So a little something roiled the normally calm world of ridiculing Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean. Last week the strip did one of its occasional grab-bag weeks, with just spot gags and no storyline or attempt at one. Before I get into that, let me share this link to my mathematics blog, since I did my usual Sunday comic-strip review over there. Thank you.
So. Snark-reading Tom Batiuk strips is usually pretty easy. The comic presents a couple of the lumpy, sad main characters talking about one of their ongoing problems, with something involving words used in slightly unusual ways in the last panel, while everyone smirks and waits for the death of joy. The snarky reader looks over this, points out the joke barely parses, and that the problem as presented could not happen because something or other does not work like that, or because he’s confused parts of the continuity. Then the snark readers wait for the next day. I’m not ruling myself out of this group, by the way. Rolling eyes at Tom Batiuk strips is one of the joys of being a comics fan who never gets enough chances to showcase learning what “bathos” meant for that vocabulary quiz in eighth grade. (Hi, Mrs Furey!)
And now I’d like to make my argument. Please feel free to disagree. Busiek’s right, by the way, that the deadly problem is the comic timing. The first two panels are nothing. Trying to make the punchline also carry the load of setting up the strip is a mess.
But I think the snark-blogging interpretation, that Donna or Crazy Harry has to be too stupid to be plausible, wrong here. I think that Donna’s supposed to be facetious. To say with a straight face the obviously ridiculous is so important to comedy that if we’re to rule it out then I can’t comment in any web forums or Usenet anymore. I think there are line readings that would make the joke work. At least work as well as it can given the attempt at jamming all the setup into the punchline.
Which is still a structural problem in the comic. Written comedy has limited powers to direct how a line should be read. A comic strip has a bit more power, since it can show characters reacting. But the Funky Winkerbean standard is to draw people moping, smirking, or despairing and that doesn’t offer much support for whimsy. A comic strip also has more power to suggest timing and where to pause a line and what to emphasize in it. But those tools aren’t used here.
So that’s my best attempt at making this Funky Winkerbean make sense: Donna is being silly and playful, and we don’t know how to react to that anymore. I’m curious what you kindly readers make it out to be.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose two points as the market digested reports that the Earth has an extra layer of tectonic plates within the mantle, which should be reassuring to everyone worrying about whether we had enough. It might have pushed the index higher still if we were sure we understood why it doesn’t look like any other planets or moons have tectonic plates, which seems like a weird oversight. Are we maybe looking for theirs in the wrong places or something?
Dan Davis, who’s worked on a bunch of comic books and pencils for Garfield, took over the art on Crankshaft starting with this Sunday, the 2nd of April. Rick Burchett, who’s won two Eisner awards, is to take over penciling for Funky Winkerbean starting with the Sunday, the 25th of May.
Ayers is, according to Batiuk, not leaving the Crankshaft world altogether: “Chuck and I will still be working on selected story arcs down the line. This is one of those rare examples in life of being able to have your cake and eat it too, and I couldn’t be happier as I move forward on Funky and Crankshaft with these titanically talented artists.”
The index rose eight points which some analysts are crediting to the traders remembering for once to say “rabbit, rabbit” first thing the 1st of the month. Some even said “rabbit, rabbit” the first thing Monday as the start of the working month, which started the usual squabble about what they’re doing on the weekends, then. Good question. It fully deserves an answer.
I mean, I want to. Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean is somehow in the second week of a story in which Funky Winkerbean tries to renew an expired driver’s license. And if that seems like not much of a storyline consider that Batiuk has decided to see just how big a jerk Funky can possibly be during it. Or possibly how big an idiot. Anyway it’s left me seething with rage and so I’m going to turn to more productive stuff like the mathematically-themed comics on my other blog and, oh, I don’t know. Here’s a screen grab from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Heart of Glory”, known as “that one from the first season where we started thinking maybe the show could be good after all”.
o/` Be-el-ze-bub has a devil put aside!
For me …
For Meeee …
FOR MEEEEEEEEEE! o/`
If you want to put in your own different caption here, please, go ahead.
Thanks, all. Boy am I angry at Funky Winkerbean.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose one point in trading described as “partly cloudy” and with “smatterings of applause”. We have no explanation for what this should mean.
So something weird has happened with story strips lately. I suppose it’s coincidence, properly. But something’s happened to them since last year’s Apartment 3-Gocalypse. I figured to take some time and write about them. I’m going to start with the strip that had the most dramatic and first big change of the lot, one going back far before the end of that comic.
I’m not sure when I started reading Dick Tracy as an adult. I know it was in the 2000s, and that it was encouraged by partners in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips. And that’s because the strip was awful. Not just bad, mind you, but awful in a super-spectacular fashion. The kind the most punishing yet hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes are based on. In the last years of his tenure on the comic Dick Locher’s storytelling had collapsed into something like a structuralist parody of comics. Nothing would happen, at great length, endlessly repeated. I observed that if you put together a week’s worth of the daily strips — which the Houston Chronicle web site used to make easy to do — you could read the panels top down, first panel of each day of the week, then second panel, then third panel, and have exactly as coherent a story. It was compelling in its outsider-art insanity.
