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.

As we move into February, winter begins to loosen its hold on the citizens of Westview, but don't worry: Death and horror maintain their icy grip all year round, whether it's characters being subjected to the frailties of the human body, or just the suffering of readers through two solid weeks of band puns. Let's see how it all works out!Funky Winkerbean, February 7:

Those of you who were here last month might recall that the driving force of those strips was that Darrin's dad had a stroke, and then to make matters even more amazing, a previously unknown estranged daughter that Darrin's parents had never spoken of in his entire lifetime showed up at the door. I'm not exaggerating even slightly when I say that moments like that are exactly why I can't stop reading this strip.

Moments like this, however, wherein Kerry starts to lean in and do a little knee-touching while specifying that Darrin's only her step-brother (adopted stepbrother, in fact) and encourages him to explore these strange new feelings? Those I could pretty well do without.

Funky Winkerbean, February 5:

Moving on to happier topics, how about we find out why Darrin's parents never mentioned his step-sister to him, even once, in the past twenty years. As it turns out, they have their reasons, and surprising no one, those reasons are horrifyingly awful.

See, Fred actually had a previous marriage that was also never mentioned, and apparently considered Kerry to be a living reminder of the time he spent suffering with her mother. As such, he has never opted to speak of/to her since the divorce, instead choosing to focus on his current marriage, which has been portrayed as thoroughly loveless, and is only doing so now because he is on the verge of deathphysically incapable of doing anything but sitting and staring.

You guys. I am not exaggerating any of this. This is actually what is happening in this strip, and two weeks later it becomes wall-to-wall marching band puns.

Funky Winkerbean, February 8:

Lest you think that Fred has a monopoly on tragedy in the Fairgood family, let's check back in with Darrin for a trip down into Funky Continuity and find out why he would only want to meet his birth father at gunpoint!

See, Darrin's birth mother was Lisa, Les's wife, who died of cancer because of course she did. Before that, though, she was involved in a story about being teen pregnant, in which she went to a party with a football player from Big Walnut Tech (Westview High's rival school, which had previously been played for laffs), who got her drunk, took her virginity in the back seat of a car, got her pregnant and then refused to ever speak to each other again.

You know, just in case you were wondering why this was a subject being discussed against a sickly, bile-yellow background with darkness encroaching from all sides.

Crankshaft, February 5:

For a comic that's entirely about a hateful old man and the beaten-down relatives whose lives he constantly ruins, Crankshaft was actually pretty dry this month. There was this strip, though, in which Crankshaft's Dumb Son-In-Law Whose Name I Actually Do Remember This Time (it's Jeff!) bluntly stating that his mother could not possibly be someone who provides care to another is only topped by Crankshaft calling his life before Rose "carefree."

Crankshaft's life before Rose involved fighting in the Second World War.

Funky Winkerbean, February 11:

I'll admit that I had high hopes for Funky Winkerbean's Valentine's Day offering. I mean, if New Year's Day can involve two women racing each other to kiss a mopey sad sack only to discover him staring out a window, lost in thoughts of his dead wife, then surely a holiday devoted to love and affection would provide ample opportunities for his signature brand of knife-twisting. I mean, the loveless marriage and the long-ignored product of pure matrimonial hate are right there.

Serves me right for hoping. Instead of romantic tragedy, Batiuk instead moved right along into a storyline about the Music Educator's Convention, in which veteran cast member Harry Dinkle smirked his way through puns about marching bands that no one on this planet could possibly find amusing. It's denying the suffering that I want and replacing it with suffering I don't want, and honestly, that is some next-level disappointment.

On the other hand, referring to "living as a bachelor in the absence of one's spouse" as "batching it" is close to being the worst thing that has ever happened in America.

Funky Winkerbean, February 18:

Still, when it wasn't busy with puns about flautists, this story arc did throw in Becky reminiscing about casual sexism. That's something!

Funky Winkerbean, February 23:

Tom Batiuk is a pretty notorious overwriter, so here's a shorter version of this conversation:

"Did you have a good time with your friends?"

"All of my friends are dying or dead."

Funky Winkerbean, February 10:

For the real existential dread, though, we have to back to Fred, and this silent little masterpiece of horror. Seriously: This is a slow zoom from outer space down to Fred as he sits, immobile and silent, propped up in front of his window so that he can watch everyone outside enjoying the crisp winter's day while he remains trapped in his own body, unable to even scream.

It's a full-color Sunday strip that ran right under the "Spot The Difference" puzzle.

Funky Winkerbean, February 1:

And finally, we have this, a strip in which the actual punchline is a man struggling to beg his son for help, shaking with the effort but only able to grunt a plea for mercy. And this is one of the funny ones.

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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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