Shary Flenniken: Feminist Comix Artist Launched out of a Missile Silo

www.sharyflenniken.com

Shary Flenniken is a United States citizen and artist, editor and writer who has worked extensively through the medium of comics. She has gained notoriety for her talent for both illustrating and writing. She was born in the year 1950 and grew up as a “military kid.” She was raised in a few areas in the northwestern quadrant of the globe. Her father, a cartoonist himself, encouraged her development as a cartoon artist. After attending an art school in the state of Washington, she found an inviting artistic environment creating illustrations for an underground newspaper (Flenniken).

While working on an assignment at a rock-n-roll festival, she encountered a trio of underground comix artists with whom she would join forces with to produce Air Pirates Funnies in the underground comix mecca that was the early 1970s in San Francisco. Eventually, a representative from the National Lampoon humor magazine contacted Flenniken due to the magazine’s interest in her work and the magazine regularly published her comic strips including Trots and Bonnie. Some of her friends and colleagues in the comics business include Doug Kenny, Chris Miller, Anne Beatts, Michael O’Donohugh, Tony Hendra, Matty Simmons, Charles Rodrigues, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, Gahan Wilson, Randy Enos, Sean Kelly, Brian McConnachie, Jerry Sussman, Bobby London, Ted Richards, Dan O’Neill, Gary Hallgren, and Terry Southern. Flenniken was married twice and is now a widow. She resides in Seattle. She has written screenplays and currently does freelance work for books and magazines (Flenniken).

The themes of Shary Flenniken’s work as an underground comix artist bolstered the popular (counter)culture manifestation of a feminist movement in 1970s United States. Her incorporation of the funny animal genre—a dog character’s dialog contributing to the social and political commentaries in her long running series Trots and Bonnie—adeptly addressed feminist and women’s issues and philosophies. Perhaps a reaction to the cultural shift back towards domesticity for women after WWII, the movement often called Second-Wave Feminism was a political activism movement that fought for, and lead to, the winning of several enhancements in women’s rights. The movement challenged the status quo in American society’s treatment of reproductive rights, family dynamics, legal rights, gender roles, occupational concerns, and domestic violence. Underground comix and newspapers were the media in which many of these bold artists began satirizing the patriarchal paradigms in United States society and amplifying the dialog surrounding women’s interests and perspectives.

Comix anthologies like It Ain’ t Me, Babe, Wimmen’ s Comix, and the outrageously named Tits and Clits were forums for new women cartoonists to communicate previously taboo subjects that mattered to them and to their readers: sexual harassment, abortion, lesbianism, single motherhood, sex and sexism – and certain not-yet legal drugs. Some of the cartoonists to emerge from this period were Lee Marrs, Shary Flenniken, Roberta Gregory, and Trina Robbins (Robbins).

As a reaction to the incredible level of misogynistic objectification and hypersexualization of women in popular media, feminist artists like Flenniken often chose to share their insight into, and illuminate, the subject matter of women’s sexuality.

Shary Flenniken’s work spoke to such topics as sexual education, puberty, contraceptive methods, sexual orientation, objectification of women in the media, and the diversity of reproductive anatomy, among other topics. A cover of Flenniken’s French comic Sexe et Amour (see Fig. 1 below) features a man and woman apparently in the act of lovemaking, the woman exclaiming, “I love you,” and the man replying, “Don’t shit.”

sexe-et-amour-1989-flenniken

Comic image by Shary Flenniken, copywrite Comics USA 1990*

His reply more accurately translates to “Give me a break,” or “Don’t mess with me,” or “Don’t bullshit me.” The woman holds the man’s head andhe holds her shoulder and waist. The dialog and text work together to convey the contrast between each gender’s ideas about intimacy.

A 1979 Trots and Bonnie page features young women, ostensibly at a slumber party, discussing offensive misconceptions about male homosexuality, and comparing it briefly to female homosexuality, before ending, as the title often does, with an ironic punchline delivered by dog character, Trots.

