Westview. Where the ancient battle for the top slot on an arcade video game is a community epic, gradually passing into legend, recited to the younger generation as a solemn verbal patrimony.
But, it wasn’t always that way.
Four years into Vintage Funky Winkerbean, and what has shocked me more than the politics is the almost complete lack of comic book references. There’s been maybe four, and in every case comic books haven’t been heralded as the sacred texts imparting lifelong wisdom for the darkest days. They’ve been the punchline.
This seems weird, doesn’t it? Batiuk hasn’t been the least bit shy over the last couple decades squealing about how much he loves comic books, and science fiction in general. Gushing about how formative comics were to his young mind. He gives old Flash comics the same kind of reverential, tender feelings the lifelong faithful reserve for their Sunday School songs.
You know what there IS a lot of in Act I so far? Sports.
Is this some kind of feigned smokescreen to hide his geekery behind?
Naw. Dude likes sports.
I’ve seen comments over the years about Batiuk using Les’ success in adulthood as a way to get back at the ‘sportos’ that made fun of him when he was in school. But I think this is drawing a false equivalency between Les and Tom. While Tom might see himself in Les more than any other character, I don’t think it means Tom was similarly hapless in school. And there’s a difference between being a bullied weakling, and being uninterested in sports. Plenty of bullied weaklings are interested in sports. That’s why The Orioles exist.
And while he may not have played on a high school football team, in one of his Flash Fridays, Batiuk talks about playing football with friends.
At one point in the story, KF runs past some kids playing sandlot football which hit a soft spot for me since I loved playing backyard football, at least until I broke my ankle and dislocated my shoulder. As risky as my comic book writer/artist stratagem was, it was a lot less risky than playing football.Flash Fridays – The Flash #122
He goes into more details in the foreword to one of his volumes.
It happened on a snowy night in 1969 during my senior year at Kent State. I was riding home with a fellow student teacher named Ronnie from Kent. She was driving because I had my arm bandaged to my chest following surgery for several shoulder dislocations from playing football (the lawless backyard variety as opposed to the sanctioned school activity).From The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume Four
And as nebbish as Les is, and as pathetic as he is climbing that rope, Batiuk has consistently shown him playing backyard football and tennis.
He always makes the school bully a football player, whether it be Bull or an endless series of Wedgemans. But at least in Act I so far, it isn’t like the football team is a cabal of sneering jocks. Funky and Derek are on the team. It’s Westview. Even the football players are bullied.
And I like Coach Stropp. The juxtaposition between him and Dinkle is interesting. Dinkle, Act I, is ramrod straight shouting all the time. Stropp is much more human. He’s got a softer side. And I love the subtlest hint that he’s got cauliflower ear, like an old wrestler or boxer. Batiuk’s jokes show an understanding of deeper sports vocabulary.
Coach Stropp has a Funky Winkerbean strip that makes me laugh out loud every time I see it.
So, for the first four years, Batiuk found ways to work his interest in sports into the strip, but hardly ever his love of comics. Was it out of embarrassment? Did he figure the sports strips had a wider appeal? Did he just not know how to integrate trademarked geekdom into his universe yet? I don’t know….but Star Wars is right around the corner, and I can already feel the walls starting to crumble.
31 responses to “For the Love of the Game”
He can’t even be bothered to dream up a new twist or new perspective in this forty year old story. Instead he just decided to play it like this was the very first time this ever came up, which is both ridiculous and pretty insulting to long-time FW readers. I mean shit, I don’t know, maybe you have Maddie participating in some sort of retro “old-school” arcade game contest and “The Eliminator” coaches her or something. Even that lame suggestion is way, way more creative than this nonsense is. What a lazy, boring hack.
“Sadly the video game used an old-fashioned CRT that generated a lot of soft X-rays, and with all the time we spent playing that game, well, we’re lucky that the DNA mutations only left you with an unreliable memory.”
“Cool, Dad, now tell me why you can never remember to tell me that story about how you met mom through a process of elimination!”
At first I thought it strange that this strip wasn’t doing anything about the 50th (I’ve been really enjoying CBH’s delves into the archives though); but now I wonder if Batiuk wasn’t playing the long game after all, and the next 12 months are just going to be every main character reminiscing about Act 1 arcs.
It’s actually not a bad idea at all, but remember: never overestimate Batiuk. It’ll go against every instinct you have, but you have to be prepared to be underwhelmed, which can be surprisingly difficult sometimes. No one can underwhelm like Batom can, and to still be able to underwhelm like this after fifty years in the business is a true testament to his underwhelmingness.
