This is probably the most inessential of posts, but I thought the AV Club did a fantastic look at Funky Winkerbean before it became “tedious in its constant defaulting to misery.”
Those who’ve only experienced Funky in its current form might be shocked by how bright and funny the comics are in The Complete Funky Winkerbean Volume I: 1972-1974 (available from The Kent State University Press’ Black Squirrel Books imprint). Coming across like a hybrid of Doonesbury at its silliest and Peanuts at its most contemporary, the Funky Winkerbean of the ’70s was intended as a pleasant diversion, not a daily reminder of our impending doom. The title character is an ordinary middle-American high-schooler, hanging out with his nerdy friend Les, his activist friend Roland, his feminist friend Livinia, his black friend Derek, and his spaced-out friend Crazy Harry. Much like Morrie Turner’s groundbreaking, multicultural Wee Pals, the “jokes” in the early Funky Winkerbean are often little more than in-the-moment references to some social issue or trend, framed by some character’s raised eyebrows. But Batiuk developed the world of the strip fairly quickly, making the characters distinctive as people, not just generic mouthpieces for punchlines.
And that matters, because too often cartoonists try to make comic strips “relevant” by turning them into cranky polemics.
Long time readers — and I do mean long time readers — might remember that, on the older version of this site, I was periodically obsessed with the current misery of Funky. I never quite maintained the momentum, though it seems that Chris Sims at Comics Alliance has pretty much picked up the slack for all of us with FunkyWatch, chronicling the most depressing Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft strips of the month.
The article, by the way, touches on a point that I raised in the talk on comics I gave at a class recently: while the death of newspapers is one of the leading causes as to why comic strips are falling out of favor with pop culture at large, another major reason is that newspaper strips are just out of touch these days.
For every Peanuts, Calvin And Hobbes, or Cul De Sac—where children’s lives are shown as complex and relatable, even to adults—there are dozens of strips that render kids merely as smart-asses, cutie-pies, or hellacious scourges. One of the worst of the newer strips in that regard is Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin, which debuted in 2010 and is meant to be about the latest generation of underemployed college graduates who are moving back in with their parents because they can’t afford to live on their own. That’s a timely premise, and yet as written and drawn by Kelley and Parker, Dustin himself is a lazy idiot who couldn’t hold down a decent job even if the economic conditions were favorable. There’s little attempt in Dustin to see the world through its protagonist’s eyes; there’s only strip after strip designed to illustrate how spoiled and useless young people are today.
Partly that’s the fault of the newspaper industry itself, which is so stingy with slots for comics that the few new strips that get picked up tend to be bland, sitcom-style cartoons trafficking in the usual clichés: incompetent bosses, wacky neighbors, and These Kids Today With Their Cell Phones And Their Heavy Metal Music. For innovation in the daily comics form, fans have to pick through the ever-growing thicket of webcomics; the newspaper page isn’t exactly leading the way.
I love that term: “the ever-growing thicket of webcomics.” It’s a phrase that’s both optimistic and ominous.