Another Trots and Bonnie strip involves an older woman, seemingly Bonnie’s mother interrupting Bonnie’s reading to lecture her. The expressive mother figure offers an inept and blunt warning to a stone-faced Bonnie about the tragic and lasting significance of menstruation. The drawing of the mother figure as constantly shifting on the sofa in each frame, as well as her soliloquy’s increasingly pessimistic tone, make menstruation sound like an enormous ordeal—a sort of prison sentence that half of the human race is destined to suffer and endure. Female birth control methods—some of which have properties that often mitigate these troubles—such as hormonal contraceptive pills, were just introduced on a mass scale in the United States in the 1960s.

A Trots and Bonnie comic strip from 1988 sets the reader into the seat of two sex-ed. classrooms, after a contradictory introduction to the subject by a busty blonde teacher, the young ladies and men are split off according to their gender to receive two wildly different versions of the “nitty-gritty” from an older woman teacher and older man teacher respectively. The girl’s expert sex educator preaches puritanical abstinence, while her male counterpart starts off in similar fashion and then abruptly changes his tune to encourage the boys to seek out who he defines essentially as “sluts” to have sex with—being sure to use condoms. In a scene-to-scene transition, Bonnie and Pepsi are reading an absurdly outdated textbook entitled “Your Body Down There” adding to the strip’s theme that young women are inadequately informed about their sexuality and sexual development. Again, Trots—a zoomorphized representation of masculinity—paws his way into having the last comic word, expressing his desire to enjoy more sex with another dog while trying not to pick up an STI. Flenniken’s treatment of femininity versus masculinity is another theme of her work, and many of the manifestations of this theme concern more political subject matter.

A particularly popular Trots and Bonnie strip presented Bonnie and two of her friends, Pepsi and Elrod playing doctor in a garden toolshed. Pepsi as a female surgeon is arguably a feminist portrayal simply by representing a prestigious professional occupation in a female character, however the strip dedicates most of its content to the (play/unqualified) surgeon’s task at hand, the botched vasectomy of young Elrod. Acting nurse Bonnie is unware of the type of operation to be performed as she hands Pepsi a menacingly large pair of shears, and when Pepsi informs her, Trots cannot resist the temptation to “break the third wall” as it were, and interject to emphasize how typical it is of Pepsi to be concerned with sexual matters. In the next panel, Pepsi reveals with a grin complementing Elrod’s that the operation is a condition of an accordance she came to with Elrod—he may have sex with her so long as he allows her to render him infertile. Three of the four characters are active in the strip, Elrod being the patient, passive “odd man out.”

Flenniken plays up the funny (wise, crass) animal genre/trope in this strip, as Trots interjects with a pun. Finally, the seemingly preoccupied Bonnie divulges her thoughts regarding Trots undergoing the animal equivalent of Elrod’s procedure, and Trots’ overreaction appears to be the mechanism of mayhem and misfortune by jumping half-way onto the operating table, causing the surgeon to slip and Elrod to scream in agony as his genitals are severed.

While the strip may at first glance seem simply a bawdy example of physical comedy, its undertones about the politics of each gender’s responsibility to provide and use some method of birth control—intentionally having Pepsi (the young woman) putting the responsibility on Elrod (the young man) to ensure their sexual interactions will yield no children—is pointedly “putting the shoe on the other foot,” as far as American society’s expectations and mores concerning gender on this issue, as it were. The fact that Pepsi is not only suggesting/requiring the operation, but also performing the it herself, combined with the fact that that he is probably too young to give informed medical consent to such a procedure, (and both of them probably too young to be sexually active, despite their best intentions and precautionary thinking), further augments the ironic mix of the rational—contraceptives and STI protection being at the very least both partner’s mutual responsibility—and the absurd—the degree of the naivety and gusto of the youths culminating in an extremely dangerous and ill-fated attempt at medically produced sexual sterilization. Flenniken has an affinity for bringing feminist thinking into collaborative works in which her creative influence is consequentially more limited or at least required to adapt to someone else’s writing.

