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death in the funny pages
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)
pop culture

So here you are, a couple of Wednesdays ago. You sit down in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, and wait for your faithful hound to retrieve the morning paper from the driveway. Before heading to the stock pages to find out how your immense fortune is doing, you do what most human beings do and head to the funny pages. You open them up and scan through for your morning dose of humor... and that's when you get to tragedy and death.

There's a lot to dislike about the funny pages. It's a tangled mess of syndication and cookie-cutter soulless strips with very few really shining bright spots. At least three of the strips that are a staple in everybody's morning comics, coast-to-coast, are written by people who are dead, some for years. It really shows, because the humor starts to get really poor. Dead people aren't big on the funny.

This is evidenced even further by the fact that on the same day, a couple of weeks ago, we saw a stroke (For Better or For Worse) and a death (Funky Winkerbean) just inches apart in the funny pages. Nobody laughed.

I don't think this is necessarily wrong. You're a comic artist. You're successful, syndicated, and want to explore some more serious topics with your strip? You should be allowed to do that. The funny pages have a lion's share of complete phoned-in crap content. Nobody should be penalized for taking an active interest in the quality and direction of their own strip. You see it happen here or there. B.D., a character in Doonesbury, lost a leg fighting in the war in Iraq. Get Fuzzy also featured a character (Rob's cousin) who lost a limb in Iraq. I think you can even still put For Better or For Worse on this list. It's a pretty cutesy comic overall, and while the stroke has been a recurring theme, I'm not sure we're going to see any jokes in the future where grandpa is struggling with his speech, or trying to change a colostomy bag and looking exasperated as other characters laugh it off.

There are a lot of (intentionally) un-funny comic strips, and while they might occasionally be (unintentionally) funny, that's not what they're there for. I'm thinking of things like The Phantom, Mark Trail, Apartment 4-G, Prince Valiant, Gil Thorpe, etc. They're little soap operas. They deal with all the kinds of schmaltzy things you'd expect a soap opera to deal with, all with their own theme. If Apartment 4-G is your normal soap opera, then Gil Thorpe is like a soap opera with high school footballers, and Mark Trail is like a soap opera with geese. Characters die in these comics, and it's no big deal. They're serious comics and you expect that.

In the past few years, almost every character in Funky Winkerbean has been stricken with some sort of condition, disease, or character flaw. There have been murders. Most recently, the character Lisa, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer some time back, was told that her cancer had gone into remission only to find out (later) that her diagnosis had been mixed up with somebody else's and that in actuality her cancer had become more aggressive and that she only had a short while to live. After weeks and weeks of comics depicting an agonizing decline, she was led into the afterlife by a mime.

Don't get me wrong. This strip has had some very compelling and touching moments in the past few months, but looking back over the past fiteen years of the strip has made one thing painfully obvious to me: Tom Batuik is an angry, vengeful man. He is not just dealing with with serious topics here and there, he is lashing out at his characters with malice. He has single-handedly created the most depressing possible strip in the paper. It's to the point where even the strips he tells jokes in are depressing. I read it out of sheer horror, like watching a car crash. Good god. What could possibly happen next?

The worst possible thing: stupid, stupid humor.

Batuik has been interviewed quite a bit since Lisa died on October 4th, and the unimaginative press has really talked about the exact same thing ever time. He's says over and over that he understands that his critics are angry at him for inserting tragedy into the funny pages.

No, sir. That's not what I object to. What I object to is lingering on abject cruelty and then taking breaks from it for insipid humor. You know how they say that you can't appreciate the highs unless you have the lows? It's like that in reverse. Weeks and weeks of tragedy and sadness is thrown into sharp relief every time you make a half-assed attempt at funny.

Not only is the strip a lingering dark spot on a page full of slightly funny, but every time it offers a joke it feels like a knife twisting in the side of whichever character is getting the shaft this week. Funky Winkerbean has by-passed the normal soap opera strips and gone straight to Ibsenian-levels of epic depression in the name of realism.

