On the cover of the long-awaited new hardcover collection of Shary Flenniken's comic strip Trots and Bonnie from New York Review Comics, a cynical dog observes as our heroines, the scissor-wielding Dr. Pepsi and her accomplice Nurse Bonnie, prepare to operate on their patient Elrod, who eagerly anticipates their ministrations. Elrod has no idea what is in store for him.
I remember being around the age of these characters when I first read some of these tales of nearly feral adolescence in the National Lampoon in the 1970s. I haven't seen those strips since, but I vividly remember many of them. Wikipedia describes Trots and Bonnie as a "light-hearted satire of the adult world seen through the eyes of a precocious girl and her talking dog, illustrated in the vein of early comic strip artists like Clare Briggs and H.T. Webster." Light-hearted?---well, the comic has a cheerful, seemingly whimsical demeanor and an elegantly anachronistic surface, but the artist's sensibilities were formed in the countercultural underground, and what goes on can be serious, or willfully perverse, or even... deadly.
Yes, there is a talking dog, Trots, but the main deal is Shary's teenage girls, the naïve Bonnie and her best friend, the fearless, filterless Pepsi, interrogating what is up with their growing bodies and their prescribed gender roles. They are sometimes quite furiously engaged in exploring their sexuality. Some of these stories might be seen more critically now than in the 1970s when a lot of them were written. They occasionally veer into other areas that were transgressive even then. That these kids blithely collude together to mutilate and repeatedly murder the hapless Elrod still has the power to blow minds, but this transgressive edge flies under the radar because so much of the strip IS charming and insightful.
For instance, I love the strip on page 22. Bonnie is beautifully animated as she emulates the poses of sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch — it is timeless. Then there's the one where the girls check out a young dude slouching along past them.
It occurs to me now that I ended up looking a bit like him soon after seeing that one; maybe because Shary created a role model for boys who would want to be someone that girls might consider a great lay, even if, as Pepsi says, he's “not too smart.” I recall being fascinated by another story where these chicks rip off another guy’s pants so they can measure his penis.
While everything else in the Lampoon was all about the “male gaze,” Shary gave us the “female gaze.” She offered National Lampoon's predominantly young male readership a view that was out of our comfort zone, into the inner workings of girls like the ones who surrounded us at our own schools; highlighting that they have their own motivations, their own curiosities and desires, and their own humor - a brilliant antidote to the male-centric mindset that was being shoveled onto us by so much of the media.
I interviewed Shary via email from various locations during the COVID quarantine of 2021.
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James Romberger: I was surprised to read in your very interesting annotations in the back of the collection that you decided to edit a few of the strips out of the book. Which ones were left out and for what reason?
Shary Flenniken: Here is the way I picked the comic stories and pages that appear in the book…. First, I collected as much of the original art as I could find. Norman Hathaway, the genius editor who designed the book, hired a professional photographer who traveled from New York to Seattle to shoot every page. I then made a list of all the strips and created an Excel file where I rated each strip according to how much I wanted it in the book. On a scale of 1 to 5, the 5s were must haves, and the 1s were “absolutely not.” A “2” strip meant it could go in, but it was okay if it didn’t make it. At that point, I wasn’t sure how many pages there would be allowed in the final book.
I sent the Excel file to Norman and to Lucas Adams, one of the amazing New York Review Comics editors, and gave them the opportunity to vote by numbers too. I don’t remember exactly what the final scores were, but we discovered that we were all pretty much on the same page. Almost every “2” made it in with all the 3s, 4s, and 5s. I left out a few that I didn’t think were very funny or were dumb. The thing is that when you have a long-running comic with regular characters, you are going to have ups and downs. For instance, I left out the strip I wrote and drew literally on my mother’s death bed – it was about the Pepsi character's dog dying and being stuffed by a taxidermist. Death was definitely on my mind at that time.
Some strips were okay at the time I wrote them, but now I believe they would seem offensive or hurtful. I wrote a strip early on that was a parody of Yoko Ono and her art. At the time, many of us resented her influence on John Lennon. In addition, as a young cartoonist, I felt some hostility towards fine artists. I thought many fine artists did not work very hard and were just big arrogant egos. There was a lot of emotion behind that strip. Roko Koko ends up hanging herself and calls it art. I still think it’s funny, so shoot me. But these days, I suspect that too many people will just see a dead Asian character with only the violently racist context of 2021.
