We’ve reached the maximum busy season for farm work here in CBHville. Where we are trying to simultaneously finish planting beans, chop rye hay, spray weeds, apply fertilizer, care for cows, AND (most daunting of all) clean my parent’s basement for my sister’s family to arrive for Memorial Day.
Hi folks! Your potassium-rich guide to the Funkyverse is back again for another post.
Unlike my colleague Comic Book Harriet. I’m not the “deep dive” type. There are a few Funkyverse stories I want to dig into, as we continue to write new posts for you all to enjoy and discuss. But for the most part, I will have standalone posts to make. This is another one.
I’m a regular reader of “Komix Thoughts”, Tom Batiuk’s very fittingly-named blog. Even though they’re mostly just excerpts from already-published Funky compilations that nobody but the most devoted non-ironic fan has ever seen. This week, it dropped a doozy:
The last remaining hurdle for me was how I was going to depict Lisa’s death. The answer came at a concert. I had been working pretty intensively, so my wife Cathy and I took a break to go hear Apollo’s Fire, a baroque ensemble, at Oberlin College. Near the end of the performance, three dancers came on dressed as harlequins and wearing white-full-faced masks, and I suddenly saw my ending. Using a bit of magical realism, Death would come for Lisa in an otherwise empty white space, wearing a white mask and a tuxedo. Using that conceit, I could now address and depict death directly. I was almost finished.
At the climax of Lisa’s tedious, decade-long death, Batiuk decided “some dude with a deeply cheesy tails/Phantom of the Opera get-up” would lend the proper gravitas to the proceedings. To put it mildly, this character’s appearance undermined whatever emotional weight Lisa’s death was supposed to have. It was a textbook example of Narm: something that’s supposed to be dramatic, but is so poorly executed it’s unintentionally funny.
The character was a laughingstock, even to people who were inclined to like the strip, and became a symbol of the strip’s ineptitude – to anyone who still cared in 2007. And yet, here is Tom Batiuk in May 2023, making a serious blog post about the thought process that led up to it.
It reminds me of Jar Jar Binks.
I bought a DVD of The Phantom Menace as soon it was released. It contained the usual “making of” features. They’re interesting in that they were made before the world had a chance to be repulsed by Jar Jar. George Lucas really believed in this character, and wanted it to work. He was going to make a cartoon character come to life, and feel like a real character who belonged in a scene with human actors like Liam Neeson. He talked about what CGI technology could do now, how Ahmed Best could act with his entire body, that the character was going to achieve a level of comedy not seen before in a Star Wars movie; and things like that.
It. Just. Didn’t. Work.
We don’t need to rehash why. But it’s instructive to keep in mind that the great George Lucas genuinely thought it would, and put a lot of effort into it. It’s honestly a little sad to watch now. Say what you will about Lucas and the Star Wars universe now, but at least nobody’s making these claims any more. Jar Jar was a misstep that was swept under the rug, and not talked about any longer than it had to be.
And, as is common is his blog posts, Batiuk’s middlebrow elitism is on display. “When I was overworked from deciding how to end my comic strip after eight years, my wife and I went to see the baroque ensemble, at Oberlin College.” I live in a city with an opera company and I have a range of cultural interests; I just don’t feel the need to bring them into unrelated conversations. Tom Batiuk is this woman, except he’s never been anywhere other than New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland:
The other thing I love about this story is how impressed Batiuk is with himself for thinking he invented the most basic storytelling techniques. “Magical realism”? The personification of death isn’t a new idea. His other “Match to Flame” posts are all like this. “I know! I’ll have a time-traveling janitor deus ex machina our entire 50-year run into a galactic plot to make sure Les gets laid! That’s an elegant solution!”
Hello beady eyed nitpickers of all ages! I hope you’re all ready for this, because today, we reach the end of John Howard’s appearances in Act II of Funky Winkerbean. It’s December 2006, Lisa’s Story is in full swing, and as if impending cancer death wasn’t melodrama enough, Batiuk also has Becky Winkerbean heavily pregnant while her husband, Wally, is stationed in Iraq.
At this time Becky and Wally are the serfs inhabiting the apartment above Montoni’s. And let that sink in for a moment. That Wally Winkerbean moved into that apartment twice, with a different woman each time.
First and foremost! Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms, Grandmas, Aunts, and Female Mentors in our comments section. I hope that somebody spoiled each and every one of you today in the way you love best, whether that be your favorite food, a foot massage, a long Sunday nap, or an obnoxiously obsessive post about a defunct comic strip.
Whatever you did today, pretty good chance it was better than Rose Murdoch’s Mother’s Day back in in 2014.
Hello! This is your friend Banana Jr. 6000 stopping in to make a guest post. Inspired by Comic Book Harriet’s efforts to have a new post up regularly, I’ll make a post whenever I think there’s something worth talking about.
Regular poster Be Ware Of Eve Hill shared this interview with Tom Batiuk himself, early this year just after the strip ended. I was going to transcribe the whole thing, but it was so boring I gave up on in it. The most interesting thing is the interviewer and subject looking like twins:
The interviewer is Terence Dollard of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He hosts Comic Culture, a regular interview show that sits down with cartoonists. Another recent show was with Henry Barajas, the new writer of Gil Thorp. So there’s a lot of good stuff for regular fans of newspaper comics. Which we all are, to be sure. Here’s a typical exchange with Batiuk (starting at 19:14):
DOLLARD: You’ve done a lot of interesting stories that wouldn’t normally be in what we could consider the funny pages. So when you’re handling something like CTE or DWI, how do you balance between what the reader might want to see first thing in the morning with their coffee, and you as an artist wanting to tell a compelling story?
