FunkyWatch: September’s Most Depressing ‘Funky Winkerbean’ Strips
Over the past few months, I've become increasingly obsessed with Tom Batiuk's "Funky Winkerbean," thanks largely to the tireless coverage of Josh Fruhlinger over at The Comics Curmudgeon.
What started in the '70s as a lighthearted high school comedy has slowly evolved -- through a series of time-jumps, spin-offs and character deaths -- into an unrelenting parade of suffering and despair, and I'll confess: I find it absolutely fascinating. That's why I've devoted myself to chronicling the depths of the inescapable sinkhole of depression that shows up right next to the Junior Jumble. I've been at this for a few months now (June, July, August), and in September, the relentless parade of depression continued right on schedule.
When asked which cover design they prefer for Les's book -- which I think is about his wife dying of cancer, just so you know the baseline we're starting out with here -- is it any surprise at all that they choose to go with the one that's depressing? Or that Batiuk spends a little time singing the praises of work that is "somber" (read: made entirely of soul-crushing despair)?
Also, I'm pretty sure that's the worst "that's what she said" punchline I've ever seen.
I don't want to get too deep into psychoanalyzing the mind of Les Moore here (because really, there is no surer path to madness), but this one can't really go by without comment. For one thing, doesn't talking about writing your own ending rather than your own story seem a little fatalistic, especially when he's writing his own ending?
Also, if he wanted the endings to the comic books he read as a kid to change, then what does that say about him? "Aw rats, Superman stopped Brainiac from destroying the world and nobody died. If only things had worked out differently!"
Les, you are a straight-up creep.
When you compare him to the rest of the cast, though, Les starts to seem like a pretty cool dude. Seriously, we have all worked with the guy that will take a simple "good morning" and use it as an excuse to tell you all about every single awful element of his life, but I have seen none so committed to the gimmick that they actually drop a phrase like "Change 'hard' to 'horrific' and you've got me." It's like this guy is chiding Les for not being quite miserable enough. "Shape up, Moore, or the Smile Police will come down on you like rain."
Just in case you thought I was exaggerating, here's one of Les's fellow teachers commenting on Westview High's football coach having to talk to the media after a crushing loss (because of course they lost), and coming up with no more appropriate metaphor than a loveless marriage. Seriously. From high school football to two people who were once in love but now cannot stand the sight of each other, silently agreeing to coexist in mutual unhappiness while their child suspects that perhaps he or she is the reason they no longer love each other in one word balloon.
Tom Batiuk, you are the master.
Of course, on the off chance you've forgotten, the title character outdoes everybody in terms of broadcasting his hate for life. Here he is complaining about getting a free water bottle from the hospital, completely omitting to add "oh, and also I didn't die."
In any other strip, this would just be a wry commentary on how Funky feels trapped by his own injuries, and while that wouldn't be much of a laugh, it'd at least be a punchline. With this strip, however, I'm not convinced that Batiuk's not just going ahead and foreshadowing the next story arc.
In the Funkyverse, autocannibalism is not out of the question.
#5. September 9
The more I read "Funky Winkerbean" the more I find myself constructing an alternate narrative to see how far into the depths of the human condition Batiuk's going to go. In this one, for instance, you could read it as Holly (Funky's wife) running out the door to meet Funky at the hospital and things being so hectic that she hasn't had time to clear the messages off the phone ever since the accident. Which, you know, was two months ago.
If you're a regular "Funky" reader, however, it's pretty easy to think of it as Holly saving the message as a cherished memory, one she'll come back to with a wistful smile and a sigh, maybe a glass of wine, remembering the time she was almost free of the balding albatross around her neck. Then Funky will come home, reeking of pizza and shame, and she'll move on with her life.
Also, I was convinced that this was going to be the strip where Funky ended it all, driving to the junkyard, parking in the compacter, and letting his last act be a convenient, tidy square of metal. As it turns out, though, he was just going to visit his old car that got wrecked in the accident, which is somehow even weirder.
And now we turn our attention back to another woebegone branch of the Winkerbean tree, Funky's nephew Wally and his burgeoning romance with Montoni's employee and amateur artist Rachel. And see, it's funny because ever since he came back from Iraq, PTSD has left Wally in a constant state of terror.
I'm actually not making that part up. That's literally the plot of the strip.
I can't really put it into words, but Funky going to his father's nursing home -- which he was put into due to his Alzheimer's -- and sitting with him in silence while they listen to "As Time Goes By" is literally the most depressing thing I have ever seen.
"Bedside Manor" is a pretty hilarious name for a nursing home though. So it's got that going for it. And besides, it doesn't quite match the full-on insanity of...
Tom Batiuk is a life-long comic book fan (his neighbor is writer and Black Lightning creator Tony Isabella, and artist John Byrne has filled in on the strip on a few occasions), and he'll occasionally inject a little bit of the super-hero universe in his strip. He's had appearances by Supergirl, and last year, the failure of his business was inexplicably linked to "Jungle Fantasy."
It really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, then, that Funky sees himself as DC's Deadman, which points to the underlying fact of the past four months of the strip, in that the dude straight up hates being alive. He won't even let a fun game of tennis distract him from his glee over his impending mortality.
Also, it's more than a little weird to see Neal Adams realism with Funky's cartoon head dropped right on top of it, which I imagine freaked out a good portion of the Sunday comics' readers, who most likely have no idea who DC's fourth-favorite ghost is and why the word "DEADMAN" was in bold green letters right next to "Cathy." And as for why, well... I got nothin'.