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FunkyWatch: September’s Most Depressing ‘Funky Winkerbean’ And ‘Crankshaft’ Strips

Over the past 40 years, Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean has transitioned from a gag-a-day comic strip about a high school to an ongoing chronicle of pure, abject misery. Thanks to the ongoing commentary on Josh Fruhlinger’s Comics Curmudgeon, I am now completely obsessed with it, which is why I spend a little time every month rounding up its finest examples of crushing despair.

Usually, Tom Batiuk prefers to highlight the more existential problems of the human condition like depression, alcoholism or being Les More, but September brought an interesting new twist: Physical violence! Yes, between the multiple concussions from football injuries, an actual attempt at vehicular manslaughter and the physical consequences of attempting to care about another human being, things get pretty rough for the Funkyverse this month, even by the usual standards. Needless to say, I am thoroughly delighted by this turn of events.

Funky Winkerbean, September 5:

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 5

 

Before we get to the brutal thrashing that the characters are going to go through this month, we might as well start with the usual rounds of depression and the steady erosion of all hope. Hooray!

Personally, I always suspected that Bull (and Les, and that lady with the one arm, and that guy who looks like a Mark Twain impersonator, and Cayla, and that other girl that had to quit her job rather than face the horrifying social consequences of having been seen making out with Les and his horrible smirking mouth) got into teaching because Funky Winkerbean has been set at a high school since 1972 and even Tom Batiuk gets tired of drawing a pizza place over and over. It turns out, though, that the characters have their own reasons for getting into one of the most noble professions a person can do.

And that, of course, is to revisit the abuses of power heaped upon themselves onto the next generation, all of which are built around getting cafeteria food before anyone else. Pettiness and greed: The true motivations for today’s educators.

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 10:

Funky Winkerbean, September 10

 

Of course, teaching isn’t all about the glamour of getting lukewarm meatloaf! Sometimes it’s about being mocked as you engage in a prolonged metaphor about the emptiness of existence and the futility of trying!

Seriously, this is another one that I really can’t figure out. Are we meant to take it at face value, which would mean that Bull is such a dunce that he loses something every single day and then has to root around in a beat-up cardboard box until he finds it? Or are those empty, hollow eyes that Batiuk gives him in Panel 1 a clue that we should take this as a metaphor, that Bull’s life is missing something (love, hope, accomplishments, hair) that he can’t find in a box, but he’s too dumb to give up trying no matter how depressed he gets?

Either possibility is pretty awful, and I think the capper of two smirking dolts off on the sidelines chattering among themselves about “Keys to Victory” and how their school is populated entirely by losers fits both. It’s tough to figure out.

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 23:

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 23

 

And now we get to the meat of this month’s storylines: Troubled Teen Jarod Posey and his forced recruitment to the Westview High Scapegoats! If you missed out on the earlier strips, Bull found Jarod — who wears black clothes and a trenchcoat because Batiuk gets his “Troubled Teen” cues from 1998 and who has a hairline like Ben Franklin because Batiuk is paying tribute to all those movies from the ’50s where teenagers were played by people in their 40s — smoking in the bathroom! As a punishment, Bull got him to fetch footballs for the team, but upon noticing that he was good at throwing, pressganged him into his new position as quarterback.

One assumes that this is because modern schools frown on teachers physically harming their students, but there’s nothin’ in that fancy “rules book” that says you can’t put a weird, awkward teen on the football team and then let all the jocks in school tackle the living hell out of him during practice now is there? Enjoy your concussions, Jarod! Hope the smooth taste of Marlboro Country was worth it!

Funky Winkerbean, September 22:

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 22

 

Hm, I wonder what could make this storyline even more depressing and awful. Oh hey, what if there was an allusion to an abusive home life that was never followed up on again, right there in full color in the Sunday paper? That’d probably do it, right?

 

Crankshaft, September 11:

Crankshaft, September 11

 

Meanwhile, over in Crankshaft, Lily is hosting a pair of precocious children who have decided that the best way to respond to an offer of lemonade is to point out that the person offering it is a spinster, shunned by all right-thinking society, who has lived a life free of love and has therefore “missed” out on any chance for real happiness.

For real though, Chuck Ayers doesn’t get a lot of credit, but I have never seen an artist capture a lifetime of regret in a single glance as well as he does in panel 3.

 

Crankshaft, September 26:

 

Crankshaft, September 26

 

The major storyline for Crankshaft this month, once we were done humiliating Lily for being an unlovable wretch of a crone, involved a new bus driver being added to Crankshaft’s district. Her name is Mary, and of course, Crankshaft immediately hates her for no reason. Well, I say “no reason,” but really, it’s because she’s nice, and while I’m loath to take Ed’s side in any instance at all, it does bear mentioning that “niceness” doesn’t really fit in. By showing concern and compassion for others, something that simply does not exist in the world of Funky Winkerbean, Mary may actually be upsetting the cosmic balance.

I mean, look at poor unnamed coworker here. He has been physically crippled by the very act of showing the smallest possible kindness to children. Under normal circumstances, the human body is just not that fragile. Once again, Batiuk and Ayers remind us that they are working in a world where there are potentially lethal consequences to not being anything but a hateful, self-absorbed wretch.

 

Crankshaft, September 20:

 

Crankshaft, September 20

 

So obviously, Mary has to die.

Seriously: That is literally what this strip is about. Mary has allowed herself to be put into a position where she could be “accidentally” murdered, and Crankshaft is thanking whatever vicious, polytheistic pantheon they worship in the Batiukverse for the opportunity to please them with a blood sacrifice. There is nothing I can add to this.

And just in case you think they were kidding…

 

Crankshaft, September 21:

 

Crankshaft, September 21

 

Nope. He tried to run her over. With a bus. Crankshaft is now re-enacting the Joker’s crimes from The Dark Knight, you guys.

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 27:

 

Funky Winkerbean, September 27

 

If there’s one thing Batiuk is good at, it’s boiling his strip down into three concise panels, and he’s done it again here. Opportunity, brief, fleeting hope, and crushing defeat in rapid sequence, repeat as necessary. So obviously, this is a new favorite strip for me.

Well. “Favorite.”

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