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Odd Man In

Link to another boring nonsensical strip that I still kind of understood because I’m always asking my housemate and best friend if she wants to go to the store with me but man was this week awful with maybe one almost joke and five days of pointless observation and yes this was supposed to be one long run-on sentence for comedic effect.

Full disclosure: Until I read through the Vintage Funky Winkerbean, I assumed Roland was black. I realized my mistake when Derek popped up, asking Les about why ‘brothers and sisters’ weren’t being covered by the school paper, looking like the lost sixth Jackson brother from the Jackson Five cartoon.

Ooh, ooh, Derek, (don’t want you back)

So Roland’s poofy hair was just an Art Garfunkel style jewfro, and Derek is the strip’s first black character. Which other characters seem to only notice and comment on occasionally.

In all of his appearances, there’s only a handful of strips where Derek’s overtly concerned about racism. And it always comes across cringy af. Now-a-days this is the sort of material that gets you twitter cancelled.

A modern activist would call this gaslighting.
I think the joke here is that the computer scheduling has more power than the school board and admin.

Other than these cases, Derek is written as ‘one of the guys’. Sometimes he spouts off Roland-esqe general activist talking points for a laugh.

His main character trait is this sort of weary detachment. In the four years of strips released, I think I’ve seen him smile twice. It’s like, somehow he knows. He knows that he’s stuck in Funky Winkerbean. And the best he can hope for is to feel slightly less than dead inside.

Like Livinia, unspoken identity politics hamstring his range. Because Batiuk wants Derek to be a positive portrayal of a black student, he’s never shown getting into trouble with the principal or being ignorant. He never asks the dumb question. He is the one Funky Winkerbean character that is never the wacky one spouting off inanity. He is all grimace and side-eye.

When Derek delivers the punchlines, they’re clever observations that reveal intelligence, not obliviousness like Batiuk will use for Les or even Funky.

Derek is still showing up in Vintage Funky Winkerbean through 1976. Most recently watching TV with Crazy Harry on 4-10-76.

I doubt he’s going to completely disappear for a while, since he fulfils an important diversity position. He’ll keep showing up until a more gimmicky black boy is introduced, or until Batiuk forgets to remind his audience he’s not racist. In September of 1975 a black female student was introduced, Junebug Jones. She and Derek are dating, and she becomes a cheerleader. Her ‘unorthodox’ cheering strategy is another running gag.

I’m of two conflicting minds on Junebug. On the one hand I wonder if she plays into the lazy stereotype of black girls as loud, aggressive, and tactless. On the other hand, I love seeing a lady with some backbone.

Derek and Junebug, one of the first couples in Funky Winkerbean. She might not have liked the odds, but she should have placed her bets. By the 1998 class reunion arc, they are confirmed to be married.

Crazy/Holly: the ship not taken.

And by the 2008 reunion they have grandkids!

Don’t worry Funky, I’m sure Corey and Rocky will give you some grandkids eventually. Maybe. If they get around to it.

Junebug shows up again in 2015, as part of The Upcoming Reunion planning committee.

Note: Except for poor Barry Balderman here, none of these other people are actually seen at The Time Pool reunion. I like to think they bailed when they realized what a shitshow it was going to be.

So, really, despite all his grumbling, it seems like Derek and Junebug had it pretty good for Funky Winkerbean characters. They escaped the plot before the Act II drama hit, and every subsequent cameo appearance has only reinforced their happy ending.

He who laughs last…

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Gut Check Mates

Link to the first almost passable strip of the week.

If Livinia lost her main character status due to being too bland, Roland had the opposite problem. In the very first year of Funky Winkerbean, Roland Mathews had the strongest characterization of anyone. It’s apparent from the second strip he appears in.

He’s an ‘activist’. But unlike Livinia, his activism is vague and almost always played for laughs. The joke is usually Roland’s underlying hypocrisy, or the way he uses his ostensive political stances to ego trip and divert responsibility.

In the first couple years of FW, when he isn’t just rounding out the trio of guys, he has three recurring gags/storylines:

First is his rivalry with ‘Wicked’ Wanda, a student who is a women’s lib activist. These strips invariably lead to a sign smashing gag.

