45 years in, 'Funky Winkerbean' creator isn't going for funny
Published Sept 10, 2017
by Zosha Millman
Tom Batiuk is a year ahead of all of us.
His comic, "Funky Winkerbean," has been in production since 1972, and in the decades since he's found himself with a lot of room between creation of a strip and publication.
That lead time has proved to be very important. It allowed him to step back from the grind of the daily newspaper comic and really examine where he wanted to take it. And it turns out, he wanted to go bigger.
"I really think this artform has strong shoulders. I think it can carry the weight of much heavier ideas than most people give it credit for," Batiuk said. "But it's going to be a lot more work, and you have to be responsible to do it in the right way, and not trivialize it."
It's that responsibility that pushed Batiuk to write, and ultimately compile, "Lisa's Legacy Trilogy," the book collection he'll be releasing on September 24. The collection charts Lisa's development from teenage sweetheart and mother, to wife and cancer patient, and ultimately to her death.
Lisa had been sort of the main impetus for Batiuk's shift to tackling bigger issues and longform storytelling with "Funky."
"I did a story where Lisa became pregnant in high school," Batiuk remembers. "And I realized once I had taken that step I couldn't go back to Les hanging on the rope during gym class ... I needed to move forward, and take the work in a different direction."
Widening the scope
As longtime fans know, that different direction has taken the cast of "Funky" all over: Since the "reboot" in 1992, the strip has touched on issues like suicide, intimate partner violence, alcoholism, capital punishment, gun violence, steroids, and even landmines and the war in Afghanistan.
But, again, it was Lisa and her cancer arc who really pushed Batiuk even further out of his comfort zone. Her first brush with cancer (compiled in the first book "Lisa's Story") saw her diagnosis and remission. And if Batiuk hadn't gotten cancer himself that might've been it.
"It's just a much more ferocious experience," Batiuk said. "I was basically going off anecdotes and research to write about a cancer story, and that worked well. But when I was diagnosed with cancer, I realized I only scratched the surface. And I think it was going in and tapping into those deeper emotions that deepened the work itself."
With the new trio of books – packaged with "Prelude," where Lisa's story begins, and "The Last Leaf" – which takes the story to her death and beyond, he wanted to look at a fuller picture of her arc and her legacy. He wanted to show what her life beyond just what she lived. He wanted to show the effect she had on all the people she knew.
In his opinion, that depth is what allows Batiuk to make a connection with his readers, and grow alongside them. Armed with skilled editors and a year of lead time, he was able to figure out how to make these stories palatable to readers, in a day-by-day fashion, while also evolving the form's ability to handle long-term storytelling that didn't always end in slapstick humor.
Though its first life was as an episodic, gag-oriented newspaper strip, Batiuk said he never wanted it to stay that way. His hope was always not let them be "stuck there forever," and instead step into stories that could do more.
That meant evolving his writing style and changing around the beats of the story: He took more time to turn ideas over in his head, build out stories beyond just getting ready for the next strip on Monday. And he went for humor that evolves out of a natural situation – or even just letting the panel end where it needs to end.
"Sometimes there's no humor. Sometimes it's a beat that just makes a point. There's not always necessarily funny notes; I've learned to do that, and not be afraid to do that," Batiuk said.
"One reader wrote in and told me I was 'ignoring my fiduciary responsibilities to produce a funny comic,' as it says in my contract. That's actually not in my contract; my contract is to provide the best work I can possibly do, and that's something I try to do."
In Batiuk's mind, it's all about connecting with his generation. Only now they're no longer kids in high school, worried about hall passes and cafeteria dynamics.
"The audience is around my age; they've been following me around for 45-years," Batiuk said. "I'm trying to write the strip I would want to open up the newspaper and read."
Of course that format has changed somewhat. Batiuk is making a lot more of the strip on the computer than he used to (he notes that he hasn't "lettered a strip by hand in years"), and much of his readership is there too.
"There are people who are advancing the form, but newspaper comics – it's almost like they've been trapped in amber, in some ways," Batiuk notes.
But that connection is still there. Normally Batiuk only hears directly from readers during book tours, like the one he'll embark on in September. He remembers one reader who approached him when he was signing books and told him that his comics had changed her life.
"She said 'I read 'Lisa's Story,' and it made me go get checked, and I found out that I had cancer. They took care of it, and I'm doing well.' And that's an incredible story," Batiuk said.
He wouldn't have had that link if he hadn't been able to tell the story he wants to, with a fresh perspective from aging.
"It's an important factor, because we appreciate things differently (now); we look at things differently," Batiuk said. "I've found you really have to reach inside yourself and try to pull out your experiences. But what I have found is the closer you get to your real, true experiences, the closer you get to the real, true experiences of your audience. If you're honest and you're talking about your fears great and small, and your triumph great and small, you're really tapping into something that's an honest reflection of a life. People recognize it and they see it means something to them as well."
That's not what was running through Batiuk's head as he walked through his big studio, surrounded by strips of Lisa's story, deciding on what would be compiled for the book. But it is representative of a community that has grown, evolved, and developed over 45 years of "Funky Winkerbean."
Tom Batiuk will be touring around the country for the release of "Lisa's Legacy Trilogy," with a stop in Seattle on November 12. The collection is released on September 24.
Ohioana Announces 2016 Book Award Finalists
June 10, 2016
The Ohioana Library is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2016 Ohioana Book Awards! The awards, established in 1942, honor Ohio authors in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Juvenile Literature, and Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature. The final category, About Ohio or an Ohioan, may also include books by non-Ohio authors. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Ohioana Awards.
Finalists include two Pulitzer Prize winners, a two-time National Book Award winner, a National Book Critics Circle Award recipient, two winners of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar® Award, a five- time Coretta Scott King Literary Award winner, two Cleveland Arts Prize recipients, and ten previous Ohioana Award winners. This year’s winners will be announced in July, and the awards presented at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Friday, September 23. The 2016 finalists are:
Batiuk, Tom, and Chuck Ayers. Roses in December. Kent State Univ. Press, 2015.
McLain, Paula. Circling the Sun. Ballantine Books, 2015.
Roether, Barbara. This Earth You’ll Come Back To. McPherson & Co., 2015.
Russell, Mary Doria. Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral. Ecco, 2015. Stewart, Leah. The New Neighbor. Touchstone, 2015.
2016 Eisner Awards: ‘The Oscars of comics’...
Published April 19, 2016
by Michael Cavna
Best Archival Collection/ Project—Strips
Best Graphic Album—Reprint
‘Roses in December’ Will Grip Your Heart -- And Squeeze
July 30, 2015
by RJ Carter
There's a magic in the comic strip format that allows serious subjects to be broached with gentle humor and delivered in manageable bites. Tom Batiuk has tapped into this magic, both in his long running series, FUNKY WINKERBEAN, and with this collection of CRANKSHAFT strips entitled ROSES IN DECEMBER: A STORY OF LOVE AND ALZHEIMER'S.
This collection is not a complete collection of strips presented in daily order -- by which I mean it skips over strips that do not contribute to this particular storyline that ran through the CRANKSHAFT strips. As such, you find yourself at a Thanksgiving celebration, then Christmas, and then shortly back at Thanksgiving again, indicating a period in the strip's history where a different story became the focus before getting back to the one at hand.
This book focuses on two families -- sisters Lucy and Lillian McKenzie, and husband and wife Ralph and Helen Meckler.
Lucy and Lillian are elderly spinsters who live next door to Ed Crankshaft and his daughter's family. Ed's granddaughter, Mindy, is a regular visitor with Lucy, to hear her stories and do needlepoint. Through Mindy, we get to see the progression of time, as we see her grow from a little girl into a young teenager. From the very beginning, we are given hints as to Lucy's condition, hints that are ignored at first because she's always been a little off the beam in a harmless way. However, as we get deeper into the story, the issues of memory become more pronounced, as she begins living in the past more and more, while acting out in the present. She forgets the most basic things, like how to get to her house from a few blocks away, or that her mother is dead.
When she finds a collection of her mother's things, and finds that her mother also kept hand-drawn maps to help her get around, the revelation is driven home to Lucy that she indeed has the genetic condition of Alzheimer's.