I could go through every strip that is not in the book and tell you what my reasoning is, just as I wrote in the book itself about each strip that is in there. Eight of the outtakes are going to appear in The American Bystander magazine along with explanations and apologies for each. As we moved forward with the book, I thought well, I can publish a little add-on for collectors who want the full meal deal.
I think all your strips and this book will outlast the context of the current moment. On page 31 you have a super intense strip about rape - committed by a police officer! So painful, yet you milked it for all the humor you could wring out of such a subject. “Do you take cream?” “Yeaaghh!!”
I hope you noticed that I was not making fun of the victim. Historically, we have to remember that this strip came before a national audience long before Law and Order [Special Victims Unit] hit our TV screens. Taking a realistic and sympathetic view of the young woman or any rape victim for that matter, was definitely not something you would see in any comic strips. That was my editorial mandate from the National Lampoon editors, “Don’t do anything we would see in the Sunday funnies.” I milked that as often as I could in order to present some assertive feminist opinions. That said, my humor is still often what might be considered inappropriate. Not by you obviously.
Haha. Yes, you make quite a lot of feminist points in the strip in a compelling way, and additionally, you display great insight into many other important issues. You mentioned somewhere a strip that was rejected about ozone... and were any other strips rejected?
The ozone strip was one of two strips that the magazine rejected. That one might have worked better in one of the underground newspapers I worked for before National Lampoon. In it, my little girl characters were talking about how chlorine CFCs in hairspray were destroying the earth’s ozone layer. Wisely, I guess, the Lampoon editors realized that their readers wouldn’t be interested in that subject. And hey, the Earth’s ozone was saved! I guess a global treaty to ban CFCs worked better than my comic would have.
The other problematic strip was one I wrote in the first part of the AIDS epidemic. Bonnie and a little boy go behind some bushes and in real time, talk about the safe sex practices they are using. I thought it was a fun way to communicate that information to the horny Lampoon readers. But by then, the repressive religious right was giving the Lampoon a hard time by complaining to the magazine’s advertisers. The Lampoon editors of course had no problem with anyone practicing safe sex, but at that time a graphic description of safe sex in a comic’s word balloons was riskier than catching AIDS. Later, they allowed that strip to appear in a separate Lampoon book about sex. And it’s in the Trots and Bonnie collection!
About style: I note you tend to draw 3-dimensional backgrounds as your “interior camera” moves around your characters, who often remain the same distance from that “camera” - the backgrounds though, are meticulously drawn from various vantage points in space. Occasionally you draw as if the panels are a sort of proscenium stage: a static background that figures “move” within. However, more often, you go the cinematic route. The strip where the girls’ swim team discusses penis size on page 97 is one of the exceptions. That has an unusual, more experimental panel layout.
I’d been introduced to the principles of perspective when I was in art school, but I never really understood how to apply it until I saw how it was used in a couple of my favorite H.T. Webster panels. One was a kid raking leaves in a big yard with trees and houses in the background. The other was a fancy black Model A Ford with a cute girl dog exchanging looks with a scruffy mutt by the side of the road. I realized the only way I could reproduce a similar background or a car, would be to reverse engineer the perspective used in the image.
That soon developed into an essential part of my process. One of the first things I would do (and still do) is apply perspective to the comic page. I’ve found that a horizon line about 3/4s or 2/3s up the panel gives me the directions I want. I vacillate between one and two point perspective. You will find it in all my comic pages. The swimming pool on page 97 is one point perspective. My simple technique is not really the way perspective is commonly used. I like my settings to be realistic, but I don’t usually do any fancy design work unless what I’m writing calls for it.
You have said that you were turned on to Carl Barks by the Air Pirates, which helped in writing style. And they expected an old strip style to be appropriated... so there seems to be some Mutt and Jeff in T&B. It creeps in in devious ways. In one strip the girls answer an ad calling for "adventurous girls" and end up in a porn shoot; in another similar situation they frolic naked for a balding perv who looks just like Mutt. You have acknowledged that you modeled your girls on the drawings of H.T. Webster. Was this a result of the Air Pirates' dictate? Or, what might you have done without that impetus? Did you have another style you used before you met those guys?
That comic is actually a response to the way women's bodies are used in advertising to sell products unrelated to their gender! Any resemblance to Mutt and Jeff is unintentional. I did model my comic characters on specific characters that H.T. Webster drew in a couple of single panel gags. At the time, I never would have guessed that I would be living with them for decades. When I first started drawing comic strips in underground newspapers in 1970, I wanted to emulate the style of characters that we call “big-foot”.
