|Now I call them "the dispairies"...
||[Oct. 3rd, 2007|02:11 pm]
Greetings Fellow Comstoks!
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.