« Bonnie and Pepsi are obsessed with sex, but they’re not there for the male gaze. Their desire is frank and straightforward and more than a little demented, and it’s depicted with a bracing honesty that feels less like a political statement and more like Flenniken is reporting from the front lines with no filter, no safety net, and no intention of telling anything but the truth. »*
I first came across a Shary Flenniken‘s Trots and Bonnie strip in some random issue of National Lampoon. I can’t even really narrow down the decade**, as it ran within its pages from 1972 all the way to 1990. I was intrigued, but not enough to pursue it.
When New York Review Comics published a Trots and Bonnie collection in 2021, gathering 160 strips in a handsome hardcover volume, I was happy to finally be able to partake of T&B in a more organized fashion. One perplexing thing about this collection is that some strips were omitted due to concerns of misinterpretation***. It was apparently feared that some topics would be too controversial, or that the modern reader has lost the ability to interpret things in context. I would have liked the possibility of deciding what has or hasn’t aged well for myself. As it stands, this collection features strips offering a most varied list of topics to horrify the easily triggered (rape, racial epithets, kids getting shot, electrocuted and castrated – albeit by other kids – and pedophilia), so I am truly curious what the censored strips were about. I guess I am now doomed to collect National Lampoon issues (to be fair, the latter was home to many a great cartoonist – Rick Geary, M.K. Brown, Stan Mack, etc.)
Trots and Bonnie is a hilarious strip, and it’s also quite unsettling in the best of ways. While both cartoonists would surely be offended by this comparison, it makes me think of some of Charles Rodrigues’ work (see Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour) – the same electrifying unwillingness to shy away from difficult topics, although Flenniken was doing it to make a point, and Rodrigues would do it for sheer perversity. More than once while reading T&B I would start wondering how far a certain storyline would go – and it went all the way to its logical (call it immoral, call it stomach-churning…) conclusion. Just take the Dr. Pepsi’s Vasectomy Clinic from 1974, a panel from which made it as the cover of the collection –
« Two youngish girls, dressed as medical professionals, appear to be playing doctor 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. » [source]
It’s also a charming strip, with a heroïne who is refreshingly in no hurry to grow up (despite being prodded into it by her early bloomer friend Pepsi, ‘dressed in incongruously childlike pinafore paired with fishnets, a perfect metaphor for the terrifying underage sex fiend she is’). Bonnie dresses like a tomboy, hates going out with her parents, and collects sex magazines and prophylactics like other kids collect marbles. In a world of sleazy men with a creepy predilection for pre-adolescent flesh, she somehow manages to remain an innocent, and shrug off any unpleasantness in favour of a wide-eyed curiosity about everything, be it boys’ cock sizes or sci-fi movies.
In case that isn’t clear, I heartily recommend purchasing the Trots & Bonnie collection.
* This strip is hard to write about and do justice to, and I could not do any better than Emily Flake’s truly excellent introduction to the T&B collection.
** I found it – it was Women’s Erotic Art Gallery, published in 1975.
*** Flenniken explains, ‘the things that I did that we omitted here in this book, I think we looked at those and went, “oh, that might hurt somebody’s feelings or something.” That was me being naïve when I wrote those. A lot of times I was just exploring a subject rather than having a definitive stance. People are pretty darn outrageous today, more so than me. What has changed is what people think is offensive.‘