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Now I call them "the dispairies"... [Oct. 3rd, 2007|02:11 pm]
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I have this fantasy that Tom Batiuk is actually the most brilliant deadpan satirist working in comics, or perhaps any medium today.



In 1972 Batiuk created Funky Winkerbean, a gag strip about high school life with an earthy tone and absurdist touches - hall monitors with Gatling guns, a sentient computer, a high school band competition which always place during a monsoon. FW spawned two spinoffs, John Darling (about a shallow newscaster) and Crankshaft (about a grumpy bus driver).

As Batiuk's skills evolved so did his ambition, and in 1986 one of the nerdy teens in the strip got pregnant. The treatment of the issue was considered groundbreaking, but the bigger innovation was importing the mawkish, manipulative seriousness of a Very Special Episode from sitcom to the funny page.

Most funny strips with serial narratives and drama were designed that way or slowly evolved - like For Better or Worse. FW went from running gags with little character development to the teen mom plot then back to majorettes getting roasted by flaming batons.

After other Special Episodes, Batiuk relaunched Funky Winkerbean as a serial narrative in 1992. The original characters graduated and started to age like Gasoline Alley or FBoW. It was initially awkward for readers familiar with the previous version, but over 15 years Batiuk explored whole new levels of awkward.

FW remains a humor strip, interrupted by disconcerting drama. Part of the problem is Batiuk still writes with a gag strip sensibility. His characters don't have evolving serious plotlines - they suffer ironically tragic and topical fates, set-up as running sorrows with soblines in the last panel. The result is both inappropriately intense and shallow, and somewhat cruel towards the characters.

Take Dr. Harry "world's greatest band director" Dinkle, whose original wacky exploits were so popular and resonant among band geeks there's a line of marching footwear and accessories named after him. In the strip Harry has been afflicted with slow and relentless hearing loss brought on prolonged exposure to the one joy in his life.*

In the early strip characters frequently had a wide smirk as the punchline was delivered. This gave way to a small wry smile which may signal a small chuckle or silent tears.

The most notorious running sorrow,* however, is Cancer. Lisa Crawford, the pregnant teen of the first Special Episode, grew up to marry Les and, having found happiness after a traumatic past, came down with breast cancer. After many many strips of pain and chemotherapy, Lisa went into remission, faced a risky post-treatment pregnancy and became a survivor and mother.

Batiuk received many accolades for an inspiring story and raising awareness. There was even a fund started in Lisa's name. But this is Funky Winkerbean, so she had to die. And since it's Tom Batiuk her fate was sealed by an inverted sitcom cliché - a mixup of lab results gave her a false negative for cancer left undiscovered until it was too late.

It was at this point I began to wonder if Batiuk wasn't engaging in some long form put-on. Considering that Batiuk concluded one strip by having the main character murdered (the result of a dispute over character rights), perhaps there was more going on here. Maybe Funky Winkerbean had become a savage critique on sentimentalism which pushes maudlin "topical" material to the point of hilarity.



I'm sorry but the excruciating, stark terror of terminal illness as a punchline panel made me guffaw. In part because I imagined this proceeding like any weekly gag - Lisa screaming in panic from Monday to Friday until she finally falls silent on Saturday. Instead, Batiuk slipped into the metaphorical, perhaps because panel after panel of "OH GOD I CAN'T SEE LES LES DON'T LEAVE ME" might have tipped his hand.

It certainly wouldn't be out of place in the era of awkward comedy and post-post-modernism. Except unlike Wonder Showzen, which clearly labels itself an anti-children's show shtick, or Chris Ware's exploration of sincere and camp sadness within the boundaries of alt-comix, Batiuk has gone from gag to anti-gag in the mainstream press, his middle finger hidden in plain sight.

Of course, this clearly isn't true. But it doesn't stop me from out loud at this:



When it comes to visual metaphors for death which are totally not reassuring, "escorted into the void by a guy from a dinner theater production of Phantom" chills me most of all.

*Now there's a product selling point - imagine Chester Cheetah dying of lactose intolerance.
**There's also the Afghanistan land mine strips, but that's a different sort of dubious drama.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: kudaspeaks
2007-10-03 07:58 pm (UTC)

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Man, Batiuk must've really hated some chick named Lisa, huh?

Seriously though, I haven't read Funky Winkerbean in years and this entry was fascinating. Thank you. We need to stop giving points to Very Special Episodes of whatever. It all leads to Paul Haggis getting awards for "Crash" instead of the "Tootie Learns to Drive" episode of "Facts of Life," which actually was entertaining and gravitas-appropriate to its medium.
[User Picture]From: kudaspeaks
2007-10-04 12:58 am (UTC)

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Oh wow, my husband's sci-fi boyfriend, John Scalzi is blogging about this today too:

http://scalzi.com/whatever/?p=15
[User Picture]From: seriesfinale
2007-10-03 08:17 pm (UTC)

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"There was even a fund started in Lisa's name. But this is Funky Winkerbean, so she had to die."

Maybe Baituk should guest-artist FBoFW one week so they can just put the Grandpa out of his misery already.



