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Shape of the Past

IF YOU HAVEN’T VOTED FOR THE FUNKY AWARDS THEN YOU HATE DEMOCRACY AND JUSTICE.

How appropriate in today’s strip that Funky is reaching for some leftovers. Because we seem to have reached the end of the leftover strips that Batiuk’s been serving up to us all week, without even having the decency to warm them over to make them fit.

True, today is just another stolen joke told better a million times before. But Holly is back on her crutches, and we’ve nary an out-of-season fall leaf in sight. And ruining a promised New Year’s Resolution diet is a time honored January tradition.

Whatever congealed horrors await Funky’s appetite in that teal Tupperware aren’t the only relics pulled from the deep past today. In panel three Holly is giving us some vintage Winkerbean final-panel side-eye.

The final-panel side-eye was a staple in the old glory days of Funky Winkerbean. Back when my parents were wearing brown leisure suits and paisley patterned bell sleeves to the senior prom.

It used to be that every third or fourth Funky Winkerbean strip would end with some character staring glumly out at the audience, letting you know that THEY were playing the suffering straight man to whatever dumb thing the other character had just said or done. But there was usually a weird resignation to the stare. Like the staring character also acknowledged that by engaging with the zany character earlier, they had brought this upon themselves.

Batiuk hardly ever does this any more. And in one of his interminable Match to Flame digressions posted to his blog he lets us know his reasoning.

You can use time to more fully resonate with your readers on a real and believable level while you begin to discard the gimmicks that threaten that bond. For example, from the git-go in Funky, I would break the fourth wall on a day-to-day basis by having a character do a side-glance to the reader (a device I unashamedly “borrowed” from Tom K. Ryan’s masterful strip Tumbleweeds . . . I’m done with it now and have since returned it). I stopped doing that because, while it’s funny, you lose the investment and involvement of the audience. They know the characters are going to be just fine, and they don’t really care about their fate. By breaking the fourth wall, I inject myself into the story to wink at the reader as we share the joke. Now, however, I began telling stories where my presence was less intrusive and less needed. 

From the introduction to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume 10

So for the TL:DR summary: He chose to stop breaking the fourth wall because it breaks the immersion and thus lowers the stakes when the story gets serious.

But what I don’t know if Batiuk realizes is that he never has completely gotten away from the gags and zany antics/beleaguered straightman humor that he’d spent decades hammering away at. The rhythms of that humor were beaten into him as a child and he is compelled to continue.

Whenever my mom was doing something and would ask for a hand, my dad would break into applause. My mom never thought that was funny. I, on the other hand, found it endlessly amusing. At other times around the dinner table, my dad, my sister, and I would conduct a conversation consisting of nothing but non sequiturs, with my mom being the odd person out. We all found this to be great fun—again, my mom not so much.

From the introduction to The Complete Funky Winkerbean Vol. One

The very foundation of his humor is that someone doesn’t find it funny. The ‘joke’ isn’t the joke. The ‘joke’ is the set up. And the punchline is annoyance. Someone has to be exasperated. Someone has to be his mom in the scenario. What this meant for the long term tenor of the strip, is that when he took away the side eye, all he had left for the final beat of his punchline was either allowing the annoyed person to speak. Which can lead to strangely aggressive strips like this.

Or leaving the baffled or annoyed person(s) staring into the scene in awkward silence, with nothing to defuse the tension.

I’ve seen comments in the past about how mean spirited Funky Winkerbean characters seem to each other. How easy it is to hate these people, because they are always snipping and needling one another. And I think this is the main reason why.

In the context of a real family or friendship habituated to this kind of teasing, there is the unspoken agreement that everything is in jest. It’s playfighting, like puppies or LARPers. Everyone is in on the joke.

In the context of a gag-a-day strip it can be mean spirited because it never seeks to be realistic or uplifting or educational. Everyone is exaggerated because it’s supposed to be funny. No one is being hurt. Everyone reading is in on the joke.

In the context of a strip that’s dealt with cancer death, suicide death, addictions, terrorism, PTSD, gun violence, divorce, mental illness, and comic books, he’s made it too real. And yet, not given us enough information on these relationships to believe that these ‘jokes’ are all in jest.

So, you know, if he wants to give us some more side eye. Wants to poke a few holes in the fourth wall to let the air in. Release the tension. I’d say we let him.

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