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.
I'll admit it, folks. I did not think it was possible. After February rocked through the month with an actual appearance by Death itself, I did not think that things could get any darker. Oh, what a fool was I. Not only do things get darker this month, but they go with a full-on body count of 16 people, plus the potential for even more cancer than before. And that's before we get to the torturous pain of Crankshaft. I'll warn you now, everyone:this is not the day to stop sniffing glue.
Funky Winkerbean, March 30
Believe it or not, the plotline about Cindy -- Funky's first wife who left him when he was passed out facedown in the snow on New Year's Eve in the depths of alcoholism, if you don't remember -- returning to Westview after being fired from her job as a big-time TV newsreader is actually the least depressing thing that's happened in the strip this month. It has, however, provided us with some pretty choice lines.
This one was particularly amazing, because it characterizes her work as being terrible at every single phase of the job. It's like some weird, particularly cruel riddle. Are we being asked to figure out whether it's better to be torn apart by wolves or run over by a bus? Or maybe we're just meant to sympathize with Cynthia. I mean, I certainly can't figure out where her employers got the idea that she's gotten old and bitter.
Funky Winkerbean, March 3
It's this one, though, that is the most psychologically revealing, I think. Batiuk is, of course, a noted fan of superhero comics -- both strips this month have had extended bits involving people searching for back issues on eBay, which is exactly as thrilling as it sounds -- but this use of Superman is astonishing. It takes a special kind of mindset for a character to look at Superman and think "Ah yes, a familiar inspirational story with which I can truly identify: getting screwed over by New York bigwigs." It makes me wonder what other things she saw while walking through the airport that made her sneer at them and liken them to her own struggle. "Ah yes," says Cindy, "Cinnabon. Same old story: Sweet at first and then leaves you full of regrets and diabetes, just like life in New York City."
Dude. Cindy. I realize that being booted into exile in Ohio, the Siberia of North America, is a pretty raw deal, but you didn't create one of the most important characters in modern fiction and get $412 out of the deal. You were fired from a job that you had for several years, and your employer found you another job when you were let go. It is not exactly the same thing.
Funky Winkerbean, March 4
Eventually, she just gets blunt about it.
Incidentally, I laughed like a maniac for a solid five minutes after I read this strip. She's just so hilariously miserable!
Funky Winkerbean, March 22
Speaking of misery, Funky also took a few days this month to visit his father in the nursing home, leading to an amazing synthesis of Tom Batiuk's two great trademarks: heartbreaking tragedy and extremely torturous wordplay.
The joke here, in case you missed it -- because it is so subtle -- is that it is physically difficult for Funky to see through his tears. Tears of sadness. Because his father is dying, slowly, in front of him, from a disease that he can barely understand, let alone stop. And this feeling, this despair at the inevitability of death, is communicated through a joke so far below a pun that it involves repeating the word "see" in every panel.
This is the punchline for a gag that takes up an entire week.
Funky Winkerbean, March 19
And just in case you were wondering, here's the setup: Funky's old man has taken up smoking because he is himself aware of his impending death, and wants to see who's going to win in a race between cancer and Alzheimer's. Normally, I wouldn't put a whole lot of money on the former, but this is Funky Winkerbean, so your guess is as good as mine.
Now, like I said, this takes up an entire week, and if you're new to Funky Winkerbean, you might be thinking that a solid week of Funky wracked with crippling depression over the fate of one of his closest relatives would be enough misery for one man's March. Hang onto that thought, we'll be coming back to it later.
The amazing thing about this one isn't that Crankshaft wakes up in hideous pain with his spine twisted as his body fails around his hateful, bitter soul, although I'd be lying if I said that wasn't far and away the most enjoyable thing that happened in these comics this month. The amazing thing is that the dialogue in panel three implies that he still wakes up with some small amount of hope, some tiny shred of an idea that maybe, maybe today won't be complete and utter misery.
And of course, the corollary to that is that this hope is immediately crushed, this time by immobilizing agony. Which, admittedly, makes a refreshing change from the miasma of mental agony that's usually our focus.
And speaking of mental disorders, here's Ed and his two insufferable cronies casually diagnosing a troubled spree killer at their local diner.
Look. I know we go through this every month, but seriously: This is a comic about three men predicting an actual killing spree by a disturbed individual, used as a vehicle for a "humorous" malapropism. Ha ha! You don't read television, dummy! Ha ha! That guy is going to shoot someone.
Funky Winkerbean, March 10
Hoo boy. Here we go. So the main plotline last month was about Funky and Holly hearing about a helicopter crash in Afghanistan and immediately jumping to the conclusion that their son had been killed. Personally, I wasn't too worried -- I've been holding out for death by friendly fire since this whole thing started and figured that this whole helicopter crash was just a red herring.
Unfortunately, Funky and Holly don't have my insight into the mechanics of the strip, which is weird because you'd think they'd be used to this by now, and are instead wracked with worry. So much worry, in fact that, Funky's mouth is sliding right off the edge of his face in Panel 3.
Funky Winkerbean, March 13
Of course, that's not to say that Batiuk didn't go all-out when it came to twisting the knife, throwing Cindy and her experience reporting on an endless string of tragedies in for good measure. It's the coloring that really sells this one, though, as Cindy's busy newsroom, humming with all the newsworthy activity of Cleveland, vanishes to be replaced by a dramatic, featureless black background. Could this perhaps be the shroud of Death itself passing through on the way to Westview?
It's not, but I was really hoping it was. When the Reaper showed up in Crankshaft last month, he was the first likable character I've seen in four years of reading this strip.
Funky Winkerbean, March 16
Yes, it turns out that Cory was safe all along, leading to a sigh of relief from everyone involved. Well, everyone except the families of the 16 people who actually did die in the crash. They're probably pretty upset, I don't know. Maybe so upset that they didn't make a pun and then smirk at each other in a dimly lit pizza restaurant, which is why they aren't starring in a hilarious comic strip that runs every day right next to Garfield.
But then, we have the punchline to both the strip and the entire story arc, so named because the experience of reading it is a lot like being punched in the kidneys by a newspaper. While Funky and Holly have been focusing on their own imagined tragedy, secure in the knowledge that no one could be suffering the way they are, their nephew Wally, a veteran of the war plagued with PTSD, has been reacting to the very mention of the crash by white-knuckling his arm chair in the midst of a week-long panic attack so severe that his rictus has finally drawn the attention of his fiancee and his loyal therapy dog.
You see, while we all think of ourselves as the protagonists of our own stories, those around us are suffering in ways that we cannot even imagine. No, that's not right -- they're suffering in ways that we can imagine, because their suffering is the same as ours, but we choose not to see it, focusing on our own momentary respite from the horror of death and nothingness that follow us at every turn, because the alternative is be crippled by the fear, the isolation and loneliness. Wally understands this, and so the tragedy of others becomes his own, echoing the horror of his time in the war, and despite the progress he has made, he crumbles beneath the weight of human misery. There is no progress. Happiness is an illusion, and the reward for a long life is that, like Funky's father, you may one day have the chance to choose how you die.
Have a great month, everybody!