What can you say about a 50-year-old comic strip that died? That it loved the Barry Allen Flash and the mythical Marvel Bullpen? That it was full of names that were not exactly jokes but were odd without hitting that Paul Rhymer-esque mellifluous absurdity? That it spent the last ten years with no idea how to pace its plot developments? Yes, it was all that, but more, it got a lot of people mad at it.
This is not to say that Funky Winkerbean was a bad strip. Outright bad strips aren’t any fun to snark on. You have to get something that’s good enough to read on its own, but that’s also trying very hard to be something it’s faceplanting at. So let me start by saying there’s a lot that was good about Tom Batiuk’s work. The strip started as a goofball slice-of-life schooltime wackiness strip. It would’ve fit in with the web comics of the late 90s or early 2000s. It transitioned into a story-driven, loose continuity strip with remarkable ease. And it tried to be significant. That it fell short of ambitions made it fun to gather with other people and snark about, and to get mad about. Still, credit to Tom Batiuk for having ambition and acting on it. It allowed us to have a lot of fun for decades.
Enough apologia; now, what’s going on and why is everyone angry about it? Last week’s get-together of the whole Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft gang at St Spires was the last we’ve seen of our cast. Monday started in some vaguely Jetsonian future drawn by comic book celebrity John Byrne. (Byrne has drawn for Funky Winkerbean in the past, most notably for several months while Tom Batiuk recovered from foot surgery. I think Byrne also helped redesign the characters to their modern level of photorealism. I may have that credit wrong.)
This epilogue week stars Future Lisa, granddaughter of Summer Moore and great-granddaughter of Les and Lisa Moore. For a birthday treat Future Lisa’s mother takes her by Future Car to “the outskirts”, that is to say, Crankshaft. Future Car has the design of that spaceship toy made from the gun that murdered My Father John Darling. They’re there to go to an antiquarian bookstore, “one of the last to survive the burnings”. The term suggests a dystopia before a utopia, which is a common enough pattern in science fiction stories.
The bookstore is the little hobby business of Lillian Probably-Has-A-Last-Name, from Crankshaft. The old-in-our-time Lillian isn’t there, but a pretty nice-looking robot with a lot of wheels is. Since the bookstore is only (apparently) accessible by stairs I’m not sure how the robot gets in there. I guess if it only has to be delivered here once it can be badly designed for stairs. I had assumed the bookstore was desolate, since the sign for it was hanging on only a single hook. I forgot one of the basic rules for Tom Batiuk universes, though, which is that signs are never hung straight. This sounds like snark but I’m serious. Signs are always hung or, better, taped up a little off-level.
Future Mom’s brought her daughter there to get a “tree copy” of Summer Moore’s Westview, the book that made the future swell. We saw her starting to do interviews for it when time Agent Harley, whom the Son of Stuck Funky folks aptly named TimeMop, shared a dream-or-was-it.
Future Lisa sees beside Summer’s sociological text other books on the same shelf. Fallen Star, Les Moore’s first book, a true-crime book of how he solved the murder of My Father John Darling. Strike Four, which I mistook for Jim Bouton’s baseball memoir. Strike Four is in fact a collection of Crankshaft strips about the title character’s baseball career. Elemental Force, the anti-climate-change superhero book published by Westview-area publisher Atomik Comix. And Lisa’s Story, Les Moore’s memoir about how his wife chose to die rather than take the medical care that might extend her life with Les. Future Lisa can’t help but ask: what are a sociological study, a true-crime book, a baseball comic, a superhero comic, and a dead-wife memoir doing sharing a shelf? Does this bookstore have any organizational scheme whatsoever? (And yes, of course: these are all books by local authors. Except for Strike Four, which shouldn’t exist as we know it in-universe.)
So they get both Westview and Lisa’s Story. The last Funky Winkerbean is Future Mom telling Future Lisa it’s bedtime. Stop reading Lisa’s Story because it’s bedtime, and “the books will still be there tomorrow”. As many have snarked, this does read as Tom Batiuk making the last week of his strip yet another advertisement for the story about how Lisa Moore died. This differs from most of the post-2007 era of the comic strip by happening later than it. For those with kinder intentions, you can read this more as a statement of how, even though the strip is done, everything about it remains. It can be reread and we hope enjoyed as long as you want. And that it’s appropriate for Lisa’s Story to stand in for this as it is the central event defining so much of the comic’s run.
And with this, you are as caught-up on Funky Winkerbean as it is possible or at least wise to be. I can’t say what comic strip you will go on to be mad about. It feels like nothing will ever be that wonderfully maddening again. No, it will not be 9 Chickweed Lane; that’s too infuriating to be any fun getting mad reading. But there’ll be something. We thought comic strip snarking would never recover from the collapse of For Better Or For Worse, and maybe it hasn’t been that grand again, but Funky Winkerbean was a lot of fun for a good long while.
10 thoughts on “Why is everyone mad at _Funky Winkerbean_ this week? (December 31, 2022)”
When do we get the Galaxy premiere of “Funky: A Musical”? With the chart busting tunes “The ‘Ls’ Will Be Curly (Tomorrow)”,”Super-Cali-Fragalistic-Expy-A la-Les Moore”, “Bite Me, Gary Traudau” and “The Cancer Man Can”
Wikipedia claims there already was a Funky: The Musical, which hardly seems possible, but then I guess there was a musical based on Luann so who knows what’s possible?
Does the Robbie have “To Serve Tom Batiuk’s Ego”?It should be in the cooking section.
Oh, I don’t know. I almost never look at the cooking section myself. I spend all my time in the comics and the pop science and the Boring History sections myself.
Excellent write-up. What is most frustrating to me is that Batiuk could have chosen to end his strip the way Johnston or Jan Eliot ended theirs by telling the future of all of their characters who weren’t going to leap to Crankshaft. Or he could have chosen to have Winkerbean enjoy his retirement from pizza and move to Florida (or some other sunny clime) and show him and Holly walking on the beach in the final panel. Instead, Batiuk will be remembered for hawking his books in his final moments instead of telling a story and now the moment is gone.
Well, thank you; I hope to be at least fair even when I’m snarking on a comic strip.
I agree that it could have been very easy to end the strip in a nice, easy, conventional way. Have Montoni’s close and everyone comes around to say what the place and each other meant to them. Or have a big Christmas party and similarly. Or do little week-long vignettes of everyone’s future lives. Nice, easy, safe, sure to work.
So I do admire that he wanted to go for something bonkers, first with the Time Janitor and then, after a weird last look at everyone, a zip ahead to the utopian future. It ended up showcasing a lot of the things that annoyed readers about the comic strip, but I can’t hate it for taking a crazy long shot.
Just to be ‘that (funky winklebean)guy’ I’ll put on a Winklebean-ish smirk and say, “Jim Bouton’s book was “Ball Four” not “Strike Four”
Not to worry! But you see from the thematic similarity of the titles why I got them conflated. It was a day or two before I realized that oh, yeah, Bouton’s book was Ball Four, which is a shame. If Future Lisa had grabbed a copy of Bouton’s book instead we all would have had to tip our caps to Tom Batiuk.