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FunkyWatch: August’s Most Depressing (and Confusing) ‘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.

Over the past month, Batiuk has reached new highs (or lows, as the case may be) in chronicling the wretched, godforsaken lives of his cast of characters, and if you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ll know that he had to pull out something special. Something even more alarming than Les Moore’s romantic entanglements. That’s right everybody — we’re talking about cross-time head trauma.Funky Winkerbean, August 8

Before we get to that, though, there are still plenty of other misery-filled plot threads left over from last month that need to be resolved, specifically Les getting a movie option for the book he wrote about his wife dying of cancer. And don’t worry, just in case you forget that’s what the book was about, Batiuk offers plenty of reminders.

Anyway, you’d think this would be good news — if nothing else, Les could maybe bank a little bit of that option money for his daughter’s college fund, what with her dreams of a basketball scholarship maybe getting crushed with a painful knee injury back in February — but in Westview, there is no good news that cannot be twisted to result in still more suffering. As evidence, I give Les Moore’s glum face as he hears that having someone make a movie out of his book is an event not unlike watching someone feast on the flesh of his offspring. Welcome back to Funky Winkerbean, everybody!

Funky Winkerbean, August 2

I’m not gonna lie, folks: You could tell me that it cost a thousand dollars and I’d have to drive to Ohio to get it, and I would still preorder a Funky Winkerbean video game right now if I could.

I’ve recently been catching up with XBox owners from 3 years ago by playing Fallout 3 — a game that takes place 200 years after a nuclear war, in which you can actually find the diary detailing how everyone in a group that survived the initial blast slowly died of radiation poisoning — and as grim and bleak as that game’s atmosphere might be, Batiuk could make the makers of that game look like rank amateurs. Can you even imagine?

Would you take on the role of Les or Funky, pressing X to smirk and keeping your eye on a “Happiness Meter” that never gets above “Morose?” Or would you take on the role of Batiuk, unleashing the horrors of the human condition on an unsuspecting populace in some bastard child of SimCity and Pandemic 2? I have never wanted to buy a game and play it exactly one time so much.

Funky Winkerbean, August 29

In other news, Les quite literally envies the dead. Then again, that’s not news.

It is pretty interesting that, for his first time meeting his girlfriend’s father, Les decides to open by telling him that he’s a writer who doesn’t really write all that often. “Yeah, I have a real hard time committing to things I think I want. Sometimes I just abandon them, half-finished,” he says to his new girlfriend’s father. “As a result, I’m pretty much a total failure, although my latest book just got optioned for a movie. It was about my wife, Lisa. She died, you know. I still fantasize about talking to her, and even ask her for permission to do things. Are those burgers done?”

You might think I’m reading too much into things, but take a look at Mr. Wiliams’ face. That is not the face of a man smiling politely at some idiot’s self-depricating jokes. That’s a guy who has developed an intense, seething hatred of Les Moore. I recognize it from the mirror.

Funky Winkerbean, August 8

Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some people like that whole introduction-via-smirking-self-deprecation gag so much that they use it twice in less than a month. Different strokes.

Also, for real, Coach? You live in a town whose major exports are schadenfreude and human misery, and you name your daughter Jinx?! That’s asking for it.

Funky Winkerbean, August 10

One of the things that legitimately impresses me about the Funky-verse is how intricately the characters are all connected to each other in this vast, overarching web of tragedies, and how it leads to amazing things like people introducing themselves to each other by listing them off.

For instance, we have Jessica, whose father (John Darling) was murdered when his spin-off strip ended, a mystery that was later solved by Les in his first book (a commercial failure). She’s married to Darin, a boy that Lisa gave up for adoption when she got teen pregnant, and who was reunited with her just in time for Lisa to die of cancer. Now, according to her hollow-eyed silhouette, she makes documentaries (that no one watches) in order to feel closer to the father she never knew! Welcome to the party, Jinx. Hope you survive the experience.

Funky Winkerbean, August 24

This one’s not particularly depressing; I just wanted to point out that “Pizzfast” is one of the most disgusting words I have ever encountered. Pizzfast.

