Tag Archives: Cartooning Suggestions

Plot Twist: Phil Holt Was Never The Main Character Of This Story

The story completely undermines itself.

It doesn’t look like Phil Holt had much of a “try out” for Prince Valiant. It looks like he made an unsolicited submission to a large publisher, which was promptly thrown in the trash. By the receptionist. Ouch.

This is typical, though. Most big media companies have a stated policy of “we do not accept unsolicited submissions,” and return them to the submitter with a letter to that effect. This so people can’t claim the publisher stole some half-baked idea they submitted, and try to sue them for damages.

But who’s that in the background? A man who is very specifically drawn; has a monogrammed art satchel; a pair of initials no real person who worked on Prince Valiant had; and looks like he’s waiting for an interview.

It’s Batton Thomas.

As further evidence, I submit this photo from the Funky Winkerbean blog:

That’s Tom Batiuk on the left. I don’t know who the other man is, because I don’t know the context of this photo. It’s too young to be Hal Foster, who was born in 1892, and looked like this in 1962.

Today’s strip makes it clear that Phil Holt tried to nag his way into a tryout, when Batton Thomas had a genuine tryout lined up. Which raises the obvious question: why is this story about Phil Holt and not Batton Thomas??!! Just from today’s strip, we know that Thomas has a better “I tried out for Prince Valiant” story.

This makes Phil look like a liar. In fact, this strip raises a lot of questions:

  • Two days ago, Phil said he has memory problems. Are we supposed to infer that his recollection of events is false?
  • Phil said he was “up against” Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, but he didn’t even have an appointment to show his work when Batton Thomas did.
  • Sunday’s strip was Phil telling an obviously fake story. Is he doing it again?
  • Does Kitch know everything Phil says is baloney, and is just humoring him for some reason?
  • Does today’s strip mean Tom Batiuk himself auditioned for Prince Valiant? Batiuk has never spoken of this.
  • Why would Batiuk give this storyline to his Jack Kirby clone instead of his self-insert character?
  • What does it say about the cast of Funky Winkerbean that it has multiple characters who could have plausibly auditioned to draw Prince Valiant in 1970?
  • What’s even real in this world?

The Funkyverse tries to use Expy Coexistence. Characters are analogues of real people, but mention real people, places, and events. This is done very inconsistently, though. Some characters are real people (Hal Foster, Conan O’Brien); some are ersatz versions of real people (Phil Holt, Flash Freeman, Batton Thomas); some are purely fictional (Ruby Lith, Pete); some are unclear because they’re real names that are spelled wrong (Gary Morrow, Joe Schuster); and some are fantastic entities that can’t exist in a realistic world (Holtron, Lord of the Late). Some fictional characters are real people in this world (Dick Tracy); some fictional comic worlds are still fictional in this one (Prince Valiant, Batman); and this world has its own in-universe fictional properties (Starbuck Jones, the entire Atomik Komix oeuvre).

There are a lot of other inconsistencies that need to be cleared up, too. Like how the time skips are supposed to work.

Funky Winkerbean needs a Universe Bible. I know Tom Batiuk can do this, because he wrote one for Batom Comics. And it’s actually decent. It’s concise, has a clear idea what it wants to convey, and isn’t trying to bludgeon you with a dictionary. Compare that group of blog posts with this group and you’ll see the difference.

This will also be a Cartooning Suggestion:

Write a Funkyverse Bible. And then obey it.

This would solve a lot of the problems that arise from Tom Batiuk constantly reinventing characters and the strip’s history to fit short-term story needs.

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Batting .500

Ugggggggggggggggggggggggggh.

It’s Day 10 of the arc, and this is the fifth strip that could have been omitted entirely. It does not advance the story, reveal any new information, or serve any other purpose.

When I was in high school, I was in a theater production of Rebel Without A Cause. There’s a scene where a character dies because his car goes off a cliff. We accomplished this by playing a sound effects audio clip on the PA system, and telling the actors to improvise some dialog to fill the time. They never got it right. It was either “He’s getting close to the edge! He’s going to go over the edge! Oh no, he’s at the edge! He’s really close to the edge now!” Or they just said random things, and were somehow surprised when the crash sound happened.