There were several places during this story that I wanted to complain to the printers for Kent State University, as I felt it was unacceptable that the plates should have been allowed to slip and publish such blurry images. However, when I would wipe my eyes, I would find that the pages were just fine -- the blur came from trying to read through tears. So much of the story reminded me of incidents that my wife and I lived through as her mother went deeper into Alzheimer's, a condition she forever dreaded would take her as it took her mother before her. ROSES IN DECEMBER, thus, is a very personally touching story to me, and will take up permanent residence on my shelves for this reason alone. Batiuk expertly captures the emotional distress -- the frustrations and the guilty feelings -- felt by everyone in Lucy's circle.
The second storyline is no less touching, but perhaps a bit sweeter as we don't have to watch Helen Meckler develop her Alzheimer's; she already has it when we meet her. What we do get is the love story of Ralph and Helen, and a trip back to their younger days -- how they met, who they were, and the deep and abiding love Ralph continues to hold for a woman who no longer remembers who he is. When an opportunity presents itself where she does remember Ralph, even if she is doing so in the past, Ralph takes hold of the opportunity and goes on a trip to New York with her, where they first met; he just doesn't tell the nursing home staff that he's doing this, setting off a panic.
If you have anyone with Alzheimer's in your life, please pick up this book by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers. It will capture your heart -- and squeeze it tightly. I can't give this book anything less than my highest recommendation.
Please click on the image below to make a donation to the Alzheimer's Association.
Complete Funky Winkerbean, Volume 4 - A Time Capsule to the 80s
Aug 17, 2015
by RJ Carter
Reading any of the COMPLETE FUNKY WINKERBEAN volumes is like opening a time capsule. Tom Batiuk brings the crew into the 1980s with this fourth volume, and the cultural references pervade the pages from cover to cover.
The advent of Space Invaders, Defender, and other arcade video games chews up a decent amount of space -- as it should in a strip focused on high school students. And the latest STAR WARS movie has its impact felt on not only the characters, but on the readers who were allowed to submit their own STAR WARS jokes to Batiuk and have them drawn into the strip.
Batiuk manages to continue to milk humor from some of the running gags that by this point had become mainstays of the strip: every fall, the last few remaining leaves wax philosophical about having to die; Les Moore continues to get stuck at the top of the rope in gym class, or paralyzed at the end of the high diving board; Coach Jock Strapp still coaches the losingest high school football team in history; and Harry Dinkleman continues to be the World's Greatest Band Director / band candy salesman ever known.
While the humor was as strong as ever, the early 1980s marked a pivotal point in the history of the series, as Batiuk began to inject some of the more serious subject matter into the strip. The coach has a heart attack, and spends a few weeks worth of strips in the hospital, having a heart-to-heart with God. Ann loses her teaching job to spending cuts, and has to take a burger flipping job at McArnold's. But on the other hand, the band gets invited to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade, and Ann's fellow teacher, Fred, pops the question to her shortly before Christmas.
Having been a teenager in the 1980s, THE COMPLETE FUNKY WINKERBEAN, VOLUME 4 (1981-1983) is a total nostalgia trip for me. I spent many a quarter in the Space Invaders machine at my local pizza joint, and I'm pretty sure I knew the 'Eliminator' who just couldn't lose. Also, and to this day, I still play a pretty mean air guitar, even if I could never compete with Crazy Harry.
For cartoon historians, this is a series that simply shouldn't be missed. I shouldn't have to say that this particular volume includes a foreward from the inimitable Stan Lee, or that there is even more behind-the-scenes Batiuk commentary that provides the background to these years. Buy it for the laughs, buy it for the feel of the glory days, but whatever your reason, buy it.
The Ohio Channel / Book Notes interviews Tom Batiuk
Sept 25, 2015
Crankshaft Strike Four wins Independent Publishers IPPY Award
May 27, 2015
CHRIS SCHILLIG: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Published January 29, 2015
by Chris Schillig
Depending on whom you ask, America is the birthplace of only a small number of original art forms, anywhere from one to five.
Jazz is often at the forefront of a list that also includes the banjo, the mystery novel -- and the lowly comic book. Regular readers of this column know I often wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to comics. I credit them with nurturing my love of reading and with keeping my imagination alive during my formative years.
I can say with all earnestness that if not for the Incredible Hulk, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Donald Duck, and dozens of others, I would not have majored in English or become a teacher. Moreover, if not for artists and writers such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Carl Barks and Frank Miller, I would not have been inspired to put my own thoughts on paper.
Like any art form, comics have grown and changed. Some of the earliest comic books were merely collections of newspaper comic strips. Later, when the concept had proven its profitability, companies began to commission original material. Decades later, publishers began to collect individual comic books into more permanent form -- paperbacks and hardbacks. From this innovation came the modern graphic novel, a mixture of words and pictures designed to tell a longer story.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical work with various artists stretched the boundaries of what comics could do. Pekar recognized that many Americans still viewed comics as essentially kids' stuff, a judgment that was somewhat justified by the industry's fixation with superheroes.
"Comics are as good an art form as any other," Pekar told me. "You can use any word in the dictionary ... you've got the same choices as Shakespeare."
Perhaps a similar sentiment ran through Tom Batiuk's head as he decided to steer his "Funky Winkerbean" comic strip in a more serious direction in 1999. By giving one of the characters cancer, he was announcing that comic strips, like comic books, need not be restricted to gag-a-day formats and juvenile subjects. This was even more apparent when the same character's cancer returned with a vengeance in 2007.
That story line has been collected in "Lisa's Story: The Other Shoe," this year's One Book One Community collection in Alliance. As my teaching colleagues Ron Hill and Jim Christine noted in a presentation at Rodman Public Library last week as part of the OBOC programming, "Lisa's Story" is not technically a graphic novel, as it was not originally created to be published between two covers. Still, as a collection of strips that work together thematically to tell one long story, it fits the important part of the definition.
As a member of the OBOC committee, I have long hoped that we would one day select a graphic novel or compilation for the community to enjoy. I'm hard-pressed to think of a better representation of the power of words and pictures, each contributing to a story in a medium that is related to, but different from, movies and novels, than "Lisa's Story."
The main character's journey -- her reactions to her diagnosis, her relationship with her husband, her battles with insurance companies and her advocacy on behalf of additional research -- is as poignant, and as appropriate, in comics format as it would be anywhere else.
Just as jazz, mystery novels, and even the twangy banjo evolved from their earliest conceptions, so too have comics. I hope readers will keep an open mind as they consider diving into this year's OBOC selection and not dismiss it out of hand because it uses pictures to help carry its narrative weight.
Pekar was right: Comics creators have all the same choices as the Bard or any other literary luminary. The proof can be found in "Lisa's Story."
cschillig on Twitter
Tom Batiuk talks about Crankshaft, featured in 'Strike Four,' a baseball compilation of the comic strip
July 9, 2014
by Marc Bona, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Comic strips tend to fall in one of two areas these days: They go for the rarely-subtle yuk-yuk laughs or one-liners, or they pull on heartstrings in serious story lines.
"Crankshaft," created and drawn by Tom Batiuk and illustrated by Chuck Ayers, does both.
Black Squirrel Books, an imprint of Kent State University Press, has issued "Strike Four" (231 pages, $24.95), herding the baseball storylines of Ed Crankshaft, Centerville's favorite curmudgeon. Seeing all the strips in one compilation makes a reader almost forget all the other things Crankshaft is known for: Driving a bus (badly), interacting with neighbors (grumpily) and grilling out (explosively).
Batiuk and Ayers take us through Crankshaft's life in and around baseball: A special baseball memory helps him pull through a hospital stay. He fights City Hall's proposal to replace a beloved ball field with a strip mall. He builds a scaled-down Fenway Park in his yard.
Most of all he retells a story, about how he struck out three great Detroit Tigers in a 1940 exhibition game. Following time-honored rules of embellishment, Crankshaft alters the story a bit each time he tells it, often to his grandson.
Batiuk deftly intertwines baseball history and one-liners throughout story lines. He touches on race and baseball in the 1940s, but shifts easily into Crankshaft's malaprops and one-liners (his mother-in-law pitch "would drop in when you least expected it.")
Real players and places form the backdrop in the strip: Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Jacobs Field and Canal Park are all shown with pretty accurate depictions. Crankshaft catches a foul ball hit by Jim Thome. Omar Vizquel faces Crankshaft in Wiffleball. Matt Williams hits a home run while Crankshaft watches.
