Why is everybody angry with Funky Winkerbean *now*?


I mean, besides the usual?

OK, so, a quick recap. Funky Winkerbean is Tom Batiuk’s long-running semi-serialized, semi-humor comic strip about people who appreciate comic books on a deeper level than you, even if you are Grant Morrison. The important action lately has been with the staff of Atomik Comix, a small-time publisher hoping to revive the spirt of bonky 1950s/60s-era fun. The people in it have been meeting, and often bringing on staff, people from the (in-universe) vanished Batom Comics.

The current story’s based on Flash Freeman, Batom comics writer, and Ruby Lith, illustrator. Pete and Darin, who make most of Atomik’s comics, thought to ask San Diego Comic-Con to induct these old-timers into the Comic-Con Hall of Fame. Comic-Con said yeah, why not? On the way to the con we learned that Flash Freeman and his main artist, Phil Holt, separated on bad terms. My understanding is this is a fictional treatment of some legendary real comic book feud. I don’t know what but I’m going to assume it’s Stan Lee and Anybody Who Drew Stan Lee Stories.

As Freeman was being introduced for this, he said he wished Phil Holt could be there. And a man in the audience, who’d been lurking around wearing a Darth Vader mask, stood up to declare … HE IS! And so Phil Holt was crashing the induction ceremony.

On stage at Comic-Con, Flash Freeman: 'I just want to set the record straight by saying that Phil Holt was right here beside me when, together, we created all of those Batom Comics superheroes. I only wish that Phil Holt was with us now ... because he deserves to be in the Comic-Con Hall of Fame as well!' Phil Holt, rising from the audience and taking off a Darth Vader mask: 'Well, you just got your WISH!' Audience member: 'This is the best cameo EVER!!'
Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean for the 18th of July, 2021. Really more of a surprise guest appearance than a cameo but I understand misspeaking in the excitement. In the next day’s strip, as Not Dead Phil Holt climbs on stage, someone in the audience cries out how this is horrible, as he’d just paid $500 for a signed copy of Holt’s final book. That’s a good joke, as I measure these things. Oh, and Comic-Con didn’t agree to add Phil Holt posthumously-they-thought to the Hall of Fame because … I guess nobody asked if he could be? Which is dumb but a normal human behavior sort of dumb.

So the reason your friend who pays attention to the comics is angry about this is that Phil Holt died four years ago. This was in a sequence where the Atomik Comix gang met him and found he was doing children’s birthday-party art. Soon after this meeting, Holt died. He willed over to Darin a bunch of his original art, which Darin auctioned off for charity. We-the-readers saw him in ghostly form, looking over the auction, approving.

It’s a storyteller’s right to retcon things. If they realize they have an idea that, revised, could produce more interesting stories, they might even have an obligation to. Batiuk has taken advantage of this. The whole Batom Comics backstory started out with Starbuck Jones, presented as a cult comic from a forgotten minor publisher. It’s been revised into a Captain America-like property. That is, once-hugely-popular, then neglected, then revived to wild acclaim. This retcon gave Batiuk ideas for more and more interesting stories, so, fine. (I mean interesting to him and maybe his editor. Whether you like any of it is your business.)

Thing is, some retcons are harder to swallow than others. The more load-bearing and unambigous an element was, the more the involved audience will resist its retcon. Phil Holt’s death isn’t as important to the comic as, say, Lisa Moore’s. But it was still presented as a clear event without any ambiguity. We learned of it by the executor giving Darin tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of vintage comic book art. Usually if you have to retcon something major, it’s better to make a small deal of the contradiction. Here? We’re reminded that Phil Holt died. Like, the Emcee tells us how amazing it is he’s not dead.

Ghost Lisa, looking at her son and his wife reading the auction house book: 'This is my son, Darin. He's the one auctioning off the comic book covers. I'm Lisa.' Ghost Phil: 'I'm Phil ... I drew those covers.' Lisa: 'I never really read comic books.' Phil: 'If I wasn't already dead ... that would've done it.'
Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean for the 15th of November, 2017. Ghost Lisa here is Lisa Moore, who was the center of the comic strip getting Serious, with stories about teen pregnancy and right-wing terrorism and suicide and breast cancer. Her death in 2007 marked the change to the current era of the comic and the famous “time jump” bringing every character in the strip ten years closer to death. She’s appeared in ghostly form occasionally, usually to look with approval at people remembering her. And, one time, intervening in the affairs of mortals, saving a plane full of people from an aircraft with a critical part malfunction, but only because she couldn’t get Les off the flight otherwise. It’s heartwarming unless you think what would’ve happened if Les had decided to take another flight.

