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FunkyWatch: June’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.

This month represents a bit of a lull between Westview’s continuing miseries, with the strip transitioning from the school year to summer vacation, but don’t worry: With a trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro on the horizon, there’s plenty of opportunity coming up for terrible things to happen to everyone in exotic new locations! And until then, they’ll still be busy being awful to each other and complaining that Fate is conspiring to destroy them.

Seriously.Funky Winkerbean, June 21:

As mentioned above, most of this month’s strips revolved around Les’s impending trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro. As longtime FunkyWatchers may recall, he won the trip in a raffle last November and promptly started complaining about how much of a hassle it was to go see one of the world’s most breathtaking natural wonders for free. Longtime FunkyWatchers may also recall that I hate Les Moore on a deeply personal level that I don’t normally get to for fictional characters.

Anyway, in order to balance the scales of something good actually happening for once, Les’s friends have taken it upon themselves to be massive jerks to him, something that I’m generally in favor of. Here, his alleged best friend Funky has brought him a gift, complete with the assertion that he not only thinks Les is completely incapable of accomplishing the goal he has set for himself, but also that he intends to be financially compensated for Les’s inevitable failure. One more time for those of you in the back: This is his best friend.

I have to say though, you can’t really blame Funky for this. If somebody else became the de facto lead of a strip named after me, I’d be pretty cheesed off about it too.

Funky Winkerbean, June 9:

Speaking of abuse being heaped onto Les by his friends, here we have a strip where things are just a little more overt. In this case, it’s former high school bully Bull Bushka, who –

Oh. Bull. Because he’s a bully. I just got that, and now I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.

Anyway, the weird thing here is that while Bull’s style of motivating someone by shouting insults is a pretty standard punchline, it doesn’t really match up with any other time that I’ve ever seen Bull coach. Granted, it probably makes sense that he wouldn’t refer to the Westview High Girls Basketball Team as “maggots” in front of their parents, but given how emphatic he is about it, I’m pretty sure we’re watching a man finally let out the stored-up hate that he’s been bottling up for the past twenty years.

Aside from that, is it just me, or does the weirdly off-model Sleepy-Eyed Summer in panel one look exactly like former Mystery Science Theater 3000 host Joel Hodgson to anyone else?

Funky Winkerbean, June 19

Before we move on, one more installment of Les training for Kilimanjaro — which I’m pretty sure took longer in the strip than it would in real life. In this laff-packed strip, Les is doubtful that his life as an English teacher has prepared him to schlep up a mountain, which, to be honest, sounds like a pretty legitimate concern. Fortunately (I guess?), Les’s doubts are put aside when he’s accosted by what appears to be the grim spectre of a terrifying future, sent on a stroll through the park to remind Westview’s already depressed citizens of their own mortality. Enjoy the vacation, Les!

Let’s see what’s cooking over in Crankshaft

Crankshaft, June 3:

I think I’ve established pretty thoroughly over the past two years that Funky Winkerbean can get a little dark, but in the spin-off, Batiuk and Chuck Ayers at least try to go for a joke, even if it’s just a pun about how everyone Crankshaft knows is dying. Whenever there’s a strip about Rose, though, things get downright grim, even for the Funkyverse.

Case in point, this strip, in which Jeff is once again forced to detail the absolute horrors of being raised by a dead-eyed monster. Don’t get me wrong, I know that comedy is subjective, but I don’t think “the only emotion my mother is capable of projecting is an accusation of guilt” is really a punchline in the traditional sense.

Crankshaft, June 13:

Crankshaft is playing slow jams to get bees to f***.

There’s nothing particularly depressing about that one, but if I have to think about it, so do you.

Funky Winkerbean, June 27:

In one of this month’s other plots Funky has finally gotten a new car. This seems a little unnecessary since he got a new one less than two years ago after his old ride was wrecked in a bizarre accident that send him traveling through time to harass his younger self and complain about his bladder problems, the very story that inspired this column, but, you know, whatever.

What really matters here is that Funky and his pal Crazy Harry are having a conversation about how Fate itself is out to get them if they show too much pride, and how something as simple as giving a name to your car is “begging for a beat-down.” The characters are actually cowering in fear of the unseen, unknown Batiukian forces that control their universe, and if that’s not a completely sane reaction to life in Funky Winkerbean, I don’t know what is.

Funky Winkerbean, June 28:

Rather than naming his new hatchback after one of the lesser entries in the Burt Reynolds canon, Funky has sought to appease his hostile creator by going with the more unsuspecting “Snowball.” Sensible as this may be in his universe, I’m not sure that it really qualifies as “diabolically clever” unless he’s using that car to take a trunkload of poison out to the reservoir without being apprehended by the Batman.

Funky Winkerbean, June 29:

For those of you who, for some reason, were worried that Les might not get Funky back for his insulting present way back at the top of the column, please enjoy the final installment of the Funky Names His Stupid Car Saga. Once again, Les has proven himself to be the most insufferable person in town by casually dropping references to literature into his conversation. “Oh, did you name your car after the rebellious pig in Animal Farm? Oh, I forgot, YOU’RE not a fan of the classics, are you?” I would like nothing more than to punch Les in his stupid face.

And apparently, I’m not the only one. Batiuk is, after all, genuinely good at conveying emotions through his facial expressions — even though the emotion on display most often is smarmy self-satisfaction — and it really shows in the last panel, where Les is exasperated at his best friend’s stupidity and Funky is about two seconds away from beating Les to death with his brand new tire iron.

Funky Winkerbean, June 17

Just when you thought Batiuk had given up on existential horror in favor of personal sniping, we have this one, which may be the most genuinely depressing comic strip I’ve seen in months. In this strip, Funky spends seven panels seated at a table, repeatedly being offered and refusing food from his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Every single thing about this strip and what is symbolizes, is deeply affecting and horrifying on a level that anyone who’s ever had to care for their own parent can’t help but respond to. From the father’s desire to provide for his son even when he can no longer comprehend that it’s not necessary to Funky having to repeatedly re-establish himself as the person who is now responsible for the other, to their eventual return to the nursing home where they’ll part, quietly lying to the nurse as she feigns concern, it’s all genuinely sad.

But maybe the worst par is that Funky gets his dad out of a nursing home for the afternoon and then takes him to eat at the food court at the f***ing mall?! Seriously?!

Funky Winkerbean, you are the worst.

Depress yourself even more 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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