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 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.
After last month hit rock bottom with the worst Funky Winkerbean strips on record, I was dreading diving into September's offerings even more than usual. That said, it seems like Batiuk has decided to take the month off from pure despair, instead taking a hard left turn into a set of comics that make absolutely no sense. Unless you count the one where an elderly woman is so frustrated with her neighbors that she literally renounces God, I mean. That one could really go either way.
To start things off on a (relatively) high note, we are officially into the 43rd year of this storyline about Holly trying to finish her son's comic book collection before he gets back from Afghanistan. And now, it has grown so large that it is sprawling into other strips. Again. See, this is actually a follow-up to a previous installment of this story from... well, it would have to be ten or fifteen years ago at this point, or possibly last May, where Batiuk engineered a cross-time crossover between Funky and Crankshaft, which takes place over a decade earlier. The sequence that includes this strip, then, is the payoff... such as it is.
The thing is, Action Comics #243, the ultra-rare comic that twists Jeff's face into a rictus reminiscent of Mr. Sardonicus, doesn't really seem like a "Holy Grail" sort of comic. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's great -- that story where Superman gets a lion head is one of my all-time favorite comics -- but it's not really that hard to find. I mean, I just looked on eBay and you can pick it up for like fifty bucks, which, while kind of pricey for a comic that has Congorilla in it, isn't exactly a king's ransom. I suppose it's the thought that counts, but if Jeff really wanted to find out what happened in that issue, he probably could've done so relatively easily at any time in the past ten years.
Also, just for the record, whoever's coloring these strips for the Syndicate gave Superman a red costume for an entire week, giving me the idea that they have managed to find a person who does not know what Superman looks like.
The other ongoing plot in this month's Funky strips focuses on the Westview High Scapegoats, the football team whose name remains one of the few vestigial jokes in this comic that's actually pretty funny. This has given anthropologists reasons to believe that it was, at one time, a comedy, but after four years of reading this strip, I'm pretty sure it's just a tragedy with puns.
As a result, I have no reason to believe that this strip about using the team photo to identify bodies is meant to be funny rather than being a stone-sober proclamation that the team is going to suffer a fate that will leave them... changed
Another long-running element of Tom Batiuk's comic strips is that the characters speak in an approximation of the words human beings would use to convey ideas to each other, as thought they were being written by a reptilian overlord who was only pretending to be human in order to get into the lucrative world of syndicated newspaper comics. On an unrelated note, I have been informed by the ComicsAlliance legal department that I should specify that I am not in any way saying that Tom Batiuk is actually a reptilian, and that he is probably a human being.
Anyway, the point is that I spent like five minutes staring at this strip trying to figure out what Bull's little "if you hear it, clear it" poem had to do with the ambulance until I realized that they had started a new conversation in panel 2 of a three-panel strip. The part about the ambulance was just continuing from a previous strip before we decided halfway through this one to switch to a joke about the marching band.
Folks, Funky Winkerbean might be running in your local paper, so just remember: If you see it, flee it.
In other news, Funky's father is still smoking, having decided that he might as well hasten his death in any way possible, but at least he's using his newfound skills to have sex with his fellow nursing home residents.
Okay, this is where this month's strips get goddamn ridiculous. Depending on how much you get paid to remember things about Funky Winkerbean, you might recall Owen, the dork who wanders around Westview High in a knit cap at all times because apparently kids in Ohio are really into cosplaying as Mike Nesmith from the Monkees. Rather than stay for detention, he gets press-ganged into filling in for the school mascot, who is out with a flu that's "going around the locker room," because it's a great idea to put someone into a sweaty goat costume that was previously occupied by someone who has contracted a communicable disease.
NEEDLESS TO SAY, Owen The Goat gets further shanghaied into the game itself, being forced to play wide receiver under the Air Bud rule that "there's nothing in the rule book that says a kid in a goat suit can't play football." Except that, you know, there definitely is. I mean, I'm willing to give newspaper strips a pretty strong level of leeway when it comes to realism, but doing a year's worth of scripts about a veteran struggling to overcome PTSD with the help of a service dog and then turning around and doing a comic about the mascot winning the football game in full costume seems, well, a little incongruous.
And yes: He enters the game in full costume.
On the other hand, it's nice to see that Batiuk is a fan of my work.
And you thought I was kidding about the old woman renouncing God, didn't you? Actually, no, probably not. At this point, I think we've all come to accept that the Funkyverse is beyond my ability to make things up.
This particular denial of faith specifically revolves around Crankshaft's tiny apiary, which has somehow managed to survive a mysterious disease that has killed all the other bees in the county. That's right folks, there is an actual Biblical plague in the house, complete with nonbelievers suffering for their lack of faith. I mean, admittedly, the suffering in this case is mostly limited to having to live next door to Crankshaft, but that's about as hellish as things could get.
As it turns out, the bees survived because they have mutated under Crankshaft's care -- which is later revealed to be just straight up giving them alcohol --into an entirely new species. And what distinguishes this new species? Why, they're antisocial and they sting more, which, incidentally, kills a bee.
In other words, Crankshaft has created a new species that is defined by aggression, loneliness, alcoholism and suicide. Ha ha! Ha ha ha! The scientists call them crankypants!
Finally, we return to Westview High, where Les is having trouble getting students interested in Shakespeare and decides to get "hip" with a reference to a "teevee" show that they might have heard of! This is a pretty accurate portrayal of something that teachers do, but since it's placed in the same general area where you'd put a punchline -- and since it's one of those puns that this strip loves so much -- I think we're meant to think that this is actually funny.
Aside from that, though, this was the strip that stuck most directly in my craw this month. The entire setup here is that the kids and their stupid Mike Nesmith hats think Macbeth is boring, so Les compares it to Game of Thrones. And folks. Seriously. Have you read Macbeth? Do you know what happens in that thing? A bunch of witches show up on a battlefield picking over corpses and then tell this guy that he and his wife should stab the king like four hundred times, which they do, and then the guilt drives them insane and the guy starts having visions of a future where he's been deposed by his former friend, and the wife can't get the blood off her hands, and there's a prophecy that requires this other dude to start staging commando raids using an entire forest as cover and then reveal that he was torn from his mother's womb and is therefore immune to prophecy, at which point the main guy is like, "come on and fight me or I will send you straight to actual f**king Hell." Oh, and also it has AN ACTUAL REAL LIFE CURSE THAT REAL LIFE PEOPLE BELIEVE IN TO THE POINT WHERE THEY WILL NOT SPEAK ITS NAME.
Say what you will about how kids don't like Shakespeare, but Macbeth is the '80s action movie of five-act tragedies. If you can't get a bunch of teens pumped up about regicide and witchcraft, then you should probably not be teaching.
It's almost like Les is a complete failure at everything he does.