Something weird occurred the other day on the comics page.
A gag slipped through.
Just kidding. That’s obviously an overstatement though maybe not much of one.
With “Doonesbury” sticking it to Whitewater investigator Kenneth Star, “Cathy” moaning over her weight, “Dilbert” slandering management, “Sally Forth” fighting the gender battle and “For Better or Worse” exploring every family-oriented subject from dead pets to gay children, contemporary comics seem to be less concerned with humor than they are in competition with Ann Landers.
Think about it: Both explore this drama we call existence and offer a point of view on what it means.
And the view isn’t always funny.
Rather, it isn’t always just funny.
“Now and then I think about this, and I kind of marvel about what’s going on,” says Tom Batiuk, whose strip “Funky Winkerbean” just celebrated its 25th anniversary. “I’m doing things with Funky now that I just couldn’t have anticipated would happen.”
No comic strip has pushed the humor envelope on real-life issues more that “Funky Winkerbean,” which runs daily in more than 350 newspapers (including The Spokesman-Review). Here’s just a fraction of what Batiuk has been up to:
In 1986, one of his high-schoolage characters got pregnant.
In 1994, a character brought a handgun to school.
In 1995, a young woman character fell in love with her English teacher and, when he gently rebuffed her affections, she attempted suicide.
In 1996, a bomb blast severely injured one of the strip’s major characters.
And just recently, an arsonist set fire to the strip’s major hangout, Montoni’s Pizza, nearly killing the characters who live upstairs.
What is going on here?
Natural evolution, Batiuk says.
When he began “Funky Winkerbean” on March 27, 1972, Batiuk was a 25-year-old cartoonist who seemed to be purposely unaware of the furor then affecting American society. The Vietnam War was still a focus of the nation’s rage, Watergate was just beginning to heat up and all the rest of the post-‘60s-era concerns - sexism, racism, the Cold War, social-welfare programs - hogged the daily headlines.
In the midst of this, Batiuk’s strip existed as if in another dimension. His characters were mostly students whose main interests involved air-guitar contests, flaming-baton routines, bullies roaming the hallways, student popularity polls and how to survive the daily humiliations of gym class.
Since then, real life has intruded on Batiuk in a variety of ways. A major factor was the birth of his son, Brian, who now attends high school in the Cleveland suburb of Medina, Ohio, where Batiuk and his family live.
“Fatherhood makes you grow up a little,” Batiuk told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Fatherhood changes how you view a lot of things, changes how you do the work. You start taking a longer view of things.”
And once you take that view, it’s impossible to revert. Innocence lost is gone forever. Batiuk discovered that after the teen-pregnancy story line ran its course.
“When you’ve taken a character like Les, for example, and you’ve had him deal with a situation where he was a Lamaze partner for a high-school girl, it’s hard to take him back and have him being a neophyte freshman dealing with school problems only,” Batiuk said in a 1992 Spokesman-Review interview. “Something like that has to forever change him.”
And his creator, in more ways than one.
These days, “Funky Winkerbean” not only tackles serious themes, but it addresses them in a more serious manner.
“When I first started, I did this sort of reactive humor, a kind of gag-a-day thing,” Batiuk says. That, he adds, “evolved into a more sitcom kind of thing, where there would be a situation and the humor kind of came out of that.”
Now, he says, what basically starts out as a premise becomes a narrative over which he “layers” humor.
“So it’s more behavioral,” Batiuk says. “It’s what people would really say in situations, the kind of natural humor that you hear people banter about all the time.”
For example: In an early strip, the strip’s everyman namesake tells us, “My name is Funky. I’m just an average kid trying to figure out a confusing world … not to mention plane geometry.”
And now: In the Montoni’s fire sequence, Batiuk devoted weeks to the setup. First, Funky’s cousin, Wally Winkerbean, seemed to have found the perfect romantic parking spot - the dark alley behind the pizza parlor. Then, after seeing a mystery figure set the fire, Wally struggles to save teacher/writer Les Moore and his new wife, Lisa.
Finally, everyone tries to solve the mystery.
Throughout, Batiuk keeps the gag lines to a minimum. And when they do come, they aren’t exactly knee-slappers.
“I’m sure that whoever set fire to Montoni’s was trying to destroy the information on the John Darling murder that I have on this disk,” says Les, holding up a computer disk. “Apparently I’ve got someone pretty worried.”
Standing next to him, wrapped in a blanket, Lisa looks on with amazement. “You’ve got them worried!?” she says.
Of course, what Batiuk sacrifices in pure humor he makes up for in such real-life interplay - between Wally and his high-school friends but also among the former high-school, now adult, cast. And especially between newlyweds Les and Lisa.
Batiuk arranged this multilevel cast in 1992 when, in the course of a weekend, he graduated Funky, Les, Crazy Harry, Cindy Summers and the others from high school and propelled them straight through their college years. Come Monday, all were beginning their first job searches.
Les was hired by Westview High, the same school whose corridors he had worked as a hall monitor. Funky went to work at Montoni’s. Cindy Summers, the most popular girl at Westview, became a local television news reporter. And Westview bully Bull Bushka hired on as the assistant, eventually head, football coach.
“When I made the change, I thought, ‘Well, you want to avoid getting into a rut,”’ Batiuk says. “And when I look back on it, I realize I was in a rut… Now I find that I can tear off in all kinds of different directions because I have this cast, and I have a history to this cast.”
He plans to take advantage of that history as he mines future subjects.
One will involve racism at a Chinese restaurant that opens next to Montoni’s. Another, set for Aug. 3, will be the solution to the John Darling murder.
And someday, way off in the future, he even hints about an event that once would have been considered unthinkable - a wedding between Funky and Cindy.
As all this occurs, Batiuk wants to emphasize one point: Far from having eliminated humor from the strip, he’s merely changed it.
“I recognize that comedy is what makes it unique,” Batiuk says. “It’s what differentiates me from the ‘Mary Worths’ and the ‘Rex Morgans.’ It’s not ‘Dilbert,’ but it’s not ‘Spiderman,’ either.”
So, then, what is it?
“It’s like when I go to see a play,” he says. “The kinds of plays that I like are plays were you have a hard time telling where the comedy begins. It just merges, like in real life.
“And I like that very much. It’s what I’ve always gravitated toward.”
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