That came to an end (and I’m shocked to realize this) over five years ago. From the 14th of March, 2011, the team of Joe Staton and Mike Curtis took over. The change was immediately obvious: the art alone was much more controlled, more precise, and easier to read than Locher’s had been. And the stories had stuff happen. My understanding is Staton and Curtis were under editorial direction to have no story last more than a month; Locher’s last years had averaged about three to four months per storyline.
So finally we had a story strip with pacing. You know, the way they had in the old days. There were drawbacks to this. Four or five weeks at three panels a day — more can’t really fit — plus the long Sunday installments still doesn’t give much space. To introduce a villain, work out a scheme, have Tracy do something about it, and wrap it up? Challenging work. The first several stories I came out thinking that I didn’t know precisely what had happened, but I’d enjoyed the ride.
They’ve had several years now, and are still going strong. They’re allowed longer stories now. They’ve gotten to be astoundingly good at planting stuff for future stories. They’re quite comfortable dropping in a panel that doesn’t seem to mean anything — sometimes with the promise that it will be returned to — so they have the plot point on the record when they need it a year or more later. And they’ve brought a fannish glee to the stories. I still don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but the pace and the art and the glee are too good to pass up.
Staton and Curtis show all signs of knowing everything that has ever appeared in pop culture, ever. And they’re happy to bring it in to their comic. Some of this is great. They brought [ Little Orphan ] Annie into the strip, resolving the cliffhanger that that long-running-yet-cancelled story strip ended on. And has brought her back a couple times after. They’ve called in Brenda Starr — another long-running-yet-cancelled story strip — for research. They spent a week with Funky Winkerbean for some reason, which might be how Sam Catchem’s wife got cancer.
And they’ve dug through the deep, bizarre canon of Dick Tracy. I mean, they brought back The Pouch, a minor criminal who after losing hundreds of pounds of weight sewed snap-tight pouches into his acres of flesh, the better to be an informer and courier when not selling balloons to kids. I love everything about how daft that is.
Back in the 60s the comic’s creator, Chester Gould, went a little mad and threw in a bunch of nonsense about Moon People and magnetic spaceships and all that and wrote funny stuff about how this was just as grounded in fact as the scientific investigation methods of Tracy. One might snicker and respectfully not disagree with that. But it was a lot of silly Space Race goofiness, fun but probably wisely not mentioned after the mid-70s.
So they brought this back, and mentioned it. Not just in passing; a major theme in the comic the past five years have been struggles for Diet Smith’s Space Coupe technologies and the mystery of whatever happened to the Moon Valley and the making of new, cloned-or-whatever Moon Maid with electric superpowers and everything. I suppose it’s plausible if we grant this silliness happened that it would become big stuff, certainly for Tracy’s circles. But could we have let the silliness alone? Space-opera antics are fun, and there’s no other comic strip that can even try at them, but Dick Tracy is supposed to be a procedural-detective strip about deformed people committing crimes and dying by their own, if detective-assisted, hands.
A matter of taste. There’s something to be said for embracing, as far as plausible, the implications of world-breaking stuff the comic did in the 60s.
Less disputable, though: everything in the strip is a freaking reference to something else anymore. Everything. There’s less referential seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not just to Dick Tracy‘s long history, or even to other story strips. They made the Jumble word game part of a storyline. Last year they went to a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol with Mister Magoo for crying out loud. Think about that. Earlier this year villain Abner Kadaver lured Tracy to the Reichenbach Falls with just a reference to meet him at “the fearful place”, because of course Tracy would pick up on that reference. And yes, they struggled at the falls and went over the side. I don’t think we’ve seen his body, although Kadavner’s even more immune to death than normal for compelling villains in this sort of story.
Tracy got rescued, of course. By an obsessed fan. Not of Tracy; he’s already been through that story in the Staton-Curtis regime. An obsessed fan of Sherlock Holmes, who insists on thinking Tracy is actually Holmes and won’t listen to anything contradicting him. An obsessed fan named Dr Bulwer Lytton. Good grief.
I was set for a little Misery-style knockoff, but Staton and Curtis faked me out. They do that often, must say, and with ease and in ways that don’t feel like cheats. That’s one of the things that keeps me enthusiastic about the strip. Instead of an intense psychological thriller about how to make his escape, Tracy just stands up and declares he’s had enough of this. Mercifully sane. But part of me just knows, Staton and Curtis were trying to think of a way to have Graham Champan wearing a colonel’s uniform step on panel and declare this had all got very silly and they were to go on to the next thing now. I figure they’re going to manage that within the next two years.
