While they're often overlooked by super-hero fans, newspaper comic strips are a vital part of the world of sequential art that reaches millions of readers and is no less worthy of examination or criticism than their long-form counterparts. Unless, of course, we're talking about Tom Batiuk's Funky Winkerbean, which started out 30 years ago as a high school comedy and evolved into a form that delivers three panels of pure, crushing despair directly at its readers on a daily basis.

I first became aware of it through Josh Fruhlinger at The Comics Curmudgeon, and in the months I've been reading, it has only become more fascinating. Even so, I have been dreading going through December's strips. I mean, people are depressed enough during the winter already and I figured the chronic melancholy afflicting the residents of Westview was going to get cranked up. But to my surprise, it actually wasn't that bad this month.

Unless you consider a man getting harassed non-stop by the ghost of his dead wife to be depressing, in which case, yeah. It's pretty rough.

#11. December 9

For those of you who haven't been keeping up with the ongoing plotlines of Funky Winkerbean, December mostly revolved around Les Moore (get it?) going on tour to promote Lisa's Story, the memoir he wrote about his wife's life and death due to cancer. And if you forget that Lisa died of cancer, don't worry: Batiuk will be reminding you of this fact pretty much constantly.Anyway, as near as I can tell, Les has been steadily going completely insane since his wife's death, which explains why his primary motivator for finishing the book was her disembodied voice offering constant "inspiration," by which he of course means haunting him with vague threats from beyond the grave that played on his crippling self-doubt.

And that's the top of the countdown. You guys might want to brace yourselves for the rest of it.

#10: December 6

Les's book tour has been full of various embarrassments and mishaps (because of course it has), and I have to admit that Batiuk is at his best when he's making his characters suffer for our amusement. My favorite incident is the one above, in which Les is not only humiliated on national television, but that he's humiliated on national television which is being shown at the school where he works, so that his colleagues, students and his daughter can all watch it with their signature Schadenfreude Smirks.

#9. December 5

Speaking of Les's colleagues over at the venerable Westview High, here we see a science teacher, who I've never seen before but who I'm going to go ahead and assume is Mark Twain, teaching his students about climate change. Unsurprisingly, the moral of this lecture is that even the children of Westview have grown to hate the world so much that they're wishing for literal global disaster in order to break the monotony of their lives.

Also, there's the smirk again. I'm starting to think that Linda's face might be stuck that way, like an extra sassy strain of Bell's Palsy.

#8. December 19

This one's not really depressing, I just wanted to point out that this is an absolutely terrible joke.

So terrible, in fact, that I'm going to go take a look at what's going on in Crankshaft -- Batiuk's more gag-oriented strip with artist Chuck Ayers about a schoolbus driver who hates everyone and everything -- just to see if it can cheer me up a little.

#7. Crankshaft - December 27

Ha! Crankshaft and his friends are so old that their very existence is considered a disease and an affront to the natural order of the world! And now they're being denied life-saving health-care because of it!

#6. Crankshaft - December 29

It's okay, though, because after spending their lives laboring at jobs they hate, they can't afford to live much longer anyway! Ha ha! Ha...



Okay, maybe reading Crankshaft to cheer up wasn't one of my better ideas. Maybe if I check Batiuk's website, there'll be something a little happier there. You know, for the holidays.

#5: FunkyWinkerbean.com

Wow. Seriously, there's a level of despair Tom Batiuk's reaching to here where you just have to respect him for being so utterly relentless about it. The dude has no mercy. He's the Ivan Drago of depressing comic strips. He will break you.

Okay, back to Funky:

#4. December 27

I'll get back to Christmas in a second -- like there was any doubt whatsoever that this month's depths of woe were going to be centered anywhere else -- but first, let's take a look at the New Year's Eve party with which Batiuk closed out 2010. Like all celebrations in Westview, it is viewed as less of a gathering of friends to celebrate and more of a grueling obligation that must be endured.

Linda and Bull's expressions -- which, I have to say, are particularly muppetish here -- pretty much encapsulate the only two possible reactions anyone in Funky Winkerbean has to spending time with the people they claim to like: At best, sardonic joy at the smirkworthy opportunity to point out the shortcomings of others. At worst, grim resolve that you won't be able to make an excuse to leave early.

#3. December 28

But don't think it's all that bad! Sometimes the people in this strip get together to celebrate the happiest of occasions, like the end of a marriage! Hand out the party hats, Susan and her ex don't love each other anymore!

#2. December 13 to December 16

Normally, I like to let each strip stand on its own as a perfect little units of sorrow that they are, but in this case, but I had to make an exception for the sequence where Les, getting ready for his flight home, receives a phone call from his dead wife on the airport courtesy phone warning him not to get on the plane. And there are a few of reasons why this is basically amazing.

First off, is the fact that the dead-wife call lasts for an entire week's worth of strips. Now, unlike their comic book counterparts, newspaper strips are made with the idea in mind that people drop in and out -- if you miss a day of your local paper, you can always catch up with what's going on in the Spider-Man strip (which is usually "not much") the next day. Even so, an entire week of Les alternating between disgust an anger at someone pranking him seems like a bit much.

Second is the fact that there are three distinct possibilities here, and each one is terrible in its own special way. Either Les is getting pranked by -- as he says in the last panel -- some sicko preying on his love for his dead wife in hopes that he can deliver a brutal emotional wound for a cheap laugh, or that he is actually getting a phone call from his dead wife and totally missing his only opportunity to talk to her once again. And, of course, the third possibility is that the whole thing is a hallucination brought on by his growing disconnect with reality.

Finally, there's the fact that with these four strips (five if you count the one that's just Les getting the phone call), Funky Winkerbean has basically become a version of Final Destination that runs underneath the Junior Jumble.

And it all leads to this:

#1. December 24

Yes, it's just what you wanted to read about in the funny pages on Christmas Eve: Characters narrowly avoiding a tragic death in plane crashes.

The reason this one takes the top spot is because it pretty much confirms Option #2, meaning not only that Les actually called his beloved dead wife a sicko and hung up on her, but that in the Funky-verse, the dead can communicate with the living but only on airport telephones. Which is just weird.

Also, there's the fact that by calling in a Christmas Eve bomb threat, The Ghost of Dead Wives Past has saved Les from death-by-airborne-fireball, but condemned him to return to life as a Funky Winkerbean character. And at this point, I'm not sure which is worse.

Still not depressed? Check out the FunkyWatch archives!

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