Batiuk allows himself one fun vicarious reference: In one of the story lines, the Indians win the World Series.
Batiuk spoke with us about Crankshaft:
You describe yourself as a bit of a nominal fan while Chuck Ayers is a bigger fan – is that accurate?
"He is a big baseball fan. He actually played, until his knees gave out, in old-time base ball games. It's just one of those things. ... I was probably traumatized by seeing a no-hitter the first time." (In the book's introduction, Batiuk talks about seeing a tremendous pitchers' duel as a boy, with the Indians' Bob Feller on the mound. To "a clueless and bored young kid" it was a challenge to appreciate what was happening.)
How did the character come about?
"It's not often you can pinpoint a time, but I was on a book tour in Atlanta and leaving a TV station. ... a phone call from a viewer came in. She said she liked (Batiuk's other strip) "Funky Winkerbean" and said 'There are two characters you need – a school secretary and a school-bus bus driver.' "
Batiuk said he often "will take someone I know" and thought back to growing up. When he lived in in Akron he did not ride a school bus but later, in Grafton, he did – and he recalled the driver, as well as the times kids lugged everything from science projects to trombones onto the bus.
"I ended up basing the character on him. ... He was just this grumpy old guy. I actually had to tone him down a little bit."
How much research do you have to do – like with the references regarding the players from the 1940 lineup?
"As a caveat as to not being a huge baseball fan, I do get baseball. I particularly get the romance of the game. I understand what's going on. But I needed to get my facts straight. I knew I wanted to have Ed pitch for a minor-league team, where he was going to have a great summer, where he would strike out some big names and the Major League team would go on to the World Series and he wouldn't. It sort of crystallized his career for the rest of his life.
"I had a friend who pulled out his Baseball Encyclopedia and said 'Here, you need this.' That's how I came up with the Mud Hens and the Tigers, right before World War II, and of course I had heard of (Hank) Greenberg and (Charlie) Gehringer. They were all there. That's the type of story I enjoy writing. These stories are really fun to do."
Story arcs – who comes up with them? Take me through the creative process.
"I grew up reading Marvel Comics. My dream was to work in the Marvel bullpen. It's just me writing everything and getting it to the artist and he takes it from there. Chuck is really great. Once I get him the ideas and explain what I am doing and what is going on, he takes the ball and runs with it."
What's the future for Ed Crankshaft?
"There's still going to be baseball storylines. I have him playing senior ball; that's always an opening. I will be doing a story next year because the Toledo Mud Hens are going to retire Ed's jersey. The baseball story line is going to continue. It's just such a big part of his life."
Tom Batiuk Talks "Funky Winkerbean"
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer Comic Book Resources
Tue, March 19th, 2013
For more than four decades, Tom Batiuk's "Funky Winkerbean" has been a fixture in the comics page of newspapers nationwide. Initially set in high school centered around a group of students and a handful of teachers and employees -- including the secretary who actually ran the school and Harry L. Dinkle, the self-proclaimed "world's greatest band director." In 1992, Batiuk relaunched the strip, jumping forward in time, something he did again in 2007.
During this time Batiuk has received both praise and criticism for combining dramatic and comedic elements and tackling issues ranging from bullying to teen pregnancy to cancer and death. In 2007, Batiuk was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for ""Lisa's Story"," a story arc in which the character succumbed to cancer. In addition to his work on "Funky," from 1979-1990 Batiuk wrote the strip "John Darling" and since 1987 has been writing "Crankshaft" for his former classmate Chuck Ayers to draw.
Kent State University Press just released the second volume of "The Complete Funky Winkerbean" and CBR News took the opportunity to speak with Batiuk, who will be a Special Guest at Comic-Con International in San Diego this July.
CBR News: Tom, thanks for taking the time. I know you're a big comic book fan from way back.
Cartoonist Tom Batiuk just released the second volume of "The Complete Funky Winkerbean" from Kent State Press.
Tom Batiuk: If you could see my drawing board now. I've got a project that's going to come up starting the end of the year and it's really cool. It involves Funky's wife Holly. Her son Cory is in Afghanistan and she's looking to complete his comic book collection for him as a way of staying in touch. So she's going to complete his collection of Starbuck Jones comics, which is a character I made up when I was in the fifth grade. I have seven covers that I've had guys create for me and it's such a kick. I feel like a small comic book company right now. It's very cool.
Who are the seven artists creating work for you? Can you say?
Joe Staton, Terry Austin, Mike Gilbert, Neil Vokes, Bob Layton, Mike Golden and Norm Breyfogle. It's incredibly cool.
Anyone who reads "Funky" knows you're a big comic guy and it was interesting to read the introductions to the collected editions and learn how you flew to New York and took your portfolio around to Marvel and DC when you were younger.
It was probably the best break of my life, not getting a job at Marvel. [Laughs] I just finished the book that just came out, "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," and it's horrifying.
I've read "Funky" on and off for my whole life and I know that the strip has changed, but reading the first few years, I'm not sure I was prepared for just how much it's changed.
It has been quite a journey.
You were in your mid twenties when strip started.
I was 25. I was 24 when I started working on the strip. I had gone to New York and the publisher who was going to bring it out was moving to Chicago and it took them a year to complete that process to launch "Funky." Which was actually a really good thing because I knew for a year that the strip was coming out so I could work and write and do all kinds of stuff and learn how to letter. [Laughs] It really helped me immensely.
At the time you sold the strip you were teaching, correct?
I was teaching at a Junior High School in Elyria, Ohio. I was doing some cartoons for a local paper and it was for their teen page. I got hired based on some sketches that were in my sketchbook. I would do sketches while I was teaching and put captions on them and have fun with it. I had done that for about two and a half years. That's what I took to New York and that's why I focused on a teen strip. I thought, I'll write about a milieu that I understood. I was just got out of school and I was still connected with school through my teaching and it was perfect for me. If I had sat down to try to calculate what would be a good idea for a comic strip, I don't think I would have picked that, but I accidentally landed at a time when that particular genre was ready for an update.
Around that time you were one of a number of new voices that came into comics.
Maybe it was just one of those generational things where it was time for things to be updated across the board. I mean I went to Kent State from '65 to '69 and the changes were just phenomenal that were going on in the country and in youth culture at that point. I think "Funky" picked up a lot of that stuff.
I know that you've gotten complaints about the dramatic stories, and though I love them, I can see how from a certain point of view, all the elements might sit uneasily with some readers.
Well first of all you always fight this culture that thinks the comics are supposed to be funny. I keep making the argument every chance I get that they were called "the comics" by accident, but people take it as a Webster's definition in terms of how you're supposed to handle things. And then of course I really think of it as a plus. People identify so strongly with these characters that when you do something to those characters, they feel it too and that's a good thing. In some ways more than any other art form comics are better suited to this because they're in people's homes every day. Or on their computers every day now. They're there with them on a daily basis and you build a closer relationship with the characters that somebody creates.
While Batiuk was originally rejected by Marvel Comics when he was starting out, "Funky" celebrated its 40th anniversary last year
And high school is so dramatic.
Melodramatic is more like it. [Laughs]
[Laughs] There's so much that's not funny about high school and you've touched on this in the strip especially in recent years. The contrast between, say, how once you might have played bullying for laughs but today you make a point of what was underneath that.
Even when I was doing it for laughs I always looked on Funky and bullying from the get go. It wasn't funny in the sense that Les is getting beat up. [Laughs] I was looking for the trauma inside of Les and even though I was making it humorous it was about what it's like to be in school knowing that somebody's going to be waiting for you at the end of the day who wants to beat you up makes it difficult and how that affects your life. It was never thinking that bullying is humorous but I was always trying to pull humor from how Les had to deal with it.
I always thought of Les as central character of the strip.
He became the central character of the strip early on. It just evolved that way. He became the straight man for everybody and so Crazy Harry and all of the other characters could bounce off of him and Les seemed to get invested in all of the emotions of high school and what kids were going through. He and the Band Director were probably the first two characters to separate themselves and become really strong characters in the strip.
How much of Les is you?
[Laughs] There's a lot. Any cartoonist takes things from their life to put into the strip and Funky is so close to real life. I'm only a quarter inch removed from real life so I pull everything. There's a ton of me in Les. There's also a lot of me in the other characters as well, but yeah, I really draw on a lot of experiences I had in high school, like climbing the rope in gym class. [Laughs] That was terrifying. I just couldn't see the point.
