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 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.
The end of the year is always a time for reflection, and for me, that came today when I logged into Comics Kingdom and reupped for another year of the service that sends me each day's Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft strip first thing in the morning, thus ensuring that I start off each day by experiencing the worst of the human condition. So as we dive into this month's strips and all the reminders that death is the only respite from the horrors of life, keep in mind that I have once again done this to myself.
Funky Winkerbean, December 4
Before we get to the depressing, let's go ahead and start with the truly inexplicable. December kicked off with a bunch of strips about a retired high school marching band leader writing a book about a (fictional) composer, full of barrel-scraping puns. There was a week of this. A solid week. And they all had comedy that was pretty much on par with the "Womandolin" joke seen here.
The thing is, the way Batiuk draws faces tends to default to either smug self-satisfaction or utter horror at the pain of being alive, and in this sequence, he landed somewhere at the midpoint between the two. Look at Dinkle in that first panel. He doesn't want to be here any more than we do. He is, at best, just amusing himself while he waits for the release of death.
Funky Winkerbean, December 17
So what was the rest of our cheery crew up to in December? Well, it seems that Funky had to fly... somewhere, for... some reason.
Seriously, I just read a month of this thing all at once, and there's no additional information provided to set this storyline up. It's just, "Hey, Funky looks really sad and he hates Christmas now because something terrible is happening." And really, that just raises the question of how that makes Christmas any different from literally any day on the Westview calendar? Some soul-crushing misery is always raining down on these poor dopes, so why should they expect things to stop just because you put up lights on the tree?
Then again, maybe December 25 was the only day that didn't mark the anniversary of something terrible. Maybe if I dig back far enough into the archives, I'll find all the tragedies that took place on Arbor Day, Flag Day and Halloween and whittled the calendar down to a full year of bad memories. That sounds like a fun project for a rainy day, doesn't it?
Funky Winkerbean, December 19
As it turns out, Funky was flying somewhere to see a doctor about something, and while that might sound vague, folks, that's all I have. Like I mentioned above, I read this strip every single day -- I have it sent to me so that I read it first thing every single morning, and there was, to my knowledge, no mention of Funky being ill to the point where he would have to fly to a doctor a week before Christmas for tests whose results would be communicated via email.
As far as I can tell, Batiuk just realized that he hadn't done a strip about a cancer scare in a couple of weeks and decided that he had to move fast if he wanted to get in on that sweet, sweet holiday depression.
The test was negative, by the way. Drama!
We turn our attention now to Crankshaft, and I'm not going to lie, I laughed out loud the first time I read this and I laughed out loud reading it again just now. Just the sheer unbridled cruelty of Crankshaft looking up from his newspaper to respond to the news that Rose got a job by just laying into her with a mixture of disappointment and loathing.
In my head, I know that Crankshaft meant that he was hoping she'd move out, but I want him to mean that he hopes she just leaves the house and stays outside forever and dies of exposure in the bitter Ohio winter.
The driving force of Crankshaft this month, however, was the swift and sudden vengeance of a God who cannot abide the sound of hope and merriment.
No sooner have Ed, Pam and Jeff given voice to their love of going to a theater to watch old movies than the Almighty brings the hammer of the economy down upon them and the Valentine theater's one (1) employee.
Or maybe it's just that only showing old movies isn't exactly an economically viable business model in a world with Netflix, especially if you're in an area where going to the theater means you have a pretty good chance of running into the world's most hateful senior citizen and his idiot family. Just a thought.
Hey, do you smell something?
Funky Winkerbean, December 9
Aw rats. I thought I smelled a crossover. And not the one in January where Funky's going to meet Dick Tracy, either.
It wasn't that long ago -- back in August, around the time of the San Diego Comic-Con -- that I was actually pretty impressed by Batiuk's ability to pull off a cross-time crossover that was seeded in both strips before it paid off. In the months since, with more than a few references between strips just popping out of nowhere to facilitate another tortured pun, the novelty has worn off, and even a nod to the continuity of Crankshaft taking an annual job as a Mall Santa isn't going to restore that shine.
To be honest, though, this particular strip isn't all that depressing. I just like how the colorist at the syndicate has chosen to fade the festive Christmas decorations that start the strip to the encroaching miasma of darkness on a beige background, just as Funky's face is twisted into new heights of sourness.
Funky Winkerbean, December 11
And so, we are given that annual Christmastime tradition: Catastrophic mental cruelty to children!
I don't really think there's anything to add to this one that's not self-evident in a child in tears fleeing a bitter, scowling Santa Claus while someone else looks on in abject terror, but in all that, it might've been easy to overlook that the premise of this strip starts with a child going through a traumatic divorce. That's the Batiuk Touch.
Funky Winkerbean, December 13
Hey, remember when Wally Winkerbean's post-traumatic stress disorder and his fear of doing something as simple as leaving the house was a long-running plot point? Well, here's a strip where PTSD caused by that lovable grump Ed Crankshaft is played for laughs! Hilarious!
Oh wow, we've finally got something to break up all this talk of horror and death: A couple of good old-fashioned Crankshaft puns! Ha ha! That old man doesn't know his words very well! He thinks a concussion is a "conk-cussion" because a guy got "conked" in the head!
And see, Jeff is jumping to a "contusion" (you know, like jumping to a conclusion, hilarious!) that the quarterback "done for," likely because of recent studies that have shown that just under 80% of dead NFL players suffer from a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy thought to be brought on directly by the concussions that they suffer during games, which made headlines in 2011 when Chicago Bear Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be examined post-mortem.
But, ha ha, "conk" is the sound it makes when something hits you in the head! Ha ha! That old man's vocabulary has been stunted by a lifetime of bitterness and shame over his illiteracy! Ha ha ha!
The amazing thing about Funky and Crankshaft are that they make exaggeration pointless.
This is literally a strip about the tragedy not of death, but of staying alive to watch everything around you die. The joke at the end of this strip is that death is preferable to life, because at least in death you are no longer witness to suffering that you cannot stop.
Happy New Year, everybody!