Why Is Everyone Mad at _Funky Winkerbean_?


This may be hard to believe but as recently as the 21st of November, nobody was mad at Funky Winkerbean. At least nobody was mad enough at the soon-to-expire strip to click the ‘angry’ react at the bottom of Comics Kingdom’s page. That changed the 22nd, and since the 25th of November there’s been only one day that the strip got fewer than a hundred angry reactions, as of when I write this. So I want to explore that since people mad at comic strips is good for my readership.

But first, anyone really interested in this should visit the Son of Stuck Funky blog. It has always provided daily snark and commentary and research on Funky Winkerbean. The community there knows the strip with a depth and insight I can’t match and, yeah, they’re feeling extremely ambiguous about what to do next year.

So. The current, and it appears final, Funky Winkerbean story began the 24th of October. Summer Moore, the much-forgotten daughter of Les Moore and Dead Lisa Who Died of Death, returned from college. Her absence as a significant character for like a decade was explained as she kept changing her major. Now she’s thinking to take a gap year in her grad studies. Her goal: writing a book about Westview, the small Ohio town where Funky Winkerbean takes place. She figures to write about how the community’s changing over the last couple decades. Her plan is to use oral histories of her father, her father’s friends, and her dead mother’s diaries. Dead Lisa left a lot of diaries. And also a lot of videotapes. She recorded them after she decided it would be easier to leave a lot of video tapes with advice for her daughter rather than not die of breast cancer. (I sound snide, but what did happen was after a relapse she decided not to restart treatment.)

Les: 'So you're not going to be doing any interviews for your book today?' Summer: 'Actually, I'm reading Mom's diary ... so I'm interviewing Mom.'
Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’s Funky Winkerbean for the 21st of November, 2022. The last Funky Winkerbean (as of this writing) that nobody was angry at. It’s possible that there was some anger that got unrecorded because of Comics Kingdom changing out their commenting system and destroying years of earlier comments.

She started just in time! She’s barely decided to write a book when Funky Winkerbean, the character, announces he’s closing his restaurant, Montoni’s. The pizza shop was the social center of the comic strip since 1992. This event went so fast — in under a week of strips they were auctioning off the fixtures — and with so little focus that it felt like a dream sequence.

By the way if this storyline turns out to be a dream sequence, it would both make more sense and deserve even more to be punched.

So after some interviews Summer goes to the Westview High School janitor, a guy named Harley. Who turns out to be a longtime background character; ComicBookHarriet found he entered the strip no later than 1979. Summer says she kept finding a pattern, not shared with us readers, where Harley’s name popped up too much. And she read something in her mother’s diary about feeling watched. Harley curses himself for being a novice and starts to unreel the story that’s got everyone mad.

Because it turns out that Harley is not merely a janitor who’s been there since before they invented high-fiving. No. He is, in fact, a Custodian, one of a group of people from some other time, with a mission to tend “important nexus events in the timeline” so they’re not disrupted. You know, like in Voyagers!, which you remember from my childhood as somehow the only TV show even more awesomer than Battlestar Galactica. Or like the early-2000s Cartoon Network series Time Squad, which answered the question “what if Voyagers! had three main characters but they were all jerks?”

So he’s been around for forty years watching over Westview High School as a janitor. Apparently it wasn’t intended, exactly. It’s that his Time Helmet got stolen, years ago, by … Donna, who back in the 80s wore this goofy space-guy-ish helmet to play video games as “The Eliminator”. Part of modern Funky Winkerbean lore was that she had worn the helmet to disguise her identity. This way, fragile boys wouldn’t freak out at a guh-guh-guh-girl being good at video games. (Which, eh, fair enough.) (Also she got her Mom to call her ‘Donald’ to help her cover.)

We’ll get back to this in a second. But a lot of what has people mad about this is that the strip revisited The Eliminator’s helmet a few months ago. This in a story where Donna’s husband, Crazy Harry, found the helmet in the attic, put it on, and found himself somehow back in April of 1980. He met up with his high-school self. He told Young Lisa that Les Moore liked her in a not-at-all extremely creepy way. He almost told her to get regular mammograms. He bought a copy of Spider-Man’s debut (a comic book twenty years old at the time) at a convenience store. And lost it, for John The Comic Book Guy to find. And he blipped back to the present. Everyone agreed that was wild. It must have been a hallucination from the helmet outgassing, the way 40-year-old plastic will. Anyway after that weird yet harmless experience they throw the helmet out. But a stray cat wandered into it and blipped into hyperspace. This in just the way The Eliminator would back in the day.

