TROTS AND BONNIE Review
This will review a work that often addresses human sexuality, emotional / physical / sexual abuse, and adolescents’ views on same. Be advised.
. . .
When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, two old comic strips that remained popular were J. R. Williams’ Out Our Way and Gene Ahern’s Our Boarding House, both started in the 1920s and, from their daily panels and Sunday pages, never moving out of that decade. My favorite cartoons on local kid shows were Fleischer Brothers Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, many of which took place in urban / suburban settings heavily reflective of 1920s and 1930s America.
So when I first encountered Shary Flenniken’s Trots And Bonnie I instantly recognized the flavor and style of the strips.
The content, on the other hand, came straight out of her underground comix pedigree, with the refreshing point of view of the female gaze instead of the admittedly too often misogynistic male cartoonists of the milieu.
Flenniken is one of the best artists and writers to come from the underground era, displaying a confident early mastery of the form (don’t listen to her protestations she really wasn’t good at the start of her career; she clearly ranked among the finest of the underground comix artists).
But the sweet and innocent look of Trots And Bonnie belies the frank and frequently shocking honesty of Flenniken’s work.
As cartoonist Emily Flake notes in her introduction, “that’s the terrible power of children, the monstrous innocence that makes them capable of anything, a state of being we fatuously describe as ‘pure.’”
Innocence is not synonymous with purity in the world of Trots And Bonnie because the cast lack the moral and cultural filters we acquire as adults. They are reporting on reality as they see it, and as with all children (and the elderly, and drunks) there’s nothing to stop them from commenting on the foibles of hypocrisy of humanity, nor is there a single iota of shame to hold back their expression.
And when you add the impact of puberty to that mix, holy &#@%, you have no room left for pretense or propriety.
Hold on to your hats, folks,
‘cuz it’s gonna be one helluva ride.
One helluva ride…and
a hilarious one, too.
If modern audiences can get past the admittedly often shocking visuals and situations, they’ll find some of the most brilliant coming-of-age comedy ever penned.
The truth is always an absolute defense, and Trots And Bonnie dishes it out lavishly. Brava to Shary Flenniken for having the courage (or honesty, of lack of filter; take your pick) to pen it, to the original underground comix and National Lampoon to publish it, and to new York Review Comics to bring almost all of it back (Flenniken herself opted to withhold a few strips that she feels might be construed now as hurtful or insulting).
Flenniken is the daughter of a military family, growing up in a variety of climes and places before her father retired in the Seattle area.
She reached adolescence and young adulthood during the hippie era, and the earliest strips cast a fond eye back on that time.
An original member of the infamous Air Pirates crew, she and fellow underground comix artists gained immediate recognition skewering Disney icons. Air Pirates Funnies and Paul Kassner’s The Realist generated no small amount of tsuris for the House of Mouse in the late 1960s / early 1970s but The Realist, true to its name, possessed to good sense to adhere to the unofficial so-called “one-time fair use parody” rule while the Air Pirates pressed their luck with Air Pirates Funnies #2, resulting in the Disney legal department descending on them like an anvil dropped from orbit.
Crawling away from the wreckage, Flenniken kept contributing to a number of underground venues, creating the first Trots and Bonnie strip for the 1971 underground comix Merton Of The Movement.
Trots and Bonnie (soon joined by Pepsi, a beguilingly sweet looking elfin-like child with the heart of Germaine Greer, the reproductive organs of Karen Finley, and the mouth of an interstate trucker) popped up in several single page strips and short stories until NatLamp recruited Flenniken in 1972 to be a regular contributor and (briefly) an editor.
NatLamp proved to be the perfect venue for Flenniken and her characters because the magazine possessed the economic mojo and suicidal “Who gives a &#@%?” attitude to publish Trots And Bonnie while at the same time providing a perfect audience of proto-incels who desperately needed some consciousness raising, especially if said consciousness raising arrived in the form of a kick in the groin.
Trots And Bonnie’s tenure at NatLamp lasted slightly more than two decades, but a big hunk of that era saw the Reagan culture wars raging, not to mention much of the country becoming obsessed with a literal modern day witch hunt in the infamous Satanic panic (an apt subject for Flenniken’s characters, but one she wisely avoided, thus following the old military adage, “Never draw fire on your own position.”).
