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FunkyWatch: November’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 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.

The past few months have been weird ones for the Funkyverse, what with the haunting of an old lady and a surprise appearance by Spider-Clone Ben Reilly, but this month… this month, I can assure you that things are back up to their depressing, rage-inducing standard. In fact, I think it’s pretty telling that Funky didn’t even spend a single strip on Thanksgiving, presumably because nobody in that comic actually has anything to be thankful for. So what’d they get up to instead? Mix up a stiff drink and read on as we find out together!Funky Winkerbean, November 3

This month’s adventures into mopiness kick off with a week-long storyline where two guys sit around complaining about the hysteria that surrounds violent video games. To be honest, that’s definitely a step in the right direction. I mean, when you get right down to it, the only thing that separates those strips from any given week of Penny Arcade is that Tom Batiuk draws slightly more realistic hairstyles.

And as rare as it is for me to say this, I am totally with Batiuk on this one. I agree with him a hundred percent, right down to his comparison of stuff like this to the same thing that led Concerned Parents™ to blame the decline of Western civilization on Tales From the Crypt after Seduction of the Innocent was published. That said, I think he might be overselling things just a little bit here when he gets around to comparing kids who play video games to the twenty people who were executed for witchcraft in 1692. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll agree that it’s the same kind of fearmongering, but I’m reasonably sure that no one in Ohio was crushed to death under a pile of stones for refusing to admit that they bought Grand Theft Auto.

Then again, it just wouldn’t be Funky Winkerbean without a conversation turning inevitably to historical murder. Welcome to November, everybody!

Funky Winkerbean, November 14

This month’s other major plot revolved around the Westview school district running out of money and having to cancel all of their sports, because of course they did. And really, considering that the Westview Scapegoats haven’t exactly been known for their accomplishments on the field, I can’t say that I blame them. Then again, once you remove sports from the equation, all you have left is the dubious education students can get from a sad sack like Les Moore, and that’s not really much better.

But what’s really notable about this completely unsurprising tragedy is that it allows Linda a perfect chance to display the three of the four emotions that Funky Winkerbean characters are allowed in addition to the default “crushing despair.” Unwarranted smugness in panel one, the brief flicker of happiness that always comes before a massive letdown in panel two, and in panel three, shock so profound that it appears to have caused a stroke.

Funky Winkerbean, November 9

Remember, folks: America’s fictional high schools are experiencing economic ruin because of you. I hope you can enjoy Mary Worth with that on your conscience.

Beyond that, I will say that this is some fine comic strip craftsmanship right here: A seamless marriage of pictures and words that finds two characters pointing at text while describing it with more text. Truly, we are in the presence of a master.

Funky Winkerbean, November 16

You know, if there’s one thing I actually really do like about Funky Winkerbean, it’s that there’s no attempt whatsoever made to sugarcoat anything, or disguise what’s going on for the characters. For all that I’m mystified at the transformation from the original gag strip format to today’s ongoing three-panel funeral dirge, it doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not.

This, for instance, is a comic strip where the punchline is two people walking down a gray brick hallway talking about how fate is a cruel master and how preparing yourself for even the smallest happiness is an exercise in futility. Seriously. That is what happens in this strip.

Funky Winkerbean, November 13

This strip, though, is where it all comes together. If you’re a devoted reader — or at least someone who stops by once a month to gawk at the trainwreck in this column — then you’re already aware of the series of tragedies that have befallen Summer Moore: a knee injury last February that led directly to her team losing their championship game, and now, the following year, just as she’s ready to get back into the game, the school cancels its sports program, and months of painful rehab on that knee are rendered pointless, along with any hope she had for getting a scholarship.

Clearly, Summer has inherited her father’s knack for being the universe’s punching bag.

The best part, though, is how this particular installment is paced: A list of miseries that ends with Summer saying — again, with no subtext whatsoever — that she’s hurt, angry and depressed, followed by her dad being about to give her some fatherly advice when, whoops! We’re out of time! Looks like anything that isn’t crippling despair’ll have to wait ’til tomorrow! Classic Batiuk.

Crankshaft, November 18

Meanwhile, over in his other strip with artist Chuck Ayers, Batiuk’s putting the “fun” in “funeral!” Wait, did I say “fun?” I meant “mind-numbingly horrible puns about how nobody really liked the person who just died anyway.” That’s what they’re putting in “funeral.”

It’s worth noting that even though Batiuk and Ayers tend to work in story arcs, this strip just shows up completely out of nowhere as a one-shot gag, about a funeral. That’ not entirely unexpected — the first Crankshaft strip I remember reading was one about how he doesn’t even bother to put his “funeral shoes” away because his friends are dying off faster than the newspapers they appear in — but still. The fact that this is a comic that can drop in a trip to the funeral home as casually as other strips do with a trip to the grocery store should give you a pretty good idea of what we’re working with.

Crankshaft, November 28 and 30

In a related story, Crankshaft tried to kill a man.

I’ve only been reading Crankshaft for about a year and a half, and while that might seem like a long time, trust me, these things tend to play out slow. As a result, I have no idea of Keesterman here is a recurring character who did something in the past to deserve the ire of an illiterate bus driver, or if this is just an example of Crankshaft just straight up being a mean old man who can only take pleasure in the suffering of others. If I had to guess, though, I’d put even money on the latter.

What I do know, because it’s a fact that appeared in a comic with the fairly memorable punchline “because people have actually died,” is that Lena’s brownies are quite literally lethal. So, just so we’re clear on this, the title character of the “funny” Funkyverse strip is trying to drive a man insane by destroying everything he holds dear and then murder him with poison.

Funky Winkerbean, November 22

Back at Westview High, Funky finally remembered that he’s the title character of this strip and made his first notable appearance in something like six months, somehow managing to be a sad sack and a smarmy jackass all at the same time. He decided that the best way to save the school’s sports program was to put on a show! raise funds by getting local businesses to donate to an auction in the name of community togetherness. It’s actually not a bad plan, and by FW standards, it’s downright heartwarming, even if it involved Funky complaining about how the free trip to Mount Kilimanjaro he conned the local travel agency out of wasn’t to someplace better, like Disneyland. Really.

But rememeber earlier, when I talked about the three non-despair emotions that FW characters are allowed to show, and how any happiness must always and immediately be followed by despair, only used to build someone up so that their fall into despair will be even more soul-crushing than it actually is. Well, check out Bull in panel two there. That dude is so happy about the name he’s come up with that he has transformed into a muppet. And of course, in the next panel, he has once again become a sad cartoon turtle, as his “friend” shuts him down in the most annoyingly sarcastic way that he can. Because of course he does.

Les, on the other hand, displays the fourth emotion: Schadenfreude.

Funky Winkerbean, November 30

Yup.

Funky Winkerbean, November 7

And finally, we have this gem, in which the characters in Funky Winkerbean complain that newspaper comic strips are too depressing.

I… I can’t… I don’t even know where to start with this. But I think Tom Batiuk might be onto me.

See how depressing those comic strips can be 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 the Houston Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or your local newspaper

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