Crankshaft, August 15

For those of you just joining us, Tom Batiuk also does another strip with artist Chuck Ayers that’s set in the same universe as Funky Winkerbean called Crankshaft. It’s about a horrible old man who hates everything and doesn’t know the right words for things, and is, to my understanding, meant as a pun-delivery system that’s a little more lighthearted than the carcinogenic shenanigans that he gets up to in Funky.

In this one, the old lady is upset because her favorite soap opera went off the air, and now she wants to die! What a riot!

Funky Winkerbean, August 16, 2011

Some of you may have wondered why it was suddenly important for Les to meet Cayla’s family, and now you have your horrifying answer: This month, Les proposed to Cayla. As in marriage. As in shackling himself to another human being who for some reason did not run screaming the moment she first heard the words spilling out of his smirking sad-sack mouth.

Now, I’m a single guy — I know, I know, “You’re single? A guy who spends a lot of his time writing about Funky Winkerbean? We are thoroughly shocked!” — but even I know that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t preface your marriage proposal by continuing to talk constantly about your dead first wife.

Funky Winkerbean, August 17

Ugh. This guy. Because what marriage proposal would be complete without sharing memories of cancer? So romantic!

The fact that Les continues to ramble on about his dead wife while his current lady love sits in a mute stupor isn’t much of a surprise, but I was a little taken aback by that last panel. See, I’m a relatively new Funky reader, and while I’ve done as much research as I can without writing a note that starts “by the time you read this, I’ll be dead,” I’ve never actually read through all of the “Lisa’s Story” comics.

As a result, I had no idea that the story of Lisa’s death began with a friendly game of touch football on a sunny afternoon. But then, of course it did. How else was the universe supposed to react to a group of people trying to scrape whatever joy they could out of the world?

Between that, the running gag of Westview High’s constant defeats and Summer’s knee injury, though, it does make me wonder if every single story that Tom Batiuk writes that involves any sort of sport inevitably ends in some kind of tragedy.

There’s no way he’d do that every time, right?

Crankshaft, August 27

BAM.

Can we see that again from another angle?

Crankshaft, August 29

This strip is amazing.

First of all, there’s the fact that Batiuk and Ayers thought a girl getting a line drive straight to the skull was something they needed to show twice, from different angles, presumably because the first time, it didn’t quite look enough like she was completely and totally dead.

But imagine that this is the first time you’ve ever read this comic. You open up your Monday morning newspaper and there it is. There is no context. Just, boom: Head injury, possible corpse, then you’re down to Family Circus, trying to process what you’ve just seen while Jeffy cracks a joke about “pasghetti.”

If, however, you’re already familiar with the stirp and the universe, it’s even better! And why? Because of The Multiple Timelines of the Funky-verse! See, Funky Winkerbean has gone through a couple of time jumps that have advanced the characters in age from their happy-go-lucky teenage selves to the depressed mopes that you see today, the most recent of which was a ten-year skip that occurred right after Lisa’s death (from cancer, in case you’ve forgotten in the 30 seconds since it was mentioned). Meanwhile, Crankshaft, a spin-off set in the same universe, never had a jump, unless you count a series of flash-forward strips about Crankshaft dying of a heart attack at a baseball game, because wouldn’t that be a fun treat for the readers to see.

As a result, while they’re both ostensibly set “now,” Crankshaft takes place over ten years before Funky Winkerbean, but in the same universe. Which leads us to this fact: The batter responsible for that softball-induced brain damage you see above is none other than Cayla Williams in the years before she met Les Moore and subsequently ruined her life. And you thought super-hero comics were complicated.

Personally, I’m thoroughly excited by this development. Why?

Funky Winkerbean, August 31

Because August ends with Les and Cayla getting ready to play a game of softball.

Sure, the obvious action is that there is no humility to small that Les will not suffer it at the hands of his own daughter, but the foreshadowing is there too. All this time I thought that something was going to happen to Cayla to make Les even more miserable, but clearly, we’re going in a different direction. She’s totally going to kill Les with an accidental softball to the head this month.

I. Cannot. Wait.

Subject your own brain to trauma 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 the Houston Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or your local newspaper.

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