It may be that as Phil Holt’s story unfolds the obvious doubts will be addressed. That we’ll get a story for why a man might fake his death for years until he can disrupt a Comic-Con event honoring his former partner. Your friend who is angry at Funky Winkerbean does not trust that the explanation for all this will be at least superficially plausible.

So that’s what’s going on there. Any more complaints about Funky Winkerbean should appear at an essay under this link. And tomorrow, and every week, I try to recap one of the story strips proper. This week: Gasoline Alley.

Also, I owe thanks to Son of Stuck Funky and to Comics Curmudgeon for their blogging about these past stories. This made it easy for me to find the Funky Winkerbean strips to confirm I wasn’t remembering things wrong.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

13 thoughts on “Why is everybody angry with Funky Winkerbean *now*?”

    1. Oh yes; it’s still going, although the focus has shifted from goofy high school students to, mostly, people who get exactly what they always wanted and aren’t any less mopey about it. It’s been a weird blend of wish-fulfillment and the-grass-is-always-greener.

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  1. “Your friend who is angry at Funky Winkerbean does not trust that the explanation for all this will be at least superficially plausible.”

    Spoiler alert: Batiuk will not offer even a “superficially plausible” excuse for this mishigas. Great post, and thanks for the Son of Stuck Funky plug.

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    1. Oh, thank you. I appreciate the tip and am … somehow disappointed but not surprised there isn’t even a ridiculous explanation given. Also that Tom Batiuk has decided to harp on how Phil Holt was thought dead. If Batiuk were more courageous he might have just let people say they thought he was dead and carry on as all was normal.

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  2. Just noticed Ghost Phil just says, “I’m Phil, I drew those covers” as opposed to saying his full name. Is TB going to claim that this was yet another ghost artist (pun intended) who just happened to also have the first name Phil? (How much go I get for removing the paint that trapped TB in the corner?)

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    1. I’d kind of admire Tom Batiuk for attempting to make that work — why not embrace the stereotypical soap-operatic and superhero absurdity of “you took your eye off the body, you don’t know it’s the same person”? — but apparently no, he’s just going to remind us Phil Holt died and decided not to be anymore. (I accepted this for the cat in Rikki Simons and Tavisha Wolfgarth-Simons’s @Tavicat, after all.)

      I so think he might have got away with it, apart from the hardcore snarkers like me, if he just didn’t keep bringing up that Phil Holt was dead. I don’t see why he didn’t phrase it as “everyone thought he was dead” and let the reader try to figure out a way that makes sense.

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      1. Oh, I’d like to sign on to this, but I can’t, not and be honest. I mean, Harry Dinkle, for example, is clearly doing stuff he loves and looking for more chances to do that stuff. He may be frustrated by it at times, but that’s the normal frustration of wanting to do a thing and having it blocked by nonsense like people not practicing like they committed to. Chester Whatever His Last Name Is, too, decided he wanted to be a Silver Age Comic Book Publisher, and he pursued that with gusto and keeps roping more people into his open-ended LARP.

        I’m not sure how to rate Bull Bushka’s Weird Friend-Who-Used-To-Be-The-Walnut-Tech-Quarterback. Not just because I’m not sure whether he’s still part of the cast. But, like, faced with a catastrophic personal health crisis, he sought out someone with a similar crisis, and with whom he had an ancient, slight connection, and kindled that into a friendship that brought Bull — and his wife — comfort in harsh times. That’s all stuff you do because you feel like there’s more to live for.

        Still, in the main, the cast of Funky Winkerbean is people who are always sad about the things that make them happy.

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    1. Have to be honest, I’m not sure who counts as a Funky Winkerbean character. Like, obviously the sentient computer that used to do scheduling and go to Trek conventions is out, but, what about Bull Bushka’s Weird Friend Who Was His Rival In High School And Just Started Showing Up? We haven’t seen him since Bushka died, but does that mean he’s out of the strip? Or, like, Susan Smith, who went into hiding when she, a young teacher, was seen kissing fellow teacher Les Moore on the cheek? I don’t think there’s any roster of the Canonically Still Part of The Cast characters. (The official Funky Winkerbean site doesn’t have one I can find, and would likely be hilariously out of date if it had one, since the FAQ is still explaining when the strip will be done with the adjustments from the ‘Time Jump’ that was 14 years ago now.)

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