Thank god the Air Pirates suggested that everyone find a comic style that they felt close to and use that. It was practical advice in many ways. One is the age-old practice of apprenticeship, working with an established expert. Another is that using the style of an unrelated cartoonist rather than one we were more attached to made it easier to take part in a comic jam. We wanted to make the jam’s final result seamless in both writing and drawing style. Using a common style and characters made it easier to achieve that. Still another factor is that it is important to develop our hand muscles. Trying to copy another style gives you a good workout.
When I was a kid, I had some of the Air Pirates comics that you had strips in, like Dopin’ Dan. You are obviously as good as anyone in the group, even early on. I know you were close to Bobby London, and Dan O’Neill sounds like an ingenious character. But some of what I read in your earlier TCJ interview about your position in that collective, the male bullshit was sometimes depressing. Well, you generally avoid specifics in interviews. Let's say a lot of hippies could be as backward in gender issues as other men. But then later, you are working at Lampoon, which was famously home to quite a lot of dick swinging. And you became an editor there? You must have bulletproof steel skin.
I don’t remember exactly what I said in that very long and thorough conversation with Robert Boyd several decades ago, but all of the Air Pirates were incredible talents. I learned so much about my craft from working with them. Dan is a creative force of nature, a great writer and editor. Bobby is a comedy historian, a storehouse of comedy information about cartoonists, writers, and filmmakers. It’s a joy to hear his point of view. Gary Hallgren taught me about lettering, the fancy classic styles and the structure of the letters. Ted Richards is analytical. Very clear about writing technique. I use the things he taught me every day. I am deeply grateful to all of them and hope that we all have forgiven each other for any transgressions.
Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and I were editors at the Lampoon, but not at the same time. There were female copy editors, which is an important position, secretaries, and lots of women in the art department. There was a certain amount of turnover, and there were a lot of different personalities. Everyone was incredibly good-looking. Unlike the San Francisco underground at that time, working for a national magazine was a serious career for everybody there. Yes, we were young, and immature in some interesting and adorable ways, but everyone was cognizant that the magazine was not a one-person enterprise. There was healthy competition, some frustration, tears, and fun. It is difficult for me to discern dick-swinging from normal male, and sometimes female, behavior. Back then, I was less bulletproof, more numb.
Let me come at it from another angle: in an older interview you said you “grew up in a neighborhood with five boys so I was used to being abused by them.” Hmmm, wasn't sure what exactly you mean by that. And again, in the interview with Hathaway in the book, you "grew up on a block with five boys my age who I loved in spite of the way they terrorized me. That instilled in me a high tolerance for everything - much too high a tolerance for all kinds of behavior."
I need to set you straight on the word "abused." When I was a kid, those boys would raid my playhouse and stick pins in my Barbies’ nipples. I was outraged, but now abuse has a whole other connotation. Kids in general can be pretty mean to each other, but maybe that does give us a useful primary education about human nature. It certainly may have given me a lower set of expectations from men. I have been more used to the way men operate professionally than the way women work it out. It seems to me that men are more open about their competitiveness. I’m uncomfortable with competition and prefer to not compete at all. It’s a weird balance, a tightrope – creative work with other people is like that. With the right team, the work can be heavenly. I am particularly fascinated by teams now, and what makes good ones work well. Gender may have something to do with that, but not always.
We are evolving as far as gender-mixing in the workplace goes. There is a lot of room for improvement. My experience and reading about evolutionary biology tell me that women anticipate a warm and welcoming workplace environment. Your boss should be your best friend. Knowledge and information should be shared. Chain of command and stratification are easily blurred. Sounds fine to me, but if that is your expectation – ouch, you can be easily offended. Being surrounded by boy culture when I was a kid cushioned that blow, but I had a tough time understanding women. There is more than one comic page in the book that speaks to male-female perception. One is a bunch of kids at a party, separated on two sides of a rec room by gender - it’s a big score for a boy to get Bonnie alone and French kiss her. I attended that same party in 7th grade.
How about the color story on page 90 about how a band forms and dissolves? So true! I was in a few bands, it IS really hard to keep it together for exactly those reasons, of punctuality, empathy, factionalism, ego, etc.
