As a teenager growing up in the wildest days of the 1960s counterculture, Shary Flenniken bristled at the sleepy Magnolia neighborhood where her family had settled. She dreamed of finding adventure in far-off New York City and San Francisco, and her Seattle upbringing felt like a dreary dead end in comparison.
To while away the time until she could leave Magnolia behind, Flenniken told me over the phone recently, she got lost in her parents’ bookshelves. “They had really nice, big collections of New Yorker cartoons and Superman comics,” Flenniken says, and she’d soak up every line. “I just devoured that stuff. I was a super-reader.” Her father, a Navy admiral, was an amateur cartoonist, but his tolerance for irreverence only went so far. “My dad pretty much ripped up my early MAD magazines,” Flenniken says. “He was like that.”
After graduating from Queen Anne High School, Flenniken attended the Burnley School of Professional Art on Capitol Hill, which offered rigorous training for generations of Northwestern sign-painters and designers of print advertisements. In her free time, she started illustrating covers and comics for the fleet of underground newspapers that were springing up around Seattle in those days: the Helix, the Seattle Simpleton and the Seattle Liberation Front’s flagship title, Sabot.
After a few false starts, Flenniken ran off to San Francisco and joined the Air Pirates, a notorious California satirical cartooning collective, in 1971. She was so fed up with strait-laced Seattle at the time that she thought she might never return.
As an exercise, the Air Pirates “did improvisational comics work,” Flenniken says. “And one of the things that we did to facilitate that was to look at the art style of other cartoonists who had come before us, like E.C. Segar, who did ‘Popeye.’” As her muse, Flenniken selected H.T. Webster, an influential early-20th-century cartoonist of vaudevillian characters like Caspar Milquetoast. Other members of the Air Pirates incorporated profane adaptations of old Mickey Mouse comics and characters into their work, and Disney eventually sued the organization into dissolution.
After moving to New York City, Flenniken met National Lampoon editor Michel Choquette, who asked her if she wanted to do a regular strip for the magazine. Flenniken’s immersion into early-20th-century comic strip reprints came in handy.
“Having a regular character is very important if you want to be successful doing comics, so your work should be character-driven,” she says. Flenniken decided to center her strip on a rebellious teenage girl not unlike herself. “I named her Bonnie, after a dog I had as a child,” she says. But every protagonist needs a sidekick to talk to, and so Flenniken sketched out Bonnie’s sardonic talking dog and named him Trots, “which had something to do with, um, pooping,” she says.
“Trots and Bonnie” ran in National Lampoon for 18 years, and the strip’s juxtaposition of elegant old-fashioned cartooning skill and filthy ultramodern comedy attracted a rabid fan base of cartooning aficionados. Bonnie and her faithful pup represent Flenniken’s raging id, let loose in retrospect on the manicured lawns of Magnolia.
Even though she was about as far from Seattle as she could geographically get in the United States, Seattle still figured prominently in Flenniken’s work. As a student at Magnolia’s Blaine Junior High School (now Blaine Middle School), Bonnie fails to complete a scale model of the Atlantic Ocean in time for a science fair, a scene which Flenniken says is “completely taken from my life.” Bonnie takes Trots for walks along the Seattle waterfront to pick up some fish and chips. They stroll the beach at Discovery Park. They skulk around, as Flenniken puts it, “the passion pits up on Magnolia Boulevard.”
Flenniken illustrates all these settings as paradisiacal — clean, ordered, welcoming — and then she lets her demons loose in them. Nothing is taboo in “Trots and Bonnie” — the strip features graphic sexual situations, drug use and jokes about gender and race that would make many contemporary stand-up comedians blush.
“My work is very much revenge-oriented,” Flenniken says. “I was able to take revenge on my neighborhood and the people I’d gone to school with and my parents in a national magazine. And for what it’s worth, I can’t say it was totally satisfying. But it did make for a lot of material.”
“Trots and Bonnie” became a sensation, a kind of “Calvin and Hobbes” for adult audiences. Readers bored with the antiseptic, overly merchandised funny pages of the 1980s were eager to follow Flenniken’s so-called “dark little feminist monster” around the suburbs, offering wry commentary on sexual harassment, vapid narcissism and the roiling emotional turmoil of children.
When National Lampoon stopped running “Trots and Bonnie” in 1990, fans began clamoring for a collected edition of the strip they could keep on their bookshelves. Flenniken courted multiple offers to reprint the strips, but no publisher could live up to the exacting standards she envisioned for the project. Over the last 30 years, the strip took on legendary status, with fans buying musty back issues of the Lampoon and assembling their own bootleg “Trots and Bonnie” editions.
Finally, Flenniken was approached by the prestigious New York Review of Books, and their collection of “Trots and Bonnie” finally arrived in bookstores this week. Flenniken took great care to reproduce all the strips from her original illustrations, capturing details in the art that the Lampoon’s relatively crude mass market printing couldn’t manage at the time.
“Anyone who was interested in publishing the collection before was not willing to go to the trouble to make it look this good,” Flenniken says with audible relief. “It was really important that the New York Review of Books was so conscientious of wanting to capture the beauty of it.”
Dirty jokes aside, with its wistful watercolor suburbs and lush, inky black-and-white strips, “Trots and Bonnie” is a beautiful object that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the shelves beside those giant comics collections that Flenniken lost herself in as a child. It’s a book that recontextualizes Flenniken, giving her back her rightful place in a largely male-dominated alternative comics pantheon.
This luxurious new edition is far from the only dramatic reappraisal in Flenniken’s life. After “Trots and Bonnie” retired from National Lampoon, Flenniken moved back to her childhood home in Magnolia, where she still lives today.
“I have such a strong connection to Seattle,” she says now. In 1995, Flenniken edited “Seattle Laughs,” a seminal anthology famous for its rare comics contributions from local literary icons Tess Gallagher and Charles Johnson, along with early work from Seattle comics superstars like Ellen Forney and Jim Woodring. She still publishes strips in The American Bystander magazine, and she occasionally drops new comics, like the autobiographical “Two Older White Women Trying to Understand Systemic Racism,” into her Instagram feed.
After exacting her revenge on Seattle in cartoon form over two decades, Flenniken has become a model Seattleite. She helped prepare an emergency earthquake management plan that could save lives in Magnolia and Queen Anne if the Big One ever hits. Now that she’s fully vaccinated, Flenniken can’t wait to get back to attending community meetings, and she’s worked up a redesign for the Magnolia Bridge that would turn the outdated infrastructure into a park.
Above all else, Flenniken wants readers of her hometown paper to understand that “I care about my garden and I really care about my community.” It was a long and rewarding journey through the counterculture, but she’s finally found her way home.