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FunkyWatch: January’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 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.

As disappointing as it might sound, Funky Winkerbean kicked off 2012 by having things actually start looking up for most of the cast. That said, fans of catastrophic depression have nothing to worry about. For one thing, Crankshaft is still a dismal portrayal of people waiting for death, and for another, even a relatively cheery installment of Funky Winkerbean is still more gloomy than that story in Garfield where he wakes up in a ruined house and Jon and Odie are dead.Crankshaft, January 3:

For the past eternity few months, the ongoing plot of Crankshaft has been that Crankshaft’s daughter Pam and her husband whose dumb name I can never remember have been adding a room to their house. It’s tempting to say that this has been happening in real time, but considering that I try to blot out all memories of the Batiukverse with a stiff drink after I write each of these columns, I’m not really sure that’s the case.

The point is that it’s being built as a new room for Rose, a caricature of a mother-in-law so stereotypical that even the writers of a CBS sitcom would think it’s a little too broad. It’s actually a pretty nice gesture that’s been explained as something that will keep them from having her packed off to a nursing home disreputable enough to stick with a pun as its name. It is unquestionably the nicest thing I have seen one person do for another in 18 months of reading this strip. So of course, Rose constantly berates them about it, because she is a withered, hateful monster. But more on that later.

Crankshaft, January 11:

Then again, as much as I’ve been nurturing a deep and abiding hate for Crankshaft in general and Rose in particular, I have to admit that I got a little enjoyment out of this one. Only a little, though. As funny as it is to see Rose shuffling through the snow while plotting how she’s going to avoid sniper fire with a technique she undoubtedly picked up from Dale Gribble on a King of the Hill rerun, the comedy is a little tempered by the fact that we’re watching her fall deeper into the all-consuming dementia that makes her believe there are armed guards stalking the rooftops of suburban Ohio.

Crankshaft, January 16:

In case you needed any more evidence of Rose’s rapidly deteriorating mental state and how it’s left us primed for laffs, we have this little adventure to the store. I’m not really sure how else to explain why traffic lights on a clear day could really be all that confusing, unless color blindness has joined the ranks of alcoholism, PTSD and cancer on the list of serious topics that Batiuk’s exploring next to the Junior Jumble every day.

Crankshaft, January 18:

Cool expository monologue, bro.

I’m not gonna lie, folks: I had high hopes for this storyline after Rose got in her auto accident, and I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by the way it all played out. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t particularly want to see Rose careen off the highway and carve a swath of destruction through the playground at the Toledo School For Adorable But Tragically Blinded Orphans, I’m just saying that in this strip, that’s actually a pretty likely outcome.

Besides, the last time Tom Batiuk wrote a story about a car crash, it ended up catapulting the person involved forty years back in time and starting this very column. Having Rose’s fender-bender finish with a low-speed chase that ends peacefully in her home instead of paying off the earlier gag by having her try to serpentine out of the car while a SWAT team sniper puts a round in her leg because he thinks the fifty pounds of grass seeds she bought were a component of a terrorist bomb? That’s just a massive letdown.

Funky Winkerbean, January 22:

Meanwhile, over in Funky Winkerbean, things are actually looking up! After a string of defeats, each more humiliating than the last, the Westview High girls’ basketball team is finally back on track, thanks to a new assistant coach. Longtime Funky readers will of course realize that this is just one of those momentary bits of happiness that make the suffering that much sweeter when the inevitable crushing despair kicks in, but that’s not really why I’m highlighting it here.

What really grabbed my attention with this one was Panel 4, and Batiuk’s brutally realistic depiction of Summer Moore delivering her patented Roaring Elbow finishing move to a member of the opposing team.

Funky Winkerbean, January 14:

The other plot line in Funky this month is that the school board has removed the vending machines — or “vendos,” as they have never been called by anyone outside this strip, ever — from the school in an effort to promote a healthier lifestyle among the children and staff of Westview High.

This raises the question of why anyone who actually lives in Westview would want a healthier lifestyle. I mean, look at Bull up there! The very fact that he refers to it as The Carousel of Death — also a good name for Summer’s variation on the Roaring Elbow — pretty much underlines what’s going on here. It’s not like they doesn’t know that the junk food is slowly killing them; they’re counting on it. They want anything that will hasten their demise and lead them away from the hellish nightmare that is existence in Funky Winkerbean.

Crankshaft, January 2:

Yeah, I know. I didn’t wake up this morning wanting to think about Ed Crankshaft’s youthful experiments with bestiality either. And yet, here we are.

Crankshaft, January 4:

I’ve mentioned before that Batiuk and Ayers somehow manage to do a strip that encapsulates their entire mission statement at least once a month, and folks, this one is almost as good as it gets. It’s definitely not the first time Dumb Husband has reminisced about his hellish upbringing at the hands of a sociopath, but there’s an incredible poetry to this strip that even the storyline about Rose being haunted by her dead sister for ruining her one chance at hapiness didn’t capture.

For most creators, it would be enough to establish that Rose had never, not once, not one single time felt joy in the entire four hundred years (or so) that she’s been alive, but Panel 3 takes it to a whole new level. She didn’t just stop her children from being happy, she smothered the joy in others, creeping into its room at night and silently holding a pillow over its face until it stopped thrashing. I’m not even kidding: it’s a great line.

Apocalyptically depressing and pretty disturbing in the context of two generations of mopey sad sacks, yes, but great.

Smother your own joy 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 Seattle Post-Intelligencer or your local newspaper

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