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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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Who was that masked shmuck?

Today’s strip is so dense, every single panel has so many things going on…

My last day of the shift and I wind up with Batton Thomas, again (it could be Jff, actually, but nah)?! I know I am no longer the only one who runs into him, as he’s inexplicably turned into a semi-regular, but I still draw his appearances all too often. What a terrible coincidence.

Worse, though, is that it is like these characters know that they just followed a week of Les and are trying to match his insufferableness. They can’t, of course, but what an effort! Hope next week finds us somewhere else, though I can never be too optimistic that a change of scenery will improve things in this strip. The good news is that we’ll have the legendary Comic Book Harriett taking us through it… and through the 50th birthday (!!!) of this comic strip.

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Kiss of Death

I’m not entirely sure why Funky is smirking, since yelling to someone that you hope they break a leg when they’re going into surgery (I’m guessing, Batiuk hasn’t specified) for a broken ankle (again, we don’t know because it hasn’t been specified) seems kind of like a jerk move and not really at all funny. It’s definitely not worth the “aren’t I clever” smirk we’re getting in panel three. Funky sure isn’t acting like someone would if a loved one just suffered a painful injury and is going in to be operated on. Given how the week started with Holly being questioned about if her home is safe, Funky shouldn’t act like he’s having so much fun.
And it is me, or is it kind of odd how we’re almost through an entire week in the hospital and haven’t been told a single thing about Holly’s injury or what the treatment will be? All it would have taken is one world bubble of “We’ll have to perform surgery to repair the torn ligament”, or whatever. But I guess that would’ve taken space that was better used on Funky joking about carrying a purse, or this hospital employee telling Funky to kiss his wife, which is kind of disturbing to me.

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Nest Egg

Yes, you were being stupid, Holly. Batiuk loves these little witty sayings that don’t really mean anything and aren’t really funny. It’s also extra weird and confusing because in this case, the mother bird flew out of her own nest decades later and moved into her daughter’s nest.

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Landing at Bore-mandy

Blah blah blah today’s strip… blah blah blah Phil Holt… blah blah blah comic books… blah blah blah The Subterranean… blah blah blah yackity smackity…

Meanwhile… *stupid cloud bubble panel border that TB inexplicably thinks should indicate an in-strip shift from one place to another*

Everyone’s 5th favorite Stooge, “Curly-Joe” DeRita, and Darth Vader himself are hanging out at Ye Olde Comic Shoppe. What’s that all about? Spacemanspiff85 is going to be our guide as we find out (provided we do in the next two weeks). Thoughts and prayers, man, thoughts and prayers.

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Patterns of Force

Link to today’s strip.

Pathetic. That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw this strip. I’ve just got to remain relevant, but this pandemic messed up all my plans! Well, I’m sure I can shoehorn in something, right at the end, and remain one of the cool kids, one of the strips that resonate with today’s youth! Because otherwise, how can I grab those sweet, sweet awards?

I know a lot of people were taking the comics page to task for not adapting to the pandemic. I wasn’t one of those people; the comics page is not reality and it is not required to do anything other than entertain. But today’s strip is really galling. Batiuk is trying to have it both ways, by acknowledging the pandemic, and yet not having it interfere with his year-long planning.

Because which of the stories last year could he possibly have pulled in order to address the situation? Well, how about all of them?

Without cheating by clicking on the “Act III” button in the banner, I can’t think of anything significant that happened in 2020. And I bet that’s because nothing did. I’m not talking about “events” because “events” happen all the time. I’m talking about things that make a difference in the strip. Actual changes, the things he touts over and over as his accomplishments.

Again, not cheating by clicking, I doubt anything of significance occurred. (You can beat me up in the comments.) Batiuk isn’t having it both ways, he’s throwing it away both ways.

This is the sort of strip that makes me think Tom Batiuk should have retired a long, long time ago. That Sunday strip where child Summer turned into teenage Summer, and inaugurated Act III, should have been the end. Because this, as mentioned above, is pathetic.

And…that’s it from me. Tune in tomorrow when your host will be the always erudite, always entertaining Epicus Doomus.

As long as I’m plugging some of my favorite animators, here’s Graham Annable, aka Grickle. This one always makes me laugh. It’s a little over a minute long.

This next one is a bit more ambitious, and I’d advise you not to watch it late at night. Three minutes long, and scarier than Stephen King.

See you in the funny papers!

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