Second is his underground newspaper that Funky often helps with.

And third is his antagonistic relationship with his unnamed father, who is always shown sitting in front of the TV like he is some kind of bald chair-human hybrid.

As was shown in my spreadsheet yesterday, Roland shows up quite a bit in that first year, with 57 appearances. A distant third behind Les and Funky, but handily beating Livinia. He continues to show up regularly in 1973, though it’s clear that Crazy Harry has supplanted him. By 1974, Roland is on his way out. He shows up 10 times that year, 5 times in relation to his dad.

There’s the last mentions of his underground paper.

And, on September 3, 1974, his last appearance at school.

When I first saw this, I thought it was just a joke. Ha Ha! Roland wants to quit school. But I guess he dropped out for real. He shows up three more times after this, but every time it’s in relation to his dad.
Roland’s last (?) appearance (so far) in Vintage FW. 3/8/75.

What is really really weird is that his chair!dad has continued to show up a few times since then, most ‘recently’ on 1/10/76. He seems to be taking a protoCrankshaft role.

Did Batiuk intend to write the topical and tragic story of a passionate teen with an uncaring and emotionally abusive parent lashing out against society, acting out at school, and eventually dropping out? Presumably leaving home with an incomplete education and no support structure, and disappearing into the world like so many hurting and alienated young people of his generation?

I’d put a sizable chunk of change on NO. Batiuk stopped using Roland because he’d decided to stop pulling from the counter-culture so much. On my first read through of 1972, I was shocked at how political it was. Batiuk doesn’t have his characters preaching THE TRUTH from a soapbox, like he does now, but he was constantly referencing politics, social issues, and the environment, usually with a kind of helpless sardonicism. It’s so weird that FW of 2022 feels more ‘hopeful.’ The preachy characters of today are a call to action to fix Batiuk’s pet problem of the week. The 1972 FW characters can’t change anything, and the joke is they try.

FW starts off with this chip on its shoulder, personified in Roland. It references the hippie values and politics because it’s trying to prove that, “It’s not like most strips.”

From the very beginning, I had some definite ideas about how I wanted to approach a teen strip. The crop of teen strips in the early seventies seemed oblivious to the time in which they existed. The enormous changes taking place in the youth culture were quickly making the strips with the jalopies and letter sweaters irrelevant… I decided to avoid the standard teen strip clichés. There would be no teenagers hanging on the phone or parents yelling at them to clean up their rooms; there would be no letter-sweatered football hero trying to decide which cheerleader he wanted to date. Instead, I was going to write about the realities of the school that I knew, from the tedium of being an unheralded and unrecognizable member of the band to the horrors of having to climb the dreaded rope in gym class. Rather than focus on jocks and cheerleaders, I was going to write about everyone else.

From the introduction to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Vol. One

Of course, that quote just shows how willfully myopic Batiuk has always been. He wants so badly to be unique, that he builds up a fake version of something to put himself next to. I’ve never read much Archie comics, but I am sure that it’s not a shallow as he wants it to be. And the irony is his strip relatively quickly morphed into something rife with teen cliches. Crazy Harry steps in with his wacky personality, and omnipresent hat, and apolitical non-confrontational weirdness, and Roland disappears. Roland was angry. Crazy is effervescent, his antics just confuse and amuse those around him.

Wait, how did this picture get here?

As BillyTheSkink pointed out a few days ago, Roland did show up at the 2008 Reunion. He looks like he’d just gotten off work at the hardware store, and has what BTS calls “the haircut my grandfather was given when he joined the Air Force (and kept for the rest of his life).”

So that’s my headcanon now. After dropping out of school, Roland joined the Air Force, where he worked in logistics and communications. Finally getting the structure and support he needed and working in an organization that he felt got things done, he mellowed out. He became a successful small business owner and votes straight ticket GOP every election.

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White Bread Found and Lost

Link to a strip that is somehow more nonsensical than yesterday’s.

