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FunkyWatch: June’s 12 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.

I have to admit, though, this month’s strips weren’t quite as soul-crushing as usual. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it after reading and reviewing the strip for an entire year, but it probably has something to do with the current plot centering on the abject misery of Les Moore, a character I have grown to loathe on deeply personal level.

And brother, is he ever miserable.#12. June 2

For those of you who are just joining us, the mopey sad sack above is Les Moore, who has essentially muscled the title character aside to become the de facto protagonist of the strip by virtue of having more horribly depressing things happen to him. For the past year or so, there’s been a building subplot about two women — Cayla and Susan — who have inexplicably been throwing themselves at him in an increasingly desperate bid to be his new lady friend. Because really, who doesn’t want to hook up with an aging writer so obsessed with his dead wife that he constantly hallucinates that he’s talking to her?

Last month, Cayla finally told Les she loved him, which was of course a disaster, and this month, Susan gets her turn to crash and burn, owning up to her feelings after planting one on Les at Westview High.

Because really, isn’t that what love is all about? Being met with complete silence from someone whose very hairline is running away from you and immediately regretting that you ever chose to reveal your feelings to someone? It is in Funky Winkerbean!

And believe it or not, things get worse.

#11. June 3

The fallout from someone daring to hope they could find happiness in the arms of another continued into the next day, but the important thing here is neither Susan’s hurried rant about how crazy she is (that’ll be important later), or even how the only thing Les can think of to say at this point is the name of the thing he is actually staring at.

No, the notable thing is that in these moments of heartbreak, Tom Batiuk is experimenting with the form! Rather than his go-to third-panel facial expression, the ever-punchable Schadenfreude smirk, Batiuk has instead brought out a classic, the Close-Up Sad Profile. And if the rest of the month is any indication, he thought it was worth hanging onto.

#10. June 9

At this point, the fact that Les went to his friends for help in dealing with his Archie-esque situation and was met with nothing but derision and scorn should come as no surprise. Although to be fair, what the hell did that guy expect when he took his problems to a dude named “Crazy?”

It is notable, though, that when Les finally becomes incensed enough at his best friends to storm out dramatically, he chooses to do so after dropping a line about “No Child Left Behind” to a pair of men who have both been out of school for at least two decades. There is no way that line makes any sense at all in this situation, and even if you take into account that Les is a teacher, that only makes it weirder. If Batiuk wanted to use that punchline, why not do it in a strip actually set in the high school where half his cast works, rather than just dropping it in a pizzeria?

#9. June 11

Told you that sad-sack close-up was going to come back. Anyway, much like Westview’s version of love is something best kept secret and guarded lest your confession be met with the deafening silence of indifference, the concept of “friendship” in the Funky-verse is slightly different from how it’s usually portrayed in other, less relentlessly depressing media.

For Funky and Les, being best friends means being willing to be commanded like a dog to sit on a porch swing with some dodgy perspective issues while listening to someone whine about how much it sucks to have two girls in love with him (“Archie’s Complaint,” I believe it’s called), but not to make any effort to hide the boredom and disgust etched plainly onto one’s face. It’s a delicate balance.

#8. June 17

Eventually, Les makes the decision to go with Cayla, even though she just changed her hair to get his attention, while Susan went as far as getting a divorce and changing her actual name. Unfortunately — and expectedly — their official relationship got off to a rocky start when Cayla’s daughter sent her a photo of Les kissing another woman.

Really though, Les has nothing to worry about. It’s obviously a forgery; he and Susan were wearing completely different color shirts when they actually kissed in the comic. C’mon, King Features Syndicate colorists! If I can force myself to pay attention, so can you!

#7. June 20

Les’s daughter is so ashamed of her father’s promiscuity that she has become the Unabomber.

#6. June 23

Eventually the news of Les and Susan’s shameful, filthy kissing goes all the way to the top, where it is met with outrage from their principal.

What sticks out to me, though, is the fact that even when Batiuk is having two characters threatened with being fired from their jobs for even the tiniest bit of fraternization, he still manages to hammer in a completely non-sequitur reference to global warming in panel 2. Apparently the drama of this scene wasn’t enough on its own without a direct reference to the actual death of the planet.

It’s too much. I need to take a break before I go any further, and that means that it’s time once again to take a look at Batiuk’s other strip in the Funky-verse, Crankshaft!

#5. Crankshaft, June 6

Written by Batiuk with art by Chuck Ayers, Crankshaft is allegedly a more lighthearted, gag-oriented comic. In this strip, for instance, the joke is that Crankshaft has been so vocal about his hatred of children that they’re willing to slash the tires of their own schoolbuses and take their chances walking than spend one more week being yelled at by an aging illiterate. Ha!

#4. Crankshaft, June 13

In the summertime, Crankshaft trades his schoolbus for an ice cream truck, and of course the frozen treats of summer, when viewed through Batiuk’s signature lens of crushing despair, becomes a prime example of how America’s children are dying. Have a great summer, kids! Enjoy your diabetes!

Also, really, Crankshaft’s son-in-law whose name I can’t be bothered to remember? You’ve been in a Tom Batiuk comic for twenty-four years and you haven’t realized that even ice cream can be the source of existential dread? Really?

#3. Crankshaft, June 17

This all leads to Crankshaft’s revolutionary decision: He won’t sell the ice cream to children at all! Instead, he’ll take a week’s worth of strips shilling rocket pops to nursing homes (because who cares if old people get diabetes, they’re on the way out anyway), and cap it off by going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting so that he can sell ice cream. All class, that Crankshaft.

All right. I tap. You win, Tommy B. Let’s get back to Funky and see how Les and Susan are making out — or at least what happened to them after the making out was over.

#2. June 24

That’s right everybody: With the irrefutable fact that Les and Susan can no longer be permitted to work together after they had shared a scandalous, tawdry kiss in an empty room after dating for a year, they have reached a solution. In order to preserve Les’s dignity (such as it is) in the face of horrible accusations of lip-sluttiness, Susan will fall on her sword.

Metaphorically, I mean. Although given the rest of this comic, literal sword-falling is an inevitability that Batiuk just hasn’t gotten around to yet.

And it all leads to this:

#1. June 29

This one might seem relatively tame compared to other strips I’ve selected for the top slot over the past year, but that’s only because it requires a little knowledge of Funky history.

See, the thing about Les and Susan is that the current round of strips isn’t the first time they’ve been involved. Before the time-jump to the current status quo, when Les was a younger teacher with slightly more hair, Susan was one of his students, who had a crush on him that ended with Susan attempting suicide after he rejected her.

She’s more stable now, obviously, but the point remains that Les not only rejected a girl who once tried to kill herself over him, he also quotes a phrase that Cayla uses in such a way that it reads like he’s telling her how the woman he picked instead of her talks behind her back about how crazy she is. This is not a good idea.

But on the bright side, it should make July’s strips a little more interesting. Especially the one where Susan snaps and burns down Les’s house!

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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