I have to admit that one of my great reliefs in middle and high school was learning that they no longer did that.
I'm happy to hear that. [Laughs] But they probably do something worse like climbing a rock wall or something.
When you jumped forward in time the first time it became a little more dramatic and less comedic a strip. Do you think that's fair to say?
That occurred right after I did a specific storyline. When I did the teen pregnancy storyline it pushed everything forward a little bit and it made it difficult. Les obviously wasn't the father of Lisa's baby, but he was her best friend and her confidant and even her lamaze partner during the birth. After the character has done that it makes it difficult to walk back and have him get stuck on the gym class rope again. It just didn't feel right. It felt like these characters were starting to grow up and I was obviously older at that point and I think that particular storyline helped me begin to find my adult voice.
Once I made the time jump I was able to deal with things that were more pertinent to being an adult. For example in high school the romantic relationships are very simplistic and naive and most of it's about trying to get a date. But adult relationships are much more complicated, much more nuanced and much more fun to write about. The great gift that my readers have given me is allowing me to continue to write the strip as I've continued to write about my adult experiences in the strip. I've been very fortunate to have that happen.
Lisa was the focus of a second jump in time as well. I'm curious why you decided to jump as opposed to aging characters over course of the strip?
The book has employed several time jumps rather than gradually aging the characters
Because I forgot to do that. [Laughs] I have a vague remembrance of when the strip started out thinking -- I mean, I really like the strips that age, I like that concept and I enjoy it and I didn't want to get locked into doing a teen strip forever and ever, but I didn't do it for a long time. And I think part of that was due to the fact that I was doing another strip, "John Darling," and then "Crankshaft" came along, so I had an outlet for all kinds of ideas for more adult things. I think that retarded the process a little bit too, but again, like I said, after the teen pregnancy story I thought, I can't keep repeating the same things over and over again. It seemed to be something that let the strip grow and move forward. And so that's why I did that. It necessitated the time jump because, as I say, I forgot to do it gradually. And I don't even know if I know how to do that. I look at Frank King's work on "Gasoline Alley" and I'm just in awe of how those characters age right before your eyes. Each strip is like a day passing and it's just totally amazing. But the time jumps have their own benefit because they're fun because all of a sudden you see the characters older and it's uncomfortable and disconcerting but it's also interesting.
It's interesting to look at the new ones and there's a shock of how things have changed. It gives a different dynamic to the strip and would have been a different feeling if it had happened slowly.
There are some advantages that pop out of that. Another which was an advantage at the time when Lisa died, I didn't want to go through two years of mourning. It allowed me to skip over that and Lisa dies and then you see Summer talking about Lisa's race, her legacy race, and that was real nice because you could have something positive coming out of that right away. It helped me over that hump as well.
Garry Trudeau came to comics around the same time, around same age as you, and it's interesting he was writing a college strip while you were writing a high school one but you both reached a point where you wanted to change the dynamics and do something more dramatic and more adult.
You realize that those possibilities are there. And I know why a lot of strips don't change. They're afraid of ruining the mystique or whatever it was that got them syndicated in the first place or whatever people were interested in in the first place. After the fact I got more nervous about it because from time to time because people would say, "I saw that time jump and I thought this is going to be awful but I really liked it." You don't pay any attention to that. I mean, I knew what was coming. I'm a year ahead on the strip so when I made that time jump, I was already a year down the road and I saw what was going to be happening with these characters and I saw where they were going which gives you a feeling of comfort. You can say, hang in there, it'll be okay.
You're a year ahead? I've never met a cartoonist that far ahead.
It's an incredible luxury. It was done because of just existential things like my folks getting older and I could see things coming down the road that were going to be problematic for me time wise and so I made the effort to get a year ahead so that if something popped up I could deal with it and it wouldn't bring everything to a screeching halt. But once I got a year ahead I found out that I could think long thoughts. I didn't have to come up with something for Friday. I could have an idea like "Lisa's Story" and let it gestate for a long time. In fact "Lisa's Story" was written a long, long time before I ever put it into the strip. And I think being a year ahead has made the work so much better because I have a better perspective on it and can coordinate it. You're not just going from incident to incident and hoping for the best. You can interlock things. Like this big long story I described to you at the beginning where Holly goes on this comic book hunt. It runs over quite a few months and I'm able to coordinate it with the activities I have going on and the covers that I've got and it also crosses over with "Crankshaft" at one point and if I wasn't so far ahead, I couldn't do that.
We talked a little about Les, but Lisa was a key character for you.
When Lisa was first created, none of this was on the table. I had no idea that she was going to become THE character, such a major character and a key focal point of the strip. That's one of the fun things about doing something like this because even you're surprised at how they evolve from time to time.
She's really been the dramatic heart of the strip.
The strip has never shied away from heavier issues or more dramatic stories, exemplified by "Lisa's Story"
With that first storyline, the teen pregnancy storyline she opened the door for me and showed me that there was not only an audience for this type of work but there was more interesting work and more substantial work that could be done. And she kicked it down with "Lisa's Story," taking the characters to wholly different places.
When you killed her, you had to know that killing her would get a response. There was an outcry when "For Better or Worse" cartoonist Lynn Johnston had Farley the dog die.
I knew it was coming and so did the syndicate so we tried to do as much as we could to prepare for it. Again, the work was pretty much finished by the time people were seeing it so I thought it was resolved in a good way and that gives you some confidence. There was a huge outpouring of affection, both pro and con. There were people who just hated to see Lisa die, but there were people who understood. There were people who liked it because they related what was happening in "Funky" to what was happening in their lives and that was the whole reason for doing that. When I was starting out at twenty-five, cancer wasn't even on the horizon. You don't think about it as a twenty-five year old. It was a great outpouring across the board in all manners. Mostly positive but there were a lot of people that were really upset about it.
I loved the very end of it and you concluded it beautifully. Did you have that in mind from beginning?
Thank you. I was at that point in the writing and Cathy, my wife, and I had gone to a concert at Oberlin College. It was a baroque group called Apollo's Fire and at one point they had dancers come out in baroque costume and I saw the mask on the one and I said, that's it, that's my death. Except I put him in a tuxedo. It's very rare that you can point to one instance and say, that's exactly where that happened. I was sitting there that night. That story was in my head and it was with me all the time; I took it everywhere and as I saw it that night, I thought, that's how I'm going to do it. I'm going to do a little bit of magical realism and it allowed me to confront death directly without it being gruesome.
You must have felt some satisfaction being named a Pulitzer finalist that year.
Yes, absolutely. That was incredible. "Lisa's Story" was that rare, rare story and it doesn't happen to cartoonists very often because we're a very insecure bunch. [Laughs] I'm pretty sure I can speak for all of us. With "Lisa's Story" as I started rolling towards the end I thought, really for the [first] time in my career, I thought I don't care if everybody on the planet thinks it's a bad idea, I really like this story. I feel good about it. The Pulitzer finalist was a real nice affirmation of that.
Lisa was such a big character, and she still has a presence in the strip, but do you ever think of a story for her or something else you could do with the character?
That's interesting. I've done a few little flashback items but not a great deal. I seem to complete everything I had to do with Lisa at that point. Having said that, let me now contradict myself completely. [Laughs] I've got a storyline coming up and it's sort of a Lisa story. It's interesting. A couple of summers ago I felt compelled to go back to Elyria and take some pictures around my old apartment and the alley across the street from us. I don't know why but I took all those pictures and I ended up writing a story where Frankie -- he's been mentioned a couple times and has actually appeared in the strip very briefly, the guy who got Lisa pregnant -- returns. In the return of that story we deepen the teen pregnancy story and say that it was a little more than just youthful indiscretion on Lisa's part. There was some coercion involved and it's like a coda to "Lisa's Story." This character was always hanging there. Whatever happened to him he comes back into their lives, disrupts them completely and then everything gets resolved, so in a way I guess that does involve Lisa. We find a journal of hers and we're reading her journal so she kind of speaks to us from the grave.
Walk us through your process on putting together "Funky."