Before we dive into individual characters. I thought we would briefly take a look at 1972 as a whole, just to see the cast of characters at play, and how often they showed up. This list misses out on a few characters that showed up more than once, but didn’t have names, such as an older curly haired teacher, a cashier, and the school librarian. Also, the records on CK are somewhat incomplete, there were strips missing. This is just to give a rough overview.

Below, the trademark CBH nonsense spreadsheet! Funky Winkerbean characters of 1972 listed by number of appearances.

Corrected on 3/26/22

It seems that, from the very beginning, Les and Funky were the main focus. Poor Livinia Swenson never stood a chance.

The second strip she’s in, (which is almost 2 weeks after the launch,) it seems to me that she’s set up as a distaff counterpart to Funky, his equal in averageness. The way their hair is only differentiated by length, like they’re the Wonder Twins or something, only furthers this impression.

Easy, slugger! You’ve got 50 years of this to write. Don’t use up all your puns at once!

But, in the grand scheme, she doesn’t show up that often. Like everyone in the cast, she puts in time as the ‘Person-Who-Asks-Question’ and the ‘Person-Who-Watches-TV-And-Makes-Face.’ Roles anyone and everyone fills, almost always devoid of specific connection between line and speaker that would keep them from being swapped with someone else.

When her personality does manifest itself, she’s opinionated, strong-willed, and socially conscious with a focus on ecology and feminism.

He’s been talking about global warming from THE VERY BEGINNING, guys!

She’s also never afraid to step on someone’s toes or hurt some feelings. She’s got this kind of blunt honesty I really like.

She’s shown to be questioning gender norms, but unlike other political opinions only mined for yuks, hers can be sympathetically presented, where the joke isn’t her question, but the response.

When I put all of Livinia’s strips together, it seems obvious why Batiuk never could muster up much interest in her. She’s built to sit on this intersection between average and activist, and that severely limits her range. Batiuk doesn’t want too many of the jokes to come at her expense. He wants her to be a more or less positive representation of a ‘modern’ free-thinking teen girl. So the only gimmick he gave her can’t be exaggerated too much. And in order to survive Act I FW, if you’re not Funky himself, you have to have a solid gimmick to mine for humor. Despite what Les said above, Livinia was subtle, too subtle to last as a main character once Holly and Cindy were introduced.

Which is too bad. Because she was unrelentingly cruel to Les, and it was beautiful.

Currently on Comics Kingdom Vintage Funky Winkerbean is up to May of 1976, and Livinia hasn’t completely disappeared, showing up on April 21, taking a test.

Her appearances have become few and far between, however. I don’t know when the last time she shows up alive is, but I’m wondering if it’ll be soon. I couldn’t see any sign of her in the strips I found of the Act II class reunions of 1992 and 1998, though what I had to look at via scanned microfiche was pretty blurry. By the reunion of 2008, she was dead.

Any Act I guys with the last name Jessup? I am honestly curious.

Farewell Livinia. You were too good for this strip.

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A Writer’s Crutch.

Link to Today’s Banal Strip. This thing is almost less than nothing.

And now! Back to the Past!

The very first Funky Winkerbean strip is one of the worst introductions of all time. Four chicken-necked, chinless, bobble-heads. Standing in a white void. Staring out at the audience through the fourth wall with their terrifying, black, monodiclops eyes. Smugly telling us their names and attributes with the kind of cringy earnestness I expect from Harry Potter fanfic.

Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee (AN: if u don’t know who she is get da hell out of here!). I’m not related to Gerard Way but I wish I was because he’s a major fucking hottie. I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I’m also a witch, and I go to a magic school called Hogwarts in England where I’m in the seventh year (I’m seventeen). I’m a goth (in case you couldn’t tell) and I wear mostly black.

Apparently the idea for starting the strip in this fashion came from an actual established professional in the biz.

At the Chicago Tribune–New York News Syndicate I ran into another gentleman, Henry Raduta, who spent the better part of the morning with me going over my submission in detail. He offered several suggestions, one of which dealt with a way of introducing my characters that eventually became the very first Funky strip. 