Even in soap operas the characters have good days. They get the guy of their dreams, they win the fist fight, they rescue the goose. In Funky Winkerbean they get targeted, inflicted, and decimated, and then somebody tries to make a weak joke about taco salad.

I can't wait for Funky Winkerbean to finally make the much advertised 10-year jump into the future, where we can be sure to have more high school trombone jokes intermingled with depressing story lines about every single malady that could possibly afflict somebody in their mid-40's. As if the aging characters haven't been through enough by this point, Batuik has to curse them with teenagers, as well.

Geez Tom. I bet you're a laugh at parties.


Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

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russ carr
10.17.07 @ 12:17a

Ibsen + malice + comix: En ful fisk, an unapologetically cruel strip from Sweden.

(I bet you laughed.)

robert melos
10.17.07 @ 4:29a

The world is a terrible place reflected in our comics. Bitterness comes with age, sometimes. We realize we are aging, we aren't the young studs we once were, or life has maimed us either physically or emotionally to the point where we can only see the pathos. It isn't an excuse, but its the way things are going. I'd like to laugh, but mostly I want to cry.

Peanuts is still funny, some of the time, even though I know Charles Schulz is dead. I think of it like reruns of I Love Lucy. You know them, you love them, you've got your favorites.

Eventually life will get less depressing. I honestly blame the government for it. Look at past comics. The comics of the 30s and 40s dealt with depression and war, much as comics of today deal with a different kind of depression and war. It's how it goes.

I used to love Apartment 4-G, and Brenda Starr. Both disappeared from my local paper. Brenda Starr was retired, if I remember correctly. I never knew what happened to Apartment 4-G.

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 7:41a

Russ, I did laugh.

Robert - first, I'm embarassed to say that it's Apartment 3-G. Meh. My electronic fact checker didn't catch that.

Secondly, it's alive and well, as is Brenda Starr.

lisa r
10.17.07 @ 8:42a

But Erik, isn't Funky Winkerbean (and others) reflecting life? I can remember when my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and the 6 months we spent taking care of him before he died. Sure, the situation was serious, and there was a lot of sadness--but there were some happy times as well.

The fact that Batiuk's characters do undergo tragedies on occasion make them more believable. The same with For Better or Worse, which is winding down --the artist is retiring the strip very soon.

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 9:13a

Well, sure. It absolutely is reflecting life. To a degree. On each individual storyline in said comic, I think I can agree that he shows a very accurate slice of life.

I'll leave to others to debate whether or not we need that in the comics when the rest of the paper already has an over-abundance of reality and depression.

My problem is the aggregate total in the comic. It seems to me to linger cruelly on pain and suffering. Like it's not enough to make a point about how terrible cancer is to live through and die from, but he takes you, slowly, step by step, through every piece of the process in agonizing detail. And when he's not doing that, he's putting every other character through some sort of affliction: depression, murder, divorce, loss of faculties, unwanted pregnancy, etc., etc.

I just don't think he likes his characters very much.

adam kraemer
10.17.07 @ 9:44a

It's really funny that you wrote this, Erik. I wouldn't have thought to turn it into a column, but I've been asking rhetorically for years if Funky Winkerbean used to be funny. I seem to recall that prior to the chronological leap fifteen years ago (or whenever it was), the strip was actually funny. On a daily basis. Or, rather, at least it made daily attempts at it. It was whimsical.

I could be wrong; it wasn't a staple in our local, so I didn't follow it day-to-day, but I'm almost positive that when they were all high school students, the strip was a comical one. I mean it's not as though the name "Funky Winkerbean" implies death and tragedy. That's more of a "Family Circus" thing.

Anyway, I fully appreciate that someone out there noticed the same thing I did about how maudlin it's become. I would also take slight critical note of the fact that I never felt like three panels was enough to do anything. I keep expecting the nonexistent fourth to contain some sort of punch line.

And while I wouldn't expect every strip to be Doonesbury, I would point out that Trudeau has tackled just as many hard life moments (divorce, Alzheimers, AIDS, loss of limb), but treated them in a way that didn't feel like the world's most depressing Hallmark card, as Batuik's work tends to.