I try to write every day because you never know what the day holds for you and I hate to miss what's going on in that particular day. I have one book where I just write down ideas. Things that are funny, puns, whatever. I have notebooks by my bed, in the car. I pull all those together and then write them down in a book and it gives me a source of material there. My other thinking is, like I said, the thinking of a long broad storyline and then when I sit down to write I combine those two things so that I can inject humor into the storyline as it moves forward and I can create new material that's part and parcel of that storyline. It gets completely written out and then the pencilling begins. I used to describe it as the Henry Ford method. Writing is finished and then I'll do batches of the drawing then the inking the lettering. Finally these days adding tone on the computer.
Being so far ahead, do you have a set routine or do you mix things up?
Batiuk is currently a year ahead on strips and doesn't have an end in mind
I can mix things up. Today I've got fifteen weeks that need to be scanned into the computer for "Funky." I could have been inking some strips. I could do some writing. I chose to just write today. My favorite days are when I'm just sitting writing and I thought I'd give myself a nice day. The day is relatively clear and after I go to the doctor later, I'll do some more writing. It's nice to immerse yourself in it. Even inking, it's not a technical challenge so much anymore but it does help to do a lot of them at one time, I think.
Do you still do everything by hand?
Yes. I do have a program on my computer, Manga Workshop, and I have done a few weeks where it's been done on a computer. I just wanted to learn that in case one day they call me up and say, we're not making paper anymore. [Laughs] I have my font on the computer and it's beautiful. I would defy anybody to tell me whether I hand lettered it or it's the font. But my favorite place to be is sitting in front of a board so even though I have the option [of drawing it on the computer], I like working on the board.
How do you write "Crankshaft?"
I just work up the scripts and every two weeks Chuck and I get together. I give him the next two weeks of "Crankshaft." We go over them. He's very polite. [Laughs] We cover everything we need to cover and then I don't see him again for two weeks. That works so well because Chuck is simply an amazing artist and he'll take the most average idea and he'll send it to the moon and back. It's wonderful. I don't worry about that and it gives me tremendous freedom. We were at Kent State at the same time and have a very similar background so there's not a lot of back and forth that has to go on.
You mentioned in one of the books that the two of you were at college together.
We were even in kindergarten together. We didn't realize that, though [at the time]. We were having dinner one night and somehow we got to talking about going to elementary school in Akron and I was like, "Wait a minute, when were you there?" We were in the same school in Mrs. Peters' kindergarten class. I should have recognized him. He would have been the little kid with the tie-dyed t-shirt and the peace symbol and the long beard.
"The Collected Funky Winkerbean" is coming out through Kent State Press. How did that end up happening?
What happened was that Penguin brought a book out of "Lisa's Story" and basically after it didn't make the morning talk shows, nothing else was done with it. It was out just a few months when I got a call asking if I wanted to buy some copies before it was remaindered. It was too bad because they did a beautiful job with it.
I was able to go to the Kent State University Press and it's a much smaller press but I know the editors and I wanted was to keep the book in print. I went to them with that in mind and it turned out so much better than I expected. They just put out a beautiful hardcover copy. It was just an amazing book and they did a terrific job with it and they have become my publisher. They're great to work with. It's a good relationship and again it's just wonderful. They put out beautiful books. And they'd never done comic books before. They do more academic books.
Did the idea for collecting "Funky" come from you or them?
It's funny. A couple years ago I went in and I had a couple of book ideas. The first one was something like "Lisa's Story." In "Crankshaft" there was an Alzheimer's storyline and there was a book put out, which is now out of print. I've done quite a bit [with that] since then so I thought we could do a book along the same lines as "Lisa's Story" where we take the first book and include the material done since then and have a complete story. I got the rights to the first book back and they thought that was a good idea.
I had all the baseball stories that I've done in "Crankshaft." "Crankshaft" had been optioned for a movie and they wanted it to be baseball-themed so they asked to see all those. I had gone through and pulled all those things and I thought it would make a nice book so I presented that. They liked that idea and we were just talking about it yesterday; it'll be coming out next spring.
And then I had e-mails from people who wanted to know if there was going to be a complete "Funky" collection. That one I figured was the one that they probably wouldn't want to commit to. It had two things going for it. It's certainly a golden age for those kinds of reprint books right now. I think baby boomers have reached a certain age and they've got a certain amount of disposable cash and they're feeling nostalgic so those books are doing well. I thought they may not want to commit to this project but they did and it surprised the heck out of me. The other things was that last year, when the first volume came out, was Funky's 40th anniversary and I think they saw the synergy that could come from bringing out Volume 1 of the complete "Funky" on its 40th anniversary.
I hate to ask, but I know that the second part of "Lisa's Story" was partially a response to your own health issues. How are you doing?
I'm doing great. I had prostate cancer but I had surgery, it's doing fine. All is good. I'm feeling well.
You're darn right. [Laughs]
I know that you don't have any plans to end the strip, but have you given any thought to how you might go about ending it?
You know, it's funny. You think about that sort of thing once you reach this stage. I've thought about different ways at times of how to end the strip and what I'd like to do. What I suspect will happen is it'll be just like life. It'll just end. You don't get to plan things in life like that very often either, but I really don't know. It depends how things are going. If I get a call one day about how I have one more year in my contract and by the way there won't be any newspapers in a year I would definitely tie a bow on things and wrap it up. Like I say, right now I'm feeling good, I'm healthy and that's obviously a factor. You have to feel good to do this but I'm enjoying it. I just signed a new contract. Hopefully everything will keep going for a long time. In terms of health I think the newspaper industry has more problems right now than I do. I mean, watch, I'll go out and get hit by a car this afternoon. [Laughs] You should never say things like that. Luckily my studio is lead-lined just for that reason. [Laughs]
As a kid you were a letter hack on "The Flash" writing to Julie Schwartz and drawing comics, and here you are writing and drawing one comic strip, writing another. Looking back do you think, "I did okay"?
[Laughs] It feels good. The most fortunate thing is that I've been able to do something that I really really love and again it has just worked out perfectly for me. I fell into the right type of strip, the kind of strip that could endure over the years like we've been talking about. I didn't get the job at Marvel because I'd be out of work right now. [Laughs] I would have been pushed aside years ago. I'm very fortunate to have gotten a chance to do this. You do feel good. It's fun to write the strip now with the history that it has. When I first started out it was very difficult to do. Look at Charles Schulz. He had all this rich history to draw on in the strip even at that point and I didn't have any of that. Now I can go back and play with things a little bit. I just did a strip where Funky was cleaning the attic and he found his old I Chong book which was a takeoff on the I Ching and I used to do those from time to time. Having him sitting in the attic reading this book again just brought a smile to my face. It probably means more to me personally than anyone else. It was just a silly idea but I felt, "Wow, he's come a long way." That feels good.
"The Complete Funky Winkerbean" Vol. 2 is on sale now from Kent State Press.
Drawing Funky for 40
Published March 2013
Heart of Ohio Magazine
By Mike Greene
CBS This Morning
Aired May 25th, 2012
Comics and Commentary
‘WINKERBEAN’ CREATOR TOM BATIUK ENLISTS HIS BATOM COMICS CHARACTERS TO FIGHT CANCER
Published Fall 2017
The Intelligent Collector
by Hector Cantú
Tom Batiuk belongs to a unique group of comic-strip cartoonists.
The Funky Winkerbean creator in 2008 was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Only three other newspaper strip creators have achieved this distinction in the award’s 100-year history: Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County) and Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse). Pulitzer judges cited Batiuk’s controversial story line in which his Lisa character battles cancer – a subject not typically covered in the funny pages.
“That sort of validated my career for me because there are only four … Trudeau, Breathed, Johnston … and Funky,” Batiuk says with a smile. “I’ll take that company. That’s not bad.”
Shortly after the character’s death, Batiuk founded Lisa’s Legacy Fund for cancer research and education at Cleveland’s University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center.
“It’s amazing to think you can take a comic character and do some real-life good and help people out,” says Batiuk, who lives near Akron, Ohio. “We also do a Lisa’s Legacy 5K Run and Walk every year to raise money for the fund. It’s a very satisfying thing, to know you’re doing some good for people.”
Now, Batiuk is focusing on a new way to raise money for Lisa’s Legacy Fund. He’s auctioning original art by some of his favorite comic-book artists. Legends such as John Byrne, Tom Palmer, Neal Adams, Russ Heath and Joe Staton in recent years have contributed to Funky Winkerbean by drawing 20 faux covers for the strip’s fictional Batom Comics. A comic collector himself, Batiuk has weaved stories around fictional titles such as Starbuck Jones, The Lunar Cadets, The Black Ghost and Jupiter Moon.