And he should do every one of them exactly like this one, where they act like it’s a brand new shocking revelation. Like Becky would be talking to Wally Jr. and she’d say “I lost it in a drunk driving crash and your FATHER was driving!”. Or Les would sit down with Summer and say “you’re a woman now and it’s time you know the truth…your mom isn’t coming back”. Or Harry would walk into Montoni’s and express alarm at how shitty Funky looked, and Funky would say “problems, pal, boy do I got ’em”. Or Wally would flinch over a sudden loud noise and everyone would act shocked…”Wally, why did you react that way? Is everything OK”. It’d be hilarious.
Main characters reminiscing about past arcs is already 40% of the entire output of Funky Winkerbean. It’s like Family Guy, if all its cutaway jokes were just Peter saying “remember that episode when Meg want to jail and beat everybody up afterwards?” And then Lois explains what the plot was. And that’s it. No punchline or anything. A solid year of FW characters pointlessly reminiscing about past arcs wouldn’t be much of a change in format.
One of the best things about CBH’s retrospectives, (other than her!) is seeing the characters break the fourth wall in the last panel. I love that look. It is pure Batiuk. I do not believe Ayers ever does it.
Batiuk used to do that “deadpan” fourth-wall thing all the time. It kind of fell out of favor after he took FW in a more “dramatic” direction, as it’s not as funny when a cancer patient is doing it.
TB talked about this on his blog here. As you might guess, his explanation is way more pretentious than that:
By breaking the fourth wall, I inject myself into the story to wink at the reader as we share the joke. Now, however, I began telling stories where my presence was less intrusive and less needed.
Gag me with a spoon.
Well, yes, Tommy, that’s why every creator who breaks the fourth wall does it 🤔
And it’s true your presence was less needed when the strip got serious, and that’s why Batton Thomas is the second-worst character ever (The worst as always remains Les).
Yeah really. Batiuk guy’s got at least four different Mary Sues of himself running around Westview, one of whom he just gave an Oscar to for no reason, and he dares to think he’s shielding us from his presence.
Oh, snap! It’s Jessica’s father, John Darling, who was murdered! I can’t recall ever seeing any of original FW appearances before.
I actually relate to those two Batdick quotes! Weird. I was a nerd who loved playing sports, especially pickup football. I was surprisingly fast and had a decent pair of hands! I’m reminded of all my permanent football injuries every time i try to get out of bed in the morning. But it’s that good kind of pain, ya know? Lots of fun memories.
Sorry. False negative. Missed the correct up thumb.
TIP: If you accidentally downvote something, upvoting it instead will remove the downvote.
NOW you tell me!
I’ve always said that in my opinion it’s way harder to write a halfway decent gag every day than it is to pen these dreary, sloth-paced, “reality-based” stories of his, but if consciously deciding to stop being funny is what make BatYam happy, it was all worth it, I suppose. It doesn’t do us a whole lot of good, though.
But still, it’s kind of heartening to know that yeah, FW actually was reasonably good way back in the day, and it wasn’t just another thing I’m remembering all wrong. Why, some of his old gags held up so well he’s still using them forty years later!
I can relate to this as well (well, not the being fast part, but the lingering injuries very much so). I loved sports, especially basketball, from an early age and learned pretty quickly that I was not good at any of them… not even good enough to make the basketball team at my quite small middle and high schools (I did make the middle school soccer team as the world’s slowest striker). So, in the absence of getting to play competitively, I dove into statistics, trivia, history… nerd stuff. I took to being the basketball team equipment manager in high school simply because I loved being around the game. It was and is a fun way to connect with sports even as I continue to play them (poorly) from time to time.
Funny how that works. We’ve all seen how Batiuk thinks that being published, awards, and formal recognition are the only things that validate success in life. But with sports, it’s the opposite. Playing sports unofficially is fine (it’s what Lisa was doing when she first discovered her breast cancer), but those who join formal teams get the “dumb jock” label and are treated derisively.
I am enjoying this deep deep dive so, so much. Thank you, CBH. And yeah, “tiss my boo boo” is straight-up funny. Special thanks for passing that along, a phrase which I plan to start using in daily life (I am very clumsy.)
It’d be funnier if Coach reacted to it. “Tiss my boo-boo? Now get in there and get a first down! There are no boo-boos in football!” (Yeah, I’m borrowing from A League Of Their Own, but you get the idea.)