Anyway, yeah, totally with you on this one.

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 9:50a

Yeah, back in the day it was (trying to be) funny. It was really like all high school band jokes and stupid crap like that.

After the time warp it's just... depressing.

adam kraemer
10.17.07 @ 9:58a

More or less depressing than when Bloom County became Outland?

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 10:02a

I'll be honest; I'm having a difficult time finding a good comparison between Funky Winkerbean and Bloom County.

mike julianelle
10.17.07 @ 10:19a

Isn't the real tragedy the fact that it's called Funky Winkerbean?

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 10:25a

Even worse: It's the name of one of the characters (who no longer appears to be one of the main characters).

mike julianelle
10.17.07 @ 11:12a

I stopped reading the comics 15 years ago, except for Far Side. Even at their best they are worth hardly a chuckle, and I've NEVER understood the soap opera ones. My mother liked For Better Or Worse because of the way the family evolved similar to ours, and I liked Garfield because I enjoy reading the same 5 jokes ad nauseum. And I also hate Mondays!

The only interesting comics I've come across in the past 5 years are Boondocks and Get Fuzzy. They are both drawn really well, uniquely, and they are both funny in their own way. That said, I don't get the newspaper anymore and I don't miss them. I'm honeslty surprised the comics haven't been phased out of a dying industry to save money. It's a matter of time.

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 11:20a

Yeah. Agreed. There's an enormous amount of crap in the comics. At their best they're usually weak jokes at best. Syndication has done more to ruin the quality of comics than maintain it.

I'm drawn to them in some sort of weird nostalgic way. I still like Doonesbury, and the new re-hash of Bloom County: Opus.

That said, there are some relatively recent ones with some definite promise.

Check out Lio and Pearls Before Swine.

lisa r
10.17.07 @ 11:32a

Yeah, back in the day it was (trying to be) funny. It was really like all high school band jokes and stupid crap like that.

After the time warp it's just... depressing.

Again, though--isn't that rather like life? Yeah, life had its ups and downs, but I can identify with the silliness that seemed to surround the FW characters as teenagers. Life does seem to become more serious as we grow up--and that's just what the strip did. Keep in mind, Batiuk has just now entered the new era of the strip--he's got to do something to summarize how the characters have changed so that readers will have a reference point for what happens next. Give it a chance before you blackball it entirely. It's logical to assume that perhaps he's also giving Lisa's fans time to grieve and achieve closure. It would be more cruel to just have her die then move on as if she were never there and that the lives of the characters around her were not affected either by her presence or by her death.

I don't think it's a matter of him not liking his characters so much as it is he sees them clearly for having lived with them himself for so long. Remember,as readers we see the end result of the day's drawing endeavours. We don't go through the process of getting inside each character's head and trying to think as they would think. Perhaps some of IM's fiction writers could weigh in on this.


jason gilmore
10.17.07 @ 11:57a

For Better or Worse began to creep me out when I recognized that the kids were aging. Now they're, like, my age. (Well, I guess they always were.) Something about that scared me.

Incidentally, Andy Capp was one of my role models growing up.

tracey kelley
10.17.07 @ 12:01p

I read an interesting essay in Vanity Fair about the social and political ramifications of Peanuts in the 50s and 60s.

The writer stressed, (and I'm greatly paraphrasing here) that Shultz was distressed when the Peanuts became intrepreted as simply being for kids.

I have to say, while I pick up hints of things NOW, I had no idea when I reviewed that strip 30 years ago what it supposedly "really" meant.

I did, however, remember thinking that it was cool that jazz was always used as the soundtrack for the TV specials.

We only get the weekend paper, but out of that lot, I like Boondocks, Get Fuzzy, Zits, Stone Soup, Rhymes with Orange, and Rose is Rose.

mike julianelle
10.17.07 @ 12:06p

I remember liking Rose is Rose when the kid was a baby and used baby talk, and then getting bored when he could speak for real.

