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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 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.

January is always a pretty exciting time to be a Funky Winkerbean reader — by the standards of being a Funky Winkerbean reader, anyway — because we have a whole new year stretched out in front of us, full of opportunities. Specifically, opportunities to watch things somehow get even worse for Westview’s lumpy sad sacks! And this time, it’s a stroke!Funky Winkerbean, January 11:

One of the more frustrating things about Batiuk’s comics — aside from, you know, everything — is that it’s always really easy to figure out which strips had their punchlines written well in advance of their setups. There’s always a pretty ridiculous amount of stretching to get to them, and while Crankshaft is usually the worst offender, this particular strip is a pretty stellar example.

Still, I have to imagine that in a comic strip like this, “Dancing With The Scars” could’ve presented any number of opportunities. Funky and Holly experiencing the depths of body horror at their anniversary? Les and Cayla smirking through a sporting event where Summer gracefully suffers yet another career-threatening injury? No, in the end, Batiuk took the expected route and went with psychological scars. Still, you’d think that with the lives these characters live, it’d take a little more to wreck their minds than an old man dancing.

Unless, of course, my theory is correct and “Crazy” Harry earned his nickname by transforming his torso to a living portal to the realm of Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young. I mean, there’s not much evidence, but you have to admit that it’d explain a lot.

Funky Winkerbean, January 15:

It took two long weeks of Crazy Harry’s “Happy Dance,” but things finally picked up with this strip, which is amazing.

First, we not only have the classic admission that the characters in Funky Winkerbean are fully aware that there’s some cruel force out to destroy them should they ever express any kind of happiness, but this strip adds a whole new layer with the concept of the lead ceiling. Are we to believe that in the Funkyverse, the very concept of joy is somehow actually radioactive, and can only be blocked from the sight of their all-seeing overlord by a lead sheet? Is that why everyone prefers to mope around, because happiness is actually toxic? Is this how Lisa got cancer? Was she too happy?!

Even better, though, is the exactly on-cue call from Darrin’s mother, complete with the immediate knowledge that something’s gone horribly wrong. I mean, why else would a loved one call you on the phone?

Crankshaft, January 22:

Before we get back to the ongoing misery that Darrin and Jessica have been through this month, I wanted to check in with what is definitely my favorite Crankshaft strip ever. I mean, that’s not exactly difficult, given the intense hatred I have for every single character in the strip, but still. It’s a good one.

What really sells it is Ed’s shocked, genuinely sad expression in the last panel. In the three years that I’ve been reading this thing, I’ve seen Crankshaft go to something like six dozen funerals, and I have never seen that level of sorrow on his face. He has realized, apparently for the first time, that he’s a lousy person who lies to his loved ones all the time for no reason. He understands that he is merely a tool used to inflict cruelty on others, and he cannot understand why. It’s fantastic.

Crankshaft, January 16:

Speaking of things I liked in this month’s Crankshaft strips, there was this one. I initially read the word “Shredduce” as “Shred-du-chay,” you know, like if the Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a cousin from Italy that was coming to America in order to prey on the Turtles’ love of Italian food. Sadly, that was not the case. It turned out to just be one of Batiuk’s awful puns, which was of course repeated and then explained for the benefits of the slow kids in the back.

Crankshaft ruins everything.

Crankshaft, January 2:

Okay, look. I’m not exactly a prude or anything, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the use of the phrase “cuddle slave” in this comic strip.

I mean, if Pam and her idiot husband whose name I can never remember (Jeff? I think it’s Jeff) want to have some kind of crazy BDSM relationship, that’s fine. It even makes sense, since we’re already well aware that Jeff’s been more or less dominated by women and subjected to their cruelties for his entire life. It’s just that this is quite literally the last place I want to see this sort of thing brought up.

Crankshaft, January 8:

Aaaaaaand we have now moved right into hardcore predicament bondage. Time to move on.

Funky Winkerbean, January 17:

So hey, it turns out that the phone call earlier was about Darrin’s dad having a stroke, because of course he did. It’s Funky Winkerbean. Other than that, and the knowledge that Westview’s citizens only know that something is really, truly, wrong when the constant cries of pain and suffering stop, there’s not a whole lot here. This is, however, a pretty significant strip, because this is the one were I discovered that Funky Winkerbean has a comments section.

Longtime readers will know that there’s nothing I love more than a good comments section, but since a good comments section has yet to be discovered, I’ll take one that is hilariously meanspirited while I wait. Seriously, half of the people leaving comments are being so viciously mean about these characters that they make me look like the president of the Les Moore Fan Club, and the other half are people who are blinded with rage over how mean the other people are being to fictional characters. I think this one’s my favorite:

know this is a cartoon, but I wonder how you b.a.s.t.ar.d.s are going to feel when it’s you loved one in the ER and you’re sitting in the waiting room unable to do anything

The joy I am feeling at reading these is strong enough to shatter a lead ceiling. It’s a New Year’s Miracle!

Funky Winkerbean, January 19:

I’m a little mystified by what Darrin’s mom is getting at in this strip. Admittedly, she’s under a little stress here, but is she saying that hospitals are only for people with bad luck? Like, if not for the whims of chance, no one would ever get old or get sick or die, and that otherwise they’d be functionally immortal? Or, is she instead saying that if he was truly lucky, he would’ve just keeled over dead rather than continuing to live in a cruel, actively hostile universe in which you have to physically shield yourself from happiness lest tragedy strike from the heavens at the whim of an angry God?

It might seem unlikely in any other strip, but this is Funky Winkerbean, so really, it could go either way.

Funky Winkerbean, January 30:

Yup.

Funky Winkerbean, January 21:

So wait a second. Far be it from me to critique this strip’s dialogue (ha, but seriously, that’s almost all I do here) but is “funny” really the right word here? Is it really “funny” to be surprised by tragedy and death even when you know that it’s inevitable?

Wait… is that actually what Tom Batiuk thinks “funny” means?

That explains everything.

Redefine “funny” 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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