As an artist who once aspired to work for Marvel or DC Comics, creating his own bullpen has been a dream come true. Now Batiuk hopes his project will help the battle against cancer. Batiuk talked to The Intelligent Collector about his career, his acclaimed Lisa’s Story, Batom Comics and the upcoming auction.
Funky Winkerbean debuted 45 years ago and today it’s in 400 newspapers worldwide. What’s been the most remarkable part of your journey so far?
The most remarkable aspect has been having readers follow you on this journey. When I started, Funky was ostensibly a high school strip with teens, and I was supposed to speak to my generation and now when I go out and I’m giving a talk, I look out over the audience and there are a lot of gray heads out there. And it suddenly occurred to me. I’m still doing my job. I’m still speaking to my generation. And the most remarkable thing is that I’ve been able to move ahead with the work and take my readers with me. That’s a real gift.
So Funky starts appearing in newspapers in 1972. Let’s jump to 1999, when you decide to give your Lisa character breast cancer.
I had done a little time jump and moved my characters closer to my age. When I started, I was like 24, so I was maybe 10 years older than the kids I was teaching in school and it seems like that’s a good spread for me. It takes me 10 years to figure out what just happened to me. I wanted to bring the characters up closer to me again and at the same time, I wanted to reflect things that I was running into at that point.
I was beginning to hear about friends and relatives who were experiencing the kind of things that happen in life, like breast cancer. At the same time, there were lots of groups out there really doing a lot to raise awareness of breast cancer. So it was in the air. And I wanted to do more extended pieces, and rely more on behavioral humor … the way people naturally relate with one another, which would allow me to do a story on breast cancer. There’s humor there, but you have to hunt for it, you have to dig for it.
I worked on Lisa’s story for about a year off to the side, just reading, talking to people and really trying to make myself understand that experience and what it felt like.
After Lisa died in the strip, you launched Lisa’s Legacy Fund.
It came out of everything that was going on. Lisa was dying in the paper, the Lisa’s Story book came out and it was being talked about a lot. There was a meeting with University Hospitals where the idea was floated to create a fund for cancer research and education and it was great, so we did that. Cathy and I made a contribution to launch the fund, to get it going, and it’s been running ever since. They focus on educating people diagnosed with cancer and letting them know what’s going on. And then there’s follow up, what to expect afterwards.
Since Lisa’s Story, both Cathy and I have been diagnosed with cancer. We’re doing well, but you understand how this benefits people. I have to say, having written Lisa’s Story and having learned all about that, I was sort of educating myself, and that was very helpful. When I was diagnosed with cancer, that taught me a lot. I told myself, “I know how to handle this.”
Talk about the origin of your Starbuck Jones character. It’s related to Funky’s wife, Holly, and her son Cory?
Because of the war in Iraq, I wanted to be a part of that, so Cory is serving in Iraq and … I started thinking what I could do to reflect the lives of people back home. And I thought what if Holly decided to complete [Cory’s] comic-book collection for him? I had mentioned a Starbuck Jones comic one time so I said, “What if she collects all of his missing Starbuck Jones comics so when he comes home, he has a complete run of Starbuck Jones?”
What’s the history of Starbuck Jones?
He’s based on a character I created in the fifth grade. I knew I wanted to do a bunch of comic-book covers in Funky and I didn’t want to get sued by Marvel or DC so I thought I'll use Starbuck Jones. Then I thought, “What if I could contact some guys whose work I have admired over the years and get them to create these faux comic book covers for Batom Comics?”
Batom Comics is what I called my little comic book company back then. I talked to Joe Staton at the comic con in Akron and Joe was great. He was marvelous because he teed it up for everybody. He created the logo, the look for Starbuck Jones, and it was absolutely wonderful!
So these Starbuck Jones covers started appearing in Funky Winkerbean’s color Sunday comics? They represent the comics that Holly found?
Yes, they would appear at some point in the story line where she was finding the next comic. She went to Comic-Con in San Diego to try to find the final comic she needed and ended up getting it at a garage sale. One comic she found on the Internet on Mother’s Day.
So we had seven original Starbuck Jones comics and it was so enjoyable that I went back and dipped into my other Batom characters, of which I had an abundant supply! I think fifth grade was my most prolific year in terms of coming up with characters! I went back and started grabbing some of the other characters and weaving them into the story.
How have the artists reacted to the auction?
Everybody seems to love it! What I’m doing is keeping everybody in the loop. On my website, we have a gallery and every two weeks leading up to the auction in November, a new cover is released and then I do a blog post about it, and I write and talk about the artist. It was fascinating, like owning a little comic-book company. I’m also doing a couple of weeks in the strip where Lisa’s son Darin gets some comic-book originals from some old Golden Age cartoonist and he decides to auction them at Heritage for Lisa’s Fund.
What’s your ultimate goal with this auction?
These are beautiful originals and it would be a shame to have them sitting in a drawer at my house when somebody can have a nice Neal Adams on their wall. It’s a quirky, unique venue and story behind these covers. But basically, I hope people can grab something from their favorite artist and get a print showing how it ran in Funky. And obviously, the end result is that Lisa’s Legacy Fund can continue educating people about cancer, making their lives a little easier. If that happens, then that’s fantastic.
HECTOR CANTÚ is editor of The Intelligent Collector and co-creator of the Baldo syndicated newspaper comic strip.
The Funnies Page’s Unlikeliest Savior: ‘Funky Winkerbean’
Published November 17, 2014
By Brian Steinberg
A woman searches fervently for a comic book to bring joy to her son, who is stationed with the military in Afghanistan. A man grapples with Hollywood producers over the script for a film that is supposed to be about his dead wife. Two middle-aged guys taking part in a charity race use the occasion to consider the inevitable: “You have to wonder how much longer we can keep running like this,” one says to the other.
Are you laughing yet?
Haunting – some might say depressing – moments like these are the building blocks of a long running newspaper comic strip that these days acts like it’s something entirely different. For years, Tom Batiuk has studiously avoided the rut worn by Hi and Lois Flagston or Beetle Bailey and Sgt. Snorkel by experimenting with the format of his comic strip, “Funky Winkerbean.” Where other comics center on a small handful of characters, Batiuk manages a cast of dozens. Veteran funnies-page citizens like The Phantom and Dagwood Bumstead are lean and muscular, despite their advancing years. The title character of “Funky” (a reformed alcoholic, seen in the above picture, left) looks his age – paunchy and out of shape. Sometimes Batiuk’s three panels elicit a chuckle, but they often make a reader wince instead, as the title character and other citizens in his hometown of Westview fight breast cancer and racism. They don’t always win.
If Batiuk were to launch his comic with its current premise in today’s difficult economic climate for newspapers, “we would have an extra challenge,” says Brendan Burford, comics editor at King Features Syndicate, which sells the strip. Yet Batiuk has managed to keep “Funky Winkerbean” in about 400 newspapers for several years, he says, despite the tightening market for such stuff in an industry that is being rendered obsolete by new technology. Most newspapers, says Burford, would prefer something less demanding of readers. “’Just give me something that’s funny’” is the typical request.
Which is not what “Funky Winkerbean” offers. The cartoonist has “jumped time” twice over his forty-plus year tenure on the strip, forcing his cast to age very noticeably. Characters who once joshed about in high school now must ponder the vicissitudes of middle age and the sense they are moving into the back half of their lives. There are laughs to be had, but they are just one element of a recipe that delivers one short story after another about people just trying to make it from day to day. In that sense, “Funky Winkerbean” has become something akin to Sherwood Anderson’s short-story collection “Winesburg, Ohio,” about a group of people trying to stave off loneliness and isolation in a small town, or William Saroyan’s “Human Comedy,” which examines the ups and downs of the populace of the fictional town of Ithaca, California. It’s the kind of stuff we could envision the “Peanuts” characters taking on, had they been allowed to advance to middle age.
“I found writing about adult relationships much more nuanced, much more complicated,” says Batiuk, who invokes everyone from philosopher Emmanuel Kant to super-hero Green Lantern during a wide-ranging discussion. Had he hewed to the comic’s original premise, “it would have become like other teen strips – dated and outmoded. That was always in the back of my mind. I wanted to avoid that pitfall.”
