Funky Winkerbean: The Comics’ Most Interesting Failure

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This* is not an unusual strip of Funky Winkerbean—the bane of the “funny pages.” Funky Winkerbean is not a funny comic strip, and it isn’t a particularly good one. I do not read it with any kind of regularity. In spite of, or maybe even because of, these reasons, though, Funky Winkerbean is by far the most interesting strip to ever appear in the Comics.

*In the current plot line, Wally returns home to a wife that thought he had been killed in action. Hilarious!

First, a little history.* Tom Batiuk started Funky Winkerbean as a high school teacher in 1972. The strip was about high schoolers. I suppose it was funny (in a bland, unoffensive comic strip way), containing stereotypical characters such as the high school principal, teachers, coaches, and the titular student. It also included a computer that became (not was programmed to, but “became”) an avid fan of Star Trek. Suffice to say, Batiuk wasn’t breaking new ground.

*Admittedly with the help of Wikipedia’s Funky Winkerbean page.

In 1992, however, after two decades of this quotidian normality, Batiuk decided to change gears: He relaunched the strip with its main characters having just graduated college (despite having never attended it in the actual strip). At that time, the characters began to age. And the subject matter became very different, dealing not only with more serious matters but doing so in non-funny ways.

Now, having never read the strip in its first phase, I can only assume that it had some level of popularity: It had, after all, been running for two decades. Batiuk’s decision, then, to dramatically alter the substance of his strip runs counterintuitive to the very nature of comic strips. Comics, more so than most other cultural forms, are a static medium. The styles of individual strips remain the same; the subject matters remain the same. The most famous comic strips tend to be very old, and they often rely on the same basic principles in their characters time and again. Hence, Charlie Brown will always miss the football, Dagwood Bumstead will always lie face inward on the couch, and Andy Capp will always say something derogatory about women. The comics promise comfort in familiarity; the laughter is almost always derived not from any kind of original insight but on fulfilling an expectation and/or stereotype. The humor relies largely, then, on repetition, and we chuckle at punch lines and say things like, “Oh, Charlie. Will you ever learn?”

Funky Winkerbean 2.0 defies that expectation. Not only is its humor not derived in any kind of expectation, but there is no humor to be derived at all. Funky Winkerbean is no longer funny, and it is no longer meant to be. The storylines it has dealt with in the last 17 years have included demining Afghanistan with predictably suspenseful (if a bit glossy) results and the death of one of its major characters from breast cancer. It was the death of Lisa Moore, in particular, that drew the ire of readers and critics alike: Why exactly was this sad tale on the funny pages?

In 1992, Batiuk’s goal clearly stopped being to evoke laughter; his objective became something apparently grander, something bigger than the funny pages. In the process, it reveals a lot about how we as readers approach material. No one would complain about seeing the poignant plot of Lisa’s battle with breast cancer in a novel (probably by Jodi Picoult) or a drama or a film (unless, of course, it’s a film that has been marketed as a comedy). But there’s a stark sense of incongruity when we see this strip next to another one of Garfield stuffing his face with lasagna or Charlie saying, aptly, “Good grief.” I mean, Batiuk didn’t even have the decency to kill Lisa on a Sunday.

Why does this subversion of medium bother us so much? Most people would say it’s not a generalizable phenomenon, and that the issue specific to Funky Winkerbean is that it runs on the “funny pages”—a space that is specifically reserved for escapism and humor. At the same time, how long does it take to change one’s expectations, to modify what one anticipates when they sit down and read Funky Winkerbean? How long does it take to either accept the serious subject matter or completely reject it and decide not to read it anymore?*

*I, for one, don’t read every comic strip and can’t imagine anyone who does. My selection of comics is a constantly evolving process, often changing on capricious whims. Wouldn’t most people who don’t want to read a serious strip have stopped reading Funky well before Lisa’s death?

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The bigger point, though: Like the French Revolution, what makes Funky Winkerbean SO interesting is that it fails. We’ve established that it isn’t funny to anyone; to me, it isn’t particularly moving, either. I can see where Lisa’s death could have evoked, from long-time readers, some tears. But the problem is that Funky Winkerbean remains, at its heart, a comic strip that tries to be a drama instead of being a drama told in comic-strip form. Its lessons, then, are often taught in three-panel intervals; consequently, they end up somewhat trite and, as mentioned earlier about the demining plot, glossy. Batiuk almost necessarily skips over the grisly details of what his characters endure; the strip skipped ahead chronologically (10 years to be exact) a second time immediately after Lisa’s death, precisely so Batiuk didn’t have to tailor his strip to the other characters’ reactions for an extended period of time. But in what other circumstances would this be tolerable? In what other media would the death of a character, followed immediately by a 10-year leap in time so we didn’t have to focus on how characters respond to that death, be okay?* The issue is that Batiuk doesn’t go far enough, and thus Funky Winkerbean occupies this barren middle ground between comic strip and drama.

*The answer is not “An Ian McEwan novel,” although that’s close.

And if we agree that Batiuk’s experiments with Funky Winkerbean ultimately fail,* how are we to judge the strip? Do we applaud Batiuk for his audacity, for his willingness to eschew a successful traditional strip in exchange for a much riskier, much more potentially revolutionary one? Or do we jeer him for messing up, for losing, in that transformation, what made Funky Winkerbean successful? So much of what we define as greatness in art is the willingness to push boundaries and experiment with form. See: Picasso, Pablo or Radiohead. But how do we respond when such experiments fail? In other words, what if Kid A kinda sucked?

*Admittedly, this may be considered by many a big “if.”

While it’s hard to congratulate Batiuk when he failed (“Well, good show Robespierre! Almost had them.” Slice), it’s just as difficult to berate him. Because somewhere down the line, provided comic strips remain a sustainable art form in the aftermath of newspapers, someone will succeed where Batiuk failed. And that person will credit him for opening up his mind to all the things a comic strip could do.

The most interesting comic strip, indeed.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on August 14, 2009 at 5:04 PM

    I like how this is put in the “comedy” category.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Dan on August 14, 2009 at 5:19 PM

    Good use of quotidian.

    But I was waiting to see how you would work in Mars’ smallest moon, earthquakes in Indonesia, and Grandma Moses…

    Reply

  3. Posted by Wey on August 14, 2009 at 9:26 PM

    There’s Funky Winkerbean! [points his balloon out] Over here, Funky!

    Reply

  4. Posted by John S on August 15, 2009 at 3:57 PM

    I think this post should have some sort of “unjustified comparisons to Radiohead” tag.

    Reply

  5. […] only comic strip Tim wrote about may be Funky Winkerbean, but there’s no doubt that his all-time favorite remains Calvin and Hobbes. Now, 15 years […]

    Reply

  6. […] If you drill down to the posts, you’ll see (possibly) related posts. Here’s one on how Funky Winkerbean may be the funny pages most interesting failure. It echos some thoughts of mine that I haven’t put into words yet. Reminds me of my film […]

    Reply

  7. […] God, we miss Calvin and Hobbes (well, one of us)(the one who wrote about a comic strip once). […]

    Reply

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