[User Picture]From: seriesfinale
2007-10-03 08:45 pm (UTC)

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I just went back and read the last few weeks of Winkerbean online, and despite agreeing initially (that "Death" is fucking ridiculous), I actually found the strips pretty tasteful, touching, quite realistic in terms of medical and emotional pain, and, to bastardize what kudaspeaks says above, "entertaining and gravitas-appropriate to its medium." No NARM here, although I may have a weak spot for this particular storyline after having a close loved one go similarly over a long period of time.

On the other hand, while I agree with Baituk that the funnies need not always be funny, he does seem to have a perverse interest in putting his characters through the wringer.
[User Picture]From: fengi
2007-10-03 09:50 pm (UTC)

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For me it's definitely perversity - he made such a big deal about her remission and having a kid. My mom is a longtime survivor of this cancer, so I find this "you could relapse at any moment" stuff unpleasant - I did get satisfaction from Lisa's survival so this "to bad, she dies anyway" seems to indicate a peversity towards the audience as well.

In comments I've read elsewhere, more than a few people with personal connections to cancer find this questionable and like milking the issue (so to speak). And the whole "you thought she was okay but the tests were wrong" sitcom stuff seems like he's returning to the same emotional well to many times.
[User Picture]From: seriesfinale
2007-10-03 10:25 pm (UTC)

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Well, in my defense, I haven't read Winkerbean other those last few weeks online just now in years, so I'll take everyone's word for it.

By the way, I read the comics at lunch today and--yep, in conjunction with my stupid crack, the Grandpa on FBoFW appears to have died today. Oops.
[User Picture]From: fengi
2007-10-04 02:16 am (UTC)

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No need to defend - in small doses Funky Winkerbean is striking, it's just the cumulative effect - every single character has been effected by or witness to some horrible thing - is what makes long term fans say "if this was an alt comic, it'd be satire."
[User Picture]From: theklute
2007-10-03 08:40 pm (UTC)

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God, if only Mallard Fillmore would die of some wasting disease.

Or in an alcohol-fueled car crash, as would better suit Bruce Tinley.
[User Picture]From: farklebarkle
2007-10-03 08:46 pm (UTC)

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Seconded.
[User Picture]From: ccjohn
2007-10-04 07:09 pm (UTC)

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Tinley and Rall can fight it out for who congratulates their readership more.
[User Picture]From: sabotabby
2007-10-03 09:23 pm (UTC)

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I'm disturbed by this. I can't quite pin down why I'm so disturbed—I only started reading the strip when I read various bloggers writing about how fucked up FW is.

Sunday's strip, though, made me think that he's aware of how fucked up he's being and completely relishing it.
[User Picture]From: fengi
2007-10-03 09:52 pm (UTC)

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And that white masked figure. You cannot tell me he wasn't thrilled when he came up with that.
From: jhfurnish
2007-10-03 10:53 pm (UTC)

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The fact is, the bound-book comic medium (I'm calling it that to differentiate it from the newspaper variety) has taken a _very_ culturally adult turn over the last twenty years. There is no doubt that a revolution has occured in comic books, so it's certainly about time that something happened to 'ramp up' the game with the 'funny pages'. I think it's about time that someone in the mainstream media started making people think, even if it means scaring the shit out of them.

I'm sure all of us know that something going on in real-life politics is about to scare the shit out of all of us.

I wonder how he'll address that? When GW Bush declares himself dictator? (Ok, when and if that happens, how will it be treated in FW?)
[User Picture]From: fengi
2007-10-04 02:47 am (UTC)

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Y'know that's true - I can see Tom B looking at the graphic novels and thinking "I've got the drawing skills, I should step it up." The problem is, when you're writing in three panel segments and making plot changes on the fly, then what passes as tasteful in the collected edition plays a lot different from day to day. As a comic book, this might play differently, but when you have a dying woman screaming she's gone blind and that's the punchline frame, it is really off.

On a side note - he did send a character to Afghanistan to talk about land mines, and said character ended up punching out the Afghan who saved his life because he knew the guy was an arms dealer. This was before the Gulf war kicked into full gear, but in light of current events it's a creepy jingo moment - like Batiuk felt he couldn't have that story unless at least one Arab got punched in the face.
[User Picture]From: happinesstogo
2007-10-04 12:57 am (UTC)

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Thank you for this interesting post! We spend a lot of time talking about comics at my house, specifically strips as opposed to books, but I don't get a lot of time these days to follow all of them. I was not aware that this was going on in Winkerbean world, and I find it fascinating. It's quite maudlin, but parts of it are pretty funny: that whole bit in the first strip citing Monty makes me laugh.
From: insanitypepper
2007-10-04 01:22 am (UTC)

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This FW strip just freaks me out. The stark whiteness, the silent guy in a mask and formalwear... it's just disturbing. Yet I can't stop looking at it.
[User Picture]From: seriesfinale
2007-10-04 02:25 am (UTC)

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Yeah, I can't stop thinking about it either, and now can't wait to see what happens tomorrow.

Will they literally waltz off to the afterlife? Yikes.

Anyway, I guess he was trying to find some way to personalize death that didn't involve a shroud or a sickle. But damn.