Putting the "F-U" in "Funky Winkerbean."

Once upon a time, the comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" was a pleasant little daily funnie about a high school and their band director. Now it has become a veritable "soap opera" strip, akin to such two-panel wonders as "Mary Worth" and "Rex Morgan, MD." In fact, the nature of the comics are so similar that when the dialog is swapped between any given comic strip of the soap opera genre and any given recent "Funky Winkerbean" strip, the change in quality and context is virtually unnoticeable.

In short, I take a strip from something like "Mary Worth" or "Rex Morgan MD" and swap its dialog with the dialog from a "Funky Winkerbean" strip, demonstrating how little difference there is between the two. Observe.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tom Batiuk Wants to Give You Cancer

...so that he can use you as a contrived story arc designed to give his cute li'l comic strip artistic legitimacy.

Every serious daily comics reader who has come across Funky Winkerbean on any given day between the years of 2004 and.. today.. knows how obsessed with melodrama and "real world issues" Batiuk has become, pumping his after-school-specials through the daily funnies like Dana Delaney through so many Lifetime Movies. Naturally, people who come to the comics expecting to be entertained got sick of it. Pun intended.

While the "Lisa's Story" comic strip treasury was compiled to be some kind of civil-minded donation to the world of cancer battling, a "gift" to those looking for something they could relate to in the guise of an easily digestible daily funnie, it instead became the symbol of the crashing failure of an attempt at being relevant. Instead of admiring Batiuk for a "daring attempt to challenge his readers," people got tired of being bombarded with plodding, depressing, storylines with the entertainment value of a tax return. I direct you to the "What Funky Used To Be" page of this blog, for more information on the giant ball of maudlin Funky has become.

So people got tired of the cancer deal. I refer you to the expertly done "Shortpacked!" parody. Now, I'll be the first to argue that the daily comics can be more than just "Family Circus" or the pun-tasticly fundievangelical "B.C." But when every single storyline becomes about something life-changing-ly serious, it's time to take a look in the mirror. FW talks more about cancer than medical drama soap opera strips. It's not about the little funny things that happen while going about one's day, it's about someone's gallant struggle with alcoholism. It's not about slice-of-life happenings, it's about going to war, dying, and having your wife remarry the guy who has always loved her secretly only to come back because you never really were dead; it was a mistake - you were just a prisoner of war waiting to be rescued. No seriously, this is an actual FW storyline. But these were a welcome break from the constantly-pondering-death stories of Les' cancer-ridden now-deceased wife. And so, people complained. They opened the paper expecting to see the existential wisdom of "Peanuts" and the strange, muted, and sometimes quite dark (but amusing) adventures of "Lio." And in the early 1990's, the fantastic yet somehow real world of "Calvin and Hobbes" and the surreal and hilarious musings of "The Far Side," may they rest in peace.

Now it seems Batiuk is getting a little antsy about how people view his strip. So he confronted us with this on the 14th:

"…Oh, and also, people opposed to cancer and death played as spectacle are pin-headed philistines."
-- The Comics Curmudgeon, 9/14/09

Oh, Tom. I see what you did there.

So instead of putting something akin to a joke in his funnie, the joke is supposed to be on us - WE'RE the ones who "don't get it!" The comics CAN tackle "issues" that happen to IRL people! Goodbye, one-liners, helloooo, Pulitzers! Plural!

You know, Tom has tackled the "serious" issues before, and he did it in a somewhat entertaining way, too, back in '01. And it didn't drag on forever, I think it was only a couple weeks worth of strips. It was the "teen pregnancy arc" (Yes, it's called exactly that on Batuik's official FW site) and a good amount of the strips end with some actual punchlines. The hapless Les is awkward which makes for great comedic potential. It still manages to cross the line between "a very special Funky Winkerbean" and "This is something that happened that's difficult, but dammit there's humor in there somewhere." But it's still bearable for the reasons I mentioned.

"Should the funnies be funny?" asked one newspaper headline for an article that referenced FW. They don't have to be. But they do have to be entertaining. And FW has a zero-entertainment quota. Watterson and Schulz were able to tell beautiful stories without resorting to tear-jerking (Watterson's "Dying Baby Raccoon" story was close, but he's allowed one). They both challenged the reader in different ways that blended with the context of their comic strip, so that instead of having an invisible "This month, in a very special story arc..." tacked onto their work, everything they were trying to say flowed naturally. If you didn't "get it," then you didn't get it, and if you didn't, then you probably weren't meant to. Batiuk's "meaningful message" sledge-hammer might be able to nail the point home to every eyeball that scans his panels, but it leaves you with a painful bump on the head afterward, with your mind not anymore enriched.

