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.
For most people, a new year represents a fresh new start, but for Batiuk, 2014 is apparently the year he gets down to friggin' business in his flagship strip. After letting Crankshaft handle the majority of the despair over the past few months, January marked a return in force to Funky Winkerbean being the single most depressing thing in the newspaper. Not just the comics page, you understand, but the entire newspaper. Seriously, this month is all bankruptcy and land mines. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Funky Winkerbean, January 19
One of the things that I actually, genuinely like about Funky Winkerbean is that it's very easy to show someone exactly why it's horrifically depressing. Every few weeks, there's a strip that functions as the entire series in miniature, capturing all the hopelessness and inevitable suffering that the citizens of Westview have to offer. The one that always springs to mind as the perfect Funky Winkerbean happened a few years back after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when Tony Montoni cleans the oil off of a seagull, releases it into the sky, and watches silently as it plunges right back into the oil slick. There's a simple perfection to that, and seriously, if the original art for that strip ever came up for sale, I would buy it in a heartbeat and hang it in my living room right next to the framed portrait of Destro, if only to memorialize the beauty of cramming that much nihilism into three panels.
In this strip, he does it in one.
Even better, it's the first panel of the strip. Like, you don't even have to finish the top row to know what Funky Winkerbean is all about. Just "How are you?" "Awful!" The fact that it continues with a description of life as an eternal climb up a mountain, struggling simply to take each step until you are rewarded with the sweet release of death is just a nice bonus.
Funky Winkerbean, January 3
If you were paying attention last month, you might recall that one of the ongoing storylines had to do with Holly coping with her son being sent on a tour of duty to Afghanistan by completing his comic book collection for him. Well, in case this thrilling action involving "slabbed comics" and "key issues" was keeping you on the edge of your seat, here's how it ends: With Cory coming home and revealing that the thing he actually looked forward to was searching out the comics himself, and that in taking it upon herself to complete his collection, his mother has robbed him of one of the few things he looks forward to in his life. He swallows his horror, though, and patronizes her with one of Funky's signature rictus grins, unable to shatter her heart the way she has destroyed his.
Let this be a lesson to you: The next time you're about to do something thoughtful and considerate for someone you love, don't. It will only hurt them.
Funky Winkerbean, January 24
Speaking of mission statements, here's a comic where Funky himself describes exactly how I'd be reading this strip if I wasn't getting paid to do it.
In case you didn't guess just from being a person with the knowledge that this is a newspaper comic strip running in the month of January, one of this month's storylines involved Funky's New Year's Resolution of hitting the gym to lose a little weight. Naturally, since this was Funky Winkerbean, there wasn't even a pretense of having any optimism that this would actually work, just resigned fatalism and acceptance that we can do nothing to stave off death, even at the urging of our loved ones. I guess you could say it's... an exercise in futility? Huh? Huh?
I'm shocked that was not an actual punchline.
Funky Winkerbean, January 21
Okay, this one hit a little close to home for me. As some of you may already be aware, I have a Gym Nemesis in the form of a woman who loudly claims I will "never get a wife" as long as I have a mohawk. I don't know if this is some kind of curse where I must wander the world alone until I get a proper haircut or if she's just super obnoxious, but I do know that if she was an employee and not just another patron, I would no longer be working out there.
Because of all that, we got a St. Agnes Day Miracle where I actually sympathized with Funky -- but only to a point. Considering that his very first interaction with his personal trainer is to have her offer up a half-lidded crack about his (admittedly stupid) name, there is no reason in the world why January 22's strip wasn't Funky flipping double birds and kicking over an Elliptical machine as he walked out. Instead, this friggin' sad sack just takes it. Then again, there could be a reason for that: It's been pretty well established that simple human kindness can be lethal in the Funkyverse, so maybe this is just her way of starting an actually positive relationship and keeping herself from being struck by some rare form of lightning that causes cancer.
After last month's strips about Crankshaft sitting alone in a Santa suit getting wasted and encountering a spectre of his own impending death, this month's were downright cheerful. Or, you know, close enough. Take this strip for instance, part of a week-long series where Crankshaft introduces his garden club to chemical weed killers with increasingly ludicrous names ("Excommunication," "Last Rites," and so on) until he finally starts suggesting that they just drop Agent Orange on their flower beds! Ha ha!
Some of you might be a little too young to get the joke, so I'll explain. Agent Orange is the name of a chemical defoliant used in the Vietnam War to destroy crops and thereby deplete the enemy food supply. Per Wikipedia, "The Vietnam Red Cross reported as many as 3 million Vietnamese people have been affected by Agent Orange, including at least 150,000 children born with birth defects. According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. Women had higher rates of miscarriage and stillbirths, as did livestock such as cattle, water buffalo, and pigs." It still contaminates the food supply today, causing, among other things, cancer, and resulted in the same diseases and birth defects among veterans who were assured that the chemicals were harmless.
Now that's a "bad reputation!" I guess they probably shouldn't drop that on their petunias, huh? Ha ha! Ha ha ha!
Oh, also, Mary the Nice New Bus Driver almost watched a child get run over. She makes a pretty big deal about it, nobody else seems to really care.
Funky Winkerbean, January 7
Boy, this economy, huh? It seems that even Westview is not immune to the steady erosion of the small businessman, but really, that makes sense. I mean, this town's only businesses are a pizza place, a nursing home and a comic book store. I'm amazed they're not already under siege by muscular Australians in hockey masks demanding their gaizalaine. The latest victim of these troubling times is Khan, who has decided that the American Dream has failed him, and so he's going back to Afghanistan, a popular destination for cast members of this comic strip. This is all communicated through thinly veiled metaphors for death.
That is the plot of this week's worth of strips. I wonder if it could be any more on-the-nose...
Funky Winkerbean, January 10
You would not believe how delighted I was by this strip. I'll be honest with you, folks, I occasionally -- not often, you understand, but occasionally -- exaggerate how depressing these things are for the sake of comedy. Then you get one where the title character literally says "tough people don't always last... but tough times do." Seriously! He is actually saying "life will be miserable for everyone even after we die. The misery of this fallen world will wear us down and outlast us, and it will never get any better no matter how strong we thought we were." This isn't subtext. This is text.
This is not even the most depressing strip this month.
Funky Winkerbean, January 26
"I'm sorry your daughter is having trouble in college. My son will likely die in an explosion."