To get there, he has had to devise non-traditional working patterns. He writes “Funky Winkerbean” strips about a year ahead of the when they are slated to publish, the better to craft longer-term plotlines. The process, he says, took him about two and a half years: He created extra two-week or three-week batches of the strip to build a time cushion “It has really benefited the strip, because all of a sudden I could think long thoughts and I could let a story gestate for a long time in my head – before I had to even worry about putting something down on paper,” he says.
Batiuk isn’t the first funnies-page resident to tinker with the milieu’s old model. Lynn Johnston let her characters age in real time in “For Better or For Worse,” which started as another family-comedy strip and progressed into a chronicle of a maturing young family and the life surprises they encounter. Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has long zipped among tens of characters, some of them the children of the strip’s original cast. “Gasoline Alley” still features original characters Walt Wallet and his adopted son Skeezix, even though both are senior citizens.
Yet the artist’s work progresses as newspaper comic strips, many of which date back to the 1930s (“Blondie”), 1950s (“Beetle Bailey”) or 1960s (“Apartment 3-G”) seem particularly out of sync with a consumer base that gets more of its information and entertainment from digital sources and likes to immerse with a favored piece of content more than three panels at a time.
Indeed, one might liken Batiuk’s work to what is taking place currently on television, where some of the medium’s best-loved programs feature finely etched characters and flawed protagonists attempting to move forward despite difficult conditions – a zombie apocalypse, say – with little guarantee of success. Consider Funky Winkerbean, a pizza owner on his second marriage who has a strained relationship with his son, or Les Moore, a nebbishy widower trying to keep his new wife happy while remaining devoted to the memory of his first. This could be the funnies-page take of the characters from NBC’s “Parenthood,” maybe.
Tom Batiuk, 67 years old, has had a fascination with the comics from a very early age. “When I lived back in Akron, my dad would read the comics to me. I could just tell there was something powerful going on.” After graduating from Kent State in 1969, he visited both DC Comics and Marvel, the two big super-hero publishers, in hopes of gaining a job. Editors at both houses told him he was too green. After getting a job teaching arts and crafts at a junior high school,. Batiuk managed to get work for the Elyria, Ohio, Chronicle Telegram, contributing a cartoon to a page the paper ran for teens on Tuesdays. Things developed from there. “Funky Winkerbean” would debut in 1972
The cartoonist says he has tried to steer his comic in a more serious direction from its earliest days, even visiting a high school to gain more realistic detail. “I was repackaging a dated genre – the ‘Archies’ and ‘The Jackson Twins,’ ‘Ponytail.’ Teen strips were getting long in the tooth,” he says. “I wanted mine to be different, to be about today, to have that attitude.”
Early attempts to walk the edge were met with resistance, he recalls. Batiuk once worked up a series about teen pregnancy, only to be told by his syndicate bosses that such stuff would not play. “They basically said, ‘There’s nothing in the newspaper like this and it’s going to stay that way, ‘” he recalls. “Without having editorial control over my work, I was hamstrung. What I did was nudge the strip in little ways. I started moving from a gag a day to more of a sitcom situation, a longer form story. I would try to get into more adult things, like a coach having a heart attack. And once I had gone through some of the surface jokes, I started digging a little bit, getting into how you start making contracts with God, ‘If you get me out of this one….’ A little deeper. A little bit more substance.”
Editorial control came after 1984, when “Funky” became part of Rupert Murdoch’s News America unit. “I immediately dusted off the first series on teen pregnancy,” Batiuk remembers. In that arc, a teen girl named Lisa discovers she is pregnant. The nerdy Les Moore (seen at right in the top photo)“became her best friend and companion, even her Lamaze partner,” says Batiuk. “It became awkward to take him from a more mature position back to hanging on the gym class rope and being afraid to climb down.”
Next, Batiuk tried something even more radical. In 1992, he restructured the strip, moving his characters out of high school and into a situation where they began to age as the strip moved along. “Funky Winkerbean” became more of a drama than a comedy. By 2006 and 2007, he had gained notice for putting one character – the “Lisa” who had gotten pregnant as a teen – through a horrific cancer ordeal, which, ultimately, she did not survive. And then in October of 2007, he accelerated the comic again, jumping everything ten years ahead.
Following his own muse has roused a fervent following for Batiuk, says Burford, the editor. “Funky” has “become an untouchable comic strip,” even if its creator “does do work that’s different from the other comics on the comics page.”
Over the years, Batiuk has attempted more off-kilter antics. Between 1979 and 1991, he wrote another comic, “John Darling,” about a buffoonish talk show host originally introduced in the panels of “Funky.” In the second-to-last episode of “John Darling,” the title character was assassinated – the better to keep his intellectual property from being used by others, says Batiuk. He also maintains a strange connection between “Funky” and another comic he writes, “Crankshaft,” about a grumpy older gentleman. The two strips sometimes cross over, but complexity reigns when they do. After all, when Batiuk set “Funky Winkerbean” ten years, “Crankshaft” remained hitched to its original moment in time. When “Crankshaft” characters appear in “Funky” panels, they are a decade older (and the senior-citizen protagonist is stuck in a home for the elderly, unable to care for himself). Where else in the comics can readers get a glance of a where a character is ultimately headed? “It takes a little thought, but it can be done,” says Batiuk.
These ideas, the cartoonist says, “bring people back every day” in a way that a daily joke may not. “Your jobs is to chase your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them every day,” he says, and the reader’s curiosity about discovering how things will end can form a more powerful lure than humor.
The current trajectory of the newspaper business may lend Batiuk some of his freedom. Simply put, the consumption patterns of funnies-page aficionados are in flux, and whether the numbers of people who examine the comics digitally make up for those who no longer read them in their paper-and-ink home remains to be seen. Batiuk sees small-town newspapers thriving in ways their big-city counterparts may not. “If that’s the case, there will still be comic strips, but boy, it’s going to get even tighter and tighter in terms of competition,” he says.
Meantime, he keeps plotting. In January, “Funky” characters are slated to meet Dick Tracy, who is published by a different syndicate, the result of a meeting with “Dick Tracy” artist Joe Staton at a comics convention. “That’s just fun for me,” says Batiuk. Yet the crossover, involving characters from comics distributed by two different companies, is the equivalent of having Marvel’s Captain America team up with DC Comics’ Swamp Thing.
Batiuk isn’t necessarily interested in getting a Taylor Swift-sized readership for his cast of characters, but certainly wants to keep things interesting for the strip’s die-hards. He recalls doing a recent book-signing at a local library in southern Ohio, near his stomping grounds. “There was a lot of gray hair out there,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘This is the ‘Funky’ gang, and they’re still here.’”
Funky Turns 40
By John Gladden
WKYC Channel 3, Cleveland
Aired September 28th, 2011
Lisa's Legacy: Walk to benefit breast cancer research
Tom Batiuk: Still Funky After All These Years
Published: September 20, 2011
by R.J. Carter
Bridging the gap between Archie and Zits, a comic strip was introduced about high school kids, which spoke to the modern events, issues, and styles of the seventies (and later, the eighties). Funky Winkerbean, the creation of cartoonist Tom Batiuk, has grown over the years from the joke-a-day strip around a central cast of students and teachers at the beleaguered Westview High (home of the Fighting Scapegoats) to a serial dramedy where the kids are now grown adults with teenagers of their own, dealing with heavy topics like cancer, the Iraq war, and school administration ethics.
As the strip approaches its fortieth anniversary, we spoke at length with Batiuk about Funky's origins and evolutions.
I was reading the strip in 1972. I was five. The earliest strip I remember is the one where teachers from different schools were comparing students' "funny names" and it punched with "You think that's something? We've got a student named Funky Winkerbean." What was the inspiration for setting the strip in a modern high school setting?
I really was very fortunate and fell into it. Just taking it back a step further, when I graduated from college in New York, I tried to get a job working for Marvel and DC, and visited both of them. I got turned down at both places. Marvel was nice -- I talked to Roy Thomas there, and I left with an invitation to come back with more work and show him more stuff.
When I came back home, I was teaching art at a junior high school in Elyria, Ohio. I went into our local paper, and I took my sketchbook in, and I thought I'd maybe get a job doing some kind of spot art, or something like that. The editor there liked what he saw -- and what he saw was that I had sketches of the kids in the classroom, but I would put little word balloons on them or funny captions. They were just starting a thing called the "Teen Page" -- it was their "Tuesday Teen Page" -- and they wanted a cartoon for it. So they asked, "Would you want to do a cartoon for this once a week?" And I said, "Absolutely!"