Today, we get this gem:
Oh, OK. Well, if I want to see art, I'll open up a "Calvin and Hobbes" book. Or look at "Garfield Minus Garfield." The comics pages are a place for art, it's just that there hasn't been any there since 1995.

*(and in case you haven't caught on already, the Batiuk-Hammer is telling us that [Outraged Parents : Us Readers :: FW : Art].)

"We want to be soothed, not confronted!"?? what, did he copypasta that straight from an email he got during the "Lisa's morbidly painful cancer death cancer cancer" story arc? You know something, "Peanuts" wasn't always a "fun relaxing diversion" and it DID often challenge us rather than soothe us. Hell, the only soothing Charlie Brown got most of the time was the realization that things couldn't get any worse than they already were. Good LORD the boy led a depressed life, and he was only 8 years old. But Schulz didn't pick us up by the back of the neck, lead us to the bodies of dead kittens, and force us to watch as they decomposed for days on end.

My friend asked me the other day:
But if people stop reading the strip, won't papers stop carrying it, or could he start making dialog out of phone book listings and still keep getting published?
People are tricked into thinking what Batiuk is saying through his strip is actually important and relevant when it's not. It kind of reminds me of the Trope "What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?" where "high art" is declared and you're supposed to appreciate it (especially if you don't enjoy it) because it says something about something. Or something. Kinda like a fine wine tastes like bitter swill when you're a kid because you haven't developed the proper taste for it. But maybe the wine didn't end up being Louis chardonnay, maybe it ended up being Night Train Express, which is supposed to be a rendition of a red wine but ironically must be consumed "Served Very Cold." In other words, it wasn't you. It actually was bad. ...Oh, and did I mention that my friend in the quote above is a survivor of two types of cancer? Because he is. And he still think FW is terrible.

In closing, I leave you with some of the best comments left on the Comics Curmudgeon blog.

OTL says:

I suppose we need to get this one out of the way early: “death and cancer”? Westview High is doing “Funky Winkerbean: The Play”, I guess?

Perky Bird says:

“How dare you put on a play about death and cancer! Talk of such subjects has no place in a high school! Leave it in the comics, where it rightly belongs!”

Alan's Addiction says:

...I never thought I’d write this, but I’m starting to agree with “Funky Winkerbean.” More specifically, I’m starting to agree with the mutant-like fellow in the second panel, who’s protesting a play about cancer and death. The irony here is that, five years ago, I would’ve disagreed. Then I started reading “Funky Winkerbean,” and I realized that a piece obsessively focused on the horrors of mortality without any of the joys is nothing I really want to read or see.

FE says:

FW: The mob has nothing against Lisa’s Story: The Musical as such. They’re just mad that it’s the 10th consecutive cancer play at Westview High, even though Les promised them that this year they would do Oklahoma.

TheDiva says:

FW: Umm, no. High schools have been staging things like Wit (cancer and death), The Laramie Project (homosexuality and death), and slightly modified versions of Rent (homosexuality, AIDS, and death) and Les Miserables (social injustice, death, prostitution, death, religious themes, rebellion, and oh yeah, death) for several years now. I’m not saying you don’t get disgruntled parents (although the homosexuality stuff is more likely to get hackles raised than cancer or death these days) but it’s hardly a radical thing. Sorry, Batiuk, but if you want to get on your “You just don’t like me because I’m not light and fluffy!” high horse, you’ll need a different setting for you Author Tract.

Calico says:

FW – Pot, kettle, black.

Master Softheart says:

FW: The ultimate self-indulgence of an artist to create a straw-man version of his critics within the scope of fiction and portray them as ignorant, small-minded fools who all right-thinking folk should despise. This method of striking back at criticism has a long and distinguished tradition in European satire, but it seldom results in particularly memorable art.

odinthor says:

FW. — I wonder if SeƱor Cartoonist will present the case fairly by having the disgruntled parents point out that every single show the school presents every year forever and ever has been about death, cancer, and other such cheerful subjects. “If you gotta do disease,” cried a lady in the back row, “can’t it be Noel Coward’s Hay Fever?”

AMC says:
How about a play about character based humor, and avoiding ham-handedness? Those would be brand new subjects to them, totally outside their range of experience.

Comcis Fan says:

Oh good, we’re being lectured and having it explained to us thigh hams. It’s about cancer, and so much more. It’s about having the visage of the deceased accompany the bereaved on a date 10 years later. It’s about the girl who almost killed herself over her high school teacher-crush growing up and coming back to work alongside him at his school after his wife died of cancer and defend the school cancer play to the thigh hams, even though he’ll be attending it with another teacher as his date, possibly on a triple car date with the visage of his late wife.

survivor says:

Dear [Tom] Batiuk,

When we said that your strip needed “wit” this is not what we meant.



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