It’s okay, nobody else gets Sunday’s Funky Winkerbean either


Yeah so Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean this Sunday didn’t work. I haven’t checked everyone in the world, but everyone I have checked, agreed. It seems like the strip was going for a pun or at least some wordplay. Or an agreement that a thing sounded funny. But working out just what it was going for is hard. So it’s not just you. But here’s the strip:

Science Teacher: 'Which brings us to Ultima Thule [ Footnote: Pronounced 'Too-Lay' ]. Can anone tell me what Ultima Thule is?' Student: 'Isn't he the villain from the Thor [ Footnote: pronounced 'Tor' ] movie?' Teacher, putting his hand on his forehead: 'I wonder if it's too late to revisit the board's early retirement package?'
Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean for the 29th of March, 2020. Also granted none of the villains from the Thor movies, pronounced “too-vies”, has in fact had a name that sounds anything like “Ultima Thule”. It’s also true that many of the things which we, in jest, say would be good names for a band would, in truth, not be anything like good names for a band.

Ultima Thule as referenced here is this Kupier Belt object that’s about 45 astronomical units away from us, so we don’t have to do anything about it right now. The New Horizons probe flew by it in 2018, and we’re still getting data downloads of the encounter. Slow Internet out that far. It was formally named Arrokoth in November 2019, but Tom Batiuk reportedly works as much as a year ahead of publication. We can be forgiving of things like this, especially when we remember that we as a society still call it Kinko’s, fifteen years after they changed the name to “whatever they pretend they changed the name of Kinko’s to”.

If it weren’t for the footnotes I think everyone would have just read the strip and agreed, that’s got the structure of a joke. Teacher in a comic strip asks students to explain a thing, student has a wrong answer that even reference pop culture, teacher mourns his lot in life. What has this sticking in my mind is the footnotes. They’re fantastically unnecessary. A lot of jokes have some unnecessary bits. They can make dialogue or pacing sound more natural. Or they can clue the audience into the subject matter, so they have the right context for the joke. Or sometimes the word balloon is too large otherwise, as with the mention of “the board’s” early retirement “package”. The teacher could have wondered if it was too late to revisit early retirement.

But. Why the footnote explaining that Anamorphic Mark Twain pronounces Thule “Too-Lay”, in the Bandar Tongue? What would possibly be worse if the reader thought Anamorph thought it was pronounced “thool”, the way everybody actually says it? That, at least, we could defend as character, so that we know Anamorph is, gads, one of those people. You know, who pronounce “Caesar” as “kaiser”. I bet he volunteers that he thinks other people use the word “penultimate” wrong. He’s definitely complained about someone using “decimate” to refer to a thing that’s been more than one-tenth destroyed.

What launches this into the all-time baffling strips is the student’s pronouncing Thor as “Tor”, a thing that has never been done at any time by any person, ever, even by people who are trying to hypercorrect other people into saying something stupid. What is her deal supposed to be? Is it supposed to be that she’s mocking Anamorph for pronouncing “Thule” with a t- sound? Was she just going along with the teacher’s quirky choice about how “th” sounds? The smirk on her face last panel suggests not, but everybody in a Funky Winkerbean strip is smirking all the time. So it loses its power to signal that the smirker thinks they’ve said something clever. So what is that footnote doing there? Something as unnecessary as a footnote shouldn’t be there unless it’s serving the joke, but what joke?

I can defend the first footnote, about too-lay, as serving the joke and not just establishing Anamorph as a tool. It could be that the sound “too-lay” is supposed to make the reader think “tool”, which gets you to hammers, to Thor, so the punch line doesn’t seem to come from nowhere. I think that’s unnecessary, but I can understand a writer feeling that it needs more setup. But then the best I can think for the second footnote is that we’re getting a wacky-answer-to-teacher-questions overlapping with a make-fun-of-the-pedant joke.

So that’s my best guess about what we’re supposed to find amusing. It’s two jokes. Each of them are okay. But arranged as they are, they’re interfering destructively. It’s rather like the sloppier panels of Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set, in which the secondary bonus joke on someone’s T-shirt would distract the reader from the main joke.

The important thing is the problem is the joke, not you reading it.


Oh, and, what the heck. Daily Cartoonist mentioned that Brian Anderson, who does the fantastic Dog Eat Doug comic strip, is doing a half-hour livestream the 31st at 10 am Eastern Time, “How To Write Any Story”, a workshop for kids seven and up. May be worth seeing.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

4 thoughts on “It’s okay, nobody else gets Sunday’s Funky Winkerbean either”

    1. It’s possible! Although that seems like a remote enough allusion that, if that was his intention, he was counting on his audience showing a lot of sympathy and willingness to read minds. Not that we all don’t sometimes mis-understand how obvious our chain of thought is.

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      1. I assumed the kid was thinking of Ultron, whose name sounds a bit like “Ultima,” but he’s an Avengers villain rather than a Thor one as such, though of course Thor is (usually) an Avenger, and maybe mispronouncing “Thor” as “Tor” was showing the kid being (a) dumb or (b) clever enough to be mocking the teacher for mispronuncing “Thule” by imitating his dropping of an internal ‘h’ sound?

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        1. Oh, linking Ultron to Ultima is a pretty good idea, yeah. You maybe have the inspiration.

          Explaining ‘Tor’ as `the kid being dumb’ makes sense too. The comic, like all school strips, depends on the students giving dumb answers to questions. Since the viewpoint characters are the teachers of Westview (do we know the names of any current students?), the narrative wants us on the teacher’s side. But I prefer the interpretation of the kid mocking the teacher, as the teacher really deserves it.

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