The comic died how it lived–bizarrely
December 31st saw the end of an era in newspaper comics, as Funky Winkerbean ended its 50-year run. Funky Winkerbean had long been a staple of newspaper comics, as the name “Funky Winkerbean” sounds inherently amusing, so any time you want to use a shorthand name for a silly newspaper comic, Funky Winkerbean is right there, evoking the goofy high school days of the 70s. Of course, for anyone who’s actually read Funky Winkerbean in the last few decades, the goofy name belies the extremely serious turn the storytelling has taken since the 80s, in an attempt to elevate the artform with social commentary and serious continuity.
For Better or Worse and Doonesbury, which both ended those storylines quite some time ago- For Better Or Worse in 2008 and Doonesbury in 2014–predated Funky Winkerbean in long-form storytelling. Their end signified the reality of the declining relevancy of newspaper comics. Tom Batiuk didn’t get the memo, continuing to run Funky Winkerbean storylines filled with social commentary and serious continuity.
Funky Winkerbean started out this shift with a storyline about side character Lisa Crawford falling teen pregnant. This brought her closer to the more important character Les Moore (not the father) as she eventually decided to give up her baby for adoption. This all started in 1986 and earned Batiuk a lot of positive press. By 1992, he made another ambitious decision, and started aging the characters via real-time much as Doonesbury and For Better Or Worse had already done. Then there was a post-office bombing in 1996.
This began the ripped-from-the-headlines approach to Funky Winkerbean that became the comic’s hallmark, as it got increasingly embedded into its own continuity. But the big event was the cancer storyline that began in 1999, when Lisa Crawford, now Lisa Moore, contracted breast cancer, eventually dying in 2007 right before another 10-year timeskip. The cancer storyline was the high-water mark for Batiuk’s career, earning him much praise in mainstream press. And now, the terrible secret of Funky Winkerbean…the cancer storyline never actually ended.
Considering that the character of Lisa Moore died several years before I even started reading Funky Winkerbean, it’s unnerving that I know so much about her. This is because Batiuk keeps finding ways to revolve storylines around her. There’s Lisa’s Legacy, a charity run. There’s a book, Lisa’s Story, that Les Moore writes about her having cancer and dying from cancer. People attempt two film adaptations of Lisa’s Story (in-comic, not in real-life). The first ends in development hell, the second of wins an Academy Award for best actress, which the winner gives to Les Moore. Lisa’s ghost appears at times, seemingly in the imagination of Les. Except one time she apparently averts an airline accident.
Is a person dying of cancer really that big a deal? Sure, it’s tragic when it happens to someone you know. But it’s also really common. Surviving cancer is an infamously trite idea for a personal memoir, and any reader at any publishing house can tell you they get all too many submissions about this topic that’s already been done.
To Batiuk’s credit, it’s not like his only idea for the last 15 years has been to keep discussing the character who died of cancer. At one point Bull Bushka, the bully of Les Moore in Funky Winkerbean’s high school days, is diagnosed with a CTE injury from his days playing football. That ten-week storyline even got a write-up in the New York Times, just like the glory days of cancer…except the person who wrote it doesn’t appear to have actually read the storyline, which a visit from the Pizza Box Monster for Halloween breaks up for no real reason. Bull Bushka gives Les Moore a commemorative item as a last effect, but doesn’t leave a note, and it’s not clear whether he ended his own life intentionally.
If that bit about the Pizza Box Monster sounds a little inexplicable, this is tonal whiplash that became common in Funky Winkerbean over the years, with occasional gasps of wacky fun appearing seemingly at random in between cancer-driven remembrance storylines. Another such recent case was a storyline about ICE wrongly arresting an employee at Funky Winkerbean’s pizza parlor. Funky Winkerbean (I am finally referring to the actual character Funky Winkerbean, rather than the title of the comic) then calls Bill Clinton, and asks a favor to spring the employee out of custody. Having just apparently accidentally implied that Pizzagate was real, at least in the continuity of Funky Winkerbean, Batiuk ends the storyline with smiling ICE agents coming back to the pizza parlor for some of that great pizza.
You might think at this point that I’m making some of these storylines up, and I wouldn’t blame you, but Batiuk saved the best for last, and it’s by far the easiest to verify if you don’t believe me. Les and Lisa’s daughter Summer decides to take a break from school to write a book, settling for the subject matter of her hometown, Westview. What initially sounds like a perfectly reasonable framing device to give Funky Winkerbean a proper epilogue takes a turn for the bizarre when Summer spends weeks discussing Westview’s history with a janitor, apparently a time traveler who came from the future to ensure that events would play out in such a way that Summer would write this book, because of its long-term cultural importance in bringing about a peaceful, better world. While initially played off as a dream sequence, the final week of Funky Winkerbean explicitly confirms that Summer Moore did, apparently, save the world with her book. After the book burnings.
This is the story of Funky Winkerbean–just an utterly bewildering series of baffling plotlines that always circle back to the central importance of a cancer memoir, or possibly other important events in the Funky Winkerbean Expanded Universe. Did you know that Tom Batiuk also ran a newspaper comic about the hapless talk show host John Darling, who’s randomly killed alongside his comic shortly ahead of the first Funky Winkerbean timeskip? This is critical knowledge to understanding why latter days Funky Winkerbean had an ongoing story about John Darling’s daughter trying to find his killer, eventually finding the gun that killed him in the possession of a man who collects John Darling paraphernalia. That gun is then melted down into a toy for her son.
But I’m cheating a little by focusing on the explicitly bizarre storylines. There’s also the subtler ones, like the Crankshaft comic existing in the same continuity as Funky Winkerbean, except ten years in the past- an awkward legacy of skipping Funky Winkerbean ahead in 2007 but not Crankshaft, apparently finally solved by the time-traveling janitor once and for all. There’s also the characters who write comic books, including a woman who was always denied credit for her work due to sexism…who almost never features in the comic book storylines, to focus on the older male comic book writers who were her contemporaries, and the importance of using comics to spread positive social messages.
It’s easy to see why Batiuk considers this important. It’s his own legacy, after all. Yet the subject matter consistently manages to be callous, irritating enough to annoy people with actual knowledge of the subjects he’s writing about (including the continuity of his own comic), yet shallow enough to not be particularly informative–to the extent anyone is trying to inform themselves about the subtler nuances of this modern world by reading Funky Winkerbean. In a weird way, Batiuk was both ahead and behind the curve on serious comic writing, a latecomer to the 80s Reinaissance, yet an early comer to the increasingly woke teens, with Funky Winkerbean having elements of both. It’s a fascinating story that’s difficult to take seriously, partly because the content of that story is so absurd, but mostly because the name Funky Winkerbean itself is absurd.
Images courtesy of Tom Batuik.