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 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've been doing these monthly roundups of Batiuk and Ayers's particular brand of smirks and sorrows for over four years now, but this month, I actually forgot I had to do it. I'm not sure if it was just the post-Thanksgiving food coma or the hectic transition into December, but for a few days, I was free. And then I remembered, and it all came crashing down. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what happens in this month's strips, so take a deep breath and read on for November's most soul-crushing newspaper strips.
Funky Winkerbean, November 7
In a rare and welcome break from seeing Les Moore and his stupid smug face every damned day of the month, October's Funky Winkerbean storylines mostly focused on Bull Bushka, the high school bully who grew up to coach the football team. Specifically, it revolved around the Westview High Scapegoats and their shot at winning the state championship, something that sharp-eyed readers who haven't blotted out their memories of the strip with various chemicals will recall actually started a while back when the doofy kid with the stupid hat was press-ganged into being the school mascot and actually won them a game with a lucky catch.
This strip takes place during the climactic game, and I'm going to be 100% real with you for a second: I have no idea what is going on here.
The strips surrounding it offer no context, so I'm forced to decide for myself whether Bull is propositioning the referee for no-strings-attached locker room sex at halftime or unsuccessfully attempting to bribe him with a clipboard. Your guess is literally as good as mine, folks.
Funky Winkerbean, November 12
Whether it was from Bull's prowess at illicit halftime sex or just good old-fashioned football, the Scapegoats won the championship and thus garnered the attention of -- ugh -- Diversity University Ironton. The performance was so impressive, in fact, that they sent a scout to Westview, and while Bull initially assumed it was for their star quarterback -- you know, the guy who had to throw the ball to the friggin' mascot to eke out a win -- it turned out they were there to see Bull!
What's really great about this is that Travis is experiencing the two emotions that are allowed for Funky Winkerbean characters in a single strip, as he goes from smug self-satisfaction in panel one to hollow-eyed loss and loneliness in panel two. This is a strip about a kid who has been told by an adult that he trusts that he's about to get a fantastic opportunity, only to be summarily dismissed without even a single kind word when it turns out that the opportunity is not his and was never his. Imagine a version of this strip that follows Travis through the rest of his day, his head swimming as the scholarship he was hoping for, that he was virtually promised by Coach Bushka, turns out to be a phantom, and everything he has worked towards for the past four years is, at best, ephemeral.
That's a cheerier version than what actually happens.
Before we get around to that, though, let's check in with the lighthearted world of Funky's sister strip, Crankshaft! This month brought us one of the rare occasions of actual, visible joy on the faces of the characters -- not just a smirk at a weapons-grade pun or at a wry observation about the inevitability of death, but an actual smile that reaches the eyes. Joy, pure and simple.
Of course, it's joy at cruelty inflicted to a mother who displays an amazing dedication and concern for her child and pulls off a damn near superhuman feat of running faster than Usain Bolt for which she is immediately punished by the police.
This is what prompts the purest expression of joy in the world Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers have created.
A few days before that, though, an elderly man tried to force his doctor into signing a contract in hopes that he could force his body to abide by the laws of man rather than betraying him with a horrible disease, so I guess you take your laughs where you can get them.
Funky Winkerbean, November 13
And now back to Funky Winkerbean. This, incidentally, was the strip that I was reading when I got so mad about the "Diversity University Fighting Consensus Builders" that I actually started laughing at how angry I was, which, to be fair, is some pretty revolutionary comedy.
Anyway, Bull's dreams are coming true, if by "dreams" you mean "aspirations to coach college football that are granted to you because you are a distant second to the person they really wanted to hire," which is about the best you can hope for.
Funky Winkerbean, November 20
Aside from a pretty incredible triptych depicting a man evolving into a muppet before our eyes, this strip mainly shows exactly what's at stake for Bull in his new job. Not only does he get the hell out of Westview, which I have to imagine is the #1 dream of everyone in the cast, but he gets more money, too! Why, this has to be the best opportunity anyone in this strip full of alcoholism and dead wives has ever had!
Be a real shame if something
Funky Winkerbean, November 21
No, you did not read the dates wrong: This is the next day's strip.
It turns out that second-best wasn't quite best enough, and after two solid weeks of tantalizing one of its minor characters with the fulfillment of his dreams, the cruel and capricious whims of whatever slightly-better-than-mediocre football coach initially turned down the job have dragged Bull Bushka back to the status quo. Only now, it's not quite the same as it was before, is it? Before, he had an actual triumph to celebrate, a win for this historically wretched team, the culmination of his years of work. Now he knows that there was something more, something better that has been denied to him because he simply wasn't good enough, knowledge that will haunt him for the rest of his days.
Also there's no way that letter of resignation did not contain at least six f-bombs.
Funky Winkerbean, November 23
But hey, don't worry Bull! Here comes good ol' Les Moore to remind you that he's a bigger and much more important failure, and that your minor league third-rate college football nonsense is nowhere near the pain that he has suffered! YOU only failed in this one room! LES failed in Hollywood! Don't forget: Les is better than you in every way, including how much tragedy has worked its way into his life, only to escape by writhing through the rictus of his frozen smirk!
What's that, Bull? You want Les to go away and stop making your misfortune about himself? Well you better admit that he understands suffering better than you, and also anyone else in the world! Do it! Admit it. Admit it.
Admit that Les has it worse you bastard.
Good, good. Now that that's back in order, you may resume your demotion back to supporting character. We have jokes about creaky knees and pizza places to bring to the newspaper page here, Bull. Remember this experience next time you start fancying yourself as a main character.
Funky Winkerbean, November 27
And finally, we usher in the Christmas season with the strip that ran on Black Friday.
You see, the lie of capitalism has revealed the human for what it is: merely an animal, caged by society but unable to resist goring and trampling others when it has the opportunity, herded and let loose for sport by others whose sprawling temples to the almighty dollar have lured them in once again.