OK, I’ll start positive today. Here’s something I like about today’s strip, Ayers uses bubble panel borders correctly, to denote a memory of dream sequence. Yeah, that doesn’t sound like much, but coming from TB’s pencil for decades it meant “present day in-strip setting change”, a maddening misinterpretation of longstanding comic art language.
And now, for everything else…
A pizza spinning on your turntable used to be a sort of shorthand for “cool”, in that it signified you were someone cool enough to have just a had a party wild and “crazy” enough that some nut tried to play a pizza and everyone was having too much “fun” to notice (see this well-known scene from Sixteen Candles, for example). However, a pizza spinning on your turntable when you are alone in your own room with your headphones on is not “cool”. Silly, whimsical, weird, crazy? Sure… but not cool. One could even describe Crazy’s memory as rather sad, given the contrast between him listening to his pizza alone in his room compared to the sight of a pizza on a turntable signifying a really good time shared by friends.
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.
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.
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.
And by the 2008 reunion they have grandkids!
Junebug shows up again in 2015, as part of The Upcoming Reunion planning committee.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Farewell Livinia. You were too good for this strip.
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.
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.
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?
I know I promised you guys the distant past. But first, a brief timeline of the last couple years.
December 2019 to March 2021: Life in Westview proceeds as normal; people self-medicating with comics to stave off the usual nihilistic despair. No mentions of pandemics, lockdowns, masks, or quarantines.
March 2, 2021: Les Moore mentions a previously unrecorded flu quarantine from when Lisa was undergoing breast cancer treatment. A week of retrospective strips on the ‘famous Flu Epidemic of 2007.’
April 2021: Funky Winkerbean attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and begins blathering about ‘last year’s pandemic’. It’s as if from a moment in the future the past has been altered, Flashpoint style, so that a pandemic occurred ‘last year’ but is mostly over.
September 30, 2021: Holly Winkerbean breaks her ankle. During her time in the hospital we see people wearing masks in the present, though no one at the football game was masked. (Consistent with late pandemic trends.) She begins a recovery that sees her using a pair of crutches through at least January.
TODAY: Holly Winkerbean is implied to have broken her ankle at the beginning of the pandemic.
You know, when I did the Funky Award for Most Puzzling Continuity Question, I really figured it would be a one time deal, since many of the continuity snarls had been kicking around for a while. I never imagined that by MARCH 2022, we would already have three or four potential nominees.
But Batiuk is no stranger to continuity snarls. They cropped up in his VERY FIRST month of Funky Winkerbean.
The fifth ever printed Funky Winkerbean strip, 3/31/72 introduces Fred Fairgood as the school counselor.
And yet, the next time we see him, 5/9/72, he introduces himself as if he is just arriving.
And that isn’t the only first month snafu. On 4/5/72, we see first see Les working on the school paper, an early running gag.
And a few weeks later, he announces to Funky that he is applying for the position.
Now, both of these are understandable within the context of trying to launch a strip. You’ve got (I’m guessing) a few months of strips prepared, but then you want to lead off with your best and most easily digestible material. So strips are put out of order.
Batiuk actually has some good insight into why starting a strip is difficult.
Starting a comic strip is a unique proposition that requires a slightly different skill set from the one you’ll hopefully be using a few years later.
When I was just beginning with Funky, I read a Peanuts strip that completely frustrated me. The strip in question had come after a week during which Linus had had his blanket taken away, and he was lying on the ground shaking as he went through withdrawal. In the second panel, Snoopy walks up wearing his WWI flying helmet and scarf. He pauses to look down at Linus shaking on the ground and then walks off saying, “Poor blighter, his kind shouldn’t be sent to the front.”
It was an elegant strip that Schulz had taken twenty years to set up. Twenty years in which he had developed the theme of Linus and his blanket, developed the character of Snoopy and Snoopy’s fantasy world as a fighter pilot in WWI—all so he could create the opportunity to eventually dovetail them into that one perfect strip. Twenty years that I didn’t have behind me in those first few weeks of Funky.
Instead, what you have in a beginning strip is a great deal of expository dialogue trying to establish your characters’ names, personalities, and situations. Oh, and have them say something funny. I’ve often likened it to a stand-up comic who has to win over new audiences each night with a series of individual jokes.
Later, if he’s lucky, he moves on to a sitcom where the situational humor allows him to extend the comic narrative. Finally, if he’s really lucky, he gets to make movies, where there’s room for the subtleties of behavioral humor. It takes a long time to establish your characters and develop their personalities.
