FunkyWatch: November’s Most Depressing ‘Funky Winkerbean’ and ‘Crankshaft’ Strips
Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean, thanks largely to the tireless coverage of Josh Fruhlinger over at The Comics Curmudgeon.
What started in the ’70s as a lighthearted high school comedy has slowly evolved — through a series of time-jumps, spin-offs and character deaths — into an unrelenting parade of suffering and despair, and I’ll confess: I find it absolutely fascinating. That’s why I’ve devoted myself to chronicling the depths of the inescapable sinkhole of depression that shows up right next to the Junior Jumble.
One would think that November, which brings with it the promise of togetherness, Thanksgiving and the start of the holidays, would see a break in the crippling miasma of despair that permeates the strip, but not only does it return full force, it barrels headlong into Batiuk’s other strip, Crankshaft! So today, get ready for a double dose, as I count down Tom Batiuk’s 11 most depressing strips ever… this month.
#11. Funky Winkerbean, November 11
With the earlier strips focused on Les’s successful book signing, November took a while to ramp up to the singularly depressing Funky we all know and love. When it finally did, though, look out: Rachel’s desperation to wring some kind of emotion other than quiet terror from Wally has driven her to offer to go out and rent a pornographic movie, only to find her efforts accepted as a pretense to buy him food, as he is willing to passively starve to death rather than face the world outside his pitch black apartment.
Hey Tom, Sylvia Plath called. She wants you to lighten up a little.#10. Funky Winkerbean, November 12
This is the next day’s strip, so I think it’s safe to assume that by this point, Rachel has already returned with her “frisky” video and settled down underneath what appears to be an honest to God cloud of pure evil threatening to crush all light within its gloom. And yet, neither Rachel nor Wally can take solace in the friskiness on the screen — Westview having long sense beaten anything resembling the emotion of desire out of its citizens — and so instead they turn on each other.
Seriously, check out the expressions in Panel 3. I have seen more tender looks from the Lockhorns.
#9. Funky Winkerbean, November 18
Jumping ahead to the end of Wally and Rachel’s little spat, we have something that pretty much sums up the concept of love in the Funkyverse: Two people who are equally miserable as a result of the same problems.
Admittedly, sharing the bad times is just as important as sharing the good, but I’ve been reading this thing for months now and have yet to see anyone actually share the good. Wally and Rachel pretty much speak for themselves, but let’s not forget Holly’s reaction to Funky’s car wreck, and the fact that Funky traveled through time so that he could mope about ruining her life by marrying her. The only person who has any joy is Les, who is experiencing success with a book about his wife dying of cancer. Shared misery, folks. Sometimes it’s all you got.
#8. Funky Winkerbean, November 24
Before the rest of the Wally/Rachel “romance” sends me back to the drink, let’s have a look at one of the other plots Batiuk had on the burner this month. Westview’s “Band Turkeys” are a running gag in the strip, and while I’ve never actually heard of such a thing outside the world of Funky Winkerbean, I guess it’s not too different from selling candy to benefit the school, like we did when I was in high school. Except that instead of candy, it’s turkey, which is a pretty solid analogy for the strip itself.
Seriously though, what kind of sadistic bum makes a one-armed woman deliver turkeys by hand?
#7. Funky Winkerbean, November 25
All right, look: I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the joke here — if you want to go so far as to call this a joke — is that Becky doesn’t know any other prayers, but in the larger context of the strip, is there any way at all to read this as anything other than a woman planning to poison her family in an elaborate triple-murder/suicide?
Okay, there probably is, but I can’t see it. Which means I’ve been reading Funky Winkerbean too long. So why don’t we check in with Batiuk’s other comic with artist Chuck Ayers, Crankshaft! It is, after all, meant to Batiuk’s more lighthearted, gag-based strip, even though those gags tend to be based on malapropisms and puns so bad that I think it might be actually preferable to see Rachel and Wally watching porn.
Let’s see here…
#6. Crankshaft, November 4
So I guess the joke here is that Crankshaft — who also has a creeping paincloud, it seems — is living in constant terror that he’s losing his mind, which in this case would mean forgetting one by one the reasons that he hates everyone. Ha… ha?
#5. Crankshaft, November 6
Aha! You might think that the joke here is that even on the Internet, where you can find someone who shares any interest, even one as alarmingly specific as watching people dressed as the cast of Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers popping balloons by sitting on them, Crankshaft is still such a horrible, hateful person that he can’t find a single friend, but you’d be wrong.
Like all the masters, Batiuk is playing the long game here with a setup that wouldn’t pay off for five days. See, it’s not that Crankshaft doesn’t have any friends…
#4. Crankshaft, November 11
…it’s that all of his friends are dead.
Let’s get back to Funky.
#3. Funky Winkerbean, November 16
“So, what’s going on in the comics today?”
“Oh, you know. Dagwood bumped into the mailman, Sgt. Snorkel yelled at Beetle Bailey for being lazy, and Wally Winkerbean has grown paranoid, sees danger everywhere, never received proper therapy for his experiences as a prisoner of war, and is slowly dying as a result of living in constant terror for over half a decade.”
“How about Garfield?”
“Oh he hates Mondays like you don’t even know.”
Hey, wait a second. Can we get Crankshaft from the 16th up here?
#2. Crankshaft, November 16
This strip isn’t all that depressing in and of itself — just the usual lousy punning — but that misses the larger point here, which is this: Tom Batiuk did two newspaper comic strips about IEDs on the same day.
Like, that gets to a point where it’s not even depressing anymore. That’s just impressive.
But there is one thing that tops it:
#1. Funky Winkerbean, November 14
First of all, Wally calls Rachel “Miss All-Smart,” a phrase I have never heard in my life, despite the fact that Batiuk left himself ample room to letter in “Miss Smarty-Pants.” So that’s just weird. Second of all:
PUPPIES. BEHIND. BARS.
Like a lot of things Batiuk drops into his strips, Puppies Behind Bars is actually a real charity that looks like it does good work, helping to rehabilitate prisoners by having them work with dogs, who are then trained to be service animals for veterans. The problem here is that a) “Puppies Behind Bars” is seriously the most depressing name for anything, ever, and b) I cannot imagine anything more heartbreaking than taking an adorable puppy, putting it in prison, and then letting it out only to pass it along to the world of Funky Winkerbean.
If this doesn’t lead to Wally coming home one day to find a leash tied around the doorknob, I will be shocked.
Still not depressed? Check out the FunkyWatch archives!