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FunkyWatch: April’s 10 Most Depressing ‘Funky Winkerbean’ Strips

Thanks to Josh Fruhlinger at the Comics Curmudgeon, I started reading Tom Batiuk’s long-running newspaper comic strip, Funky Winkerbean. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, what started as a strip full of wacky high-school hijinx has slowly transitioned into being an inescapable quagmire of despair. It is, without question, the single most depressing long-form work in comics history.

And I am completely obsessed with it.

That’s why today, I’ve rounded up another month’s worth of absolute sorrow in handy comic strip form to bring you April’s Most Depressing Funky Winkerbean strips! And this was a good one, featuring the deadly potential of technology, the deaths of cast members both old and new, and even a guest appearance by terrorism!

Well… maybe “good” is the wrong word.#10. April 1

While other strips were making April Fool’s Day jokes, Funky Winkerbean was kicking off the month by sending an ambulance to a high school. The height of comedy!

This strip was actually a holdover from last month, when Mallory switched classes rather than spend time with someone below her station in the rigid class system set up and enforced to make Westview’s citizens familiar with being beaten down by life as young as possible. Apparently, the crushing weight of despair has caused her to physically collapse, but honestly, she should’ve seen that coming when she transferred out of the “Family Living” course and into “Harsh Economic Realities.”

#9. April 4

This month, however, introduced two new plots, starting with Bull Bushka, the current gym coach at Westview High, reminiscing about his days as the school’s resident bully. Considering how he manages a smile at the end of the strip after being represented by a drawing of a sad turtle in the first panel, one assumes that he draws comfort from these golden memories of thrashing weaker students.

Also, for added pathos, this story is being related to the daughter of the guy he used to beat up, who he is now helping out with physical therapy so that she doesn’t lose her only chance of a college education and eventual happiness. This entire thing is like some drawn out modern-day Sisyphean revenge fantasy falling in on itself like a Möbius strip. Only with slightly more male pattern baldness.

#8. April 15

This month’s second plot is one that I can only assume was thrown in as a reward for people who have managed to read Funky Winkerbean for the past 30 years without downing a bottle of Vicodin and a fifth of whiskey. The blonde guy on the left is Darin, Summer’s half-brother who was given up for adoption when his mother, Les’s dead wife Lisa, gave birth to him in high school. You can see the family resemblance in the rictus of their signature smirks, which I think is a hereditary result of Lisa getting dosed by the Joker in the mid-70s.

On the right is his wife Jess, who has returned so that we can get what’s sure to be an amazing storyline that kicks off with everyone amicably chatting about how her father was murdered. It’s actually a crime that Les solved himself back in the first book he wrote about the tragic death of someone he cared about, which was a financial failure because of course it was, giving her the opportunity to make a documentary about how her father was murdered.

#7. April 13

As if it wasn’t enough that Summer’s expression in this is straight out of Children of the Corn with how eager she seems at the prospect of two other fresh souls being drawn inexorably back to the whirlpool of tragedy that is Westview, it’s Darin and Jess that really sell this one. With him, you’ve got the barely disguised fishing for living arrangements that were clearly scripted on the way over to the Moore household that all but goes straight to “So nobody’s using your mom’s old office, right?”, but on the other, Jess’s head-tilted smile seems genuinely wistful at the prospect of being ousted by her “friends” who just cannot put up with keeping her around while she investigates her father’s murder for her documentary.

#7. April 6

You know, just last month, I was thinking to myself “well, Funky Winkerbean might be a daily litany of sorrow, but at least we’ve never had to see Les Moore urinating on himself.” Touché, Tom Batiuk. Touché.

On the bright side, we get a sterling example of Batiuk’s ear for dialogue with the long-faced lackey who wants to know what “that yellow liquid” is, because that is how anyone ever would identify what’s going on here.