Harley: 'I couldn't just take back the helmet from Donna without drawing attention and possibly disrupting the timeline ... so I gently nudged her mind to make her think that she created it ... ' We see in flashback young Donna picking up an issue of 'Eerie Comics' with something like the Time Helmet on it. Harley: 'And I touched the mind of the comic artist Ken Kelly to put it on a comic book cover to give her the inspiration for it.' Flashback to Donna playing Defender: 'I'm the Eliminator, the most feared video game player in the galaxy!' The Eliminator vanishes, Harley: 'So I knew where the helmet was should I need it! Although, I did get a fright the first time Donna disappeared from the present for a couple of seconds!'
Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’s Funky Winkerbean for the 27th of November, 2022. Again, not clear how this was easier than just breaking into Donna’s attic and swiping it in the decades that the helmet sat forgotten in a box there. The bit of Eliminator blipping out there reflects a common old Funky Winkerbean motif where wacky stuff would happen, like a character blipping into hyperspace. And apparently that needs explanation now because we can’t just have whimsy. Yes, that’s another thing to be mad about.

Back as it were to the present. So, Harley took a job as a janitor to be where he could watch over stuff. OK. He lost his Time Helmet when the young Donna swiped the cool-looking helmet form his supply closet. He couldn’t snag it back because that would disrupt the timeline. But he could touch her mind enough to make her think she’d made it herself, like she’d always told people. And touched the mind of comic book artist Ken Kelly to make a design that Donna would use as the basis for her helmet. Because that’s easier than touching Donna’s mind to bring the helmet back. And all this mind-touching isn’t creepy or weird so you will stop thinking it is, starting now [ snaps fingers ]. Anyway he figured he could always snag the Time Helmet if he really needed it … except that then it went missing a couple months ago and he has no idea where it went. It’s that cat wearing it.

There’s the first big thing everyone’s mad about: how the heck does it make sense to leave the Time Helmet lost in someone else’s attic for 40 years? And was his mission supposed to be “hang around Westview High School for forty years in case something happens?” And if that was the plan, then what Time Admiral’s great-grandmother did he punch out as a baby to draw that assignment?

Next big thing: what big nexus is it he’s there to protect? And can we shut down everything if his mission was being sure Les Moore wrote How Dead Lisa Died In The Most Tragically Tragic Thing That Ever Happened To Anyone Ever? In a twist, considering Dead Lisa has been the center of most every Funky Winkerbean story the past fifteen years, it is not. No, the thing that needs protection is the book that Summer Moore is about to start writing.

Yes. As you might think if you watched Bill And Ted Face The Music but missed the movie’s thesis that utopia can only be created as an active collaboration of all people, Summer Moore’s going to create a utopia. Specifically, her book connecting the grand sweeps of history to Westview inspires “a science of behavioral-patterend algorithms that will one day allow us to recognize humanity as our nation!” If I have this right, Harley means she lets them invent psychohistory, like in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels. In The End of Eternity and Foundation’s Edge, Asimov’s capstones to exploring the implications of a mathematically predictable future history, he concluded psychohistory would be a bad thing. I have to paraphrase because I don’t have the energy to dig up either book. But viewpoint characters come to see the future psychohistory creates as “condemned to neverending stasis by calculation”. I agree we could make a much better world if we treated all people as worthy of our brotherhood. But if the powerful can choose to shape future history they will not choose one for the good of the powerless.

Summer: 'You're here to make sure I write my book!? But what's so special about it?' Harley: 'Your ability to detect patterns will allow you to write a book that connects matters of ordinary small-town households to matters of immense consequence. What you write about sparks others to build on it to create a science of behavioral-patterned algorithms that will one day allow us to recognize humanity as our nation!'
Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’s Funky Winkerbean for the 2nd of December, 2022. Recommended reading: Katherine MacLean’s short story “The Snowball Effect”. Anyway, the pattern I would like explored is why this strip has major characters named Crazy Harry, Harry Dinkle, Holly Winkerbean, and now Harley Janitorman. What’s with all the two-syllable H-y names, huh?

