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.
One of the interesting things about the FunkyVerse -- well, interesting to me as someone who obsesses over this endless march towards oblivion to a truly unhealthy degree -- is that there seems to be a sort of tradeoff between the two strips. Crankshaft has traditionally been the more lighthearted and pun-based experience (relatively speaking), but whenever Funky dips its toes out of the miasma of despair and decides to do a little slapstick comedy, Crankshaft takes up the slack so that the total amount of depression remains unchanged. And that's how you get three-panel gags about drone strikes. Seriously.
If you were paying attention last month, you may recall the gripping story of Jess Darling trying to connect with her father, John Darling, by making a documentary about her father John Darling's death at the hands of Peter Mossman, a plant themed supervillain. In addition to sounding like something that I made up while blasted out of my mind on NyQuil and peyote, this took for ever, and even after the resolution was revealed, we still had to sit through a solid week of Jess watching home videos of Jess's father, John Darling, playing with a Barbie Dream House. It was less exciting than it sounds.
The short version here is that Jess's father, John Darling, was a narcissist that everyone hated, and when he was murdered, his last words were about how he loves Barbie forever. Plantman, assuming the worst, thought this was an admission of infidelity, but it was really just a reference to his daughter, because when you've been shot, the natural instinct is to express your feelings with a confusing bit of code language that can only be deciphered with the use of a VHS tape.
Anyway, this resolution has allowed Jess to connect with the memory of her horrible dead father, John Darling, which has led her to give up her dreams of filmmaking and decide to make wedding videos in the most depressing town in Ohio. This is what constitutes a happy ending.
Before we get any further, I just wanted to mention that we are currently celebrating the 89th straight month of this storyline about Holly trying to complete her son's run of Starbuck Jones before he's inevitably killed in action. It is, and I am sure you have already guessed this, not a very interesting story. It's just days straight of Holly bidding on eBay or actually flipping through long boxes. Those are things I actually like to do, and I find it boring, so I can't imagine how your casual newspaper comics fan (read: 90 year-old person) is dealing with it.
That said, there's one thing about this storyline that I think is definitely worth noting, and that is this: I would read the hell out of Starbuck Jones. I mean, I realize it's just Batiuk doing a pastiche of Silver Age plots ("The Robinson Crusoe of Space" actually ran in 1960's Adventure Comics #276) but can you imagine the world where Batiuk decided to actually do that comic instead of the endless misery of this one?
Speaking of long-running plots, this month also brought us back to the ongoing saga of how Les, a high school English teacher and semiprofessional novelist with a flop and a modest success to his name, managed to con his way into writing the made-for-cable adaptation of the book about his wife's death from cancer. Needless to say, this has caused him depression so severe that he has hallucinated a talking that that, despite its monochromatic coloring from the syndicate, is called Le Chat Bleu. This is what you already know.
What you did not know, until this strip, was that THE PHYSICAL MANFIESTATION OF LES MOORE'S DEPRESSION TALKS LIKE GAMBIT.
So, you remember how Les is adapting Lisa's Story, right? The book about how his wife died from cancer? And then somehow managed to stick around in this strip for the next seven years, literally haunting it to the point where Les, who seems to have an awful lot of hallucinations, had to go consult her ghost before getting married to his new and increasingly unseen wife, Cayla? Okay, admittedly, most of that was a tangent, but still, you got the main point: It's about Lisa dying from cancer. Apparently, this goateed douchebag whose name might as well be Producer J. Hollywood thinks that this is a great premise for a sexy picture.
Now, it's worth noting that Batiuk has actually written a book called Lisa's Story (a collection of the strips about Lisa's death from cancer) and there is a huge part of me that wants to believe this strip is autobiographical, and that there actually is a producer out there who tried to turn Funky Winkerbean into a steamy sex romp. The other part of me is horrified and disgusted by the very idea of imagining Les Moore having sex in a way that would not be represented by a silent image of a dark house during a thunderstorm.
(Note to new readers: That is a thing that really happened)
And now, on to Crankshaft, the strip where virtually anything up to and including a beautiful day spent playing golf with one's friends must be dealt with in accordance with the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. It is the only possible way to react to anything.
Then again, I suppose there are other ways of dealing with pleasant news. You could, for example, be notified that someone, perhaps a relative, was graduating. This is generally a happy occasion, a celebration of being completed with a long phase of your life, moving on to a next phase that's full of potential and possibility that hasn't been ground down to misery by the horrors of life yet. That's how I look at it, anyway.
If, however, you're Ed Crankshaft, you could look at it as being legally ordered to bitterly hand over your money to someone. This dude makes Ebeneezer Scrooge at the beginning of the book look like Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of the book.
Well, here's a joke about drone strikes.
Seriously. That's what it is. Well, I guess to be fair, this is actually a joke about the Monroe Doctrine and Basketball legend Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and also drone strikes, but I think we can all agree that when you start off a goddamn pun-based three-panel gag strip with the words "ongoing drone attacks," that's probably going to dominate the mood that you're creating.
Oh well, this one might be a wash, but at least it's definitely the worst joke based on a massively depressing political issue that we'll have to deal with this month, right?
When I was getting ready to write this month's column, I didn't think anything could top a blunt reference to waterboarding that doesn't even make sense, but then I remembered this one. This, my friends, was the Mother's Day strip in Crankshaft this year.
If you haven't been reading along daily, you might not be aware that one of the running gags (such as they are) is that Rose was a horrible, bitter, hateful mother to her children, who grew up silently resentful of her. But don't worry if you forgot! This strip makes a dandy reminder, as Jeff assures both you the reader and his mother, to her face, on Mother's Day, that she was awful and completely f**ked up his life. That's the punchline. The joke is that this man hates his mother even as he allows her to spend her last remaining years as a withered, cackling shell of a person in his house. The joke is that it's not a joke. It's just a fact: Happy Mother's Day, you ruined my life.
I laughed for twenty minutes.