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 12:11p

Hold on.

Life becomes more serious when we grow up?

I think that's entirely unique to individual life view.

Batuik has had 25 years to establish the trajectory of his strip. I think I'm fairly safe making a judgment call by this point.

Anyway - my problem with him is not that he's trying to be serious, or realistic, or tragic, or whatever he thinks he's being. I think he's going over the top to an amazing level of cruelty and depression.

Jason - Andy Capp - I hear ya.

lisa r
10.17.07 @ 12:43p

Erik, it's a perception thing. What's serious to us as teenagers seems mostly trivial as we get older.

And I still disagree with you about Batiuk. I think what would be an amazing level of cruelty and depression would be if he dragged Lisa's dying and all the anguish that Les and the rest of the family and friends went through out in real time in the strip. I think the way he handled it was rather compassionate, both toward the characters as well as the fans. I understand that some people disagree with that. However, after what we went through with my grandfather, I'm grateful that Batiuk did take this approach.

I guess we're just going to have to agree to disagree.

ken mohnkern
10.17.07 @ 1:30p

I confess. I've become a huge Apartment 3-G fan.

All because of this guy, who comments on it (along with Mary Worth, For Better or For Worse, Mark Trail, and a bunch of other strips, soap-opera-ish and otherwise) nearly every day.

erik myers
10.17.07 @ 4:18p

Ken - JoshReads is brilliant.

Lisa - I think you're stuck on Lisa. You've got to look at the comic as a whole.

But... hey.. you're allowed to disagree with me, that's what this is all about, eh?

alex b
10.17.07 @ 11:43p

I stopped reading newspaper funnies a long time ago- never really got into Funky Winkerbean, and also outgrew reading For Better Or Worse. Every once in awhile, I'll take a look at Far Side or Rose is Rose, but I still miss Calvin and Hobbes.

adam kraemer
10.18.07 @ 2:39p

Well, I think that, depending on the strip, having the characters age is a good thing. I liked that Lynn what's-her-name had them changing and the kids growing up. Her stuff might not make me laugh out loud, but it's always been consistent.

I mean, what's the alternative? The Family Circus? Dennis the Menace? How do you change without changing?

That said, if Blondie had really evolved in real time, then Dagwood by now would be, um, dead.

Oh, and it would never make it into a paper (well, not most papers), but Get Your War On is brilliant, as far as I'm concerned. If nothing else, it proves that conservatives aren't the only ones who can be angry and mean.


maigen thomas
10.18.07 @ 2:40p

I just read Penny Arcade now.

I LOVE it - geek humour at its best. Joe will like this one

this is one of my favourites

more geekness

alex b
10.18.07 @ 3:37p

I'm still all about Calvin and Hobbes. Finding this panel was classic, and I miss seeing stuff like this in the papers.


joe procopio
10.18.07 @ 4:18p

I can't tell you how much I love this column.

I drew a strip for four years in college, and I adamantly refuse to believe there is any place for seriousness in the funny pages. It's graphic novel envy. Period.

But, like a few others, I haven't read a funny page in 10-15 years.

robert melos
10.18.07 @ 10:58p

Perhaps thre introduction of problems such as cancer, homelessness, gang violence, gay bashing, elder problems, and terrorism, is a useful thing because it prepares kids to cope with things a little earlier in life. More kids are seeing alzheimers and cancer in their grandparents and even parents. Terrorism is part of the world and something kids hear about in school daily. They have terrorism drills and school shooter drills, and while we, as adults, maybe still have that urge to escape, all the rules changed a few years ago.

Doonesberry brings to war into the strip every day, and manages to do it with humor. Maybe the humor is harder to find in alzheimers or cancer.

ken mohnkern
10.18.07 @ 10:58p

Alex, that link's great. I thought I'd seen them all, but "It's a sordid tale" is a new favorite.

adam kraemer
10.19.07 @ 9:40a

Maybe the humor is harder to find in alzheimers or cancer.
Actually, Doonesbury handled Alzheimer's and, at least, AIDS with good humor.

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