because it could certainly be read as being about Black Panthers.

FLENNIKEN: My point was — I thought it was really awful that with all the black political struggle that goes on, why black people would then turn on their own, why people do turn on their own. I felt like that when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. I thought, “Why are these radical women kidnapping another woman?” Women are oppressed … ” You don’t go out and fuck over the people that you’re trying to save, or where is the point of your revolution? Here’s a thing: black people screw other black people in a country where black people are in power. This is amazing. I just wanted to talk about this thing, which I thought was really interesting, and that I didn’t see anywhere in any other media.

BOYD: Yeah, ’cause it’s so confusing to talk about.

FLENNIKEN: I mean you hardly saw anything. There’s that wonderful movie about Idi Amin … what’s the name of it? The director was … Barbet Schroeder. He did a wonderful documentary about Idi Amin. It’s just fabulous. It’s called Idi Amin Dada. If you ever get the chance to see it … it’s hilarious. That’s where that strip came from. And that’s a little high school Idi Amin. I just took Uganda and put it in an American junior high school. That’s all that was.

BOYD: But you received this response from a Nazi? Was it a cassette tape?

FLENNIKEN: This guy starts out kind of subtly … “I just want to tell you how much I really loved the strip you did, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

He kind of goes on and then he gets into this horrible, bone-chilling rant about niggers overpopulating and driving big cars and trying to drive the country into destruction, and how I should convince more people at Lampoon to draw things like that. Can you imagine listening to this tape for the first time and suddenly realizing what this guy was saying? It was just sickening. And it’s like being on stage and your joke is failing. And the only guy in the audience laughing is a Nazi. I felt like, “I blew it. Oh, no!”

Continued

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2 Responses to The Shary Flenniken Interview

  1. Chance Fiveash says:

    I really enjoyed this interview, but it’s also a frustrating read as I can’t run out and buy collections of the works discussed. I have her underground comix work, but other than that…nothing. I hope one day that will change as I’d like to see the color work she discussed.

  2. Great interview. I grew up reading Shary Flenniken’s comics. I found her work to be gutsier and edgier (and more relevant) than a lot of the male artists who seemed to want to shock for the sake of it. Her character of Bonnie always got to me, even in situations that were supposed to be funny, because she was just an average little girl growing up in a very nasty and cynical world. A big hug for you, Shary, and thanks for the memories! (And new ones to come, I hope….)

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