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FunkyWatch: April’s Most Depressing ‘Funky Winkerbean’ and ‘Crankshaft’ Strips

Thanks to Josh Fruhlinger at the Comics Curmudgeon, I started reading Tom Batiuk’s long-running newspaper comic strips, Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft. 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.

This month, Spring has sprung and Tom Batiuk has turned his thoughts to love. And by “love,” I of course mean the brutal deceptions that create a web of teenage heartbreak. It’s pretty great. Plus, in a surprising development, Crankshaft is about old people dying!

Truly, April is the cruelest month. And that’s just how Tom Batiuk likes it.Crankshaft, April 30:

Normally, Batiuk and Chuck Ayers use Crankshaft to examine the more common failings of the human condition, like constant death, infirmity, and the unthinkable scourge of puns. As April drew to a close, however, things got kicked up a notch into full-on cosmic horror.

For those of you who are blissfully less familiar with the strip — and I assure you, you have my envy — the mailbox that has been reduced to a smoking crater is destroyed on a pretty regular basis when Crankshaft runs it over. Because really, we can all agree that there’s nothing that makes for a better comedy than a bus full of children swerving off the road so that its driver can commit petty vandalism, right? This time, though, an actual meteorite is involved, because apparently, the unfathomable forces of the universe have set themselves against Crankshaft’s friend (?) and mortal enemy, George Keesterman. That’s him quaking with a rage that he dares not voice in the last panel.

On the other hand, it’s always been clear that the forces controlling the Funkyverse are set in opposition to all that lives. At least Keesterman got a warning shot rather than having one drop directly onto his head.

Crankshaft, April 17:

In addition to the terrors of deep space, this month’s Crankshaft plots also included a week of ‘the School Bus Drivers Rodeo.” There’s a little bit of actual driving involved, but for the most part, the competition seems skewed directly towards cruelty to children.

It’s… I mean, there isn’t even a metaphor here anymore. Ed Crankshaft is literally being awarded points by a governing body for his ability to make children miserable. That is what is happening in this strip.

Crankshaft, April 18:

And on the second day, things move from the inconvenience of wet shoes to literally testing his aptitude for injuring children. The fact that the dudes running the competition are visibly giddy at what’s going on is weird enough, Crankshaft’s easy smile as he looks over his shoulder at the broken body of the crash test dummy is literally the most peaceful and content that I have ever seen him. The pain of others is the only thing that eases his troubled, pun-filled mind, and this shadowy cabal is rewarding him for indulging his most hateful impulses.

Seriously, what in the hell is going on up in Ohio?!

Crankshaft, April 13:

In more Looneytunesian news, this month’s other major plot involved Crankshaft ordering a ridiculous amount of stuff from “the garden catalog,” including, I kid you not, a device that emitted a super-sonic whistle that was used in the strip in order to terrorize a neighbor with a hearing aid.

Personally, I was hoping this would lead to a series of strips where having suspicious electronics and a large amount of fertilizer delivered to his house would earn the ‘Shaft a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay and an interrogation as an enemy combatant, but that was not to be. Instead, we get the idea of Crankshaft purchasing a vicious, possibly rabid coyote and letting it roam around the neighborhood, and to be honest, that’s almost as good.

Crankshaft, April 3:

In other news, all of Crankshaft’s friends are dead or dying.

Funky Winkerbean, April 9:

As I’ve mentioned before, Tom Batiuk’s approach to slang is very… unique in that it never sounds like anything a human being has actually said in the entirety of recorded history. With this strip, he has once again hit the heights of “the vendos” and the infamous “solo car date.”

The use of “a couple of tick tocks” makes me think that Batiuk’s idea of how a high school bully sounds has somehow gotten mixed up with one of the old timey gangsters from Dick Tracy, but “kick your butt off?” That is both downright inexplicable and somehow truly amazing. I want that to be the way that we actually refer to a savage beating from here on out: “He really kicked his butt off.”

That said, and this is just a thought here, if you feel the need to have your character point out that the joke he made himself is funny, it probably isn’t.

Funky Winkerbean, April 20:

The whole ordeal with the bully led to Cody being rescued by Summer, which kicked off a plot in which he attempted to woo her via anonymous text messages. Not to belabor the point here, but c’mon, Funky Winkerbean. Get with the times. Everyone knows that the best way to impress ladies these days is through hilarious tweets about Batman and Jem.

Anyway, when the anonymous texts started to get equally anonymous replies, Cody thought Summer was falling for him, it turned out to be his own best friend Owen. This was, for the record, the only moment in this story that was even remotely interesting, as I thought it was a swerve to set up next month’s story of two boys going to prom together, but that was not to be. It in the single least interesting story of teenage romance texting (or “trexting”) that the media could possibly deliver, it just turned out Owen was also in love with Summer.

Ah, young love! That most wondrous of feelings that inevitably leads best friends to turn on each other with vicious and hurtful lies!

Funky Winkerbean, April 23:

This one’s not so much depressing, but “I’ll show you who’s fantasizing!” is probably the least threatening exit line someone could possibly have. In this strip, it’s understood that everyone’s pretty awesome at escaping into a world of delusions rather than dealing with harsh reality.

Funky Winkerbean, April 24:

Case in point: Cody’s one attempt to actually talk to Summer is derailed when some other student rolls up to ask her on a date. And just to pour a little salt in the wound of a nerdy heart, he asks her to go see Spider-Man. Summer begs off since she has to go look at colleges, but that doesn’t really matter. The real action here is panel three, where Batiuk has once again offered up his truly amazing visual signifier of crushed dreams.

As a visual medium, comics have developed a unique language for expressing things, like the sweat drops jumping off someone when they’re trying to pick up something heavy. For most people working in comic strips, I imagine this usually translates to figuring out how to underscore a punchline or a wacky situation. Batiuk, on the other hand, has perfected The Creeping Black Cloud of Isolation and Despair, slowly blotting out whatever inner light happiness once provided.

Funky Winkerbean, April 28:

But what’s this?! Just when you thought we were only going to have to make do with only one heartbroken teenager (and one whose fear of rejection has prevented him from even voicing his feelings to his best friend), we suddenly get another! The nameless blonde student who is rejected purely by circumstance!

So, suck on that, Youth of America! All your fancy gadgets and sexting and attempts to express affection for another human being will lead to nothing but broken hearts and despair! Everybody loses forever!

Set yourself up for more disappointment with ComicsAlliance’s 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 Oregon Live or your local newspaper.

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