The already edgy material in both NatLamp in general and Trots And Bonnie in particular threatened to be perceived as too edgy by law enforcement, legislators, and judicial authorities who seemed either unwilling or incapable of distinguishing between photographs and video of actual sexual assaults and rapes committed against real children as opposed to crudely drawn Xerox copied mini-comics made by outsider artists with audiences that might possibly number in the dozens.
Flenniken’s willingness to honestly recall the turbulent emotions of early adolescence resulted in stories and strips where prepubescent kids engage in activities and discussions that would be acutely problematic if done today. Again, the utter lack of self-consciousness in Flenniken’s characters swerves her work away from the low grade smut ground out by many of her male contemporaries and flung open a window on how adolescent females perceived the world around them.
The stories are wildly transgressive, and like all transgressive art can only be understood in the context of their time and mores. Flenniken’s art carries a sweetness that leavens out the most horrendous situations (she gets astonishing comedic mileage off a story about a woman raped by a police officer, never once blaming or exploiting the victim but lambasting the culture and mindset that makes such a crime possible).
The fact these stories are told from a vibrant feminist / sex positive point of view makes them relevant to this day, and Flenniken’s ability to draw both truth and humor from dysfunctional families, emotional abuse, and drug use keeps them from being one-note exercises.
Most importantly, Flenniken comes across as strongly pro-child, even while honestly depicting her own characters’ failings and misconceptions.
She always brings a genuine emotional connection with her characters as adolescents, neither glorifying nor patronizing them.
One of the most notorious Trots And Bonnie strips finds Bonnie looking at herself in a mirror, fantasizing she’s famous actresses of the past.*
At the hands and brush of Norman Rockwell, this theme tries for poignant but lands in schmaltz, looking down on an anxious child studying her reflection in a mirror; in far too many bad novels by sub-par male writers, it’s borderline (and often not-so-borderline) pornography.
At the touch of Flenniken’s deft pen, it’s honest and sweet and shockingly frank but it never depicts Bonnie as a figment of the male imagination but as a character and personality all her own.
Flenniken has not done any new Trots And Bonnie strips since the last ones published in NatLamp in 1993.
To be honest, I think that’s a good thing.
The characters are of their particular time and cultural gestalt, it may not be possible to recapture that lightning in a new bottle, and rather than diminish the old, perhaps it best remains a perfect artefact of its era.
Mark Twain tried repeatedly but could never transport Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn out of antebellum Hannibal, and to use an example more contemporary to Flenniken’s work, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers resolutely thwart all efforts to move them out of San Francisco during the Summer of Love.
You can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe famously observed, but that only applies if you’ve successfully left home. At a certain point, if you haven’t moved beyond your old confines, you never will.
Flenniken’s honest frankness could have turned into a big crosshair on her back during the cultural wars, but to paraphrase John Lennon, life happened while she was making comix.
She married twice, divorced once, widowed the second time. While she never completely withdrew from professional illustration, she no longer sought out the high profile gigs.
Trots And Bonnie from New York Review Comics is the first extensive English language compilation of her strips and stories, a very handsomely produced volume designed by Norman Hathaway.
The strips are meticulously presented, making it possible to enjoy Flenniken’s fine line work and exquisite character depictions in greater detail than every before. It’s a genuine delight, sure to thrill old time fans of the original strip and quite likely to win a new generation of admirers.
But brace yourselves, noobs, this ain’t your grandma’s Betty Boop…
© Buzz Dixon
* It should be noted that for all its apparent revolutionary newness, the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, the crucible that forged Flenniken’s point of view, also enthusiastically embraced the past. W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers became cultural icons to a new generation, Betty Boop regained her old popularity, old movies were rediscovered and reimagined, African-American spirituals and blues sprang from new voices, obscure books and novels from earlier decades and centuries became the new cultural touchstones.
I’ve posted elsewhere on how the boomer generation enjoyed a unique conflation of new technology and old media to produce a brand new synthesis; there has been nothing like it since even with astonishing advances in technology. When old media is rediscovered and reinterpreted in this era, it too often tends to be in the form of irony, which mocks that which it cannot understand.
Give those old hippies their due -- they got the &#@%ing point!