A frame in a more contemporary illustrative work of Flenniken’s in Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson published in 2004, brings subtle feminist commentary into a male-dominated story. The four-page comic story contains only three characters (when defined as those figures given dialog or written about in narration)—all males, however Flenniken represents women in three of the thirty-three panels of the comic. The third frame of the comic shows a naked, voluptuous woman from behind as she is being painted by the doctor while spectators look on through the windows. The text in the panel, “And nothing they took more delight in than to see others painted” (Pomlun), is Stevenson’s, which makes it clear that Flenniken’s concept of the frame’s art is entirely hers, presumably derived from what came to her mind when she read that line of the short story. To enunciate the feminist comments the panel is making: “big is beautiful” is an obvious one, as the female figure is drawn in a gentle and unassuming style, while women’s inability to escape society’s objectification and the attention of voyeurs is also clearly indicated.

Shary Flenniken’s work is both delightful and insightful, and it is deserving of popular attention and critical analysis. While her work has certainly attained some degree of such regard and scholarship, there is plenty of fertile ground in her title’s fictional universes in which fruitful knowledge may yet be cultivated and harvested. As Trina Robbins pointed out years ago, “It’s really weird the way leftists and militant feminists don’t seem to like comix. I think they’re so hung up on their own intellect that somehow it isn’t any good to them unless it’s a sixteen-page tract of gray words” (Galvan). This sentiment is slowly changing, and women’s studies scholarly journals and comics journals alike have, especially in the “ought decade,” begun to dissect Flenniken’s brand of sequential art. Comprehensive analyses of artist’s work merit study, as does analysis of more discrete portions and aspects of artist’s work. The occurrence of the skillful women comics of the underground was not only a chance occurrence or “happy accident,” but rather a cultural backlash to the male-dominated nature of comics at the time, as DuBois said, “all art is propaganda and ever must be.” Art’s reciprocal relationship with society, i.e. “art imitates/influences life and vice versa,” is a well-established soft scientific law. Art work like Shary Flenniken’s is an instance of a critical and aesthetically beautiful (at the least within comix aesthetic values) foundation for discourse on issues of overcoming oppression that any society desperately needs.

References & Notes:

*It is my belief and intent that my use of the Sexe et Amour cover falls under fair use, I have no reason to believe the comic in question is still being printed or redistributed. I believe it is owned by Comics USA and copywritten in 1990.

Dueben, Alex. “Features: An Oral History of Wimmen’s Comix Part 2.” The Comics Journal, 6 Apr. 2016. http://www.tcj.com/an-oral-history-of-wimmens-comix-part-2/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Duncan, Randy, Matthew J. Smith, and Paul Levitz. “Exploring Meanings in Comic Book Texts.”The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009. 345-51. Pdf. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. “Biography.” Shary Flenniken, 2009. www.sharyflenniken.com. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. 1974. Unknown p. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/e3/b7/b4/e3b7b437b7b8a8d077d765b63b6c3cd9.jpg. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. 1979. Unknown p. http://i.imgur.com/07gDIO9.jpg. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Trots and Bonnie. n.d. Unknown p. http://66.media.tumblr.com/af312d3ea9ba4ac055000a9e60573b72/tumblr_inline_nlbbdtbHP61rw2t38.jpg  Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. Sexe et Amour. 1984. Unknown p. https://www.le-livre.fr/photos/R26/R260132965.jpg. Cover. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Flenniken, Shary. “Trots and Bonnie.” In Stitches A Patchwork of Feminist Humor and Satire. Ed. Kaufman, Gloria. Google Books. p 87. Web. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Mann, Ron., et al. Comic Book Confidential. Digitally remastered version; full screen. Chicago, Ill.: Public Media Inc., 2002. DVD.

Merino, Ana. “Feminine Territoriality: Reflections on the Impact of the Underground and Post-Underground.” International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 10, no. 2, Fall 2008. Translated by Elizabeth Polli. pp 70-88. EBSCO Host. Web. Accessed 3 Oct. 2016.

Noomin, Dian and Lasko-Gross, Miss and Robbins, Trina. Interview by Martha Kennedy. “Graphic Novels Panel 2: Book Fest 2015,” 5 Sept. 2015. Washington, D.C. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=6887. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

Robbins, Trina. “Women in Comics: An Introductory Guide.” National Association of Comics Art Editors. teachingcomics.org http://www.readingwithpictures.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/Women-in-Comics-An-Introductory-Course.pdf. pp 1-10. Accessed 2 Oct. 2016.