Collective efforts can be very challenging. The way your girls' band deteriorates can be applied to all sorts of collaborations that one gets involved in, be they creative, in the arts with galleries or magazines or bands or theaters, or activists or community organizations etc. Trying to collaborate or to do a laudable democratic process can yet unfortunately enable misapprehended dipshittery by unqualified individuals, or worse, ill-intentioned manipulations. Whatever movement inevitably suffers.
You understand exactly what I was talking about in that story! As I said, I am fascinated by the dynamics of groups. There is an implicit mandate in curriculum design that all courses need at least one group project. I found out the hard way that my overall course grade depended on how my group performed. That’s a painful lesson that told me I had better not go passive when things start to go wrong. You find a way to fix it or find a way to escape. It is such a common human experience. When groups work, it is sublime to be a member. I think there needs to be more educational emphasis on how to make people work well together, rather than the result of their project. At the time I wrote that story, my boyfriend was in a band of cartoonists. The dialogue was pretty much verbatim.
I've gotta say, informed by or in reaction to your own experiences as they are, your girls deal decisively with bullying and assholery - they may indulge debauchery because of curiosity or they see profit, but they smite their enemies.
For all of us, our family of origin and early experience is what prepares us to cope in the adult world. It is hard, I think for everyone. I was not very well prepared to follow what I consider is the normal route -– college, career, family -- when I entered that world. But I took a lot of risks and survived. Growing up around a bunch of rough and tumble boys meant I was not afraid of men. You see that issue a lot in the Trots and Bonnie strip.
The second half of the 20th century was so different from the way it is now. I could hitchhike and not be murdered. There was a brief time in the late '60s and early '70s, like in the last episode of Mad Men, when a lot of us were trying to find a way to live without war, hate, greed, authoritarianism, and the like. It was a great time for sex. My comic strip was born then. Life wasn’t perfect, but we thought if we really tried, it could be.
You certainly took your lessons to heart. I did want to note that along with your overall mastery of the form, you are a great letterer, and you designed a new Trots and Bonnie logo for each and every strip.
Thank you for noticing that! Air Pirate Gary Hallgren is and was a master sign painter and designer. Early on he showed me the concepts involved in creating artistic letters. He got me hooked on that. It became an important part of my process to think about an appropriate type for the subject of almost every comic strip. I would be better at it if I could draw a straight line, but it is fun and good practice. I have collected quite a few books to use for inspiration.
You know, we are in some books together: a few of the Big Book series from DC/Paradox Press, notably The Big Book of Death. The 9 panels per page format of that series was something I found very restrictive, especially when the script called for big crowds in every other panel. Not sure if you minded. And we both contributed drawings for Bob Levin’s novel The Schiz.
I like illustrating other people’s writing when I’m working for a paycheck. It’s good to know it’s not going to be rejected for not being funny enough. I appreciate that. Those DC Comics Big Books were great and so were the editors that put them together. Bob Levin is a prince and a damn good writer. His book about the Air Pirates is a classic and is now out of print but still in demand.
The Pirates and the Mouse seems a no-brainer to be reprinted (one logical publisher would be Fantagraphics' FU imprint). I heard about the legal battle at the time but don't really know the details. I was fascinated to read in one of your interviews that Disney hadn’t actually wanted to sue the Air Pirates, but one of their licensees forced the issue.
That is what I heard. I am no longer sure that is true. We hear stories about how litigious they are. But I have also spoken with one young woman whose t-shirt design [was] stolen by someone at the Disney Corporation.
You did a great piece in Steve Gerber's and Jack Kirby's Destroyer Duck #1. For a comic done as a benefit to aid in yet another unequal David vs. Goliath-type battle between artists and a soulless corporation, your response was perfect - Thelma erupts in an unrestrained display of destructive power that has the desired effect: the evildoer just gives up.
I love how breezily you handled the Kirbyish super-heroics. Maybe you should try something similar again. It reminded me a little of Jaime Hernandez’s great handling of superhero stuff. Like you, he doesn’t have the preconceived clichéd approach — it feels like a fresher approach than most mainstream artists can muster. BTW, Jaime’s beloved character Hopey reminds me of Pepsi somewhat, in how she looks and behaves.
