The More Things Change, The More They Stay Funky
Book Review: The Complete Funky Winkerbean - Volume I, 1972-1974
by R.J. Carter
Published: May 28, 2012
One of my fondest childhood memories was visiting my grandfather on the weekends and sitting down with a full spread of the Sunday newspaper comic strips. I'd sprawl on the floor of his living room and spread out the four color papers, reading and re-reading Peanuts and Gasoline Alley, Prince valiant and Dick Tracy -- and, of course, a strip I didn't realize was in its infancy at the time, Funky Winkerbean. I was too young then to get the relevance of the humor, but now thanks to Kent State University I'm getting a second chance to appreciate the earlier works of cartoonist Tom Batiuk.
The Complete Funky Winkerbean is the start of an ambitious project. After all, the strip has been running for forty years now, and has gone through some evolutionary changes along the way. And what better way to see how that evolution has progressed than by delving into the primordial Funky, back when it was a joke-a-day, running gag strip centered on a group of high school kids in the early 1970s? The first strip introduces the strips main characters: Funky Winkerbean, Les Moore, Livinia (declared the only female, although she was joined by other semi-regulars almost immediately, including the ever-protesting Wicked Wanda and her Placard of Pain), and Roland, who apparently left the strip later on to take the role of Hyde on That Seventies Show.
In reading through these strips, the thing that struck me was how little things have actually changed in society. In one strip, Livinia and Funky are discussing global warming. In another, two conservative female adults are shocked by Cosmo magazine, remarking, "When did it change?" My particular favorite coming off the recent GOP primary stumping has a teacher giving the class two weeks to set up and complete a mock national campaign and election; Livinia protests that they haven't even selected a candidate yet, to which the teacher responds, "That's the kind of realism I'm looking for!" It seems that the more things change, the more they've stayed Funky.
This volume also lets longtime readers revisit a number of firsts in the series. Comic book geeks like myself have long recognized Batiuk as one of their own, with the many comic book homage strips he's done (not to mention the headline-reflecting storyline that had the local comic shop being sued for selling adult material). This love affair with the superhero comics shows its first innocent flirtations in this volume, as Funky watches a football game on television, with the announcer saying: "And now coming into the game at fullback for State is Clark Kent. Let me tell you -- this boy can really fly!" And you'll slowly see the first introductions of long-running characters, like newscaster John Darling, Crazy Harry, Band Director Harry Dinkle, Coach Jack Stropp, and jock/bully Bull Bushka. Cousin Wally Winkerbean also makes an appearance of sorts, although his shots are always of a baby carriage with hovering thought balloons.
It didn't take long for the running gags to get established, and they worked well for the series: Crazy Harry living in his school locker; Roland confronting Wicked Wanda, who would bash him over the head with her protest sign more reliably than Lucy would pull the football away from Charlie Brown; Les Moore getting stuck on the rope in gym class; Funky watching televised sports. These became not only comfortable settings, but also reliable vehicles for delivering wry commentary on society.
This hefty volume begins with a lot of information that puts Funky Winkerbean into its cultural context, courtesy of comics historian R.C. Harvey, who provides the introduction, bringing into perspective the time of Funky's birth and what was going on in other comics at the time. This is followed by a rather in-depth biography of Batiuk, chronicling his love of comics and his earliest attempts at using the medium -- not just submissions that were rejected (using jokes that were later recycled into Funky, but also childhood efforts that lend the authenticity to the claim of being a lifelong addict of sequential art.
The Complete Funky Winkerbean: Volume I 1972-1974 is the first brick in the wall of decades of not just a comic strip, but a cultural landmark.