It’s quite worth reading, if you can take the strangeness of advancing a complicated story in a few moments a day and that not everything will quite hang together. But the more attention you pay the more you realize how deftly crafted everything about it is.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The alternate Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose five points. Trading was hurried as everyone had forgotten to do anything until market analysts came in just before deadline to ask how things had turned out so they could say why that happened instead of something else entirely. Now analysts are trying to figure out if any of this happened for a reason or if traders were just throwing any old nonsense together. They’re suspicious.
If you’ve ever entered “funky winkerbean” into Google for some reason you’ve probably noticed the autocompletes are “misery porn” or “depressing” or “cancer cancer cancer cancer death die cancer death”. I haven’t checked recently but that’s all right. The strip made a staggering reputation for itself in the 90s and 2000s when Tom Batiuk decided to make it a serious issue-addressing strip by making everybody in it miserable and giving lead character Les Moore’s wife Lisa the traits of (a) being Les Moore’s wife and (b) having plot cancer. It’s an especially pernicious kind of cancer, what with how it can reappear years after a heartwarming conclusion just when the author thinks the readers least expect it, even though the readers have been saying in the comments section how they expect it ever since it went into remission.
So. Funky’s Ambiguous Relative (I think he’s a nephew maybe?) Wally had it particularly hard during the Misery Porn years. He went from troubled youth to soldier in Afghanistan, where he was captured by Enemy Forces and held captive for years. He was freed, though, and went home, but it turned out he still had a day of service left and so was called back to duty and shipped to Iraq. And by this point the readers’ relationship with Funky Winkerbean was so bad that even if this were based on something that actually happened to somebody it didn’t matter. None of us were buying it. And then he got captured by More Enemy Forces and held for … a very long time.
It’s hard to say how long. While Wally Winkerbean was off in Enemy Forces hands the strip did its second big “time jump”. This was a half-considered flash-forward after the Death Of Lisa Moore, Who Somehow Keeps Appearing In The Comics A Lot Considering How Dead She Is. The purpose of this was to allow Les Moore to transition from being a widower traumatized by his wife’s recent death from plot cancer into being a widower who’s somehow not even remotely over his wife’s death ten years before. I mean, to an extent I’m sympathetic. Should I outlive my love by a decade-plus I know there will be days I will be miserable, like anniversaries and my love’s birthday and some other special days. “Special days” does not mean, as it does to Moore, “weekdays, plus Sundays, and Saturdays too”. My love understands: a decade on, there will be days I smile even without having a reason.
Anyway, during the time jump, in which Funky Winkerbean got everybody ten years older and more decrepit while sister strip Crankshaft didn’t even though the comics share a universe and sometimes cross over into each other, Wally was held captive. Was he captive for more than ten years? Or was his captivity just retconned into the recent-yet-now-technically-unseen past? Good question and nobody has the faintest idea, Wally included.
As you might imagine Wally came out of this with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a terrible case. Its primary trigger is being seen on-panel for his one storyline a year, which is about how he’s totally over his post-traumatic stress disorder unlike when he thought he was last year and now he’s ready to take some classes at Local Community College. And then we got to last week’s iteration of the story, in which Wally’s regularly present female companion of some relationship interrupts Funky’s work on his Tiny Laptop with a plan that can’t in any way possibly go wrong:
OK. Since the second Time Warp (the first one was in the early 90s when original characters finally graduated high school, then came back to work at the high school and suffer for it) Funky Winkerbean has moved away from its Misery Porn incarnation. It’s been much more about aged people sitting around being depressed. Also about praising this imaginary comic-book franchise named Starbuck Jones that’s produced some nice looking Silver Age-style covers and no actual stories. And the occasional halfhearted attempt to bring back the pre-1992 era’s flights of fancy and even whimsy. And yet I keep looking back on this strip and, well, see the subject line here.
If you have any explanation you’re doing better than Tom Batiuk.
SPOILER: Nothing went wrong and Wally is totally over his post-traumatic stress disorder unlike when he thought he was last year and now he’s ready to take some classes at Local Community College!
OK, first, I want to alert people to some of my mathematics blog entries. These are the comic strip roundups, and I get to talk a bit about what makes them mathematical and, sometimes, even what makes them funny. There was one back on Tuesday, yes, but it was a busy week and I had another installment on Saturday which I padded out to appear on Sunday too. Though there were more strips than I expected so this split was kind of legitimate after all.
Now, in other news, I’d been quivering with impotent fanboy rage over the past week’s run of Funky Winkerbean, by Tom Batiuk. As you might have noted if you read any comics blog ever, the strip has long been a soap operatic parade of misery and doom, interrupted by confusing “time warps” where the characters suddenly get ten years older and more decrepit while their backstories make slightly less sense. Though since the last time warp Batiuk has been going on a slightly different tack: instead of every character suffering personal injury and professional humiliation, they’re instead being given exactly what they might dream of, only to have it shrivel up and die in their hands. It’s an exciting bathetic direction to take.
