FunkyWatch: May’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.
Batiuk is no stranger to using his strip to explore serious issues — like, say, cancer — and this month, he turned his attention to a widely publicized story of two gay teenagers going to prom together. So before we get started, I want to give Batiuk a sincere, unironic shout-out for handling that story with compassion, and hope that it reached an audience through newspapers that other outlets might not.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t take plenty of opportunities to give his cast of characters their monthly dose of misery while he was at it.Funky Winkerbean, May 13:
Believe it or not, Memorial Day somehow managed to pass in both of Tom Batiuk’s strips without a single mention of anyone dying. Instead, everybody just had cookouts. I know, I was shocked too, especially considering that one of those strips features an Iraq War veteran who was presumed dead for five years, and the other features a character who fought in World War II and will go to a funeral at the drop of a hat. I’m going to guess that for Batiuk, it’s a lot like that bit in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where real vampires just didn’t bother going out on Halloween because everyone was expecting them.
Mother’s Day, on the other hand, appears to be fair game. Thus, a full-color Sunday strip in which Summer Moore spends seven silent panels solemnly (and yet still sporting her permanent smirk) picking out a nice card for her dead mother. If this is your first time reading FunkyWatch, that pretty much sums it up.
Funky Winkerbean, May 1:
We’ve talked before about the way Batiuk writes the letter “L” and how it creeps me out for reasons I don’t quite understand, right? Right. For some reason, they just jump right out at me in this panel, and it’s impossible for me to read words like “following” or “film” without thinking they’re spoken with some kind of shudder. Maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, here we have Becky, Westview High’s band teacher. You may have noticed that she’s missing an arm, due to a previous story where her then-boyfriend Wally Winkerbean (the aforementioned Iraq War POW) indulged in some Teen Drinking and crashed his car while they were on a date. What I’m getting at here is that these characters have had some rough lives.
But it seems that Becky’s troubles started well before that, with a father who distanced himself from his children, regarding them only with the cold, detached precision of a cinematographer, preferring to document their lives rather than interact with them. Don’t worry, that’ll be a plot point later!
Funky Winkerbean, May 3:
Don’t worry too much about Becky’s childhood, though. Even though her father was a distant figure who did little more than silently chronicle her development from behind the lens (as seen in Panel 2), she still had her mom. Who was apparently a woman who thrived on argument, conflict and betrayal and who had a failed political career. So yeah, maybe we should start worrying about Becky’s childhood.
Funky Winkerbean, May 5:
Speak of the Devil! As it turns out, Becky’s shrill, hateful mother will be the villain of this month’s adventure. But aside from the truly masterful bit of mean muggin’ in panel two, there are a couple other things to note about this strip.
First up is young Westview High teacher selling tickets, whose sleepy reaction to the two boys stands in contrast to Roberta, but still seems less tolerant and supportive and more like she just couldn’t possibly be bothered to care. Second are the boys themselves. They’re not existing characters, and as far as I can tell, they don’t even get names. Even making allowances for putting the focus on the issue rather than specific characters, that still seems like a bit of a copout. But even more telling is the fact that with the exception of their hair, their faces appear to be completely identical. But that might just be the standard-issue smirk.
Funky Winkerbean, May 11
Of course, Roberta’s campaign against same-sex prom dating didn’t stop with sidelong glares in the hallway. She went straight to rallying up Westview’s most hilariously frowny citizens for a protest at the actual school. Seriously, just look at how grumpy those dudes are. It’s amazing, if only because it’s a nice change from the usual default moods on display in the strip: self-satisfied and distraught, and occasionally both at the same time.
Now, I realize that most slogans you see at anti-gay protests aren’t exactly the sort of thing that’ll make it onto the comics page right next to Garfield and the Junior Jumble, but I still feel a little cheated that we didn’t get a strip devoted to the process of selecting “NO GAY OLD TIME” as their rallying cry. What could possibly lead someone to try to come up with the best way to express their opposition to homosexuality and end up on “Of course! The Flintstones!”
While we’re waiting for all that to shake out, let’s check in on Crankshaft!
Crankshaft, May 10
Hey, quick question: How much would a man have to drink in order to erase both the word “Gramazon” and the image of hate-fueled septugenarian Rose in fancy lingerie and the implications of Ed Crankshaft’s familiarity with the Victoria’s Secret catalog from his mind without actually killing himself and/or missing his next deadline? I’m asking for a friend.
Funky Winkerbean, May 19:
Eventually, Westview’s principal gives a stirring speech about how a student’s sexuality matters way less than whether they’re following the rules laid out in the student handbook (seriously, it’s actually pretty awesome), but before the issue can be put to rest for good, Roberta makes her last stand at an assembly. Fortunately, her husband is there to settle the issue once and for all by shouting louder and issuing commands as though his wife was some kind of ill-trained animal.
Actually, now that I think about that, I can’t really call Batiuk out on that one. I mean, it’s pretty much the way I act in arguments, too. But it is pretty significant, because…
Funky Winkerbean, May 20:
…it’s later revealed that this is is more of an active role than he ever took in his own daughter’s upbringing. Even though it’s an exaggeration, Becky’s glum statement about how she can’t remember her father saying more than “two words” while she was growing up is pretty rough. You’d think there would be at least one or two occasions where he would’ve wanted to express concern for something. Like, say, if his daughter lost an arm. One would think that might require a little bit more than a noncommittal grunt.
But thanks to his shouting — which, by the way, is entirely represented in that strip from the 19th, there’s no more to it than “sit down and be still” — everybody gets to go to prom and Funky Winkerbean indulges in one of its rare happy endings. The kids even thank their principal by naming him and his wife Prom King and Queen. It’s a nice gesture, especially because it makes the bold statement that people willing to treat others with the bare minimum of respect due to another human being are the real heroes.
Crankshaft, May 5:
But just in case you thought we were going to have more abstract issues of social injustice to focus on, don’t worry: Batiuk and Ayers pulled a little bit of the old-fashioned childhood trauma out this month too.
But think about this strip: Tom Batiuk, a man best known for a writing a newspaper comic story about someone dying of cancer, has now done a strip where one of his characters terrorizes children by telling them a story about someone dying of cancer. He has become his own villain. The mind reels.
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