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.
This month... oh brother, this month. Tom Batiuk's offerings over the past few weeks have made August 2014, without question, the single worst and most mind-bogglingly bizarre month on record. If you haven't been reading my recaps of the strip over the past few years, this is the one you're going to want to start with, if only to see how completely irate one man can get over a newspaper comic strip about a man trying to write a made-for-cable movie about his dead wife.
Funky Winkerbean, August 25
While the majority of this month's strips were focused on Les Moore and his increasingly nonsensical journey through the creative meat-grinder that is cable television scriptwriting, the month was rounded out by a return to Westview High for a series of strips that read like they were translated from a previously unknown language. The meat of the plot, such as it is, is that the football coach of Diversity University Ironton has dropped by to scout Westview's long-suffering coach and reformed high school bully, Bull Bushka.
Yes, Batiuk named the bully "Bull." I know.
Anyway, along with jokes about how the "hurry up offense" involves just, uh, moving faster (this is the entire joke), the big punchline here is that "Diversity University Ironton" (ugh) can be abbreviated to "DUI," which is also the name of a crime that often results in fatalities and ruined lives. This is what passes for humor in this strip, and this, this is the least depressing of them all.
Welcome to FunkyWatch, everyone. Hope you survive the experience.
To be honest, Crankshaft this month was pretty much just a boring wasteland of jokes for old people about how much of a hassle air travel is and Ed's attempts to subvert the justice system. And then there's this one.
It's tempting to say that Batiuk and Ayers are usually a little more subtle than this when it comes to giving their characters existential crises, but, well, they aren't. I mean, Batiuk is the writer who represented a couple's first time having sex as a dark house in a rainstorm and had people actually warn each other not to say that they were happy lest a vengeful God strike them down for hubris. Still, I think this is the first time anyone has actually said the words "existentially challenged" out loud. But really, how else are you supposed to describe Ed realizing that he can no longer understand how to navigate the complex machine that doles out a pittance that is in itself a sign that he is near the end of his life?
Funky Winkerbean, August 1
For those of you who might be new, the dope with the glasses up there is Les Moore, who has gradually taken over the role of default protagonist from the strip's title character over the past forty years. This was pretty much cemented during a long-running, fan-favorite storyline where his wife, Lisa, died of cancer. Les would later write a book about the experience called Lisa's Story that would become his first and only success, almost making up for his first book, a complete flop about the murder of TV host John Darling, during which he actually solved the murder himself and revealed that it was a local plant-themed vigilante killing. You can see why nobody would want to read about that, I'm sure.
Anyway, recent weeks have seen Lisa's Story optioned to be adapted into a movie by "Cable Movie Entertainment," who have rechristened the film as LUST FOR LISA and rewritten the ending so that Lisa lives, and, presumably, lusts. Les has been brought out to fix the script, because when you want a movie script to be better, you hire the semi-professional diarist who is on vacation from his job as a high school English teacher.
So! That about brings you up to where we are here, with Les forced to imagine a world where Lisa survived, desperately scrabbling for the pittance that Cable Movie Entertainment is paying him to spend all day comparing his fondest wish with his current life. And, for that matter, his current wife, Lisa II. Er, wait, Cayla. Sorry, I always forget her name since it appears so much less frequently than Lisa's.
Funky Winkerbean, August 2
Also, here's a handy reminder of why most superhero comics try to avoid using words like "FLICK" whenever possible.
Funky Winkerbean, August 3
One positive thing you can say about the all-consuming misery of the Funkyverse is that it's not something anyone has to deal with on their own. It turns out that even rich, handsome Hollywood actors (who are so Hollywood that they are driving into the sunset on Hollywood Boulevard) are every bit as lonely and depressed as the normal folks in Westview. Or maybe it's just that Les is a harbinger of suffering who spreads it like a disconsolate Johnny Appleseed wherever he goes. I'd believe either at this point.
Also, if you think this interaction is weird, you should see the one where Les tells the busty young starlet playing Lisa that he's been "checking out your website... you know, not in a weird way or anything" while quickly shutting his laptop and hunching over. I mean, nobody should actually see that, you will straight up barf for hours, but you get the idea.
Funky Winkerbean, August 14
Okay, so, this is where it gets weird.
After days upon endless days of Les relating a story about Pavarotti picking up bent nails for luck and explaining that he "salted" them around the set to give the actor a boost of Dumboesque confidence for the table read (which made as much sense as it sounds like) we got an entire week -- an entire week -- of a dream sequence where Les imagined himself as a pulp novelist in the '40s writing a movie serial that was also about a "jungle queen" version of his dead first wife wife. The whole thing was bananas, mainly because of the protacted seduction sequence where the actress playing Jungle Lisa tries to seduce him into getting a better part, which... I mean... Look, I know this is the least of the problems with that, but isn't Jungle Lisa already the star of "Jungle Lisa?!"
It's so upsetting. It's so upsetting
Funky Winkerbean, August 17
The result of the extended pulp novelist dream sequence was that Les woke up with a sudden revelation about "the kill fee," which felt less like a natural story progression and more like Batiuk getting as tired of this whole plotline as I was.
For those of you who aren't freelance writers, a "kill fee" is sort of the consolation prize of a dead project. If the project doesn't happen, then you're paid a portion of your original fee for the work you did, since you held up your end of the bargain even if nothing ever comes of it. The thing is, in order to collect your kill fee, you have to finish the work. Les, on the other hand, simply decides that he can just walk into the producer's office and quit and collect the fee despite not actually finishing the script.
This is not how it works, which is something that the cat, which is the hallucinatory manifestation of Les's depression and self doubt, probably could've pointed out if Les wasn't enveloped in an opaque cloud of smugness.
Funky Winkerbean, August 21
AT LAST, THE SWEET TASTE OF FAILURE!
Yes, the happy ending to this entire thing is that Lust For Lisa gets canned! Hooray! All of Les's hard (but, let's be honest, pretty crappy) work was for nothing, and now he gets to return to his miserable life of teaching and hoping that his daughters do well enough at basketball to keep their scholarships with a small portion of the money he was offered for the job he couldn't do! In Ohio!
THIS IS THE HAPPY ENDING. THE CHARACTERS ARE ALL VERY HAPPY WITH THIS.
Funky Winkerbean, August 23
And finally, one last parting shot, just in case you thought you understood the universe of this comic strip. It turns out that Thelma the secretary can see Le Chat Bleu. This can mean only two things:
1) Thelma is actually psychic, which means she has been spending the last few weeks experiencing the roiling mass of insecurity and despair beneath Les's receding hairline, a fate worse than the slow and painful death that inevitably comes to you when you're a character in Funky Winkerbean, or
2) That insecurity and despair has become so intense that Le Chat has actually gained a physical form, meaning that there is now something out there made of pure depression that has the predatory instincts of a hunter and the voice of Gambit.
You decide what's worse, I'm worn out.