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.
As noted by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, everyone's favorite super-pretentious reference, April is the cruelest month, and it seems that Tom Batiuk has taken that to heart. After going all out with a military tragedy that left sixteen dead in last month's strips, this month's have involved a young woman going to prison to confront the man who murdered her father, and also some jokes about collecting comics. Here's what's bananas: It's the bit in the prison with the murderer that made me laugh the hardest. Look at that panel up there! It's hilarious!
Funky Winkerbean, April 4
Okay, so before we get into the utter inescapable despair that's coming later this month, I wanted to take a moment to talk about something that's actually pretty cool. With last month's Strips, Batiuk successfully pulled off a cross-time crossover where each part stood on its own independently. Regardless of what you think about his work, that's a pretty respectable feat.
See, while Funky Winkerbean has gone through several "time jumps" to allow the characters to catch up to their "real" ages (the Funky and Les that we have today are old enough to have gone to high school in the '70s, when the strip started), Crankshaft, which is set in the same universe, has not. The result is that Crankshaft is set about ten years before Funky Winkerbean, something that's pretty weird when you consider that they're also both set in the vague "present," which is why Ed's running around ordering seeds on his iPad this month and Les and Cayla aren't dealing with the robot apocalypse of 2024. But still, setting up simultaneous storylines of Holly looking for the last comic to complete Cory's collection while also devoting a week to Jeff (Crankshaft's idiot son-in-law whose name I finally remember after four years) hanging out in the attic talking about how he's never going to sell his comics to set up the crossover? That's actually pretty cool.
I mean, it's not actually interesting at all, and it still has the depressing "you drove all the way here and he's not going to sell it" fakeout (they give it to Holly instead) but still. Good use of the format.
Speaking of gags that take for-f**king-ever to set up, here's the latest installment in the ongoing saga of Crankshaft backing his schoolbus over his neighbor's mailbox. Over the course of me reading the script, this has happened roughly eighteen thousand times, and now Keesterman -- get it? The guy's name sounds like "keister," which is a word extremely old people use to refer to your ass? -- has finally had enough and demands answers. He wants to know why, why, this man, this man who is actually his friend who shares meals with him, continues to destroy his property.
Crankshaft's answer: "It's my hobby. The thing I use to break the monotony of waiting for death is spreading misery by ruining the material goods of others. I enjoy it, and I do not understand why you do not sympathize, for my role is destroyer just as yours is to be destroyed."
Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Sidenote: Keesterman has, over the course of my reading, attempted various strategies for stopping the continued destruction of his mailbox, including shrouding it in bricks. Obviously, the next step is to stop the problem at the source, and by "stop," I mean "murder."
All right, things are maybe getting a little negative, so I really wanted to point out this strip, which I genuinely liked. I mean, yeah, there's the standard issue depression of the punchline being "ha ha, medicine is exactly as bad as the problems it attempts to cure and you're going to die either way," but come on. The sneering pharmacist telling Ed that "some people get the donut and some people get the hole" is the best, most brutal f**k-you that anyone in this comic has delivered in YEARS.
Also, in the tradition of a nursing home called "Bedside Manor," Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers have given us a drugstore called DRUG LORDS, in a strip that ran on 4/20. Bravo.
Okay, now back to the soul-crushing.
Funky Winkerbean, April 7
Hey, quick show of hands: How many of us measure time by the inevitable and catastrophic death of the solar system. Anyone? Anyone?
It's worth noting that this is the first of so many times this month that Jess's father, John Darling, is referred to as "[your/my] father, John Darling," pushing Batiuk's knack for dialogue that would never, ever be spoken out loud to bold new heights. I mean, I get that newspaper strips are still being made for people who don't have every single installment emailed to them every day, and that casual readers (read: old people who are still into print media) drop in and out and need to be caught up on storylines as they go, but still. The constant references to Jess's father, John Darling, as "Jess's father, John Darling" get a little wearisome at times.
So, backstory: Jess's father, John Darling, was the star of a spinoff strip called [Jess's Father] John Darling, which, in one of the most amazing moves of Batiuk's long and storied career, ended with the title character being murdered by a mysterious gunman on-panel because he was in a contract dispute with the syndicate. It was, and remains, a total baller move on Batiuk's part. The murderer turned out to be some dork that Jess's father, John Darling, regularly made fun of on his TV show, which Les discovered while writing his first book, about the murder. The book was a flop, because of course it was, so Jess has been trying for the past few years to make a documentary about her father, John Darling, and his murder.
Funky Winkerbean, April 8
And now she's really going to buckle down and get it done, because otherwise her life would actually be happy and that is the actual reason given in this strip. Motivation!
Funky Winkerbean, April 11
Now, it's important to note that Jess wants to finish the documentary, which implies that she has been working on it for quite some time and is close to the end. So how does she put the finishing touches on this exhaustive documentary about her father, John Darling, and his death on television while filming his talk show? She... interviews his coworkers.
Also, not to get all "fake geek girl" or anything, but I have a hard time believing that Brenda Harpy (get it? Harpy? She's kind of mean?) would pull out a relatively obscure Marvel reference like "Ego the Living Planet" to describe her boss. Then again, [Jess's Father] John Darling ended when I was nine, so who knows? Maybe she was the one who sold that copy of Starbuck Jones to Jeff.
Funky Winkerbean, April 18
So after a week of interviewing coworkers who were more than happy to tell Jess what a terrible person her murdered father (John Darling) was, Jess ended up coming to the conclusion that she couldn't understand why anyone would murder him. Seriously. There is an entire week of strips where the punchline is just "Yeah, literally everyone hated your father, John Darling, because he was a real a-hole," and Jess's takeaway from that is "but why would anyone kill him?"
So she decides to go interview his murderer (and the sadly attempted murderer of Les Moore), Pete Moss, alias Plantman.
Yes. This shocking murder at the end of the strip WAS ALSO BASED ON A PUN.
Funky Winkerbean, April 21
Well. That's going about as well as could be expected.
Yes, it turns out that Jess's Father, John Darling, was killed because everyone hated him because he was a huge prick, and more specifically was often a huge prick to the mentally ill for his own amusement.
Funky Winkerbean, April 25
And here, the climax, and there's so much that's great about it. First and foremost, the unrepentant murderer taking absolute, face-twisting glee in informing a young woman that her father (John Darling) was a complete scumbag who deserved what he got, as though this has not been established multiple times in the comic/her life over the course of the story. Even better, though, is Moss referring to Les, the man who put him in prison for the rest of his life, as "that guy who wrote that stupid book." I mean, I've read that it was a flop, but when even the murderer who was convicted because of it can't remember the author's name, that's some pretty brutal stuff.
Oh, by the way, I can save you the time: Moss believed that Jess's father, John Darling, was cheating on Jess's mother, Jan Darling, because his last words were "I love Barbie forever." It's okay, though, it turned out that Jess's father, John Darling, called his daughter, Jess Darling, "Barbie" because she was like a little Barbie doll and he was a completely creepy weirdo. So he did love her after all, before he was murdered in front of an audience by a man that he ridiculed for money, although he presumably could not remember her real name.
I've been following this storyline every day for months, and I have no idea if I'm supposed to be sad about this or not.