Could it be any more obvious that Tom Batiuk wrote this question for himself to answer? In a 21-second sound bite, look how many of Batiuk’s conceits this indulges:
Calling his own stories “interesting,” and then “compelling,” in case you didn’t catch it the first time
“Funny pages are not for serious stories,” and then saying this a different way, in case you didn’t catch it the first time
Referencing major Funky Winkerbean arcs
Calling him an “artist”
The Stan Lee foreword recently shared by poster Andrew does the same thing. It batters the reader with bland, unnecessary praise. “Deliciously different”, “brilliant strip”, “perfect artwork”, “deceptively simple”, “cleverly conceived”, “titanically talented”, “awesome authenticity”, “extraordinary economy of line” – all in the first three paragraphs. There are nine total, and the rest are the same. Did Stan Lee really talk like this? Some people are effusive by nature, but Lee didn’t strike me that way. Dick Vitale would tell him to dial it back.
Anyway, let’s get to Tom’s answer:
BATIUK: Well, I just – basically went ahead and did it. I think my biggest – my readers – learn to trust what I do. And that I’ll handle situations like that in a good way and a thoughtful way. And so they come along for the ride. And in each step I would take my readers, I’d move them over a few inches, and say “let’s go over here and do this” and they’d all come over. And then a little while later, “now that we’re here, let’s go over here” and then I’d take them a little further. I think the Funky readers have come to expect that, so it’s less jarring in the morning for them, I think, they know where I’m going. I think they kind of almost expect that.
A typical Batiuk answer, because it uses a lot of words to say absolutely nothing. It’s an answer you’d get from an elected official, carefully crafted to sound important while not revealing any actual information. He’s actually kind of good at deflecting, except for how much he stammers his way through it. Dollard’s got nothing to work with here. What follow-up question would you ask?
But that’s not the exchange I came here to talk about. Dollard asks him about a joke The Simpsons made at Funky Winkerbean’s expense. Here’s a clip of the incident:
The episode name is “Homer Vs. Dignity.” Homer has squandered his family’s income, leaving them in dire financial straits once again. He seeks a raise from Mr. Burns, who pays him to throw pudding at Lenny instead. This amuses Mr. Burns, who hires Homer to do more and more humiliating tasks. One of which was the infamous “raped by a panda” incident, that made this one of the show’s most despised episodes. Lisa (who else?) convinces her father that earning money isn’t worth throwing away your dignity. He gives his earnings to charity, who appoint him to be Santa Claus in a parade, restoring the Simpsons’ dignity for the moment.
Funky Winkerbean isn’t relevant to the main story. It’s part of a side joke about how lame the licensed characters in parades tend to be. Here’s the transcript:
BART: “Rusty The Clown”? Springfield gets the lamest balloons.
MARGE: Are you kidding? There’s Funky Winkerbean! Over here, Funky! Oh look, it’s a Noid! Avoid the Noid! He ruins pizzas!
Local news anchor Kent Brockman and guest star Leeza Gibbons talk about another lame entry, an animatronic gingerbread desk set. The plot then switches back to the main story.
So what did Batiuk have to say about this? Let’s see the question first (starts at 24:27).
DOLLARD: How does it feel knowing that Funky Winkerbean is Marge Simpson’s favorite newspaper strip?
This is why I’m convinced Tom Batiuk writes all his own interview questions. Because what Dollard says does not happen in this scene. Marge never said that, or anything that implied it. She’s just aware Funky Winkerbean exists, at a moment she’s fishing about for something to placate Bart. Funky Winkerbean came between a blatant ripoff of an in-universe celebrity, and an out-of-date Domino’s Pizza campaign that tried to annoy America into accepting it as a legitimate animated character. It’s pretty obvious what the joke is. And if it’s not, Bart tells you!
BART: Springfield gets the lamest balloons.
Dollard asked a leading question and a loaded question at the same time. It’s based on a false assumption, and it’s designed to prompt the answer Batiuk wants to give. Which is:
BATIUK: (laughs) I think it’s pretty cool. I think that was just an absolutely fun thing to see pop up in The Simpsons. And getting a shout-out from something you enjoy, it’s always fun. So yeah, that was fun.
A “shout out?” It was making fun of you! It did everything but look at the camera and say “Funky Winkerbean sucks!” That’s more of a South Park approach, but I digress. A shout out implies some level of affection. This mention clearly has none. It just used the strip as a prop for the joke it wanted to make, which was about lame cartoon characters. And again, the question was based on the false premise that Marge is a fan of the comic strip.
By the way, earlier in the episode, this happened:
We’re supposed to believe Mr. Silver Age Comic Books Changed My Life kept watching after this? The panda rape seems minor in comparison.
If you read any interview with Batiuk, they’re all like this. His interviews are more stage-managed than a North Korean military parade. Every question prompts one of his preferred talking points: people don’t want serious stories in the comics; I did things in the comics that had never been done before; and how culturally important Lisa’s Story is. None of which is even true. But every interviewer, from different media sources and different parts of the country, asks them every time. Nobody ever asks anything contrary to what Batiuk wants to portray, or even the most basic open-ended questions about unexpected fan reactions. I wonder how Dollard felt about having to ask a question that requires him to have completely missed the point of a 20-year-old TV episode. Yes, that’s how long ago this joke was made.
I know we’re all a bunch of haters, but there’s a lot of room for interested parties to ask Tom Batiuk uncomfortable questions about his creations, without being disrespectful. Here’s a good example. Or even this. But no deviating from Batiuk’s party line is allowed. And it’s amazingly how willing supposedly professional journalists are to go along with it.