#6. April 9

As it turns out, however, the entire thing with Bull threatening to beat Les up was some kind of Machiavellian hoax to fool Bull’s lackeys. Now, since Bull could probably just tell the other guys to knock off picking on Les, the subtext here is that they orchestrated all this — right down to the “yellow liquid” — so that Les and Bull could get some time alone. With a convenient excuse for any noise that might arise from whatever it is they’re doing. In a closet.

Sure, I might be reading into things, but check out Bull’s sidelong smile, Les’s fond, lingering shoulder pat, the loaded “He took care of me” and Summer’s insufferable knowing smirk. I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track here, and while that in itself isn’t depressing, it certainly puts Les’s obsession with his idealized dead wife and the constant frustration of the two women inexplicably and obviously throwing themselves in an entirely new and way more hilarious light. Ladies, that is what we call the wrong tree.

#4. April 27

In order to support Jess’s patricidal documentary, Darin has found work by getting a job at Westview’s only business, Montoni’s Pizza. I’m sure his MBA will come in very handy there.

His first order of business is modernizing the Montoni’s ordering system with a barcode-reading mobile app, which is immediately quantified in terms of how many fatal accidents and unclaimed pizzas it would result in, which I’m going to go ahead and assume is how Tony Montoni classifies every new experience. The only real surprise, though, is that it’s not Funky himself berating Darin for encouraging traffic fatalities, since it was a careless driver with a cell phone who put him in a coma and sent him back in time to grouse at his past self in the strip that inspired this column’s creation last year.

#3. April 30

Next month is my one year anniversary of reading and writing about Funky Winkerbean, so you’d think I’d have a handle on what exactly was supposed to happen here. I don’t. I am utterly mystified. The only thing that really jumps out at me is that it’s a total dick move for Tony to be keeping a sweet coin-op of Namco’s 1989 classic Bear Wizard in his basement instead of out in his pizzeria’s dining room where everyone could enjoy it. Shame on you, Tony Montoni, for hoarding what I believe is Westview’s only form of entertainment.

If I had to guess, though, I’d say that this is meant to represent Tony being overwhelmed by Darin’s fast-paced world of smartphones, app, text messaging and personal barcorde readers — a very timely topic when the iPhone was released four years ago — and has retreated to find comfort in the only technology he understands. I gotta say, though, the absolute dejected frown on his face and the shaky lines as he lowers himself down the stairs make it seem like he’s just gone down there so that he can wait to die in the blue light of a cathode ray tube.

Pretty grim stuff. Say, how about we cleanse the palate with a look at what’s going on in Batiuk’s “fun” strip, Crankshaft?

#2. Crankshaft, April 10

When they’re not chronicling the depths of the human condition, Batiuk’s strips tend to function as weaponized pun-delivery units, but there are times when those two goals dovetail “nicely.” Such is the case with this one, where Batuk thought up the punchline “connect the Datsun” and then figured that the best way to deliver this one to the folks looking for a few chuckles on a Sunday morning was to put it in a comic about TERRORISM. Seriously: The man is a master.

The best part though, is the way that Chuck Ayers has drawn Crankshaft sitting in his chair, quietly watching this all play out with his fingers clasped like Blofeld in a baseball cap. His plan has failed. This time.

#1. April 2

Over the months that I’ve been reading Funky Winkerbean, I’ve come across a few that have a pretty good shot at being the definitive strip — the Ur-Funky, if you will — but this one might just be the one: An extra-sized Sunday installment featuring five panels of Les silently reading his newspaper before finally biting back his own feelings to make a sacrifice for his daughter, only for the final panel to reveal an obituary.

The deceased character in question is Jack Stropp — get it? — one of the original Funky characters from back when it was a daily comedy strip and not an inexorable death march, which gives his death an entirely new level of symbolism. And of course, he died of cancer. Cancer is to Funky Winkerbean what lasagna is to Garfield.

Still not depressed? Check out the FunkyWatch archives!

Much like CliffsNotes, FunkyWatch is an aid to reading Funky Winkerbean and not a replacement. If you can handle the despair, follow along dailiy at the Houston Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or your local newspaper.

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