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. In January's strips, Batiuk kicked off a new year by introducing a few new themes into the woebegotten lives of Westview's chronically morose citizens, including a first-of-the-year strip that might just top last August 12 for the most studiously depressing strip of all time.

#10. January 12

Those of you who read through last month's Funky Winkerbean strips probably remember that one of the continuing storylines was that Wally Winkerbean (the title character's nephew who was traumatized by being held prisoner in Afghanistan for five years, which really ought to tell you everything you know about this strip) had started work with a charity called Puppies Behind Bars.

Despite the fact that it sounds like an organization dedicated to ridding the world of happiness by locking up adorable young animals -- which I have to assume is why Batiuk picked it to use in one of his stories -- PBB is a real-life charity that helps out veterans by giving them service animals that were trained by prisoners as part of their rehabilitation. In this strip, the PBB instructor reminds us that these prisoners dream only of the freedom that the rest of us take for granted, and while that's only slightly depressing, the real selling point is the mug the instructor's pulling as she delivers her alleged "joke." I have dubbed this The Schadenfreude Smirk, and here, Batiuk proves that even on a kindly animal trainer working with a charity, it is still the most punchable expression of all time.

#9. January 17

The weirdest thing about Funky Winkerbean -- aside from the insistence that Les Moore is a character that should have women fighting for his affections, which I'll get around to in a moment -- is that it's actually funnier when it's wallowing in existential dread than when it's going for actual comedy. That may have something (read: everything) to do with Batiuk's love of puns.

Case in point is this strip, where the only depression comes from the fact that "get it? Because Cabernet is a kind of wine?" is presented as something someone actually thinks someone else would find amusing. Instead, I'm legitimately left wondering about the convict who decided it would be a good idea to name his dog "Cabernet." Is he a gentleman thief who only got himself caught so that he could pull off the ultimate heist -- five million dollars in gold concealed within the prison itself?! And if so, why the hell are we still reading about Wally?

#8. January 9

Should there be any doubt left that "despair" is the default setting for Funky Winkerbean, we can dispell it right away with this strip, in which the tiniest possible amount of success has driven Les Moore completely insane.

In the time I've been reading this strip, it has become abundantly clear that the characters -- not to mention the creator and the readers -- are happiest when they are wallowing in hopelessness, and after he somehow managed to not die in a plane crash in last month's strips due to the interference of a nosy ghost and her land-line, Les just doesn't know what to do with himself. Thus, he has taken to being belligerent in airports, incurring the wrath of fellow airline passengers, and even taunting the TSA in what I assume is the hope that he'll be dragged off to Guantanamo Bay, where misery will return as a comfort.

#7. January 26

I'm pretty sure that the joke about leading a high school band like a military campaign is one that goes back to the strip's first iteration, back when it was an attempt at being a comedy rather than holding a mirror up to the depths of the human condition. Still, that seems like an odd thing for the students themselves to remember and bring up, which gives me the idea that Becky has brought it up so often that they have it memorized.

I'm going to go ahead and guess that while we didn't see it in the strip, there's no way this trip didn't start with Becky saying "I'm not going to lie. Some of you won't be coming back alive."

#6. January 27

Look, I'm not saying she doesn't have a good reason considering the rest of the people in Westview, but did Becky really have to be that shocked that one of her students was attempting to better himself? Yeesh.

#5. January 15

The bulk of this month's strips were taken up with the ongoing plotline of Westview's saddest lovers, Wally and Rachel, and Wally's adventure in training his new dog, Buddy. Rachel, if you'll remember, once offered to go get a "frisky" movie in order to make Wally more receptive to the utterly desperate way she was throwing herself at him, only to have him respond by asking her to get groceries while she was out renting pornography, and until now, that was the defining point of their relationship.

Now, however, she's pretty much put the finest possible point on it by admitting to be jealous of a dog, because Wally has allowed it to sleep on the floor next to his bed.

Oh just wait. It's actually going to get sadder.

#4. January 19

Well, the good news is that Buddy the Dog is actually driving Wally perilously close to a smile, which, if Panel 3 is any indication, is an expression that has never been seen on his constantly world-weary, haunted face, thus explaining why he looks like happiness is actually causing him intense physical pain and contortion.

The bad news is that Wally apparently sees the ideas of family and children as one single eighteen-year hassle, draining a man of his money much like a vampire would drain him of blood, given more out of a social obligation to vanity (straight teeth) and greed (a better job from a college education) than anything resembling love. Now, I'm not saying he's wrong, and I'm sure there are a ton of very successful relationships built around that very idea, but at the very least it's probably not a worldview you should be advancing in front of Rachel, a single mother who was last seen chatting on the phone while overseeing her offspring's attempts at homework. Just sayin'.

#3. January 23

Oh and hey, in case you forgot exactly why Wally needs the dog to accompany him at all times, here's a reminder that he has constant nightmares about how he almost shot a child in the face in Afghanistan, presented in vivid color so that you can enjoy it over your Sunday breakfast.

#2. January 30

Tom Batiuk's a lifelong comic book fan and he occasionally does big tributes to his favorite comics for his Sunday strips. This is almost always completely inexplicable, and the sudden inclusion of Rex the Wonder Dog is no exception.

At first glance, the idea of a canine Circus Detective preventing the murder of an acrobat might seem way less depressing than the last time Batiuk went this route -- when Funky's head was drawn onto a Neal Adams-esque version of Deadman so that Funky could complain about his inevitable mortality -- and it is. You know, right up until the punchline, where Rachel waxes nostalgic for the times when Wally would rely on her to check grocery store aisles for IEDs and insurgents, instead of delegating it to his new dog.

#1. January 1

And finally, it all comes down to the strip Tom Batiuk used to start the year. Just to make sure we're all on the same page before we get to the actual strip in question, here's a brief summary of what led up to it. In recent months, Les Moore has finally finished writing a memoir about his wife, Lisa, and her death from cancer, and I am not even exaggerating when I say that this has somehow led to him becoming Westview's most eligible bachelor.

Two women are currently competing for his affections: Cayla, whose daughter is Les's daughter's best friend and basketball teammate, and Susan, who once attempted suicide after Les rejected her advances due to the fact that she was his student at Westview High at the time. They've been in a state of cold war for months, each responding to the other's increasingly desperate tactics to woo an oblivious Les. Cayla, for instance, changed her hairstyle, while Susan got a divorce.

It all comes to a head at Funky's New Year's Eve party, where both Cayla and Susan attempt to get through the crowd at the right moment to be in a position to be Les's midnight kissing partner...

...only to find him staring out a window alone with his back to the rest of the party while fantasizing about kissing his dead wife.

Funky Winkerbean, ladies and gentlemen. That is how you start a year of comics built purely out of crushing despair.

Still not depressed? Check out the FunkyWatch archives!

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