This brings us to the past week, in which Boy Lisa — the kid who appears in ever-receding shade in the above strip — finishes illustrating the graphic novel Les whipped up as a belated first and second anniversary present for his wife Cayla last year. And, yes, he forgot his first anniversary. This is because Les is obsessed with his dead first wife Lisa, who died, in-strip, eighteen to twenty years ago. And yet Lisa is ever foremost in his thoughts. He wrote a successful book about how she got breast cancer and died. He does a charity run every autumn. When he was put in charge of the high school reunion he made sure the memorial wall to Lisa was adequate, but failed to actually book a venue to host it. He chats with her ghost on a surprisingly regular basis. He was somehow around when a made-for-TV adaptation of his book collapsed just as he was angst-ridden over how they were disrespecting her story. He says more to and about her than he does to his actual present wife, a woman whom I hope has more to live for than the attention and affection of her defectively-eyebrowed husband.
And the strip has given Les the terrible, ingenious idea to have Les write some more about Lisa. (Here’s how they met: they had a class together. Later, she left the school because she was pregnant, but Les ran into her.)
This can’t all be coincidence, right? The ironic reading of Funky Winkerbean is one of the Internet’s largest growth industries — you’re part of it right now — and he’s just decided to give up and write for that readership, hasn’t he?
So, Wednesday’s Funky Winkerbean, by noted depression advocate Tom Batiuk. It’s not funny, to start with. It’s less so because a couple months ago Batiuk ran a sequence where the coach was recruited by the head of the Diversity University-Ironton — GET IT? GET IT? BETTER SAY YES — “Fighting Consensus Builders”, which was apparently intended to be the actual literal name of the Diversity University-Ironton DO YOU GET IT YET? football team, and because the team at the high school where all the characters slouch towards death together is literally the “Scapegoats”, so with “Scapegoats” and “Consensus Builders” as actual team names is “Chances” really that inherently implausible?
Anyway, I’m captivated not simply by its general badness, or how everyone is gathered around the world’s itty-bittiest dining table ever, but by wondering what was the topic of conversation which caused the long-faced Optimism High character, whose name, and I swear I am not making this up, was “Mason Jarr”, to decide the logical next thing to say was, “My high school was called `Optimism High’ and the football team was `The Fighting Chances’.” And now that I hopefully have infected you with the problem of worrying what the setup was, I hope that I don’t have to think about it any further. Thank you.
 See, the reason this is funny is because the comic strip’s title character is a recovering alcoholic, and another character lost her arm, and her ability to play the flute, and her chance to go to Julliard, to an accident caused by drunk driving. The drunk driver then joined the Army and went to Afghanistan where he was kidnapped and held prisoner for years. After his release he was sent to Iraq where he was kidnapped and held prisoner again, for even more years, after which he came home to find his wife, thinking him dead, had remarried and wanted nothing to do with him, and I am not making up a syllable of this. See how funny a name Diversity University-Ironton is now?
So in all the anticipatory fuss about the comic strip The Better Half coming to its kind of noticed end after 58 years, which is nine years longer than Peanuts, is that another longrunning comic strip you kind of remember seems to be vanishing.
The past week, Bill Asprey’s Love Is…, which is not just a Simpsons joke about two naked eight-year-olds who are married but is actually a thing that exists in the real world, has been rather less obviously existing. It used to appear on gocomics.com, and stopped about a year or so ago; it’d since been appearing on comic sites for newspapers with the right Comics Kingdom subscription, but now that’s gone too. Their official web site still exists, but it’s useless, and if it contains any daily comics I can’t find them.
The comic strip began as a set of love notes that Kim Casali wrote her future husband, Roberto, and it emerged into the newspapers in early 1970. When Roberto was diagnosed with cancer Casali brought in Bill Asprey to work on the strip, and he’s been producing it since 1975, facts which I think add a useful bittersweet touch to a comic strip that’s otherwise very lightweight. Of course, the strip has been running for 44 years now, 17 years longer than Walt Kelly’s Pogo originally ran, and trying to think of something like 13,700 illustratable one-panel expressions of love (the strip doesn’t run Sundays) is a pretty difficult task.
I have no idea what’s happening with it: whether the strip is going out of production, whether its Tribune Media Services syndicate is repositioning it, whether it’s changing syndicates, whether it’s becoming self-syndicated, whether something else is happening.
Since I don’t want to just point you to the lastest roundup of mathematics comics over in my other blog without something that’s also entertaining, let me give you this Sunday’s Funky Winkerbean. Every time you think Tom Batiuk’s produced the most depressing Funky Winkerbean ever, along he comes with the most depressing Funky Winkerbean ever.