So that’s what else has people mad. First, the declaration that yet another character in this strip is going to become an important author. Authors already in the strip have written a blockbuster biggest-movie-of-the-year superhero franchise, a bestselling memoir that got turned into an Oscar-winning movie, and an Eisner-winning graphic novel. Second, not even an important author but someone who makes a better future. Third, an author whose work is so important it’s worth having a league of Timecops send one of their members to while away his life watching over her. But not someone good enough to do things like “not lose his Time Helmet for forty years”. Also not good enough to “maybe get a job somewhere near where Summer spends ten years in college”. Or even a job “where Summer spent anything but four years of her life”. Fourth, that it’s toying with some respectable comic book or science fiction ideas, badly. As said, it’s fiddling with what you see in the Bill and Ted movies, or with The End of Eternity, but missing their points. And, what the heck, because all this is being presented in big blocks of exposition rather than, you know, a mystery. Summer’s presented in-text as though she had cracked an elaborate mystery. But we-the-readers never saw any clues or even more than maybe two people mentioning the janitor had been here forever.

Oh also, that we’ve never seen evidence that Summer writes, or is any good at writing. Sometimes a newcomer has an amazing talent, yes. To get back to Isaac Asimov, he write “Nightfall” — acclaimed for decades as the best science fiction short story ever — when he was about twenty. It was only his seventeenth published story. Writing about the experience, Asimov noted that, had someone told him the night before he began writing, “Isaac, you are about to write the greatest science fiction short story ever”, he would never have been able to start. He’d have been destroyed by the menace of that potential. I think we don’t have enough time for a clash between forces helping and hindering Summer’s writing. I can imagine the story, though; Jack Williamson wrote something like it, in the Legion of Time. I’m told, anyway. I haven’t read it.

Anyway, everybody likes that the strip is trying to go out bonkers. But it’s fumbling the ideas, so the plot points don’t hold up to casual scrutiny. And they’re being delivered in time zeppelins of word balloons. I’ll try to post updates, when they’re deserved. But again, Son of Stuck Funky is the place to really know what’s going on here.

Advertisement

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

23 thoughts on “Why Is Everyone Mad at _Funky Winkerbean_?”

  1. Time Janitor’s name is “Harley” so that his last name could be “Davidson”. Really, that’s his name. Try to contain your laughter at the hilarity.

    Like

    1. I had missed that (for all that I try to pay attention I also don’t take adequate notes) but, yeah, that checks out. And it fits the whole naming conventions of the comic strip universe here.

      Plausibly the name is a pseudonym anyway, since who knows what kind of Time Names they have in the era when he comes from.

      Like

    1. A great point. This time cop stuff has extensive consequences that we know TB is just not going to consider. An upcoming strip has Harley “nudging” a certain character’s mind to do something for another character which, if you go back and look at how it originally happened in the strip, resulted from the mentioned disappearance of another (minor) character. So did Harley make that character leave/die/phase out of existence?

      Like

      1. Oh, now, I can’t imagine there’s nearly enough time to consider this, but his or another time traveller’s meddling could be used to justify all sorts of weird little glitches in the overall continuity. (For the most part I don’t believe these are necessary; I’m happy to let drop something that’s now become awkward if we aren’t forced to keep thinking about it.) It could be funny if this “explained” the time glitch where Crankshaft and Funky Winkerbean were ten years apart and both took place in the present day, for example.

        Like

        1. At the risk being a spoiler… TB may yet wind up wading into the territory you are talking about here.

          Like

    2. This is an excellent question and I don’t know whether it’s worse if Harley was behind the killing of My Father John Darling. I guess Sunday we learned he wasn’t willing to have Susan Smith kill herself to make sure she doesn’t couple with Les Moore, but that’s not quite the same thing.

      Like

  2. Brilliant analysis. Unwinding this terrible, tangled, weird, plot and following it through all its nonsense has been too exhausting to even contemplate, so I’m glad you broke it down for me.

    Like

    1. You’re quite kind. Most of what I’ve been doing is reading a couple months’ worth of strips and then leaving out as much as I can. With some sidelines where, again, the Son of Stuck Funky work and particularly your research has explained so much. Thank you.

      Like

  3. So basically Tom Batiuk has gotten a case of Doctor Who Finale Disease, where everything has to be wrapped up in the biggest, most bombastic, nonsensical way possible.

    Like

    1. Somewhat, yes, although I think it’s also leaning into that thing where a 90s webcomic would suddenly introduce an overcomplicated mythology where some universe-threatening conspiracy has been at work all along and we have to focus on that suddenly.

      (It’s also made me realize Funky Winkerbean started very like a 90s webcomic in its style, with a center of a somewhat dull protagonist in the mundane world plus the wacky bunch around him and, one step farther out from his social circle, the real preposterous stuff.)

      Like

Please Write Something Funnier Than I Thought To

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: