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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 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.

November is always a great time to be a Funky Winkerbean reader, as the holidays approach and Batiuk does his level best to reflect the season of skyrocketing suicide rates. It’s all the depression and seething hatred for your fellow man that you’ve come to expect from Funky and Crankshaft, plus a debate about the nature of comics! Doesn’t that sound fun?!?!?!Funky Winkerbean, November 5:

Oh snap, Brian Wood! Your ass just got served by Tommy B for not having any jokes in the pages of DMZ!

While we all pause to take in the beauty of Funky Winkerbean taking a break from unending misery to stick it to those idiots who think comics have to be funny, it’s worth noting that this is not the first time this exact thing has happened. Back in 2009, the Westview High drama department tried to put on a production of Wit, only to meet with protests from parents upset about all the death in that particular play. In the end, drama teacher Susan Smith — seen in this column as the losing party in the Les/Cayla love triangle — defended her choice with a rousing speech about how it is both necessary and right for art to focus on things like misery and cancer.

There may be a thinner metaphor out there somewhere, but you’d need an electron microscope to discover it.

This time, the debate takes the form of a lecture about the etymology of the term “comic book” and why only pedantic jerks expect things to be lighthearted all the time. It goes on for five days and it’s just as thrilling as you expect, so it’s probably best to just check into Crankshaft for a while.

Crankshaft, November 3:

Those of you who were following along with last month’s installments of this exciting, ripped-from-the-headlines story of Rose being duped by a Nigerian email scam will probably be disappointed to find out that it did not turn out to be a crossover with Achewood‘s Leon Sumbitches. I know I was, but after two and half years of writing about this strip, this resolution really shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I mean, really, bitter old harridan Rose being duped into handing over her paltry savings to a scam artist preying on her and thereby stomping on her absolute last shred of compassion and decency was the only way this one was going to go down. Setting up Lillian the Spinster to be the next victim in the last panel is the kind of above-and-beyond knife-twisting that sets Batiuk and Ayers apart.

Crankshaft, November 5:

And then there was the time Crankshaft ran over a little girl in panel 2.

For a brief moment when I was reading this strip, I thought that was exactly what happened, and I definitely get the feeling that this was one of those moments where Batiuk and Ayers thought about going super dark with their story before they started in on panel 3. Seriously, the creeping darkness and Crankshaft’s wide eyes as he experiences a fleeting sensation of remorse for the very first time in his miserable life are not really the ways one represents the flattening of a French horn.

But in the end, they pulled back and we got the story of a student who finally figured out that the only way to slow Crankshaft’s endless (and often rewarded) cruelty towards children was to physically block his path so that he couldn’t drive off. In a better world, this strip would’ve been followed up by the Little Brady Girl leading the revolution that would end Ed Crankshaft’s reign of terror forever.

Crankshaft, November 9:

Instead, the only result is that Ed actually gets in trouble for a grand total of five (5) days, before Lena “makes the complaint go away.” That’s a pretty ominous way of putting that thought — especially for Crankshaft, who can barely get through a sentence without a “hilarious” malapropism — and considering that Lena has killed before, I can only draw one conclusion.

Welcome to being an orphan, Little Brady Girl. If you grow up and you’re still sore about it, Ed Crankshaft will be waiting for you to take your revenge.

Crankshaft, November 17:

Well that’s just silly. Nobody’s ever been interested in Hawkman.

Crankshaft, November 4:

With all the contract killings and email scams running rampant in this month’s Crankshaft strips, I thought that we might not get around to the classic existential dread that sits at the core of the Funkyverse. But don’t worry, dear reader, Batiuk didn’t forget to throw that in.

Please enjoy this strip, which is about a man too paralyzed with fear to actually speak to his own family, because he believes that doing so will be an act of hubris that will be punished by his swift and inevitable death. That is not subtext. It is actually the joke in this strip that Jeff thinks talking to his sister will literally kill him.

To be fair, though, that’s how I tend to view talking to my sister, too.

Funky Winkerbean, November 10:

And finally, we rejoin Funky Winkerbean at the end of the week long lesson in the evolution of language, just in time to catch another swipe at J. Michael Straczynski’s Grounded. Oddly enough, that comic actually is hilarious, unless you remember that people were actually paid money to make it and someone thought it was actually good.

Say, you don’t think this conversation about justifying depressing comics is directed at a noted moron in a Punisher t-shirt because of… nah, couldn’t be.

Funky Winkerbean, November 18:

Meanwhile, over in the Moore household, the honeymoon is well and truly over as Cayla has taken to inflicting physical pain on Les in response to his endless, grating puns. This has pretty much made Cayla my favorite character in the strip. If she starts using a baseball bat, she might end up being my favorite character in fiction, period.

But while I came to see Cayla shattering Les’s floating ribs with her elbow, I stayed because Les’s immediate response was to bring up his dead first wife, because Les’s immediate response to LITERALLY EVERYTHING is to bring up his dead first wife. Apparently he believes this is the secret of a happy (second) marriage. For her part, Cayla is just flat-out not having it, and I like to imagine that if this strip went on for two more panels, we’d get more of Les sputtering while Cayla slowly lowered the paper and silenced him with a quiet “Lisa’s dead.”

Funky Winkerbean, November 22:

And finally, Funky goes to visit his father in the rest home with the funny pun name and we all get reminded of the genuine horror of Alzheimer’s. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Forget your troubles 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 daily at Oregon Live or your local newspaper.

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