John Cleese said about Fawlty Towers that anytime Basil had one of his over-the-top meltdowns, it was always in front of another character who had no idea why it was happening. The physical comedy is much more fun when somebody in the scene is reacting to it. This highlight clip has some good examples:
Tom Batiuk never lets his characters react to anything, so he loses this. I’ve complained that his characters don’t react realistically to his constant Mary Sue-ing, which is also a problem, but it also hurts the strip just from a comedy standpoint.
I would never have imagined “The Donut Repair Club” getting a shout-out in SOSF, but here we are. This retrospect is masterful; thank you, CBH!
Bah, I mean “retrospective “!
So happy someone out there got the reference. You would not believe how many times my mom, sisters, and I break into Donut Man songs randomly. My older sister and my mom were arguing about who should pay a restaurant bill earlier tonight, and my mom started singing the ‘Obey your mom and dad!’ song at her in the Cracker Barrel.
I am not familiar with Donut Man. That will be corrected. Our Church was more into Patch the Pirate. I have 2 grandkids. (This may surprise you, I have thousands of pictures to show you, CBH) I will share the Donut Repair Shop with them!
It was kind of big news in the niche market of Christian children’s music when Rob Evans, the Donut Man, converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism in 2006
My older sister, who went Catholic as an adult, is super smug about Rob Evans converting.
Donut Man’s big strength are the songs. Even if your grandkids find the videos (from the late 90’s) too dated, you can find the songs on CD or MP3.
And Lathe is so correct, you can find some terrifying, weird, and wonderfully weird, stuff hiding in the Christian Media section.
I kinda remember Donut Man, but our church mostly ran with Psalty the Singing Psalm Book.
Christian media is quite the rabbit hole. For every Veggietales there’s about 10 Bibletowns. But I digress….
Oh yes, Psalty!
Quite the rabbit hole indeed… and quite an obscure one outside of a very small handful of properties (Veggietales, Davey & Goliath, and Adventures in Odyssey most notably). That’s at least partially because of how short-lived most properties are. Very few see significant output for more than a couple of years, narrowing the groups who are familiar with them to folks of a certain age and folks who have/had kids of a certain age. Parody of Christian media often rings really hollow because of how clearly little parodists research or know about it and because even many churchgoers themselves have little to no familiarity with 97% of it.
But on the rare occasion, you run into someone else who has seen The Buttercream Gang or Superbook or Storykeepers… and you have this immediate and lifelong kinship.
My opinion of Christian media:
King of the Hill is one of the few pieces of media whose Christian media parody doesn’t ring hollow. It usually displayed an understanding of the mixture of middling talent, limited budget, complete sincerity, and corny me too-ism that make up much of Christian media, an understanding that could only come from extensive research or insider-level (or maybe Insyderz-level) experience.
The episode that that clip is from, “Reborn To Be Wild”, is excellent on the whole, with an effectively executed message about the positives and the pitfalls of modern Christian pop culture.
Four years into Vintage Funky Winkerbean, and what has shocked me more than the politics is the almost complete lack of comic book references.
I think you need to remember the context. Batiuk comes from a generation that adhered to 1 Corinthians 13 “when I became a man, I put away childish things.” So his comic book geekery, especially for those comics geared toward pre-teens, would have been something almost shameful for him. Hell, every now and then this attitude still peeks through despite his overt, oppressive enthusiasm for them in FW. To him, it would have been evidence that he was still a child despite chronologically being an adult.
There’s nothing like that with sports. A sports enthusiasm, especially back in the ’70s, wouldn’t have been unusual or looked askance at. You could be a grown man and still geek the hell out of the Baltimore Colts or the Los Angeles Dodgers and no one would have thought you a weirdo or a case of arrested development.
Plus, sports is much more integrated into the high school experience than comic books. In a lot of communities, fall weekends revolve around high school football games (and college and pro). It’s not the slightest bit unusual for people with absolutely no current connection to the high school going to games. (Note Les and Cayla still attending basketball games after Summer and Keisha have graduated, and their attendance at every football game shown in the strip. Hell, Funky and Holly still went to football games and they didn’t even have the connection of working at the school to bring them in)
Sports are also an extracurricular activity, and for some schools at least, participation in some sport is compulsory for graduation. So it offers plenty of “fish out of water” humorous stories that you couldn’t get from stories about comic book geekery. Nobody’s forced to pay attention to comics. But for a lot of high school kids, they have to play some sport regardless of whether they want to or not. So not only was it something that Batiuk could mine humor from, it was something he himself experienced.
Also, it allowed him to rip off parts of Doonesbury, but let’s not tread to far into that.