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.
You might think that February might not lend itself all that well to the Funkyverse's usual brand of complete and utter soul-crushing despair. I mean at the very least, there's Valentine's Day, and we should at least get a few strips about lovey-dovey romance and happiness, right? Wrong. So, so wrong. February may be the shortest month, but that just means that Batiuk and Ayers have to work even harder to cram every ounce of existential dread into their comics -- and just in case you think I'm exaggerating, consider that DEATH ITSELF MADE AN APPEARANCE last month, and that's not even the weirdest part.
Funky Winkerbean, February 25
Aside from a few strips about how his son is in Afghanistan ands odds aren't looking good for his survival -- I am willing to bet cash money that Holly will get the last issue to complete Cory's Starbuck Jones collection on the same day that she gets a somber knock at the door informing her of his death by friendly fire -- most of Funky's appearances in February's strips revolved around his continuing attempts to work out, and once again, we've been given a baseline of how things work in the Funkyverse, in case we ever forget.
Today, our lesson comes from Funky's personal trainer (who, I believe, has yet to be given a name), who stands there with her eyes half lidded while explaining that she quite literally profits from human suffering, while wearing the most genuine smile that I've ever seen in this comic. And considering that Funky's gym can afford to bathe its pale yellow walls in enough light to hold back the encroaching spectre of darkness for at least one panel, I'd say that the business of human suffering is a-boomin'.
Funky Winkerbean, February 26
These workout themed strips are right up there with Crankshaft Talks About Gardening on the list of theme strips that get interminable about halfway through the first installment, and this one is no exception. The entire thing is just so hack, a sub-Two and a Half Men level punchline about how the trainer is a sadist for encouraging someone to exercise, to the point where it invites an equally hack response about how she probably really is a sadist, what with that whole thing where she's delighted by the body's tendency to acquire injuries over time.
I wouldn't even mention it, except that I feel like you could add Panel 2 to virtually any Funky Winkerbean strip as both Funky's reaction to what's going on and my reaction on reading it.
Funky Winkerbean, February 28
Aaaaaand this is how we end the month, with Funky getting a little too handsy with his trainer's taut, tracksuited body. Please enjoy barfing literally everywhere, I know I did.
Funky Winkerbean, February 17
The trainer and her firm, touchable abs aren't the only complication in Funky's love life, though, and seriously, eff everything for making me type the words "Funky's love life."
This might require some explanation, because I've been reading this strip every day for coming up on four years now, and I had no idea who this bitter beauty was. Thanks to the always helpful Funky Winkerbean "fan" community, however, I was informed that this is Cindy Summers, Funky's first wife who divorced him during his drinking days, which sent him spiraling into depression and caused him to pass out on the street on New Year's Eve in one of the strip's most amazing moments of brutal despair. Now, before I could even get my idea around the fact that Funky Winkerbean has been married twice, we rolled right into another character full of despair at the way her life has turned out. See, the reason that Cindy's drowning her sorrows in the same booze that sent her former husband facefirst into a snowdrift, aside from the fact that she's being hit on by a dude so smarmy that his smirk is about to go perpendicular to his chin, is that she's about to be told that she's just not pretty enough to be a television newsreader anymore. She's being booted off of TV in New York and sent back to Cleveland, not far from where Funky himself is getting into shape and groping nubile personal trainers.
The lesson here is that it really doesn't matter what you look like -- Whether you're a beautiful television star or a lumpy collection of aches that runs a pizza restaurant on a dying main street, your life is going to be full of misery and disappointment. Like Cindy says, it's not so pretty inside.
We're only halfway through the countdown, by the way.
Meanwhile, over in Crankshaft, a more mundane look at the futility of existence is unfolding as the producers of Ice Road School Bus Drivers have arrived to put the spotlight of a reality show onto Crankshaft and his coworkers. See, because there's a show called Ice Road Truckers and Crankshaft drives a bus and it gets icy during the winter in Ohio and -- you know what? Forget it. It's not worth explaining.
The point to all this is that after the show finishes filming, they reward the participants for risking their lives (and, presumably, the lives of a literal busload of children) on icy roads by giving them new hats. Crankshaft responds to this with an enthusiastic and genuine "Life doesn't get any better than this!"
I just want to break that down for everyone: Crankshaft cannot imagine a better possible life than one in which everything is the exact same except he has a new hat. That's where his life is at right now.
In another storyline this month, the Pam and Jeff were awoken by a call from their alarm company, cheerfully letting them know that someone was breaking into their house and then hanging up. Then, proving that the Funkyverse is an actual sci-fi dystopia, they called up the police only to be greeted by a recorded message putting them on a phone tree.
Now, my original hope was that Batiuk and Ayers had chosen mid-February to reveal that Crankshaft is actually set in the universe of The Purge and that last month's strips were set during that night when, for twelve hours, all crime was legal. Sadly, the alarm was actually set off when Crankshaft locked himself out of the house naked, which is arguably even worse for Pam and Jeff than if someone actually had legalized murder.
Funky Winkerbean, February 4
So then Les Moore's depression became so strong that it formed into a physical body as a talking French cat, and I don't even know what I'm doing with this strip anymore.
I have the vague notion that Le Chat Bleu is an actual recurring plot device, sort of like how Pete the Comic Book Writer always drops into this weird fantasy world where he's beset by a villain called the Lord of the Late whenever he's over deadline, but again: Four years into this thing and this is the first time I've ever seen it. Putting aside the fact that whoever colors the daily strips for the Syndicate couldn't be bothered to make The Blue Cat blue, this is mind-blowing. That Les can just casually reference a physical manifestation of depression as a minor annoyance and not something absolutely terrifying is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in this strip. I was pretty sure nothing could top that, no matter how many people were sitting around in bars talking about how their own beautiful bodies hid a hideous soul.
And then we got to the end of the month in Crankshaft.
SO THEN THE ACTUAL GODDAMN GRIM REAPER SHOWED UP.
Okay. Crankshaft has had an unhealthy fixation on mortality for as long as I've been reading it -- the first strep I ever wrote about involved Ed complaining that he was putting too much wear and tear on his "funeral shoes," which is purified despair on a number of levels -- but over the past few months, things have been going bonkers. Back in December, Ed saw a vision made manifest of his future self at the moment of his eventual demise while visiting the Bedside Manor rest home, and now Death Itself is showing up like this is the penultimate level of a Castlevania game. If Ed fights Dracula next month, I don't know what I'm going to do -- I actually can't rule it out at this point.
And just on the off chance that the Reaper showing up to haul you off to the crossroads wasn't enough to ruin your day, Batiuk and Ayers continued with this strip, in which Crankshaft angrily demands to be represented by an angel that never arrives. The implication? There is no angel. There is no God. There is no Devil. There is only the pain of life followed by the oblivion of death.
This is actually what is happening in this strip.
Finally, we reach the thesis statement of this little treatise on nihilism: It's not just that Death is the only thing that awaits, it's not just that Death is random and senseless, it's that Death is actively confused and requires photo ID to keep from taking you at the wrong time. That is the universe in which these characters are living.
Now I see why he was so excited about a new hat.