FunkyWatch: February’s Most Depressing ‘Funky Winkerbean’ And ‘Crankshaft’ Strips
Over the past 40 years, Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean has transitioned from a gag-a-day comic strip about a high school to an ongoing chronicle of pure, abject misery. Thanks to the commentary on Josh Fruhlinger’s Comics Curmudgeon, I am now completely obsessed with it, which is why I spend a little time every month rounding up its finest examples of crushing despair.
I'm not going to lie to you, folks: Tommy B was in rare form last month. After crushing every ounce of hope I had left in me with January's monumentally disappointing Dick Tracy crossover, I assumed, having never learned my lesson about assumptions in the years that I've been reading this strip, that February would bring an upswing in quality. I mean, mathematically speaking, it would almost have to. And yet, Funky Winkerbean continues to defy all expectations. These strips might not have made me quite as angry as January's did, but believe me, folks: they get dark, even by Westview standards.
Unless you were blinded by rage at the way the Funky Winkerbean/Dick Tracy crossover withered on the vine, you might remember that last month's strips ended with the promise of a visit from "Mason Jarr, the Actor." You may also remember that he is consistently referred to as "Mason Jarr, the actor,"which is great, because whenever they just call him "Mason Jarr," I immediately get confused and wonder what he does for a living. It's pretty easy to tell that he's a famous and handsome young Hollywood actor, though --- just check out that receding hairline and the weary scowl.
This strip is one of the few that I've read in the past few years that actually has a joke, except that I can't figure out what exactly it's supposed to be. I mean, "Optimism High" isn't exactly out of the question in a world that features colleges named "Diversity University Ironton" and the one that we'll be getting to later, and if Westview can call their team the Scapegoats, then the Fighting Chances isn't really that unusual. Maybe that's why the reaction from the Williams-Moore household is to stare blankly at Mason Jarr the Actor, having long since accepted that their world is built on a pillar of garbage wordplay, and only throw themselves into hysterics once they've been informed that they just heard something funny. As always, the happiness is an illusion, the blank stares and scowls are genuine.
Anyway, for a fun game to play as we get through this month's strips, take a look at Mason Jarr the Actor's nose and see if Tom Batiuk ever bothers to draw it the same way twice. Spoiler warning: He doesn't.
Speaking of things that don't really make much sense, we have this little diversion, including one of the strip's patented sepia-toned flashbacks. The question, of course, is why Les would flash back to his high school days when he was asked about being a writer, when he only got published as an adult. And, to a lesser extent, why Mason Jarr the actor thinks writers get recognized everywhere they go.
Really, though, I'm more interested in the cameo appearance by Mary Sue Sweetwater, who was a fixture of the strip's early days. Unlike the rest of the cast, who have never been able to break away from the soul-sucking black hole that is Westview, Mary Sue doesn't seem to be around in the strip anymore. But when I asked around as to what happened to her --- my initial guess was that she wound up in a mental institution, plagued by the whiny voices of Les Moores that she could only hear, but never see --- I found out that she actually did show up a while back, during Les's book signing tour, where it was revealed that she had gained a lot of weight. This was also contrasted with a flashback panel where Les commented on her "most wanted bod," to illustrate how far she had fallen from attractiveness and therefore any value as a person. Ha ha!
As for why Mason Jarr the actor is in Westview to begin with, it's because he'll be doing some Mason Jarr the acting in the lead role of the upcoming Starbuck Jones movie. And naturally, the only way that he can properly research his part is to go to Ohio and stay with Les so that he can read Holly's complete run. There is literally no other way for the star of the movie to get access to these comics.
Point being, I've worked in the comics industry for over a decade. I've been a critic, I've been a retailer, and I've even written a few of them, so believe me when I say that Holly is talking complete and utter nonsense in this. I mean, a single issue can't be an "arc," and unless it opens up the Fortress of Solitude, I have no idea what a Platinum Key is.
And now the twist: It seems that Mason Jarr the actor has found himself smitten with Cindy, Funky's ex-wife who left him when he passed out drunk in the gutter on Christmas Eve during his drinking days, went to New York to become a newscaster, and then came back to Westview after the network executives determined that she had grown too old and homely to properly read the news. That, for the record, is everything I know about Cindy, and there is no part of that that isn't full of monumental levels of despair.
For his part, Funky would rather see Mason Jarr the actor dead than see him spend even a moment in the company of the wizened crone to whom he used to be married. Or maybe he just wants to murder Mason Jarr the actor, and his relationship with Cindy is irrelevant.
Oh hey, you can watch this strip from Mason Jarr the actor's perspective in video form.
The best thing about this isn't that Cindy is heartbroken, but that she's angry because she wasn't the one who got to break someone else's heart. It's not a lack of love that bothers her, it's wanting to be the one who inflicts pain.
Let's see what's up with Crankshaft this month.
February's Crankshaft strips involved Ed taking a brief trip up to New York to visit his granddaughter, Chris, because there is nothing the strip's 90-year-old readership loves more than a chance to see their favorite hateful, illiterate bus driver complain about things in a slightly different setting. And what better target than New York City, that nightmare hellhole that stands in opposition to the Real America that is northern Ohio. Why, New York couldn't even support a Montoni's franchise offering genuine Ohio-style pizza (which was actually a plot point over in Funky Winkerbean) so what is even the point of that place?
Eventually, though, the trip comes to an end, and as Chris makes one last attempt at civility with the bare minimum of pleasantries, Crankshaft scowls at her and reminds us all that when we fly, our lives are completely out of our hands, and that the survival of everyone on the plane rests squarely on the shoulders of two other people to whom you have likely never spoken, and who have no particular care for you or the wishes of your well-meaning relatives.
Hope everyone enjoys traveling this con season!
First of all, it would be called a "scaresquirrel," you idiot. It is meant to scare squirrels.
Fortunately, when I was complaining about this strip on Twitter, artist T.A. Shepard stepped up to fix it and make that dialogue actually make sense:
How much better would this strip be if it turned out Ed Crankshaft was a mad wizard creating terrifying hybrids to protect the treasure of the dungeons beneath Toledo from parties of four to six Level 9 adventurers?
And here's where we get to the infuriating part: A solid week of strips about a visit from some jerks from Enormous Midwest University, the single dumbest school name that we have yet encountered. See, because it spells "Emu," and that's a kind of bird. That's... that's like comedy, right? Right.
As you can tell from this strip, EMU's representatives are among the biggest a-holes to ever be featured in Funky Winkerbean, with a level of smugness and pure mean-spirited spite that is off the scale, even by the usual Westview standard. I wasn't really sure why, until several people theorized that EMU is standing in for Ohio State, and that he's using them to take a series of vicious shots at them because they're the rivals to his own alma mater, Kent State.
Which is what makes the next strip so unbelievable.
"All for one, no indictments."
Jesus, dude. That is dark. That is dark even in the context of this comic. Like, the best case scenario here is that crime is so rampant among college football teams that Enormous Midwest University has to proudly proclaim that no convictions have been made for their students in the very motto of their school,but the way I originally read it was something more along the lines of "we cover each other when the police come around asking questions so that they never have the evidence they need."
I never thought I'd say it, but please, please bring back the puns and smirks. I don't know if I can take another month of this.