Thanks for mentioning another totally non-Trots and Bonnie-style comic I did many years ago. It’s Thelma Ironthighs, right? The woman superhero whose superpower is her rage and anger. The Lampoon ran a Thelma Ironthighs story in their 3-D issue. Kinda hard on the eyes without the glasses. Thelma is a fun character. Writing for her was a great way to deal with all my own crankiness, so she may need to be revived now and moved to Florida to battle the MAGA-Zombies.
Yeah, give DeSantis a thrashing, please!
Anyway, you are a committed activist sort of artist, and a lot of your work is about something - you strive for meaningful content. But how does it feel to go from working on underground papers, and being part of an experimental collective, and doing other types of community and/or national activism, all the way over to navigating the mainstream from inside the beast, as it were, in the '70s and onward? I mean, I've tried to do something similar, for years doing pro bono work about various causes and helping my partner run a festival in our neighborhood, at the same time as doing comics for companies like DC/Time Warner and showing in intrinsically elitist galleries. Perhaps I just follow where the moment takes me. Is it like that for you?
Haha James... you and I have been living what seems to be some parallel lives. I’m surprised we have not crossed paths before now. If you look up the “True Colors Test”, which is a refinement of the old, very long Myers-Briggs's personality assessment, I’m pretty sure you will turn out to be mainly a green person. I think art attracts analytical people because so much effort goes into the process of creating the art before the piece is visible. For most of us, that part is not occurring on an assembly line – we like having control of the process and the outcome.
Having to make a living can interfere with that. That is why I believe that more artists should be financially supported by both the private sector and government programs like the 1935 New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which produced amazing artworks. But I’m also big on day jobs, because they can keep us more socially grounded, less mentally and emotionally isolated. That is why you will find a variety of experience on my résumé, and why I started college in my fifties. My art school education was helpful, but college degrees opened other doors.
In the end, maybe one has to be mainly a solo operator, moving from one interesting set of problems and projects to another. I can't think of another underground cartoonist that ever received a "Civilian Appreciation Award" from a police department, in this case the Seattle PD for your work on Seattle's disaster preparedness in 2008.
And you continued working on these problems later in 2013 with the Feds and Homeland Security? And you are "interested in post-apocalyptic survival." I am interested to know how you got involved. I actually have a sense of these concerns because I edited a text in the back of my expanded Post York from Berger Books/Dark Horse, which explores the facts about flooding and other disasters in New York City due to accelerated global warming.
Thank you for commenting on my disaster preparedness obsession. I’m glad you plugged your really good book because we cannot have too much attention and information about this subject. In fact, I am currently reading Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower, which she began writing in 1989, but feels like tomorrow. It includes a US President that promises to “Make America great again”! She makes surviving apocalyptic collapse a religion. Here in Seattle, we focus on earthquakes, but I think the fundamental message is that we can never be entirely safe. Anything can happen. It is a spiritual concept if you think about it, and it can drive the way we approach life. In my case, I am extremely careful, but that only goes so far. Unexpected crap is a family legacy for me. My family was stationed in Honolulu, living the good life in a tropical paradise when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My sister was kidnapped in 1962. Two of my husbands have died in epidemics.
One of my other passions is strategic planning. I did win an award from the city for working in a group dealing with Seattle’s neighborhood earthquake preparedness and writing our strategic plan. This kind of stuff is directly related to the work you and I do because it involves visualization and creativity. I think we need more academic focus on harnessing imagination and creativity. In the workplace and corporate environments, we call it “innovation.” That is the applied version, where you have a concrete outcome. In order to devise any kind of strategy, like how to achieve world peace, we need to be unafraid to look at possibilities with our mind’s eye. There is a long history of failures of the imagination (Iraq). And way too many of my friends are afraid to watch The Handmaid’s Tale series.
Last question: do you paint ever? Or make prints, or do any other sort of larger or more gallery-oriented fine art type work?
I love to paint with watercolors on Arches Watercolor blocks, I am way too messy a person to use oils and acrylics. It’s so easy to destroy your tools. Painting and animation seem to involve a lot of mental quiet time. Thinking too much is my hobby. I seek faster ways to get ideas onto paper or in print. I got a big iPad Pro recently and it has changed my life. Working with the incredibly inexpensive yet so versatile Procreate software requires learning a bunch of new commands and techniques, but that is the kind of thing I love. Working with just the tablet and pen is amazingly portable. I can do everything in the garden on a sunny day, so the pets are much happier now. I can now look at producing a graphic novel without wincing in pain at the time it would take. Drawing now is almost as fun as working in the garden.