I don’t know how old I was when I first read Shary Flennikens Trot and Bonniebut I was definitely not old enough. I was a precocious reader and pretty sex-obsessed with a kid, and my parents would buy National Lampoon every now and then and leave it where it could fall into my unsupervised little hands (parenting was a completely different animal in 1984, kids). I couldn’t have been more than seven, but the experience is as clear and important as if it happened yesterday: there was something here that looked friendly and childlike, but it was dangerous. It was confusing, it was weird, and it was very, very hot.
When I was of legal age, I had bet National Lampoon on my mental back burner. I wouldn’t say I forgot Trot and Bonnie, but I had kept it deep in my subconscious, where it formed a foundation of my sensitivity that I would only realize years later. When I got back to the flick in my twenties, it was like seeing a long-lost and deeply loved friend. I also realized that I had ripped off Shary for years. Those empty eyes of Little Orphan Annie, the happy willingness to be utterly gross, the heady mix of raunch and innocence – all things that seeped through my own mind and heart and blended into my own work, a faint echo of the masterful original .
How do you explain Trot and Bonnie to the uninitiated? It’s a bit like Little nemo, if Little nemo had been drawn for and by perverts. The title characters are a girl in early teens, Bonnie, and her dry, horny dog Trots. Bonnie stands as a kind of wise fool who observes the often sanctimonious, sometimes hedonistic world around him with the openness and freshness of a child and the lust of a dirty old man (if parenting was different in the eighties, drawing was different that Seventies: A strip in which a young teen erases literary porn written by her dog could raise more complaints than eyebrows in today’s cultural climate. Bonnie’s floppy pants and sloppy demeanor paired with Trot’s shrewd, wise role heralds Bud Fishers Mutt and Jeff. The drawing is lyrical and loving – all floating lines and flat textures, like an Erté drawn in the girls’ bathroom in a particularly poorly run reformer. Flenniken draws like an angel but, like Caravaggio, prefers the company of sinners.
Bonnie’s adventures are more quotidian than Nemo’s, but no less wild. The land between girls and women is stranger and more troubling than anything Winsor McCay has ever come up with. The monsters that roam their landscape are real: neighborhood drunks, loveless parents, and the biggest fool of them all, puberty. Yet she moves through the world with amiable joy, in danger and yet never a victim. Her hair is a half-androgynous shaggy; Her high-waisted, wide pants hide the horny monster that is throbbing underneath. Her more mundane best friend, Pepsi, wears an inappropriately childish apron paired with fishnet stockings, a perfect metaphor for the terrible underage sex fiend she is. When Pepsi raves about condoms or proudly proclaims that their perfect gentleman friend has “the smallest dick in eighth grade,” it’s both funny and deeply annoying. The supporting character Elrod, a younger boy from the neighborhood, gets the worst impulses: shot, mutilated and drowned like an X-rated Wile E. Coyote. Their world is brutal and horny and disgusting, but full of heart and fierce solidarity with the point of view of their main inhabitants.
What Flenniken understands and cheerfully puts aside is that teenage girls are positively feral and that teenage girls are both threatened and themselves threatened. J. M. Barrie tells us in Peter Pan that children are “gay and innocent and heartless” and that little madman got it right – that is the terrible power of children, the monstrous innocence that makes them capable of anything, a state of being that we laboriously call “pure” describe. You throw loads of hormones into a child’s body and suddenly you have this terrible hybrid creature: a change with the self-centeredness and lack of impulse control of a child, but the body and urges of a breeding adult. It’s a dangerous time in a young woman’s life, but like most dangers, it also has a messy, super-hot, fun side. Speaking openly of this funny side is difficult for adults to say the least. We remember, if at all, a feverish dream, a sticky, damp jungle of lust and stench. Adults need to blind themselves to the sexual power of eighth graders for reasons that I sincerely hope are obvious. But the kids can see each other head-on and practice their sexuality with the grace and care of a toddler wearing an AK-47. Flenniken dares to write and draw out of this swamp without moralizing the morality of the adult world or being editorially reserved. “Moralizing” and “holding back” may not have been for everyone when she created these strips, but there is still a boldness in her work that I imagine as electrifying then as it is now.
Bonnie and Pepsi are obsessed with sex, but they’re not here for the male gaze. Her wish is open and straightforward and more than a little insane, and it’s portrayed with a haunting honesty that feels less like a political statement than more like Flenniken going without a filter, with no safety net and with no intention of telling about the Front report anything but the truth. Trot and Bonnie ran into the late eighties, but it was born out of a seventies worldview, a decadent carnival where thirteen you wouldn’t get twenty. The hangover from that era was vicious and the social course correction needed, but the importance of hearing from girls of the era rather than men who liked to play girls of the era cannot be overstated. Bonnie doesn’t masturbate in the bathroom because she wants you to watch. She does it because her body is hers and she is fucking horny.
As a kid, I was confused and intrigued by these strips. As a twenty year old, I was once again amazed by her sassy, anarchic bragging rights and cake-eyed charm. At forty-two, I’m so far from lawless, deeply screwed-up Eden that Trot and Bonnie inhabited that it may as well document life among the Stone Age clans. Part of me wants to call protection services – have I become a scolding or just a mother? Barrie tells us that those who are no longer gay and innocent and heartless can no longer fly. Being earthbound is the price we may pay for our experience in this world, and there may be a risk to identify with the wingcutters of this world to understand danger and value security. But when I look at these strips I feel an echo of this old and wild joy, a distant memory of the time when I lived in these countries. Would I go back there if I could? Probably not, but we are so fortunate to have a mapper of our most treacherous and rewarding landscapes in Shary Flenniken. Would we all have balls like this?
Emily Flake is a cartoonist and illustrator. Your work was published in The New Yorker, the New York Times, timeand many other publications. Your weekly comic, Lulu Eightball, has appeared in numerous alternative weekly newspapers since 2002. She lives in Brooklyn.
Excerpt from Trot and Bonnieby Shary Flenniken, published this week by New York Review Comics. Text Copyright © 2021 by Emily Flake. All images are copyright © 2021 by Shary Flenniken.