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FunkyWatch: March’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, Batiuk reached an amazing and impressive milestone as he hit the 40th Anniversary of Funky Winkerbean. We here at ComicsAlliance would like to offer our sincere congratulations on a pretty amazing feat of dedication, but don’t worry: That’s not going to stop me from making fun of it, especially since the anniversary strips have basically served as a highlight reel charting the strip’s slide into misery.

And Crankshaft… Well, Crankshaft is about miserable old people dying. As usual.Funky Winkerbean, March 7

If you’re a regular FunkyWatcher, then you may recall that last month’s strips ended with Westview Girls’ Basketball Team on their way to the State Championships, when star player Summer Moore was struck down with the flu. Back then, I was absolutely giddy at the prospects of more sports-based suffering, wondering which option Batiuk was going to opt for: “Will she have to play through the illness to illustrate that even a small victory must be won through suffering? Or will she be forced to sit it out, illustrating that no matter how hard you work, the cruelty of fate can destroy you even at your highest moment?”

As it turns out, he went with the former, but there were a few things that I didn’t expect. For one, I was pretty surprised that this story went on for about a week and a half of Summer dribbling her way through blurred vision and the occasional hallucination, none of which were as entertaining as they sound. For another, I didn’t expect the game to come down to Summer making a free throw after taking a Clothesline From Hell. That made it all worth it.

Funky Winkerbean, March 13

Even with the momentary triumph of the Lady Scapegoats actually winning the state championships, though, let’s not get distracted from the true purpose of Funky Winkerbean: Providing new, innovative ways to make me hate Les Moore.

Seriously, that guy can’t even give his daughter her one moment of happiness through the haze of her death plague without shrieking about improper grammar. I think there might have been a point in this strip where we were supposed to think Bull Bushka was a bad guy for beating Les up in high school, but now I’d like to give him a medal for it.

Funky Winkerbean, March 19

Speaking of Bull, with the present briefly occupied by a moment of happiness and triumph, the strip inevitably turned to a flashback so that we can finally get some heartbreaking disappointment. See, despite Flashback Coach’s sepia-toned enthusiasm, Bull never made it to professional football, which we know because he has to sit around listening to Les ruin his one moment of triumph by shrieking about grammar.

Funky Winkerbean, March 20

As the flashback continues, we get another example of Batiuk’s dedication to writing dialogue that never quite sounds like any human being would actually say it. Here, it’s the coach’s oddly specific description of “a bottle of men’s cologne” — as opposed to, what, a bottle of cologne made specifically for otters?

Of course, there’s also the matter of the fact that the coach expects dumping a bottle of Brut or Hai Karate onto a pile of mildewed towels to actually improve matters, instead of producing some kind of horrible chemical reaction not seen since trench warfare. Westview’s coaches have apparently never been all that bright.

Funky Winkerbean, March 22

At last, we return to the present for the strip’s typical reminder that no matter how talented you are and how hard you work, you’re only one painful tragedy away from none of it mattering at all. And hey, even if you come close, you still lost! Effort is for suckers!

In this case, though, Funky’s usual search for pathos might also be doubling as foreshadowing. It’s been well established that Summer’s only chance to get to college is to get a basketball scholarship, so there’s a good chance that this is all building up to Summer suffering her own fateful tragedy and finding herself unable to escape the soul-crushing gravitational pull of a job at Montoni’s Pizza or Westview High.

Funky Winkerbean, March 24

Then again, that’s probably why Lisa — Les’s wife, who died of cancer in the strip’s most archetypical story arc — has decided to use the medium of VHS to nag from beyond the grave! OooooooOOOOOOooooo!

Now then, let’s move on to the litany of horror that is Crankshaft:

Crankshaft, March 9

Before we get into the actual depressing stuff, here’s one of from the “frustratingly inexplicable” category. Remember a second ago when I was talking about Batiuk’s strange love of specificity? Well, just in case you were wondering, it’s definitely bird food going into the bird “seeder.” And it is, in fact, for birds. Glad we could clear that up.

Crankshaft, March 17

Let’s move on to a minor example of existential horror, shall we? One of the storylines this month involved Crankshaft hitting his first-ever Hole-In-One while golfing. After a bit of excitement — or as exciting as you can get in a mandatory golf story in a comic strip starring a bitter octogenarian, anyway — it was revealed that Crankshaft didn’t actually get the hole-in-one. Instead, it was a groundskeeper who dropped his ball in the cup in an act of… Well, to be honest, the fact that everyone in these comics has a permanent smirk makes it impossible to tell whether this was meant to be an act of kindness, or just some elaborate prank.

So rest easy, Crankshaft readers, secure in the knowledge that even your smallest, most insignificant triumphs aren’t your accomplishments at all, but are instead based on a strange network of lies and deceit.

But wait! That can’t be right! After all, last month’s strips involved Crankshaft being inducted into some dubious hall of fame because he played minor league baseball in the ’40s! Surely that’s a triumph that will be celebrated without any soul-crushing depression!

Crankshaft, March 2

Or maybe Crankshaft will just go home and talk to a photograph of his dead wife, because he has somehow outlived everyone he’s ever cared about.

Crankshaft, March 28

And those who haven’t passed on yet are literally praying for death so that they will finally be free of him. I know the feeling.

Crankshaft, March 3

Which brings us to our final entry, an extra-sized Sunday strip in which three quarters of the space is given over to the usual tragic setup before we finally limp across the finish line with a pun that could be best described as “reasonably awful.”

But here’s the kicker: That “Trauma Queen” pun? This is at least the second time that one’s been used in this strip while I’ve been reading it. So apparently, Batiuk and Ayers thought that one was not only so good that it needed a second go-’round, with a few extra full-color panels of misery leading up to it. If you wanted to encapsulate everything about this strip, from characters rattling off various cancers, injuries and illnesses being suffered by people off-panel to terrible puns to a hateful old man being mad that said pun was stolen from him at the last minute, this would be the one.

Or at least, it’s up there with “funeral shoes.”

Embrace your inner Trauma Queen 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 Oregon Live or your local newspaper

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