Funky Winkerbean reminds me of that. It has no idea what pacing it needs, or what direction it wants to go. It’s just slow, slow, slow, slow, slow, slow, slow, ohmygodIneedtowrapthisuphurryhurryhurryhurry. It’s either burying you under an avalanche of pointless exposition because it’s got all week, or skipping important story points to get finished because the week’s almost over. It’s like watching the first hour of a long. tedious movie, and then random bits of the rest of it.

I blame Tom Batiuk’s insistence on week-long story arcs. I think it’s one of the less-talked about reasons why Funky Winkerbean is as bad as it is. Batiuk seems far more interested in making his arcs exactly six days long than he is in making them any good. I would put an end to that, with the second of my Comics Suggestions:

Story arcs must start on a day other than Monday, or end on a day other than Saturday and Sunday.

No more week-long arcs. Stories will be the number of days they need to be, rather than filling an arbitrary length for no good reason. Hopefully, this will encourage the culling of unproductive strips (which this arc has a lot of), and let stories happen more naturally.

This also replaces the “three-week rule” Batiuk frequently mentions. There’s nothing wrong with long story arcs, if they are otherwise compelling. This is dreadful at any length.

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The Cartooning Commandments (Revised)

Oh goody, a needless vertical strip. To do an exposition dump on some tedious comics-related administrative process that happened 50 years ago. And wank over New York City some more.

Tom Batiuk speaks often of the “Cartooning Commandments.” Despite his assertions they are well-known and can be found on the Internet, they don’t seem to exist anywhere other than his blog. A lot of them don’t even make sense, or just reflect Batiuk’s own sensibilities. “Thou shalt only do funny comic strips. Your characters shall never grow up.” Nobody thinks those things but you, Tom.

Most importantly: they’re not helping. Tom claims he was given these guidelines to follow when he got started in cartooning 50 years ago. To the extent he’s following them at all, they’re not reducing any of the glaring problems in the strip. Sometimes they’re even counterproductive.

With that in mind, I want to write some new cartooning commandments. Commandments that, if followed, would actually help Funky Winkerbean be better. If I’m going to criticize something, I think it’s also my job to be constructive about it. And I can think of a lot of simple steps that would start to pull Funky Winkerbean out of the dull, self-indulgent abyss it’s been in for all of Act III. To keep the tone friendly, I will call them the Cartooning Suggestions.

Most of these suggestions will be in the form of “No more…” something. Because “Thou shalt not” is needlessly pretentious. One of my suggestions will be not to talk this way anymore. I’ll get to that one. But for right now:

No more vertical strips.

Vertical comic strips can be used to good effect. It was done once in Bloom County, in an arc where they made a flying machine by attaching balloons to Cutter John’s wheelchair. For the big reveal, the drawing was rotated 90 degrees, to show this tall, thin object in detail. It was the readers’ first look at something that drove a months-long arc. And it was a strange object that needed to be explained to the audience. This was a perfectly good reason to draw a strip sideways. And I think Berke Breathed only did it one or two other times.

Vertical panels in Funky Winkerbean are used to indulge Tom Batiuk’s worst tendencies as a writer. They’re used to make space for word zeppelins, author rants, pointless info dumps, self-indulgence, and worst of all: Sunday comic book covers. All of these things need to go. A blanket ban on sideways strips in Funky Winkerbean would be a great way to start improving it. If an idea can’t be expressed horizontally, it probably doesn’t need to be expressed at all.

Today’s strip is a shining example. This is strip #8 of the arc, including Sunday, and it’s the fourth one that could have been omitted entirely. It’s all been transactional talking, and a “witty” Sunday joke that’s only witty if the other character is a complete blithering idiot.

Phil Holt’s life makes even less sense now. After he quit his Batom Comics job and stole their property in the process, he… moved to one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world? To do what? That needs more for an explanation, not 23 words of “I heard Prince Valiant needed a new artist” when we already knew that.

And: it’s apparently vital you know this happened in New York. Nope, Phil’s definitely not in Hollywood, that empty place of vacuous people!

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