From the introduction to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume One
We can debate all day if he ever established his characters or developed their personalities into something consistent, but the above does, I think, point to one reason that Funky Winkerbean maintains it’s ironic audience. History. Any one year of Funky Winkerbean is mostly unremarkable. If it had only lasted a decade, any decade of its lifespan, it wouldn’t catch our attention.
But 50 years of this? 50 years of the Cronenberg-esq transformations of these strange sad-sack characters within a single universe, generated by a single mind.
When Marianne Winters pulled two VHS tapes out of her purse last week, that was the awful entrancing Funkyverse flipside to Snoopy as the Red Baron pitying Linus. It was a nauseating non sequitur built from years of disdain for a fictional character compounded with decades of facts and moments being referenced incorrectly.
Oh. And Batiuk was already creating inexplicable continuity biffs all the way back in 1973. Only a year after Les announced that he had applied for the position of school paper editor, the entire thing is retconned to being recruited by the school principal.
SIGH…not this asshole again. What’d I ever do to BatYam to deserve this? Oh, yeah…that’s right! Sigh.
You’d think that after thirty years Les would have settled into a routine of sorts, but apparently the trauma he suffered back in 1986 still resonates every September, like clockwork. Because high school forever defines us, you see, and back in high school Les was an anxiety-ridden simpering pud, so there you go. Kind of makes you wonder why he decided to spend his entire teaching career at the scene of the crime, so to speak, but logic has never been BatYam’s strong suit (guffaw). At least Cayla looks properly annoyed in panel two instead of looking on stupidly like she usually does. Sigh. You NEVER follow up a major Les arc with a Les “slice o’ life” arc…NEVER. You go with a lite & breezy Funky or Crazy Harry arc in that situation, not more Les.
assuming power or authority without justification; arrogant and domineering.
So I suppose that a Rexall pharmacy COULD be “imperious”, I guess. Once again I know exactly what he was going for here but once again it doesn’t make it any less baffling. “My grandparents lived in Akron and there was a Rexall two blocks away”…how hard was that?
“Holy temple”…”sacred texts”…OK sure Thom, whatever you say. Once again we see BatYam venerating the most mundane aspects of things he loves the most, just like last week. I mean I remember where I bought my first copy of “Love Gun” but you don’t see me getting all nostalgic over going to Crazy Eddie‘s. It’s where they sold the records. The store was the facilitator, a means to an end, not the primary focus. Of course I liked going there, as it was where I’d buy the stuff I liked.
But it’s never that easy for Westviewians. They can’t just buy pizza, they have to immerse themselves within a whole complicated pizzeria experience full of old jukeboxes and whimsical band boxes with colorful local characters exchanging wry banter all over the place. And they can’t just buy a comic book, they have to enter a fantastical nostalgic dream world full of holy scriptures and clandestine attic forts full of milk and cookies. They just have to complicate everything, no matter how dumb it is. No wonder they’re all so grumpy.
spacemanspiff85 May 24, 2021 at 11:48 am
There are few things in the world I’m less interested in than Tom Batiuk writing about the plight of women in the comics industry sixty or more years ago.
As a member of our very own “bullpen” here at SoSF, spacemanspiff85 knows not just the pain of reading Funky. Winkerbean. Every. Damn. Day. Periodically, Spiff is called upon to write something interesting about it to share with the rest of us. For two weeks, after which another SoSF guide host/guest author takes over. We limit our authors to two-week stints for the sake of their psychological well-being. Were that not the rule, I’d turn the helm back over to Comic Book Harriet, whose bailiwick these “Women in Comics” arcs have become. SoSF trauma protocol dictates that CBH must rest on the sidelines (while killing it as always in the comments), and it falls to me to get us through this arc.
As a male, I must tread lightly, but here goes: editor “Stogie” Butz’ “pretty good for a girl” remark barely qualifies as a microagression, given the times. Whatever midcentury decade Batiuk’s trying to recreate here (and it could be anywhere from the 1940’s through 60’s), calling a woman “girl” in the workplace wouldn’t be automatically out of line. He’s just busting her…chops, as would any cigar chomping, no-neck cranky boss.
Today’s strip marks the third straight day that Dinkle is doing his eyes-closed, head tilted back, mouth-agape, peacocking thing… which I think we can all agree is seven days too many. Hopefully we can also all agree that the poetic tire fire that is “I believe this is the first time a man’s crew-neck undershirt has been seen in the choir loft!” is a sentence that is just too perfectly execrable to exist. Yet it does exist.