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.
This month, Batiuk took to the page to chronicle a few things that, if you weren't familiar with how this strip actually worked, would seem to be a few of life's happier moments: There's a marriage for Wally and Rachel, a trip out west for Les to work on the movie based on his most successful book, and in Crankshaft, it's summertime and the bus drivers are off on vacation! If, however you are familiar with how this strip works, then you'll know that this is all pretty much just setup for misery, hatred, and the actual wrath of God Himself. In other words, it's business as usual in Westview.
Before we get into the marriages and other assorted miseries that happened this month, it's worth noting that we have officially entered the 743rd year of this storyline about Holly trying to complete her son's comic book collection while he's off serving in Afghanistan, which barrels inevitably towards whatever tragedy will make Holly staring silently at a completed long box seem most poetic. In this month's installments, she's on the hunt for Starbuck Jones #216, and the only way she can get it is by heading to the palatial mansion of a millionaire comic book collector and bribing him with a page of original art.
One more time, that's a millionaire comic book collector. His wrought-iron gates have been welded into Batman and Superman symbols.
Needless to say, he's an insufferable speculator, and while it's nice to see him pass out and almost have a heart attack when Holly tears open a CGC slab, it's worth noting that, as always, the joy of doing something nice for your son can only be accomplished through the suffering of others.
Over in Crankshaft, the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation has, of course, come with an overwhelming sense of dread over the next class of hellions that Ed and his cronies are going to have to schlep all over town.
That said, I'm not gonna lie: I legitimately laughed out loud at this strip and its punchline. I think the best thing about it is how ambiguous it is. Is Ed referencing "The Silver Bullet" as in Coors Light, implying that the only way to get through a day of driving a school bus full of rowdy kids is to just start shotgunning as many beers as you can while on the job, or -- and this is my preferred theory -- does Crankshaft think children are werewolves?
I hope that's it. I hope this is how Ed's foreshadowed decline starts, with Ed just flipping out one day because he thinks he's driving around a schoolbus full of wolfmans and Frankensteins.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation about the new students focused on how Ed's friend was unsuccessfully attempting to fight off the feelings of futility and unimportance in his life, wondering why he even bothered coming to work when it's all just so pointless. Eventually, and I'm as surprised about this as you are, this conversation took the form of talking about robots. Slightly less surprising, it was about how robots were going to make human effort more pointless and replace them, phasing out the menial tasks that provide the only meaning in their sad, small lives.
But don't worry, friends! Ed Crankshaft is here for a pep talk that's litearlly about how machines have no capacity for hatred, and will therefore never be able to truly replicate the cruelty of humanity. We will always have a place in the world that can never be taken away from us, as long as we hone the ability to treat other human beings like garbage. Thanks, Ed!
Back in Funky Winkerbean, it's time for the wedding of Wally and Rachel, two people brought together post-traumatic stress disorder and a desperate need for companionship. A dog is also involved, and I'll tell you right now: He will in fact be the best man at their wedding and will accompany them on the honeymoon.
The Blessed Day is set to take place at the gazebo in the center of Westview, and if you're a long-time FunkyWatch reader, you may remember that this festive structure played a key part in the storyline that started this column, when Funky wrecked his car so hard that he traveled in time and met his younger self during a 4th of July concert. Apparently, its significance goes back even further than that for the actual strip though -- it seems it was the site of Funky's first marriage, his ill-fated union with Cindy Summers that would collapse when Funky spent New Years Eve passed out in a snowbank due to his alcoholism.
Clearly, it's a good spot to get hitched. But hey, it's not like things are going to turn disastrous during the actual wedding, is it?
Funky Winkerbean, June 13
Not only does the wedding turn into the video for "November Rain" -- albeit without the peppy guitar riff -- but LIGHTNING STRIKES THE BUILDING, which I have to assume is GOD HIMSELF voicing his disapproval of Wally and Rachel's union. They go through with it anyway, though, if only because Westview's citizens are pretty used to a vengeful God that seeks to destroy their happiness at every turn. It's just something you have to get used to.
Funky Winkerbean, June 28
Speaking of the Almighty, and this might just be my southern upbringing showing since I don't know how y'all talk up in the heathen states, doesn't the proverb about closing a door and opening a window usually mention Him as being the one who does it? Does the omission here indicate that the FunkyVerse is home to people who are terrified to even speak the name of God, lest they attract His horrible attention and suffer even more than is their usual lot?
Also, I don't think that proverb usually ends with someone talking about committing suicide. But, y'know. That one I expected.
Funky Winkerbean, June 21
So what's got Les contemplating the sweet oblivion that comes from a long fall to the pavement? Well, as you may recall, the book he wrote about his dead first wife, Lisa, was optioned for a movie that was picked up by a cable network that wants him to rewrite it to be a sex romp called Lust For Lisa. Les, having written the truly insufferable first draft of the screenplay, has been summoned to Hollywood for a rewrite, which has stressed him out so much that he no longer wants to have sex with his wife.
You know, there's a lot to be said about the sheer horror that Batiuk is inflicting on the world by asking us to imagine Les having sex, or that the actual punchline of this strip is that Cayla is opening up about Les having problems and being under a lot of pressure to Les's best friend who responds by telling her to keep it to herself, but the true horror here goes a lot deeper. The actual, literal premise of these three panels is that Les is so obsessed with preserving the memory of his perfect dead wife and what the Hollywood machine might do to it that he has lost all interest in his current, non-dead wife. The obsession has consumed him, and as always, Cayla must continue to deal with living in the shadow of the deceased and sainted Lisa, to whom she can never possibly compare.
Also he stopped having sex with her, ha ha ha.
Funky Winkerbean, June 20
In case you were wondering, Les's desire for sex has been replaced by a talking French cat that follows him around and berates him as the physical manifestation of his depression. This, of course, is nothing new -- Le Chat Bleu, who continues to not be very bleu at all, has been hanging around the strip for a while. What's interesting to me is that this is the first time we've seen Les in an airport since a few years ago, where HIS DEAD WIFE'S GHOST CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN TO CALL HIM ON THE PHONE AND TELL HIM NOT TO GET ON A PLANE, AND THEN PHONED IN A BOMB THREAT BECAUSE HIS PLANE WAS DOOMED TO CRASH. I emphasize because that is something that actually happened.
Point being, Les has swapped the protection of his dead wife's ghost for an imaginary talking cat that hates him. That dude has problems.
Funky Winkerbean, June 24
And finally, we come to the climax of this month's story, and the reveal of just why Les had to go out to Hollywood for a rewrite: His precious words were simply too artistic and beautiful for this fallen world to truly appreciate. He created such moving, important art that it exists beyond the petty commercial needs of the sordid entertainment industry.
It's not that he's not good enough. It's that he's too good.
If you need me, I'll be scowling at the wall until I burn a hole through it with pure hatred.