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.

For those of you who missed it, I experienced my own bit of Batiuk-related despair when Comic-Con's 40th Anniversary of Funky Winkerbean panel -- the one panel I was actually looking forward to -- was canceled. As you might expect, this led to me stealing Batiuk's nameplate from the panel room to keep a a souvenir. That part was actually pretty fun, but not being able to get some insight into how the characters' daily march towards inexorable fate was kind of a downer, especially since I wanted to know why this month's strips focusd on the possible death of an adorable kitten.Funky Winkerbean, July 6:

So yeah, in case you were wondering, I was not kidding about the whole kitten thing.

The entire month of July revolved around Les and Summer finally making their climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, a reading experience that was slightly more of a trial than actually climbing a mountain yourself. Under normal circumstances, this seems like the perfect opportunity for Batiuk to throw a little misery into things, and at first it seems like that's what he's going for with scenes where Les starts hallucinating visions of Tarzan and Sheena the She-Devil. The problem, of course, is that Les Moore may in fact be the single most punchable character in the history of fiction, and everyone hates him and wants him to suffer.

Or maybe that's just me.

Point is, putting Les in danger isn't exactly going to bring the melodrama when your audience is actively rooting for Fate to smite that smirk right off of his stupid face. The solution? Introduce an adorable little kitten that somehow survived being shoved in a suitcase for a flight from Ohio to Tanzania, and then tell everyone in Panel 3 that it will most likely be eaten by a cheetah before the end of the story arc. Say what you want about the constant misery, but Batiuk is truly the master of what he does.

Funky Winkerbean, July 10:

And just in case the tiny animal in danger didn't quite have the element of human suffering that you were looking for, don't worry. In the follow-up, after the initial attempts to abandon the kitten in the wild (?!) are foiled when it starts following the expedition, presumably mewling pathetically and hovering on the brink of starvation, New Character Dan is given the kitten to take care of during the trek.

This. Is. Amazing.

"We will not turn back," says the guide. "We are going into a hostile environment known for altitude sickness and bitter cold. Here is a tiny newborn animal, for which none of us are equipped to care or feed. If and when it dies, it will be your fault, and the memory of its suffering will haunt you even as you attempt to triumph over nature."

This is not an interpretation: That is the conversation that is happening in this comic strip.

Funky Winkerbean, July 19:

Of course, commentaries on man's tendency towards suffering don't always have to be so grim. Take this strip, for instance, where Batiuk takes a whimsical look at our tendency as a society to travel to beautiful natural wonders and then poop on them.

Again: Not subtext. This is a strip about where Les Moore goes to poop on a mountain. I certainly hope you were prepared to read about that when you woke up this morning, because cousin, I sure wasn't.

Crankshaft, July 17:

According to its official King Features Syndicate description, "Crankshaft amuses comics fans with his no-holds-barred zingers and cantankerous disposition." This, of course, is a lie. Crankshaft doesn't amuse anyone, it just terrifies the young with stories of the inevitable crippling pain that will be your punishment for escaping the cold embrace of death.

In this case, Crankshaft's entire gang of ancient cronies is wracked with torment. Personally, I was hoping that this would lead to a storyline where, in order to win the game, the players of the Senior League hacked off their remaining functional limbs and stitched together a Frankenstein's monster to play shortstop. Sadly, that did not happen, and the rest of the month was just devoted to more comics about old people complaining about being alive.

Crankshaft, July 6:

Of course, there is the rare occasion when amusement and crippling pain come together in the strip, like Panel 2 above. It's not just that it's fun to watch Batiuk and artist Chuck Ayers torment the aged misanthrope they've slapped up there as a protagonist (it happens often enough that it's lost a bit of its charm), but that the sassy hip he's throwing out there makes it look like Crankshaft has somehow injured himself while dancing to "Single Ladies."

Crankshaft, July 7:

Two pretty amazing things about this strip. One: Crankshaft's daughter, Pam, is positively gleeful at her father's pain even as she's called upon to tend to his misshapen torso, to the point where she's suggesting that God Himself is wreaking vengeance upon him for the hubris displayed by an attempt to weed the garden. What's more, according to Pam, His mocking laughter reverberates through the Crankshaft household as He reaffirms the natural order of things.

Two: Crankshaft is in such pain that he is expressing a desire to remove himself from the sight of God in order to end his suffering.

Crankshaft, July 28:

Speaking of affronts to God, here's a topless Ed Crankshaft getting a massage. Don't mind me, I'll just be barfing everywhere.

Crankshaft, July 23 & 24:

Okay, these may not be "depressing" in the traditional sense, but there is no possible way that I could let these two strips pass without comment. If you're a regular FunkyWatch reader, you'll already be painfully familiar with the fact that Batiuk relies heavily on puns and malapropisms for his Crankshaft punchlines -- they are, in fact, one of the major sources of suffering in my life. But this? This defies all logic and reason.

In the first strip, Sue apparently hears "Working on a project with Habitat For Humanity" as "Get a Tat From Manny." That is a long, long way to go for that joke, but it works well enough by Crankshaft's usual standards, if not anything people would actually consider to be comedy. Then we get to the second part of the Sue's Tattoo From Manny Saga.

I have no idea what is going on in this comic. I spent an hour today -- an hour, no exaggeration -- trying to figure out what she could've possibly misheard "labor" as. There's nothing in the frame that gives any indication and "Habitat For Humanity" / "Get a Tat From Manny" is so far removed from a rational line of thought that I can't begin to puzzle it out. Neighbor? Saber? Rolling papers?! Are these old people smoking drugs?!

I can't deal with this anymore. Let's get back to Funky and see how they did on that mountain.

Funky Winkerbean, July 30:

Because it just wouldn't be a Funky Winkerbean story without a reference to Les's dead first wife, Les apparently schlepped a photograph of Lisa all the way up to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and left it in a box there. I'm really not sure what this is supposed to mean, but given that Lisa's been omnipresent in the strip of late through ghostly phone calls and the occasional VHS tape, I'm really hoping this means that Les is finally ready to move on. If nothing else, "I left her memory on a mountaintop in Africa" is that perfect blend of pompous and ridiculous that makes him so punchable.

Really, though, I'm just impressed that he managed to get a cell phone signal AT THE SUMMIT OF MT. KILIMANJARO.

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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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