Pushing Against The Taboos Of The Day
Tripwire’s contributing writer Tim Hayes just cast his critical eye over New York Review Of Comics’ Trots And Bonnie…
Trots and Bonnie
Writer/ Artist: Shary Flenniken
New York Review Of Comics
The National Lampoon brand name lives on, and the film series that started decades ago with John Belushi in college has simply rolled onto TV and video. But the archives of humour writing, illustrations and cartoons from the long-gone National Lampoon print magazine have slipped into invisibility, assisted a bit by trends in the kind of places progressive comedy comes from these days. Whenever the Lampoon art resurfaces the ratio of superb to subpar is about the usual one, but the energy of the magazine’s cartooning, of its mockery with a purpose, is sharply directed enough to make a lot of current satire look like it’s hedging its bets. A chunk of that unhedged work reappears here, with New York Review Comics collecting selections from Shary Flenniken’s droll and artful strip Trots and Bonnie, described approvingly in the book’s introduction as being like Little Nemo if Little Nemo was drawn for and by perverts.
Perverted is too strong a word, since the strip was pushing against feminist and cultural taboos of the 1970s which these days are discussed in the average BBC news bulletin, but Flenniken deliberately skirted bad taste in the name of saying what needed to be said. Bonnie is a smart 13-year-old girl with a thousand questions about her body and what’s going on with it and a bunch more about the bodies of the boys in her school, while Trots is her talking worldly-wise dog and inseparable sidekick. The very first strip, from 1972, has Bonnie in trouble for not wearing a bra and reading feminist books, and from there Flenniken deals with women’s lib, menstruation, horny young boys, dirty old men, how to break into the pornography business at an early age, and related topics. Bonnie’s friends include the more precocious firebrand Pepsi, who knows exactly what her own body can get up to, and Elrod, a naive young boy who suffers the painful indignities of Bonnie and Pepsi’s entry into the battle of the sexes, sometimes inflicted with gardening shears.
The dark humour in Trots and Bonnie is partly down to the tone of National Lampoon and partly Flenniken’s attack on specific targets, but it also comes from the execution. The strips are drawn to match a classic American newspaper style from the period when absolutely none of Trots and Bonnie‘s subjects would have been mentioned in one. It’s a meticulous pastiche of a 1940s look complete with new decorative title cards at the top of every story, a folksy drawing style to show Bonnie appreciating gay porn or Pepsi stripping off in a children’s talent show, a way to show what’s changing and fast. It’s a poignant comic, with Bonnie’s distance from her own parents reflecting some of Flenniken’s own life; but one strip about a woman raped by a policeman touches on fault lines that haven’t gone anywhere. The strip sees the future in other ways too, not just in the progress and setbacks made since 1972 but also via Trots himself, a horny but cultured talking dog who writes erotic novels, which is Brian Griffin from Family Guy three decades early.