Comic strip, creator age gracefully
By THOMAS J. SHEERAN
Like two aging baby boomers, “Funky Winkerbean” and creator Tom Batiuk have turned gray and have experienced their share of life’s ups and downs in a 40-year run on the funny pages.
Batiuk, 65, has morphed his characters over the years from mop-headed beatniks to graying 60-somethings, much like the changes for Batiuk, his hair over his collar in the 1970s but now graying and cut short.
The story lines have changed, too, from high school hijinks and awkward teen-dating moments in the early years to dealing with more adult issues such as alcoholism, suicide and fighting cancer. His latest hot-topic story line during May: two boys who want to go to the high school prom together.
The strip debuted in more than 70 papers March 27, 1972, and has grown to about 400. The first strip introduced the high school-age characters, including Funky (“I’m just an average kid”) and Les (“I really want to be far out like Roland”) and issues important to teens, including meeting a girl, getting a date and dealing with acne.
To Batiuk, delving back into the high school years with the gay prom issue underscores the generational changes and contemporary challenges his characters faced once he decided to let them begin aging along with Batiuk and the rest of us.
“I had crossed the threshold, and I had grown up, and the characters wanted to grow up too, it seemed like,” Batiuk said in an interview in his cozy and bright studio jammed with books and mementos.
“Funky Winkerbean” might have a lower profile in mainstream culture than, say, “Doonesbury,” possibly because “Funky” was a gag cartoon in the early years when society was highly politicized in the Vietnam era and has become more issue-oriented since the 1990s, said industry watcher Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.
Batiuk has taken Funky, Les and companions up the gym climbing rope in terror, through the ordeal of teen bullying, that first dating kiss and even Lisa’s struggle with cancer. One paper pulled the strip during the cancer story line and complained that it wasn’t funny.
Himself a cancer survivor, Batiuk said Lisa’s cancer, though traumatic for a funny-page audience resistant to change, opened new opportunities for him.
“After that story, I realized that I could go forward,” he said. “It sort of opened the door for me.”
Such issues may depress some readers and turn away younger ones, said Charles Coletta, an instructor in pop culture at Bowling Green State University.
“He’s dealing with alcoholism and people losing limbs and cancer and all of this stuff,” Coletta said. “I don’t think he’s going to be attracting lots of younger readers with this. It’s all sort of, kind of sad a little bit.”
For Batiuk, though, the cartoon’s ups and downs were kind of like growing up and dealing with life.
“It became more nuanced, and it became more complicated,” he said.
The strip is a “very profitable” superstar, said Brendan Burford, comics editor at the strip’s King Features Syndicate, who added that the aging of Funky has sharpened Batiuk’s storytelling.
What will Batiuk do when it’s time to retire? He wouldn’t criticize end-of-career cartoonists who have passed their strips onto relatives or collaborators, but said he doubted he would do it.