From the introduction to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Vol. One

Who was Henry Raduta? As far as I can find he was a ‘general manager’ of the Tribune who when necessary took over writing for long running strips from the 20’s and 30’s like Little Orphan Annie and Winnie Winkle after their original authors passed. Was he intentionally giving the 24 year old Batiuk bad advice? If so, bravo good sir. (Link to an interesting retrospective on Winnie Winkle.)

Batiuk had planned to start the strip with these four ‘mains’, basing them on people he knew.

The main characters, T.D. (later Funky) and Les, were friends from my Kent State days, Thom Dickerson and Les Meyer. Roland, the hippy/revolutionary, was a guy who lived in an apartment across the street from mine, and Livinia was based on one of my art students with a name taken from a magazine… I used people I knew because the characters then came with established identities that I could immediately plug in and begin working with in the strip. It was a handy way to start things off, and it’s remained my work method ever since. 

From the introduction to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Vol. One

It seems in the initial ‘sales pitch’ for this strip provided by the syndicate, this was also the cast presented, (with the additional mention of the black student, Derek).

Four characters were introduced on that first day. Two remain. And two have disappeared so thoroughly I didn’t even know they existed until I saw the first strip, when TFH posted it as an April Fool’s Joke back in 2016. I immediately asked about the fates of Roland and Livinia. And all TFH could tell me was that Roland was completely MIA and Livinia was confirmed dead.

Shoved to the side by a character not introduced till 1984!

Why? Who were Livina and Roland? Why did Batiuk lose interest with them? What other characters banished to the Phantom Zone populated those first few years?

Tune in tomorrow.

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Repeatedly Relapsing Reminiscence Reliance

Link To Today’s Strip.

ComicBookHarriet reporting in for duty. Normally I would thank Billy the Skink for the lyrical and well tagged two weeks he put in, but I’m sort of seething in jealousy here. He got two glorious weeks of the most amazing trashfire to talk about in his Les-Wins-Best-Actress arc. A beautiful blazing dumpster glowing with Lesplotation goodness. And I’m stuck back in AA with Funky and the ageless former addicts he tempts with donuts to listen to his nonsensical ramblings.

It’s been pointed out before, but it deserves to be pointed out every time it takes place: This is not what AA meetings are for, Funky! He hasn’t talked about temptation to drink since the very first week Batiuk used this gimmick. Since then it’s been weeks and weeks of focus-less blathering about a pandemic that happened ‘in the past’ like it’s open mic night at the TED talk tryouts. Unless this has been turned into a Post-Pandemic-Support-Group, talk about booze or put a lid on it.

Of course Batiuk wants to do material on the pandemic, even if he’s laughably late. All of the inconveniences of the last two years are a motherlode for his favorite brand of observational almost-humor, something to pad out the spaces between his precious prestige arcs. But why the AA meeting? Why couldn’t this just be a conversation between the guys at the disgusting Montoni’s coffee corner? Because Crazy and Les and DSH and Wally would already know this stuff? That’s never stopped Batiuk before.

But no. Funky has to go to AA to tell a group of dead eyed donut junkies his barely amusing, and definitely embarrassing, stories about his wife. If my dad ever pulled something like this in regards to my mom, she would have shit a brick and beat him to death with it.

I have a feeling that this week is aggressively unfunny all across the board. Often I would take this as an exciting challenge in making something out of nothing. But it feels so anticlimactic as we count down the final days to Funky Winkerbean’s big 5-0.

I decided that I wanted more to mark the occasion, and in preparation for the big day, I paid my toll to Comics Kingdom, and read the roughly four years worth of vintage Funky Winkerbean they’ve posted there. A little at a time, off and on, for the last month. I wanted to see what this thing was at the beginning, and I wanted to see enough of it to judge those beginnings as whole ideas. Give the characters time to fall into recognizable patterns. It was fascinating, finding so many fossilized and forgotten creations (Hi Roland!), as well as barely germinated seeds of the future.

So, I hope you don’t mind, but while Funky is reminiscing about a pandemic past that never was, I’ll be pulling up some old strips from a time when Nixon was president, Vietnam was raging, and my grandma was chasing my terrified dad away from the door because my mom wasn’t allowed to go out with boys yet.

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