One of the funniest things about Trots and Bonnie, the collection of strips of the same name by Shary Flenniken that ran in the National Lampoon in the 1970s and 80s, is its cover, which someone at New York Review Books probably delighted themselves in designing. Like the strip itself, sans words, it looks innocent enough. Two youngish girls, dressed as medical professionals, appear to be playing doctor (not in the dirty way) with a young boy, who lies under a sheet, grinning blankly at the viewer while one of the girls, brandishing a pair of scissors, cheerfully communicates something to the other one. A sweet-looking dog with fancy eyelashes lies at their feet. It’s only once you know the particular strip it comes from, in which Pepsi (the shorter firecracker) and Bonnie (the taller girl) attempt to give neighbor kid Elrod a vasectomy and wind up referring to themselves as a sex-change clinic, that you blanch a bit at the art choice. There you go. That’s “Trots and Bonnie” in a nutshell.
The first time I read the strip was when it showed up in Kramers Ergot 10. I’m not a great comics historian, and I wasn’t born yet when the strip started running. I don’t have a bunch of nostalgia associated with it, let alone a childhood and adolescence having the hots for the characters, which I’d imagine a lot of folks do. I spent most of the time reading the book trying to figure out which category it falls into: “I’m not like other girls. I’m one of the guys. I eat pizza and wings and make rape jokes” or “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” It can be tricky to parse that out, especially making allowances for nigh on 50 years having passed since it made its debut. There’s no question that National Lampoon was a boys’ club, and the world is made for and by men for the most part, both then and now. For a woman or any other marginalized person, some measure of code-switching is, if not 100 percent necessary, somewhat helpful, but it seems that Flenniken was interested in the strip for different reasons from her employers. Both were invested in being outrageous. Only one was outraged at the way women were treated.
This isn’t to say that Flenniken never put a foot wrong. Not every strip she did is in the book. Times have changed, and she recognizes that. Her afterword/interview talks about how there are strips she didn't put in the new book because she feels like they'd hurt people; “That was me being naive when I wrote those.” The appeal of the strip is in the friction between its gentle visuals, which resemble Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie" (down to Bonnie’s blank white eyes) and its shocking content. It really is still shocking, too, in the way that a lot of stuff in the 70s was. Mostly that realization tends to be presented as “kids today are so soft. I had to read my comics while walking uphill in the snow to school, both ways,” but a wider variety of people get to talk now. The code-switching isn’t gone, but it’s less necessary. Flenniken’s bosses wanted to maximize the amount of tits and controversy, and that’s palpable throughout, but she managed to get a lot of what she wanted in there, too.
In theory, the strips are punchline-based, with a “hoo wee mama” in the final panel, often delivered by talking dog Trots. In practice, the punchlines aren’t that funny. They’re more just a punctuation mark to show us the strip is done. What’s fun about them is the undercurrent of rage at the system (mostly delivered through Pepsi, who seems to be named ironically, given her generally dyspeptic attitude) and Flennken’s wonderful drawings. She never takes it easy on herself, Even strips that are mostly just two people talking feature different poses in each panel, reflecting adolescents’ tendency to fidget about. Her titles are different each time too, which is appropriate for a strip that, in many ways, is about trying on different identities: bad girl, Girl Scout, sex worker, artist, activist, dutiful daughter, anarchist and more. That’s what 13 is, and that’s what Flenniken got. The sex and violence are the thing that gets a lot of the attention with “Trots and Bonnie,” but they’re not what makes it readable 50 years later. What Emily Flake gets at, in her wonderful intro, is that Flenniken was writing female characters from the inside, not the outside. She didn’t, in the end, care if you fucking liked it.