In 1992, 20 years after Tom Batiuk launched his syndicated daily comic strip Funky Winkerbean, the cartoonist revamped the feature, changing it from the mildly absurd adventures of a group of high-school kids to the generally more sobering stories of those same kids as adults. Though Batiuk had dealt with some serious issues in Funky before—drug abuse, teen pregnancy, learning disabilities, and the like—the strip evolved over its third and fourth decades into a morose soap opera in which characters are frequently confronted with their own mortality and failures. Even after Batiuk jumped ahead in time again in 2007, it was mainly to show how the children of his original cast suffer from the same kinds of disappointments as their folks.
The Funky Winkerbean of today is mostly entertaining for what it’s inspired, from the frequent piss-takes by Josh Fruhlinger’s Comics Curmudgeon to the brutal Shortpacked! parody “Funky Cancercancer.” The actual Funky strip has, frankly, become tedious in its constant defaulting to misery. And it’s especially disappointing in comparison to what Funky Winkerbean was like when the strip began.
Those who’ve only experienced Funky in its current form might be shocked by how bright and funny the comics are in The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume I: 1972-1974 (available from The Kent State University Press’ Black Squirrel Books imprint). Coming across like a hybrid of Doonesbury at its silliest and Peanuts at its most contemporary, the Funky Winkerbean of the ’70s was intended as a pleasant diversion, not a daily reminder of our impending doom. The title character is an ordinary middle-American high-schooler, hanging out with his nerdy friend Les, his activist friend Roland, his feminist friend Livinia, his black friend Derek, and his spaced-out friend Crazy Harry. Much like Morrie Turner’s groundbreaking, multicultural Wee Pals, the “jokes” in the early Funky Winkerbean are often little more than in-the-moment references to some social issue or trend, framed by some character’s raised eyebrows. But Batiuk developed the world of the strip fairly quickly, making the characters distinctive as people, not just generic mouthpieces for punchlines.
And that matters, because too often cartoonists try to make comic strips “relevant” by turning them into cranky polemics. In the intro to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume I, Batiuk says that he’d never seen Doonesbury until he started shopping his own strip around to the syndicates in New York, yet the early Funky has a lot in common with the early Doonesbury, in that both strips simultaneously make fun of and sympathize with all of their characters, regardless of how similar or dissimilar they may be to their creators’ point of view. That’s not the case with, say, Mallard Fillmore, where pretty much every regular character besides the titular duck is a strawman meant to make Mallard look like The Last Sane Voice In America. (Artistically, the early-’70s versions of Funky and Doonesbury are also similar, in that they pack a fair amount of visual information into a small space, without seeming overly cluttered. That’s because both Garry Trudeau and Tom Batiuk deployed thin lines and made good use of their blank space, allowing the more detailed clothing, furniture, and hairstyles to stand out.)
That said, the seeds of Funky Winkerbean’s eventual rebirth as the saddest strip on the comics page were there as early as 1972. The way that Batiuk seems to find so much about his characters’ lives ridiculous—from their trendy politics to their tastes in popular culture—presages their emergence into an adulthood defined by letdowns. Batiuk was a junior-high-school teacher when he began drawing Rapping Around, the precursor to Funky, and after he landed his syndication deal, he’d sit in on classes regularly so that he could stay in touch with how kids talked (and what they talked about). There’s always been a streak of teacherly disdain underlying Funky’s depiction of high school, however sympathetic Batiuk could be the actual students in his strip. He took his characters’ emotions seriously, but not so much their pastimes.
This is another common and persistent problem with daily newspaper strips. For every Peanuts, Calvin And Hobbes, or Cul De Sac—where children’s lives are shown as complex and relatable, even to adults—there are dozens of strips that render kids merely as smart-asses, cutie-pies, or hellacious scourges. One of the worst of the newer strips in that regard is Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin, which debuted in 2010 and is meant to be about the latest generation of underemployed college graduates who are moving back in with their parents because they can’t afford to live on their own. That’s a timely premise, and yet as written and drawn by Kelley and Parker, Dustin himself is a lazy idiot who couldn’t hold down a decent job even if the economic conditions were favorable. There’s little attempt in Dustin to see the world through its protagonist’s eyes; there’s only strip after strip designed to illustrate how spoiled and useless young people are today.
Partly that’s the fault of the newspaper industry itself, which is so stingy with slots for comics that the few new strips that get picked up tend to be bland, sitcom-style cartoons trafficking in the usual clichés: incompetent bosses, wacky neighbors, and These Kids Today With Their Cell Phones And Their Heavy Metal Music. For innovation in the daily comics form, fans have to pick through the ever-growing thicket of webcomics; the newspaper page isn’t exactly leading the way.
Batiuk’s 40-year run is both a testament to his will and a monument to the stasis of newspapers. Batiuk broke in at a time when Doonesbury was becoming a sensation, and popular culture at large was courting the eyes and perspective of youth. Then, once he was entrenched, Batiuk experimented and evolved, changing Funky Winkerbean into the kind of strip that, if pitched today, would likely never land one of those rare open spots on the funny page. Funky survives because comic strips tend to settle into a space and stay there for as long as the creator chooses to keep drawing them—or even longer, if the syndicate owns the strip and thinks it can make money by continuing to produce it with new artists.
So it’s gone with Funky: A comic strip that started out charming turned serious and then increasingly depressing, and yet clings tenaciously to its spot. The arc of Funky Winkerbean itself is the ultimate example of a Funky Winkerbean strip.