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FunkyWatch: March’s 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.

That’s why today, I’m sharing my obsession by going through the last four weeks worth of daily strips to bring you March’s Most Depressing Funky Winkerbean Strips! You may have noticed that I’m hitting things a little early this month, but that’s because even with one day left, Tom Batiuk’s unique combination of despair and outright surrealism has reached critical mass.

#10. March 5

Before we get into the real insanity of this month’s Funky, it’s time to check in with Wally and Rachel, the mopiest couple on Earth. For those of you who may be new, Wally is a former POW in Afghanistan who suffered from PTSD that was so severe that he is only recently beginning to overcome it with the help of a trained dog he got from a prison.

If that sounds strange, try reading it over the span of four months rather than all at once.Anyway, while it’s easy to read this comic for what I think it’s meant to show — that Wally has finally reached a stage where he is capable of interacting with another person in a pleasant way — there’s also the fact that Wally is returning from a visit with Wally Jr., whose life he largely missed out on while everyone thought he was dead — and telling his girlfriend that the only thing better than being around his son is not being around his son.

That is cold.

#9. March 4

As for just how well Wally’s dealing with his situation, we have this charming conversation between Wally and Becky, his ex-wife who lost her left arm when his alcoholism led to a car accident and holy crap I am getting bummed out just recapping this stuff.

Point being, now that Wally has conquered his fears through bonding with his new dog, the all-consuming terror he’s been living with since his return from the Middle East has been replaced with an all-consuming regret for the things he did before the war. That’s… well, that’s almost like progress, right?

#8. March 21

More recently, the focus of the strip has moved to a storyline set in Westview High, so that we can watch kids have their hopes and dreams crushed out of them in real time, rather than just witness the aftermath as destiny continues to beat adults into submission long after they’ve given up. This time, it comes from a story cribbed from virtually every sitcom ever, where two students are paired up to pretend to raise a kid.

The difference here, though, is that Batiuk has given it his own spin by rendering the kids with absolute, all-consuming bitterness etched onto their faces, rather than the usual Schadenfreude smirk that signals a punchline. Even the background itself is slowly fading into blackness as Cody spits out his angry “Nice.”

#7. March 23

Before long, though, things are back to normal, as children are taught the harsh life lesson of being unable to conceive, which of course is met with humiliation and derision from the one person Owen considers to be his friend as Cody tries to regain some of the classroom pecking order status that he lost in the previous strip. Charming!

The best part, though, is that in the Funkyverse, the familiar “Happy Face” logo has given way to a blank expression that results from someone retreating within themselves rather than facing the outside world. Seriously, though? I would buy the hell out of that design if it were sold as a Funky Winkerbean shirt.

#6. March 26

I mentioned earlier that the Take-Care-Of-A-Baby-Doll plotline is one that’s recycled from — if you’re measuring by DVD box set weight — a literal ton of sitcoms, but in all fairness, I have to respect Tom Batiuk for going in this direction.

Rather than forcing two characters to interact with each other, Batiuk as realized, as we all have, that the characters in his comic strip would rather drop out of a class, tank their GPA and forfeit any chance at a college education rather than spending any measurable time together. Actually realizing that and derailing one’s own story is a pretty bold move.

Of course, Cody’s glum realization that the object of his desire will never, ever regard him as a human being worthy of her presence is also kind of depressing. So why not check in with Batiuk’s other comic strip, the more lighthearted, joke-oriented Crankshaft!

#5. Crankshaft, March 9

Oh, see, it’s funny because he used to bring his wife flowers when he would take her on dates, but now she’s dead.

It goes without saying that this storyline lasts for an entire week, but c’mon, it’s not like Crankshaft is so monumentally obsessed with death that he sees signs of it everywhere, right?

BONUS: Crankshaft, March 23

Huh. Or maybe he sees signs of decomposing human remains even in his own breakfast. That’s a possibility too.

#4. March 7

Getting back to Funky, this month saw the strip dovetail into a pure surrealism with this week of stirips. The focus here was on Pete Roberts, a character that I don’t think I’ve ever in over a year of reading this strip, and who is introduced in a full-color Sunday strip where he Googles his own name and then gets mad at the mean things people say about him on the Internet. One wonders if that bit was autobiographical.

In any case, while I originally thought he was just some dude writing fan-fiction, it turns out that within the Funkyverse, Pete is actually the writer of Superman. Considering that Tom Batiuk is a life-long super-hero comics fan who has referenced everything from Rex the Wonder Dog to Speedball’s appearance in Civil War, that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, and considering that he’s still Tom Batiuk, it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pete’s dream job writing the adventures of Superman is nothing but a constant source of hassles.

#3. March 8

At this point, it became clear that Batiuk was actually writing a story about a writer who couldn’t figure out what to write about, or as we like to call it in the biz, “phoning it in.” While I’ll totally admit that I like that the embodiment of late scripts talks like Stan Lee mainlining a thesaurus, but I’m even more enamored with Pete’s shock as doom announces itself, rather than just being a constant presence like it is with Les.

Also, of all the comics Batiuk could’ve referenced, I’m really not surprised that he picked Blackest Night, in which comic book characters that had been killed off wholesale for the sake of cheap drama came back as zombies to feast on the emotions of the living.

#2. March 10

Also not surprising: That Pete’s solution is to stand around doing nothing while accepting the personifications of his fate that are destroying his house in some weird semi-lucid dream sequence.

#1. March 12

All right, all right, let’s be honest here. This is nowhere near as depressing as Funky usually gets — and I’ll admit that I actaully think getting earthquake powers from a formula called “Tec-Tonic” is actually a pretty great idea — but man, this entire plot is completely mystifying. So mystifying, in fact, that I gave up on up on understanding it myself and decided to get some help.

Fortunately for my attempts to understand a comic about a guy who writes Superman, I was able to convince Chris Roberson, the guy who actually does write Superman, to take a look at this set of strips and give me his take on it:

Wow, that’s just… just BEWILDERING. If I SQUINT I can almost see what he’s trying to say here, but even leaving aside the question of whether it’s FUNNY or not, it barely makes any sense. A comic scripter is facing writer’s block and a looming deadline, which he then combats by… PROCRASTINATING? Um, okay, I guess.

Bizarrely, though the villains that confront him appear to be the product of his own imagination (maybe?) the mastermind behind it all actually exists? So in the world of Winkerbean, there really is a guy who bedevils writers and tries to make them miss their deadlines? Or is the fact that his next target will be “the guy who writes Crankshaft” mean that we’re actually reading some kind of metacommentary? Since Winkerbean and Crankshaft exist in this same universe, AND this “Lord of the Late” seems to regard the Crankshaft strip as a work of fiction, doesn’t that mean that Funky Winkerbean is fiction, TOO? So the Lord of Late is bedeviling a fictional character from OUTSIDE that fictional world? But typically the only person in a position to do that is… the WRITER. Is the Lord of Late some kind of Jungian shadow for Batiuk himself? (Which would make “Pete Roberts” simply an aspect of Batiuk, as well.) Perhaps in the course of these strips, Batiuk is playing out some kind of psychodrama, in which the various aspects of his fractured psyche war with one another, with his negative impulse being not to create at all, and his most positive urge being simply to get the work DONE, and quality be damned!

Whoa. My head hurts. I think I need a drink. This comic may be deeper than I realized.

But as a HUMOR strip? I don’t know, man. Is this stuff actually supposed to be FUNNY?

That didn’t really clear up any of my own questions, but it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one Tom Batiuk has driven to booze.

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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