So long and thanks for all of the giant, fanged Funky Winkerbeans

The comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” is ending a remarkable 50-year run this week. I’ll admit, I never paid much attention to the strip during its heyday in the ’80s, mostly because it didn’t run in any of the newspapers we received.

In fact, the first time I heard of it was as a punchline in Berke Breathed’s “Bloom County” in which one of the characters (Opus, I think) snorted newspaper ink and began hallucinating “giant, fanged Funky Winkerbeans” and I didn’t actually realize a “Funky Winkerbean” was a real thing.

The first time I actually saw it was in the Greensburg Tribune-Review (I think). I then began reading “Funky” regularly in the 2000s, when the McKeesport Daily News picked it up; and, of course, syndicated comic strips became easy to find online at around the same time.

“Funky,” created by northern Ohio artist Tom Batiuk, spent the first 20 years or so of its existence as a standard gag-a-day newspaper comic strip about life in a small-town Ohio high school. Batiuk, who started the strip while working as a high school teacher, based the characters and settings on people he knew around Akron, Kent and other northern Ohio towns, not far from Pittsburgh.

The breakout characters—besides the ostensible star of the strip, Funky Winkerbean—were probably the high school’s fictional band director, Harry Dinkle, and Funky’s nerdy friend Les.

For a long time, I was active in an online discussion group about newspaper cartoons, and “Funky Winkerbean” was a regular subject of serious conversations in a way that other comic strips (say, “The Wizard of Id” or “Blondie”) weren’t.

The reason was that “Funky” transitioned from a jokey strip about teen-agers in high school to a more serious, soap-opera-style daily cartoon with continuing plot lines. The Toledo Public Library has a blog post that explains what happened. As the characters aged out of high school into their 30s and 40s, some of the plot lines became very dramatic, including a lengthy sequence in which Les’ wife, Lisa, was diagnosed with cancer, went into remission, then became sick again and died.

Other storylines were equally somber. Funky—the title character—developed a drinking problem and later joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He married his high school sweetheart; they later got divorced. Harry Dinkle, the band director, was forced to retire when he became partially deaf. Bull Bushka—who in the early days of the strip had been a stereotypical “dumb jock” character tormenting the other students—briefly played professional football, began showing symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and committed suicide. Funky’s younger cousin, Wally, joined the Army, served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and came home with PTSD.

Batiuk’s decision to pivot “Funky Winkerbean” from a humorous comic strip to a serious daily story, told in comic-strip form, attracted a lot of attention—not all of it flattering. Cartoonist David Willis famously parodied the comic strip as “Funky Cancer-cancer” and several different bloggers more or less made a cottage industry out of mocking the sometimes-ponderous storylines.

An excerpt from Willis’ 2007 parody of Funky Winkerbean

Perhaps the best-known running critique of “Funky Winkerbean” has been a group blog called “Son of Stuck Funky,” but it’s not hard to find other websites that have gleefully enjoyed pointing out plot holes, continuity errors and sometimes clumsy attempts by Batiuk and his collaborator, Chuck Ayers, at addressing hot topics (same-sex dating in high school, for instance) and other social problems within the confines of the comic strip.

Occasionally, Batiuk and Ayers have pivoted “Funky Winkerbean” back to the kind of absurdist, light-hearted comedy that the strip featured in the 1970s and 1980s. That only attracted more scorn from the online critics.

As far as I know, Batiuk has never publicly lashed out at his detractors, and good for him.

I’ll admit to really enjoying some of the critiques (especially those of “Stuck Funky” and Josh Fruhlinger) because reading mean reviews of movies, TV shows and other media is kind of a guilty pleasure for me. But I also have never been quite sure why “Funky Winkerbean”—of all of the many mediocre comic strips in the world—attracted that level of disapproval.

There are plenty of syndicated comic strips (I won’t name them) whose creators (or hired hands working for big media conglomerates) more or less churn out the same crappy cartoons, day after day, year after year. The same stale punchlines are repeated over and over again, the artwork stays reliably mediocre, nothing ever evolves. Props are owed Batiuk and Ayers for trying to do something different. It would have been much simpler to keep doing gags about high school life, much as “Beetle Bailey” has been doing jokes about the Army since 1951, even if those jokes now bear little to no resemblance to anything that really happens on any modern Army base.

I suspect a lot of the criticism stems from the decision to transform what had been a mostly silly comic strip into one that told serious stories with occasional jokes. Yet graphic novels have been telling serious stories in cartoon form for decades, and many of those are critically acclaimed. I don’t know that what “Funky Winkerbean” was trying to accomplish was that much different. In fact, Batiuk and Ayers were doing something much more difficult — they were trying to adapt the graphic-novel style of storytelling to four tiny, smeary squares of newsprint every day, instead of having the luxury of spreading the art and words across the pages of a book.

And there have been plenty of serious serialized comic strips, dating back to the 1930s and ’40s, including “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and “Mary Worth,” many of them much more ponderous than “Funky Winkerbean” ever became, even at its most melodramatic.

In a way, I guess the transformation of “Funky Winkerbean” is similar to that of the TV show “M*A*S*H,” which went from wacky Army hi-jinks in its first three seasons to a much more serious half-hour drama by its last three seasons. And, of course, “M*A*S*H”—though now accepted as one of the all-time great American TV shows—faced plenty of criticism in its time, and some mockery, over its change in tone.

Then again, it’s also not like “Funky Winkerbean” was the only U.S. comic strip that moved from humor to pathos. “Doonesbury” began in the early ’70s as a gag strip about college life, but quickly began tackling serious political and social issues, including AIDS, safe sex, divorce and drug use, that caused many newspapers to move it to the editorial page.

Maybe “Doonesbury” escaped some of the criticism leveled at “Funky” because “Doonesbury” got serious so much earlier in its run—and, I suspect, because it was being written by someone (Garry Trudeau) with a sophisticated Ivy League perspective, not by a former high school teacher in the Midwest.

It’s no surprise that Batiuk is retiring the strip. Newspaper comic strips are just about dead. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reduced its remaining comic strips to an all-but-unreadable size—they’re so small and illegible that I’m surprised they even bother having comics at all. Most people who still follow comic strips are probably reading them online, at sites like GoComics and Comics Kingdom.

Regardless, good luck and congratulations to Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers. Few comic strips last 50 years; fewer still attract so much notoriety. Maybe some of the stories were heavy handed, but I never found it boring.

(From top: “Funky Winkerbean” strips from 1972, 1983, 1993, 2003 and 2013. All strips copyright Batom Inc., North American Syndicate Inc., and other rights holders, and all rights remain with their owners. Strips are incorporated for commentary purposes only under the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright Law.)

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