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FunkyWatch: December’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.

So obsessed that one of my Christmas presents this year was a copy of The Complete Funky Winkerbean V.1, the nice reprint of the first two years of the strip from the early ’70s. And you know, as much as those early strips were more gag-based, the very first month includes a strip where a teacher falls into a deep depression upon realizing that one day, Funky and Les would be among the generation making the world’s decisions. It’s like Batiuk was planning it all along.

Now let’s see how awful things get for everyone as they close out 2012!Funky Winkerbean, December 31:

I usually binge on Funky Winkerbean at the start of every month when it’s time to write this column, so this was the first strip I saw when I loaded it up yesterday, and for a moment, I was absolutely elated. Those of you who have been following along for a while might recall that 2010 ended with a New Year’s party where Les Moore was dancing with a hallucination and/or ghost of his dead wife, who had just recently prank called him from the afterlife to try to keep him from getting on a plane that was going to crash, much to the frustration of everyone who would love to see Les go up in a gigantic fireball (ie: me).

So naturally, on seeing this strip, I assumed that due to their marriage, Cayla had gained the ability to share in Les’s delusions and/or Sixth Sense, and was frustrated because her New Year’s makeout session was being interrupted by a very jealous (and very dead) Lisa, calling from beyond the grave to ruin everything. Sadly, as I went back and read from the beginning of the month, it became obvious that Cayla was really just frustrated that she had to wish a Happy New Year to her daughter when she wanted to spend time rubbing her mouth on Les’s aging sad-sack head. Welcome to 2013, everybody!

Funky Winkerbean, December 9:

Maybe this is just a regional thing, but I’ve never heard the phrase “the Devil whispered in my ear,” especially being applied to the purchase of donuts. I’ll go ahead and guess that it’s just Funky personifying the weakness in his character that makes him unable to resist stuffing pastries into his maw (I’ve been there, bro), but at the same time, I can’t help but read it as a 100% literal evaluation of what’s going on in Westview.

I mean, given what we know about what’s happened in Funky Winkerbean over the past few years — dementia, PTSD, Les getting married, ruination of careers, people traveling back in time to be confronted with the spectres of their wasted youth, damned souls reaching out and being castigated by their loved ones — would it really surprise anyone to find out that the actual, literal Devil was riding around town urging people to make unhealthy eating choices? I think reading this strip as though there’s a guy with horns in a little red suit with a pitchfork standing just off-panel and smirking at everyone would actually improve things. At least then we’d know why everyone was suffering and could move on to guessing what sins Funky could’ve committed to earn such punishment. I’m thinking he probably poisoned a reservoir.

Funky Winkerbean, December 5:

Rather than exploring the presence of Lucifer, the Author Of All Lies, most of this month’s strips were devoted to Crazy Harry, because I guess it was his turn to be miserable for a while. Said misery came in the form of losing his job at the post office, and while I think we’re meant to sympathize with his plight and the ripped-from-the-headlines economic strife, it really seems pretty understandable why the post office might not want to keep a guy named “Crazy Harry” on the payroll.

Anyway, Crazy needs money, so he has turned to selling his beloved comic book collection, something that I actually do sympathize with. And given that this is happening in the pages of Funky Winkerbean, you probably expected that his criteria for figuring out which comics to sell would definitely involve a hypothetical life-ruining disaster. Because of course it did.

Funky Winkerbean, December 11:

Like I said above, I can definitely sympathize with having to sell back a piece of your comic book collection when you’re desperate for cash, but Tom Batiuk takes it to a wholly unlikable level by briefly turning Crazy Harry into a Freshman drama student and having him write a poem in his dream journal.

the last of them

john

boxes

f
i
l
l
e
d

with pieces

of

my

soul

decades-old accumulation

of

knowledge

a
n
d

imagination

Funky Winkerbean, December 14:

At the end of the storyline, Crazy ended up being offered a part-time job at the comic book store processing his old comics and finding them new homes and gratefully taking it. On the surface, this actually seems like a pretty happy ending, but as Josh Fruhlinger pointed out, this basically means that Crazy is so desperate for cash that he has to accept a part-time job helping other people disassemble those “pieces of his soul” and take them from him forever.

By Tom Batiuk standards, this actually is still a happy ending.

Crankshaft, December 26:

Meanwhile, Ed Crankshaft wants to literally murder the local weatherman.

Crankshaft, December 12 and 15:

Also, both semi-literate teens and small children want to injure Crankshaft, although we never get to see them doing so. It is the single most frustrating thing about this strip.

Funky Winkerbean, December 29:

Back in Funky Winkerbean, we rejoin Les and Cayla for their first New Year’s Eve as a married couple. Considering that they just got married a few months ago, you’d think they’d still be in that happy, romantic phase of their marriage, but they seem to have descended into bitterness and hatred in record time. Case in point, a car ride home from visiting their daughters in college during which Cayla is extremely vocal about how disappointed she is that she has to spend a romantic evening alone with her husband.

It’s cool, though, she said “no offense.”

Funky Winkerbean, December 30:

But to be fair to Batiuk, he at least gives us a reason why Cayla has such a brusque exterior. See, she was traumatized by the cruelties of her childhood, memories from which she can never escape, and which have given her crippling feelings of inadequacy. This is laid out in full color on a Sunday, right there underneath Slylock Fox and a spot-the-differences puzzle.

As an added bonus, this crippling, writing-related trauma has not only made Cayla too paralyzed with horror to write an email to her daughter, it also goes a long way towards explaining why a pretty, talented, athletic, reasonably together lady like her would opt to spend her life with a mopey doofus like Les. Writing is “easy” for him, you see, as evidenced by his career as a failed novelist whose only success is the book about his dead first wife.

Funky Winkerbean, December 2:

Finally, we have this strip, which takes the #1 slot this month (and possibly all year) in exactly one panel, in which Crazy Harry’s wife offers to have sex with him to take his mind off of being fired, and he tells her he’s too depressed to f**k.

That’s it.

That’s seriously how this strip opens.

Take a rain check 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 daily at Oregon Live or your local newspaper.

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