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.
One of my Christmas gift this year came from devoted FunkyWatch reader and radio DJ Evan "Funk" Davies, who gave me a year-long membership to King Features' Comics Kingdom website. Not only does this give me access to an archive of high-res Funky and Crankshaft strips, but it also means that I can have those strips emailed to me so that they're the very first thing I see when I wake up every single day for the entirety of 2014. Maybe "gift" is not the right word, but "Christmas horrifying curse" doesn't really sound right. Either way Batiuk and Chuck Ayers closed out this past year with all the uplifting joy you'd expect from a month marked by bitter cold and seasonal depression. Let's get to it!
Funky Winkerbean, December 2
I'll be honest with you, folks: The real harrowing stuff this month came courtesy of Crankshaft, which spent its Christmas dabbling in themes of familial abandonment and the inevitable spectre of death. Compared to that, Funky was pretty tame, just giving us the baseline grinding march towards oblivion. Which, in the case of Funky's son Cory, looks like it's likely to come as the result of a land mine. So we've all got that to look forward to.
Now, my knowledge of the military is extensive, but only with regards to America's special missions forces and their ongoing conflict with the terrorist organization known as Cobra, so I have no idea whether clearing mines in Afghanistan is as dangerous as it sounds. What I do know, however, is that Cory's cousin Wally Winkerbean has recently made some progress in dealing with his PTSD, so the position of resident military tragedy is now open. Cory's outlook for 2014 is not so good.
Funky Winkerbean, December 6
So just how do Cory's parents react to his impending explosion in a foreign land? Well, as you might expect if you've been reading this strip for any length of time, Funky doesn't do much but sit around making weak puns at his pizzeria. Holly, on the other hand, is going to run away from her troubles straight into the escapist world of comic books! The thrills and excitement of completing a run are going to be hers at last!
Two things: One, I love that Holly is acknowledging the futility of this gesture even as she does it, because that just adds a wonderful layer of self-aware hopelessness to everything. Two, I really hope the end of this story is Holly finding out that Cory already finished out his run of Starbuck Jones with Comixology, making it even more pointless.
Funky Winkerbean, December 12
Well, folks, I hope you're ready for the patented Tom Batiuk brand of Comedepression™ to take on the thrilling world of comic book collecting, because it's going to happen whether you want it to or not. There are a few strips where John explains the concepts of "slabbed" and "graded" comics, possibly the least humorous subject there is, but this one is far and away my favorite because of how Holly appears to age about fifteen years in two panels. Seriously, it's like learning about collecting comics is the equivalent of the Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant.
As someone who worked in comics retail for six years, I can confirm this is accurate.
Funky Winkerbean, December 30
Finally, we have our last Funky entry of the year, and even though it's not exactly "depressing," I think it's worth a bit of study. I've long had this theory that Tom Batiuk speaks a slightly different language than the rest of us. It's close enough that we can get his meaning most of the time, but some words are completely different, and some are replaced with bizarre terms for familiar concepts. This would explain, for instance, terms like "batching it," or "solo car date" or "the vendos."
It would also explain why, when his father is very clearly smirk-drooling over his new friend/fellow soldier's body, Cory describes the situation as "charming."
And now, we get to the real stuff. Remember Mary, Crankshaft's new coworker who irritates him to no end because she shows a baseline of concern and kindness for other people, a trait that caused Ed to attempt to run her over with a bus a few months ago? And who spent Thanksgiving alone in a diner, which Ed saw and, rather than inviting her over to spend the holiday with his own horrible family, snuck out the back so he could be weirdly sad about it later? Well, here's the source of all her frustrations: She's been abandoned by her family! Also the mall routinely gives the most hateful person in the world -- an attempted bus-murderer, just so we're clear -- a job as Santa Claus.
This will be our starting point for Christmas depression. Last chance to back out and spend your afternoon with Xanax. I won't blame you.
Crankshaft is angrily complaining that Mary is volunteering to help out with his Clausing duties (because his teenage elf is too busy texting [because this strip is for people in their eighties]) because she is actually attempting to trick him into a common-law marriage. A child wants to know what that is. Mary explains to this child that "Santa" is upset because he is physically incapable of using the toilet without chemical assistance.
If I tried to write a vicious parody of Crankshaft, it would be nowhere near what this strip actually is.
Before they turned their attention to a possible senior citizen honey trap going down at Santa's village, Batiuk and Ayers went for the comedy gold mine of a visit to a rest home at Christmas! It's always nice to see a gesture of kindness that makes someone's day a little brighter at the holidays, but unfortunately they decided to go with a story where someone bluntly talks about how flowers aren't going to keep her from dying in the immediate future.
Crankshaft, December 6 and 7
Okay, this one might take some explaining.
A few years back, in a move that will surprise absolutely no one if you've been paying attention to this column, Batiuk did a strip that literally showed the moment of Crankshaft's death. He was even more aged and decrepit than usual, sitting in the stands of a baseball game when his body finally gave out after years of being sustained solely by hate. This was then revealed to be a flash-forward, and the strip resumed its usual routine of awkward puns.
The person on the right in the top strip is Crankshaft as seen as he dies in those strips.
The bottom strip, where Crankshaft desperately attempts to get someone to believe that he saw his own Doppelgänger stands on its own pretty well, as it boils down to people assuming that someone encountered some cheerful spirit of love and kindness when they actually saw a harbinger of the inevitability of his death, but there's another layer here. We know that time is mutable in the Funkyverse -- the entire reason this column exists is because of a series of strips where Funky almost dies in a car accident and finds himself back in the '70s, talking in cryptic terms to his younger self. It was easy to write off as a hallucination, until that was revealed to have an impact on the events of the strip in the present timeline. An impact that specifically involved the same issue of Starbuck Jones that Holly bought for Cory this month.
What I'm saying here is that this isn't just some vision, some ghost of Christmas future showing up to scare Ed into being a nicer person. It's his actual future self, at the moment of his death, traveling back in time just as Funky did, witnessing his own past sins and this one rare moment of generosity and helplessness, unable to raise his eyes and speak to warn himself that he will die alone on a cold and uncaring day just like this one.
And in the end, this is what it comes down to. Sitting in the dark, wearing a Santa Claus suit, talking to his daughter about age, stupidity and the inevitable failure that comes with the inexorable march towards death. This is all there is. No change, no getting better, no learning from your experience, just reminders that you're the same fool you always were.
Happy New Year, everyone!