FunkyWatch: September’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 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.
I have to imagine that this time of year, as summer gives way to fall and things start dying all around us, is a particularly appropriate time to be neck-deep in the Winkerverse, but this month’s offerings are even grimmer than usual. And amazingly, the most harrowing, life-ruining horrors don’t happen to Les Moore.September 2:
Case in point, this strip. Yes, it’s got Les Moore — the mopey sad sack whose ongoing tragedy has seen him more or less take over the strip from its title character over the past few years — experiencing physical pain and humiliation, but, well, that’s all. By Funky Winkerbean standards, that’s a best case scenario.
After last month’s bizarre parallel narrative in Crankshaft, which saw Cayla — Les’s wife-to-be — hitting a line drive that slammed into a pitcher’s head hard enough to cause seriously injury, I had high hopes that this would work out a different way. I figured there were two possibilities: Either Les would repeat what Cayla did and actually accidentally murder his fiancee, or he’d pitch to her and wind up at least in a coma. Given Les’s doughy, writery physique, I knew that first option was a long shot, but I held out hope. But this… Even when you factor in that he’s being humiliated in front of his fiancee’s entire family, including her father, a former professional baseball player, this barely clocks in at 500 milibatiuks.
I guess what I’m saying here is that I was really hoping something awful would happen to Les, because I genuinely hate him. And that in itself is pretty depressing.
While we’re on the subject of things that aren’t so much depressing as they are awful, we have this strip. It’s the climax of a story where Maddie — scatterbrained daughter of original Funky cast member Crazy — buys a paper from the Internet and gets caught. In other words, something like two weeks worth of strips all built to the punchline “why that’s like cribbing candy from a baby, pun intended.”
Look. First of all, I know that the hep lingo the kids are throwing around these days can be hard to keep up with, but I don’t think this is really the right context for “cribbing,” and if so, it has not been used this way during my lifetime. Second of all, I read this strip four times before I realized that the pun Maddie intended was about “cribs” and “babies,” which doesn’t even come close to making sense, and serves only as an indication that Les is incapable of making faces other than that dumb smirk without something physically impacting his face.
Third, and most importantly, the storyline ends here and you never get to see the absolute horror show of Maddie’s Moby Dick song, and that is bullsh*t.
For the Funkyverse, the start of the new school year and its attendant football season is nothing if not an opportunity to explore new miseries. This time around, we’re not only working with the idea that Westview High his so hard-up for money that they’re charging children to play football, but that this will undoubtedly result in nothing but pain and suffering for all concerned.
Needless to say, this is a prospect that fills the teachers of non-physical subjects with absolute glee, because they are terrible people.
If Bull’s line in the second panel isn’t the single best summary of Funky Winkerbean as a whole…
…then his last line here definitely is. We are all alone in this world, surrounded by others who will never truly know anything of us, because they themselves are isolated by their own miseries. And no matter what you do, or who you try to reach, you can never succeed. None of us can succeed. It’s a no-win situation, and we’re all in it together, alone.
Tom Batiuk: The man who watches that Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial and says “Amateurs.”
“Tragedy struck in Ohio today as several spectators of the annual Lisa’s Legacy Cancer Research Benefit Run lined the streets with electric hair dryers, outside, during a thunderstorm and were immediately electrocuted. Authorities would like to remind citizens to be careful during inclement weather and not do the dumbest f**king thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Normally, this is the point in the countdown where I’d shift over to Crankshaft for a strip in order to take the edge off my frustration with Funky Winkerbean, but this week, things are going to be a little different. For the rest of this month, we’re going all-Crankshaft. Why?
Because this month, Crankshaft was about an old woman being tortured by hallucinations of her dead sister in some kind of terrifying Poe-esque breakdown over a life she destroyed.
This is, for the record, Batiuk’s lighter strip.
You may remember Lillian here from the strip last month where she was contemplating suicide because All My Children went off the air. That’s honestly about as familiar with the character as I am, so reading the strips as they came out, I was confused for a bit when she woke up from her nightmare and came downstairs to find the woman who had just called her a monster waiting for her in her kitchen.
This strip didn’t really help matters, since — to me at least — it was a pretty solid indication that Lucy was about to straight up murder Lillian.
Rest assured, however, that Lucy is dead. And unlike the friendly sort of ghosts who come back and for whatever unfathomable reason keep Les from dying, has chosen to haunt her sister while everyone stands around wondering if she’s gone completely insane and should be locked up. You may be asking yourself, as I did, what horrible sin could Lillian commit that would require the torment of the unquiet dead. Well, whatever you’re thinking of, it’s worse.
Oh, nothing much. Just stole a letter from Lucy’s boyfriend that proposed marriage and ruined her only chance to gain happiness in this world, shortly before Lucy died, most likely of cancer. That’s all.
I’m not going to lie, guys: I’ve been doing this for over a year now, and that’s still pretty grim. Maybe… just maybe a strip focusing on some of the other characters will cheer me up, just this once.
The honest-to-God punchline of this comic strip is “Because people have actually died.”
We’re done here.
Subject your own brain to trauma with ComicsAlliance’s FunkyWatch archives!
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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