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FunkyWatch: February’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 gone through four weeks’ worth of newspapers to bring you February’s The Ten Most Depressing Funky Winkerbean Strips! And while it might be the shortest month, don’t worry: Batiuk made sure to cram in a full 31 days’ worth of suffering and more.

#10. February 6

This is it, folks: This strip may in fact be the new new Ultimate Winkerbean, finally dethroning the current champ, wherein a oil-slicked seagull was cleaned, flew two feet in the air, and then plunged back into a polluted ocean last August.While this one lacks the silent, sudden depression of a three-panel gut punch, it certainly makes up for it in the way that Batiuk allows Les Moore — who at this point has taken over the role of “long-suffering and incredibly hatable protagonist” from the eponymous Funky — to indulge in four solid panels of hope, imagining a world where victory, college scholarships and parties to celebrate things other than the burial of a loved one are a possibility, all to set up the hard reality of watching his daughter go through a painful, crippling, possibly career-ending knee injury.

And for bonus despair, Les isn’t there to see it happen because he’s signing the book he wrote about his wife dying of cancer. Settle in, everybody: The entire month is like this.

#9. February 8

It goes without saying that Funky Winkerbean isn’t just going to let things stand at “Summer hurt her leg at the basketball game,” so of course we get a nice recap of just how it happened. And as it turned out, her knee wasn’t just torn, but wrenched from its place so violently that an entire gymnasium heard the sound.

What’s really worth noting, however, is how utterly self-satisfied Summer looks in Panel 3. As long-time FunkyWatch readers will know, this is a facial expression I’ve dubbed The Schadenfreude Smirk, and it’s usually seen when Batiuk delivers an alleged punchline mocking the misfortune of one of his characters.

Here, however, Summer’s smugness seems to be from the fact that she has finally become even more miserable than her father. That’s a smirk that says “You had decades with mother before she died, but my hopes and dreams were torn away painfully before I was even out of high school. Beat that, old man.”

#8. February 11

Along the same lines is the reveal that rather than play without Summer, Westview forfieted the game in order to go to the hospital with her. This, I’m sure, is meant to show solidarity among Summer and her friends and show that there are more important things in life than just high school sports and the attendant scholarships that will allow them to do what their parents never did and escape the all-consuming black hole that is Westview High, which leaves neither light nor joy untouched.

Instead, because this is Funky Winkerbean, it comes across more like they don’t want to be wasting time with basketball when they could be going to a hospital to observe real tragedy!

#7. February 19

It’s even better a few days later when we find out that Central Catholic refused the forfiet, presumably out of both spite that they didn’t get to enjoy the vicarious thrill of hanging out in an emergency room and the desire to not let Westview take a noble defeat rather than a vicious massacre on the court.

Yes, despite what I’m sure was an effort to go out there and win one for Summer, the Lady Scapegoats get knocked out of the championship in exactly one and a half games, because Summer wasn’t just responsbile for her own future, but the happiness of the entire team. Good thing she didn’t screw it up in the most painful way possible in front of all their families!

Oh wait.

#6. February 17

Given that she’s apparently solely responsible for the future happiness of her entire team, it should come as no surprise that opts to have immediate and painful surgery due to the overwhelming pressure. Sorry, I meant “due to her love of basketball.” It’s getting hard to tell with this strip.

The real telling moment in this one, though, is that at 16 years old, Summer has already figured out that there is a force controlling her life that delights in tearing everything she loves to shreds. She also resolves to battle against it, which I’m pretty sure means that Batiuk’s setting things up so that the next time he kills off a character, he can claim it’s self-defense.

#5. February 20

If you’re starting to get depressed, don’t worry! Westview High’s sports aren’t just about life-ruining injuries, there’s also a corrupt administration that values its trophy case more than actually educating its students! Ha ha!

To tap into this gold mine of laffs, Batiuk chooses to go with a joke about how “Big Mac is too big to fail,” a reference to the government bail-out of mortgage corporation Freddie Mac, which was a hot topic of conversation when it happened two and a half years ago.

Unbelievable as it seems, Funky Winkerbean is actually less depressing when it’s beating its characters into a constant state of despair than when it tries to make an actual joke. Seriously, I cannot take this anymore.

And that means it’s time to check in with Crankshaft! Written by Batiuk with art by Chuck Ayers, ‘Shaft is considered to be a more lighthearted companion to Funky, set in the same universe but generally going with more of a humorous, gag-oriented approach. Let’s see here…

#4. Crankshaft, February 21

Ah yes. This month’s major storyline involved Crankshaft’s daughter’s mother-in-law resenting being told not to go outside because she’d slip on the ice, which led her to go outside, slip on the ice, break her hip, and then lay there, immobilizedon frozen concrete fro a week’s worth of strips before finally being rescued, at which time she started yelling at her son-in-law about how it was all his fault.

This story has been going on for three weeks.

Back to Funky it is.

#3. February 22

I know, I know: I seriously expected Summer not to make it through the operation either, but it just goes to show that even when you think you know his formula, Batiuk can still shock the readers.

Speaking of shocks, both Susan and Cayla, the two women who are fighting for Les’s affections for reasons that remain completely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t writing this comic strip, both go overboard in trying to curry his favor and are so convincing that each one is taken aback by the idea that someone could actually feel joy from something other than the pain of others.

#2. February 25

Ye cats! Four Schadenfreude Smirks in one panel! The newspaper wasn’t meant to handle that much smugness, Tom!!

#1. February 24

What with all the hardships being heaped on Summer this month, the strip came perilously close to neglecting Les, whose crushing despair is the engine that drives the strip. Fortunately, we get this installment, in which even an act of purely altruistic kindness on the part of Coach Bull Bushka can never fully divorce itself from the constant torment and pain that he dished out to Les back when he was a kid. Though to be fair, I would defy anyone to read this strip for more than a month and not come away wanting to deck that guy.

And to make matters worse, we have poor Cayla, desperately trying to strike up a conversation to gain an advantage over Susan, who attempts to put a positive spin on things by mentioning how much Bull has changed, but instead serves only to remind Les that his entire life has been one violent humiliation after another, which of course causes him to shut her down and retreat into weird, creepy fantasies about his dead wife.

Or to put that in Funky Winkerbean terms, it was Thursday.

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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