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.

So is it just me, or are things actually getting less morose in the world of Funky Winkerbean? Don't get me wrong, they're not exactly happy, and there's certainly plenty of existential dread floating around, but things seem to be moving in a direction that's more... I guess the word for it is "completely inexplicable by any form of human logic." Let's see how far off the rails things got in October, shall we?Crankshaft, October 2:

Before we get to Funky Winkerbean itself, it's only right that we check in with the other strip Tom Batiuk does (with artist Chuck Ayers), Crankshaft. As is only fitting for a story that kicks off the month that leads to Halloween, Crankshaft started October by continuing the story about Lilly being haunted by the unquiet spirit of her dead sister, who haunted her incessantly until Lilly finally schlepped out to the ruins of an abandoned amusement park.

It might sound like the setup for a slasher flick, but don't worry. Rather than going for the cheap scares of gore and violence, Batiuk and Ayers decided to go a little more psychological with things, switching between the memories of happy times, back before Lilly stole a proposal letter from her sister's boyfriend, with the rotting, ruined husk of what remains.

I know I say this every month, but it bears repeating: Crankshaft is Batiuk's happier strip.

Crankshaft, October 9:

So how's it all work out? Well, Lilly leaves the letter in a pile of garbage where it's eventually picked up and read by a construction worker who probably wonders who the hell thought it was a good idea to propose marriage by letter, and Lucy's ghost turns back into her younger self and finally goes to her sepia toned eternity of dancing with a man who is perpetually on the cusp of male pattern baldness. Also, they no longer have to deal with the pain of being alive, which is about as happy an ending as you can expect in the Winkerverse.

Seriously: These two dead people are the happiest characters I have ever seen in this strip. Even if "nothing ever dies" sounds like the ominous lead-in to a Crankshaft/Walking Dead crossover.

Funky Winkerbean, October 21:

Speaking of emotions you don't usually see on display in Funky Winkerbean, we have this strip. The slack-jawed, beaten-down-by-life expression of the unnamed homeowner might not be new, and neither is the latest in a 30-year run of jokes a bout how terrible Westview High's football team, which is actually named the Scapegoats in one of the strip's better gags.

The look on Coach Bushka's face in panel three, though, that's new. Usually Westview's citizens respond to the smarmy remarks of their fellows with an insufferable smirk, but Bull? That dude is furious. That is not a look of minor annoyance, or of wounded pride over someone insulting his beloved team, that's a look that happens about a half hour before Les catches him shoving his bloody clothes in a dumpster and makes a wisecrack about how he needs to be careful with the ketchup bottle.

Funky Winkerbean, October 14:

In other news, Crazy's favorite used bookstore is going out of business, probably because people are a little uncomfortable buying paperbacks from a guy who looks like a melty Jack Webb. Of course, given that Crazy compares the store to "Facebook in the real world," the store's woes might be related to the fact that people would come in to get a book and end up having high school acquaintances shout poorly worded political screeds at them. It's not a great business model for brick and mortar, folks.

Crankshaft, October 29:

Ever hear of the Winchester Mystery House? It's one of those great bits of real-life craziness that writers love to use as inspiration stories: Sarah Winchester, a widow who had married the grandson of the man who manufactured the extremely popular (and extremely deadly) Winchester Repeating Rifle. After her husband's death, she began construction on a house that continued non-stop for thirty-eight years, allegedly because she believed she was being haunted by the spirits of everyone who had been killed by a Winchester rifle. The constant construction was, according to legend, meant to confuse the ghosts with endless hallways and switchbacks and keep them from getting to her and dragging her off to gunshot hell.

What I'm getting at here is that the grandmother from Crankshaft is exactly as horrible to be around as thousands and thousands of murder-crazed ghosts, and needs to be dealt with in the same way.

Crankshaft, October 17:

Someone definitely died the day before this strip takes place.

Funky Winkerbean, October 30:

While other strips this weekend were using their bigger Sunday format for gags about Halloween, Funky Winkerbean decided that it was a good time for an homage to Rembrandt.

I want to go through that one more time: This is a Funky Winkerbean strip that's an homage to Rembrandt. I mean, that's not depressing at all or anything, and I've actually said several times that there is no famous painter whose work could not be improved by the addition of a Venom statue to the background -- imagine the Mona Lisa with a sweet symbiote battle in the bcakground, for instance -- but it's pretty unexpected.

Anyway, the notable thing here is that every single person in this picture is displaying a unique version of abject misery, from the Crazy's seething jealousy to Emo Shaggy's apprehensiveness to Maddie's hollow expression of someone who just realized that none of her dreams will ever come true. But to give Batiuk credit, I can confirm that this is a pretty accurate portrayal of people who sit around grading comics.

Crankshaft, October 31:

That doesn't mean that Batiuk ignored Halloween, though. Far from it! Instead, he chose to embrace the scary season with a spooooooky tale of the harsh realities of the housing market. That's why you're getting roofing tiles and tenpenny nails at the Crankshaft house this year, boils and ghouls!

Funky Winkerbean, October 24:

Over in Funky, he spent the entire week leading up to it on a story arc about kids going to school in costumes, and -- in one of those truly inexplicable leaps of logic that actually makes for a pretty great strip -- he for some reason chose to have one of his characters dress up as Ben Reilly, the Spider-Clone.

Really, when you get right down to it, that costume's probably more closely associated with May Parker, the alternate future Spider-Girl -- she wore it for about nine years longer than he did -- but still, it raises the question of why? Why go for the Ben Reilly suit? These characters are supposed to be high school underclassmen, so the short-lived, blonde-haird, workin'-at-the-Daily-Grind Ben Reilly would've been before they were born.

Even though Batiuk's a comic book fan who references super-hero books pretty frequently in his comics, I was almost ready to chalk this one up to reaching into his reference file and pulling out the first picture he had, and ending up with Reilly.

But then this happened:

Funky Winkerbean, October 25:

Nope, he's definitely supposed to be Ben Reilly, probably because Ben Reilly is hilarious. AndI have to say, it's an awesome drawing of a homemade Ben Reilly costume. It's got just the right amount of lumpiness to show that he made it himself, and his all-too-typical exasperation at nobody knowing who this obscure character is.

It's a good strip! And it's funny! Maybe this is it, guys. Maybe this is where it all turns around, and Funky Winkerbean steps away from the abyss. Maybe things are finally looking up!

Funky Winkerbean, October 6:

Or maybe we'll get a strip about how Tony Montoni is quietly waiting to die.

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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