The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #9

Posted by on September 1st, 2010 at 12:32 PM

Selecting subjects for this feature, I’m forever torn: do I choose comics with deep personal significance in my life or comics that speak to some universal quality with exceptional grace? Or, alternately, do I pick out the weirdest thing I own and go, “Eat it, TCJ people! I’ve read more obscure comics on the toilet than you have stored in all your longboxes combined! I am the ubernerd!” Most weeks, I think you can tell which path I chose to walk.

This week’s comic is no exception. But after reading it, I’m not going to flush that toilet.

Self-Published Collection of Shary Flenniken Cartoons About the 1977 California Drought
by Shary Flenniken

Shary Flenniken is my favorite cartoonist of whose work I’ve read the least. If, like me, you were a zygote in the ’70s, you can only catch up on her ouvre by spending long afternoons in used bookstores leafing through basement-stanky back issues of National Lampoon. Which I do, but I’d still appreciate it if someone would liberate Flenniken’s beautiful, evil-minded Trots and Bonnie strips from the lacertan clutches of the direct-to-DVD licensors who currently own the National Lampoon brand and put out a big overpriced hardcover for me to buy.

In the meantime, I keep an eye out for old self-published sketchbooks and small paperbacks like this one.

Drought Chic is a 1977 collection of cartoons by Flenniken about the Great Western Drought of that year. For the curious, this article in the Time archives provides an overview of drought panic, including concern at the time that California could turn into another Dust Bowl. The real crisis was on California’s farms, source of a quarter of the nation’s food and consumers of 85% of the state’s water. Several of Flenniken’s strips make reference to Northern California’s wineries and nascent wine culture; the Judgment of Paris had, only a few years before, set into motion the oenological revolution that would someday result in Two-Buck Chuck and people liking Sideways.

But even non-agricultural communities cut their water usage down to the bare minimum, some with government-mandated restrictions, others with voluntary self- and neighborhood policing. People called the cops on neighbors who sneaked out to wash their cars at night. Senators urged their constituents to stop flushing. Everyone drank more booze. Even for Yuppies, it was serious.

Reading Flenniken’s drought cartoons over 30 years later, I’m not surprised by the incredibly narrow focus on a single, short-lived local issue; I’m surprised that more people haven’t done the same thing. I live in California. Massive crises that are equal parts earth-shaking and ridiculous happen on a roughly semiannual basis here. One could easily self-publish a 50-page collection of hilarious comics on any of the following topics:

1. Gay marriage
2. Scientology
3. How we thought it’d be funny to elect the bad guy from “Pumping Iron”
4. That time Enron loaded all our electricity onto trucks and drove it into Utah in the dead of night
5. Having the eighth-largest economy in the world and still running out of money
6. People liking Sideways
7. Comic-Con

Maybe cartoonists today are just less on the ball. I’ve spent the past six months trying to assemble a single comic book with the help of five other people. If I had to produce a collection of comics about a current event before said event made it into middle-school history textbooks, I’d be hosed.

Flenniken’s drought cartoons are inevitably dated, but that’s what makes them interesting. They provide a snapshot of a very particular time, a particular place, a particular panic. Eventually it rained in California, but Drought Chic remained. So thanks, Shary Flenniken! And thanks to the dealer at Supercon in 2008 who inexplicably had a whole stack of copies.

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2 Responses to “The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #9”

  1. jdeguzman says:

    These are great! I was born in 1977, on the day of the year’s first good rain. My mom says all the nurses in the hospital were staring out the window as if they’d never seen rain before.

    I love slice-of-life comic strips. I think of a few every once in a while — about Twitter, about pondering the difference between geeks and nerds in the wake of the “geek chic” and “hot nerd” phenomenon of a couple years back — but I don’t draw, so alas.

  2. Jeff Albertson says:

    ‘Zippy’ by Bill Griffith tracks this sort of stuff really well.