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FunkyWatch: October’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.

In most comics, one expects a little horror to creep in as Halloween approaches, but in the Funkyverse, the horror is of a more constant and existential variety than you get from, say, Garfield. But before wet to the crushing despair of Les Moore’s Wedding and Crankshaft‘s usual jokes about old people dying, there’s another comic from this month that’s worthy of a little attention:

Family Circus.Family Circus, October 31:

Before we go any further, I want to stress that the image above was not PhotoShopped: That is Halloween’s Family Circus as it ran in newspapers all across the country, in which Billy is straight up talking about WarHammer 40,000, the tabletop miniatures game that takes place in the grim darkness of the future where there is only war, and every available surface has been covered in skulls. This is unquestionably the most surprising Family Circus in at least 40 years, even if it takes that crown by default.

Seriously, the thought of Mom Keane taking Billy down to the local game store and dropping $50 on the Blood Ravens Codex so that he can stand on a chair arguing with some neckbeard in a safari vest about whether or not a bottle of Mountain Dew Code Red provides half cover has made this one of my favorite comic strips of all time. And that’s before you get to the imagery of Billy running around dressed as this dude:

“Who led the rebellion against the Emperor, Jeffy?!” “Not Me!”

All right, now onto the depression!

Funky Winkerbean, October 30:

Yes, while other strips might be content to focus on costumes, candy, and the occasional ghost or vampire, Tom Batiuk is ready to step it up by having two aging parents watch their son head off to join the army while experiencing the fear that he may die in a war, fighting far from his home. That is how you do fear, Jim Davis. The gauntlet has been thrown.

I will say, though, Funky actually going as far as saying the tagline to a horror movie out loud in the last panel might be going a step too far.

Funky Winkerbean, October 2:

As you might expect, there were a few strips this month focusing on the annual Lisa’s Legacy run, which mirrors the real-life event of the same name that Batiuk organizes to raise money for breast cancer research. So, you know, for all that we might poke fun at the guy’s work, that’s your reminder that Tom Batiuk actually is a pretty stand-up dude.

Of course, it’s pretty hard not to point out that the strip about the run ends with Les and Funky literally having a discussion about how they feel they should hide their happiness from an actively hostile universe, lest the unseen puppet-master that controls their lives descend with tragedy and suffering in tow. Seriously, dude: You bring it on yourself.

Funky Winkerbean, October 12:

Speaking of tragedy and suffering, this month also saw the long-awaited wedding of Les and Cayla, and it’s always a happy occasion when two people unite their lives into one ongoing saga of misery.

Needless to say, the happy occasion gave the other characters plenty of opportunities to chat about their own horrible lives, like Funky here: “My first marriage was a horrible nightmare of neverending misery. You’re lucky you were able to marry the love of your life and then watch her waste away and eventually die from cancer, scarring your fragile, dimwitted mind to the point where you have to seek permission from the dead to even experience happiness. Yep. Lucky as a four-leaf clover.”

Funky Winkerbean, October 11:

This strip, on the other hand, was an absolute delight to read. Unfortunately, it’s just a gag; Based on the lack of follow-up, I’m pretty sure that Cayla was just messing with her fiancé’s head rather than actually announcing the blessed/miserable event in the most heartless way possible.

Still, it’s pretty great. Not only is Les’s reaction one of poor and abject horror, but Cayla is literally attempting to decorate her wedding in the color of human suffering. Ah, romance!

Funky Winkerbean, October 30:

Congratulations, Tom Batiuk: After years of research, you have discovered the single most depressing way to express the exact same thought as “this is the happiest day of my life.”

Even worse? The idea that the best thing that has ever happened to Cayla, and in fact the only good thing to ever happen to Cayla, is shackling herself to a balding mopey sad sack like Les.

Crankshaft, October 11:

Meanwhile, over in Crankshaft, Batiuk and Ayers are taking their usual discussions of mortality to a macro scale by doing a comic where Ed Crankshaft gets all grumpy about the heat death of the universe. Seriously, that is the joke. And what’s even more amazing is that at some point, Tom Batiuk heard about how everything in the universe would eventually die and thought “Hey! That’ll make a great comic strip!”

Crankshaft, October 13:

It only took a few days to get back to the universe itself reminding Crankshaft that he was about to die, though. So at least there’s that.

Crankshaft, October 25:

In other news, a trip through her checkbook has revealed that the withered old crone that is Rose has apparently been patronizing a gigolo.

Or at least, that’s the implication of this strip. As it drags on, it’s revealed that Dr. Smith is a gentleman she met on an online dating site who has been ministering in Africa and needs several thousand dollars to bring a poor child back to America with him. Her son, whose name I can never remember and can’t be bothered to look up (Jeff, maybe?) believes him to be a scam artist, and since this directly impacts the inheritance that he hopes to get in lieu of any shred of affection, he’s understandably pissed. Personally, I hope this plays out as a slightly more newspaper-friendly version of Achewood‘s Leon Sumbitches Saga.

Now then, what could possibly be more depressing than Rose “meeting” a gentleman and getting bilked out of all her money? I’m glad you asked, hypothetical Internet person! Feast thine eyes:

Funky Winkerbean, October 26:

Holy. F**king. S**t.

Reading this strip today was the hardest I have laughed all month. Once again, Batiuk managed to completely blindside me with the most horrifying thing in the world! Here’s the setup: After Les and Cayla get married, a bunch of minor characters decide to go on a trip to see their old neighborhood, and somewhere between their first apartment and their first house, they decide to swing by that creepy old Scooby-Doo mansion where that one molester used to live! Out of f**king nowhere!!

I don’t know how he does it, but every single month, Tom Batiuk manages to paint a picture of a world that’s somehow even worse than the last, and at some point, you just have to respect that.

Take a tour of local horrors 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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