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.

Of course, my obsession isn't without its downside -- in addition to reading these comic strips, I mean. When Fantagraphics put together a book featuring nude self-portraits of cartoonists -- including Batiuk -- they were "kind" enough to send me a copy, which means I now own a drawing of Tom Batiuk naked in all its full-color glory. Let it never be said that this job is without its extremely questionable benefits.

Oh well. At least now, the actual comics should seem a little less horrifying. In theory, at least.Funky Winkerbean, August 15:

For those of you -- by which I mean none of you-- who were wondering about my process, I don't usually follow Funky Winkerbean on a daily basis. I tend to save them up so that I can blow through an entire month's strips at one go. While that's probably a bad idea (especially if I'm already feeling a little down that day), it's better to get it over with quickly. As a result, I sometimes go in worried that there won't be enough misery to fill out an entire column.

Imagine my relief when I found out that one of this month's stories involved Becky literally praying for death to take her rather than spend one more minute interacting with her mother! Truly, it is a joy to behold. For certain values of "joy."

If you're a long-time FunkyWatch reader, you may recall Roberta from the storyline a few months ago where she was stirring up a little Flintstones-themed bigotry over two boys who wanted to go to the prom together. At the end of that arc, her long-suffering husband finally cracked and told her to shut up. Considering that Becky later told someone that her husband barely spoke in the 30 years prior, one would think that would've brought an end to her arc. And yet, here she is, berating her one-armed daughter in what may be one of the most perfect metaphors for the strip as a whole.

Funky Winkerbean, August 24:

Eventually, though, Becky's thoughts turn away from her own death and towards the far more expedient solution of matricide. Unfortunately, the next day's strip did not end in an homage to Batman #424...

...but as in so many things, it's the thought that counts. What really sets this one apart from being a harmless bit of frustration with one's family, though, is the dead-eyed stare and lobotomy patient hairline that Batiuk gives to Becky in panel 3. She looks like she could shove her mother over the railing and watch her fall, feeling nothing as she looked out at the band with a quiet "You all saw that. She fell."

Ha! Moms, am I right?

Funky Winkerbean, August 16:

For anyone who isn't familiar with Roberta, Batiuk provides a handy recap in the form of Becky complaining to her husband John, local comics retail sad sack and reigning Worst Hair In Westview champion. It's interesting that he skips over the protest march and goes back to an earlier story of witch-huntery that was unfortunately before my time, but this reveals something pretty amazing about John and Becky's marriage.

Seriously, you would think that the time your mother tried to have your husband arrested for being a pornographer would not be something you'd have an easy time forgetting. Becky and Howard clearly do not have a very solid relationship if this is something that escapes her on a regular basis. Then again, I can confirm from experience that it's pretty difficult to get people to pay attention to you when you insist on wearing a Batman shirt every day.

Funky Winkerbean, August 22:

Apparently Roberta repaid her husband for telling her to sit down and shut up in public by cutting off his penis. Didn't see that one coming.

Funky Winkerbean, August 13:

Listen, I'm not one to tell people what they should and shouldn't put in their comics (that's a lie, it's basically my entire job to do just that), but if I wanted to hear an overweight dude with bad hair in a Batman shirt complaining about his sex life, I'd just leave a tape recorder going next to my computer all day.

Funky Winkerbean, August 27:

There's nothing particularly depressing about this one -- and since it marks the end of my discussion of the Roberta Is A Band Mom storyline, it's actually a pretty happy occasion -- but I wanted to point out that this is a joke about DC's New 52 relaunch that was published almost one full year after that relaunch started, and even longer after it was actually announced.

Rather than berating Batiuk for not being topical enough with his jokes about the New 52 (let's be real here, as much as Tommy B. himself is a noted comics fan, it's not like his core audience of grumpy tragedy hounds actually care that much about when Justice League #1 came out) I'm actually genuinely curious about the process. I know most newspaper strips are done months in advance, and when an unfortunately timed installment of Garfield came out, Jim Davis mentioned that it was created over a year before it was scheduled to run. I assumed that kind of lead time was an exception, but now I'm wondering if that's not the standard for the long-running strips.

Basically, I just want to know if there's a year's worth of backlogged Les Moore misery somewhere, and whether or not a cache of that magnitude should be classified as some kind of psychological weapon.

While we ponder that, let's see what's happening in Funky's sister strip, Crankshaft.

Crankshaft, August 15:

If it's late summer, that means that Batiuk and Ayers are once again mining the endless well of laffs that is the struggle between lawn maintenance and water rationing, as played out by two senior citizens who hate everyone, especially each other. Truly, the potential for comedy is high!

Rather than getting into the whole sad story, though, I just wanted to point this one out. In isolation, it works fine -- like, if this was your first Crankshaft strip ever, you'd get the joke, as it's set up well in the first panel and then leads into the unexpected gag in the second. It's well-constructed and creative, and is actually one of the best jokes I've seen Batiuk and Ayers do in my two years of reading the strip. If, that is, you approach it out of context.

If, however, you're as familiar as I am with the Ed Crankshaft and his noted hatred of anyone younger than Methuselah, to the point where he is occasionally rewarded for dishing out cruelties, then you see things in a bit of a different light. At best, a "water park" run in the back yard of a hateful, semi-literate old man seems like a recipe for disaster along the lines of a smaller-scale DIY version of Action Park, and at worst, it's like getting a few free nights at H.H. Holmes' Murder Castle. Have fun, kids!

Crankshaft, August 29:

Just in case you think I'm a little harsh in consistently referring to Crankshaft as a miserable old ball of hate, the strip itself has handily provided a celebration of past 25 years of the strip by highlighting some of his more charming moments. Merry Christmas, you spoiled little bastard!

Crankshaft, August 12:

Moving right along, Batiuk penned two simultaneous storylines about the hotbed of excitement that is the County Fair this month. Seriously. Over a week of this in two different strips. The mind boggles.

Anyway, in typical fashion, Crankshaft's take on the fun times of livestock and crooked carnival games involves Crankshaft's dumb son-in-law whose name I can never remember and don't care enough about to look up immediately smirking over the idea that a tragic fire could sweep through and destroy an entire county's family heirlooms so that he could make one of the worst puns I've ever read. So, you know, everything's pretty normal over there.

Funky Winkerbean, August 12:

Meanwhile, Funky Winkerbean's visit to the county fair involves Wally mournfully watching a young man doing chin-ups while ruminating on his own experience in the military that left him declared dead before he returned with post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that he could barely leave his house or speak to another person.

Yep, everything's as you'd expect.

Okay, seriously, I can't take this anymore. I know I do this every month, but I've gotta get away from the Tom Batiuk ouvre for a little bit. I need something fun to restore my faith in the lighthearted humor of the comics page, so I'm going to read a completely different strip this month. How about Ray Billingsley's Curtis? That's always good for a laugh, right?

Curtis, August 8 - 9:


I see.

Fine, back to Funky Winkerbean it is.

Funky Winkerbean, August 10:

"County fairs are fun, but there always seems to be an undercurrent of melancholy that comes with them."

This is without question the most perfect summation of every single Funky Winkerbean story arc ever. All you have to do is swap out the specific event:

"High school basketball tournaments are fun, but there always seems to be an undercurrent of melancholy that comes with them."

"Book tours are fun, but there always seems to be an undercurrent of melancholy that comes with them."

"Marriage proposals are fun, but there always seems to be an undercurrent of melancholy that comes with them."

"Having a dog is fun --"

Oh, you get the idea.

Enjoy the undercurrent of melancholy 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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