So I started to work on that, and all thoughts of DC and Marvel went out the window. And this probably worked out a heck of a lot better for me. My subject matter sort of chose me, and it worked out great.
I think one of the differences between Funky and a lot of the teen type strips that had preceded it, or at least were existing at that point, was that it was an inside job. Not only was I just out of school, but I was teaching so it was all inside info, and I think that made a difference.
Sort of the way Scott Adams did with Dilbert, making jokes about the corporate structure from working within the corporate structure.
Exactly. And Funky got off to such a great launch, I think, because we came just at the cusp... the culture and environment had changed tremendously at that point, and I know there was one teen strip where they were still driving around with letter-sweaters and jalopies. I came at a point when they needed updating, and that was good.
Were you a band geek in high school?
So much of the strip was focused on the school band -- in fact, I had it driven into my head from my own high school that "Football fields are for band practice!"
That comes as part of the inside job. Strips prior to that, the biggest problem would be the football player deciding which cheerleader he wants to date. But with mine, it was like, that wasn't the high school that I knew. I was in the band, and everything came out of that perspective. So instead of being about the traditional characters, you would see, it was more of everybody else.
Was your high school football team not that great?
No, they actually weren't at that time.
In 1992, you decided to push the strip forward ten years in time. I'm guessing you wanted to update the characters, but you also changed the tone of the strip from being a relatively standalone comic to more of a dramedy serial. Why the change in direction in a strip that was working?
When I first started on a strip, for all the reasons I just mentioned I wanted it to be different from the other teen strips. That's why you never saw parents in Funky. I always wanted to avoid a lot of the cliches -- I didn't want to do strips about kids cleaning their rooms. And as part of that, I thought, "I'm going to make them grow up one day and follow them along."
And that part got lost a little bit. You get involved in this, and it's a lot of fun, but my first few years were spent in on-the-job training -- just figuring out everything I could do with this. I would still go out to my high school and sketch; I still do that to this day. And I remember one of the times I was out there sketching, I sketched a girl who was pregnant. That led to a storyline about a girl being pregnant in high school. Les, one of my main characters, was her best friend, and they had dated at one point -- he wasn't the father, but he was her best friend. And he became her birthing partner and all of this stuff, and all of a sudden I realized it was going to be very difficult to take him through a story like that and then have Les go back to hanging from the gym class rope during the homecoming dance. My characters had started to grow up on me.
That was good for me, because I had grown beyond where I was when I started the strip. So I wanted to sort of "catch up" and bring my characters along with me, and continue to follow their lives that way. So that's what prompted the change.
Some of the memorable storylines of that era, at least for me, were Lisa's cancer and the comic book store obscenity trial that was mirroring the Jesus Castillo case. (I still have Crazy's witness stand testimony of how, when he was in high school, "...superheroes did what they did best... they saved me." tacked up on my wall.) What were your personal connections, if any, to the issues addressed in the strip in these and other instances?
Lisa's story was sort of done in two parts. In the first part, I had reached an age where you're starting to hear from friends about this kind of thing, and from relatives who are dealing with it. It wasn't a personal experience with my wife and I at that point, so I took all that stuff and internalized it, and created this internal landscape that I could draw from to do the first part of Lisa's story arc.
The second part came about... I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was about eight years ago. And so far, so good. But it gave me insight that the earlier work didn't have. I went back to it, and I found that this time when I went back to this internal landscape, it was a lot deeper -- the emotions were a lot stronger. There was more to be said. So that's what prompted the second part of the storyline. Lisa's dying was, in part, a writer's thing, because I had told her story the first time, and now I needed to take my characters to a new place.
Lisa's not the first character to die in the strip. You sent shockwaves through the funny pages prior to that when John Darling was shot.
Oh, yeah. I forgot about John. You know what that was? I didn't really mean to do that -- I mean, it wasn't my intent from the beginning of the strip. At that point, I was in a lawsuit with my syndicate trying to get back ownership of Funky. And I was also doing Crankshaft. So between the lawsuit and doing Funky and doing Crankshaft, and doing John Darling, something had to give. So I decided to end John Darling, but I didn't want someone else to pick up and do the strip.
I didn't have ownership of Funky or John Darling at that point, and so I thought, "Well, if somebody else is going to come on and do the strip, I'm going to make it really hard for them." (laughs)
Will you ever go back and explore some of the intervening years that were skipped over?
Yeah, I think I will. And that's happening for a couple of reasons. I've already gone back a couple of times where Les has gone back and is reflecting on some things that happened to him while he was in college. And the college is now identified -- it was just sort of a vague thing, before, but now it's Kent State. That's because Kent State brought out Lisa's Story, and brought me back in contact with the campus and it just started dredging up a lot of old memories. I'm sure there will be more of that. I've had him, when he was doing the book tour recently, he met a women that he had known at college, and we flashed back to a week of sequences dealing with that.
So, yes, I will be going back and filling in, because it's kind of fun. Not only do I have a backstory to fall back on and a history with the strip, but I also have some gaps that were never filled in. And filling them in is fun.
If the 1992 flashforward set the strip to current time, is the current incarnation set sometime in the near future, given that there was a second jump of several years?
You know... (laughs) I'm just laughing because it was sort of like a comic book thing I did there. The first time we made the jump, it was "now." I calculated to do that. And I sort of did the same thing with the second jump. Ostensibly it was like moving down the road about ten years, but I'm just letting it devolve to being "right now." The only remaining difference is that Crankshaft and Funky are no longer on the same time plane.
I was wondering if Crankshaft was still kicking around in the Funky strip.
There's a series coming up next summer where we actually see Crankshaft and Funky. He's got a caregiver, he's in a wheelchair. And I just did a crossover with Funky and Crankshaft, and I was able to do it because I told the story in Crankshaft of when Les's fiancee, Cayla, was in college, and then it ends up on the last day of that week where Crankshaft takes a picture of Cayla -- and then we see Les and Cayla looking at that picture in her home over Labor Day weekend.
So Crankshaft is still around in Funky. Then where is Jessica Darling?
Jessica Darling is married to Lisa's birth-son, Darin. I haven't made any secret of that. In Lisa's Story, where Darin begins his search for his birth mother, it's prompted by Jessica, and she talks about the fact that her dad was killed when she was young and that she never got to know him -- so she encourages Darin to get to know his birth mother.
Since you are telling longer story arcs, have you ever considered doing something more like a graphic novel -- not a strip anthology, but more of a comic book layout?
Yeah, I think about that. It's just that the time constraints are just too much to deal with. Between doing the two strips, and then this year I also was working on a big book collection -- and between trying to juggle all those projects, there's really no time to get involved with something like that. I think it's an intriguing idea, and it would certainly allow you to just finally make that last break and go totally cinematic with it. I liken it to... I started out doing stand-up, just telling jokes, and then I evolved to sort of a sitcom where situations would kind of carry the narrative for a while. And now I'm kind of making movies.
Since so many other strips are getting the adaptive treatment by Hollywood, is there any opportunity for Funky to make the leap from metaphorically making movies to literally being a movie? Maybe built around the John Darling murder/resolution? And if one were made, who do you see playing whom?
Funky and Crankshaft have both been under option, for going on more than a decade now, at one time or another. It's Hollywood being what it is. Nothing ever came to fruition. Funky was even under option from Walt Disney at one point. But none of that ever solidified.
However, during that sort of middle interregnum, when Funky was a young adult, I always thought Ed Norton would have made a great Funky.
The series' focus seems to be on Les more than any other person. Does the strip retain the Funky Winkerbean title simply for marketability and licensing?
Funky is a very, very unusual strip. None of my other strips, even my stuff, was like that. Crankshaft was very focused -- a smaller cast of characters and really focused on the main character.
When Funky started out, just because of the style I was writing, and the way I was doing it, he became sort of the center of the wheel that everybody kind of radiated from. As a result, his personality never developed like, say, the band director's or Les's or Crazy Harry's. And frankly, since I made the time jump, his personality has come more into play as an adult, which is kind of fun. I'm doing stuff where he just had to put his father into a nursing home, and dealing with these situations -- and actually, that's the first time we've seen one of the character's parents in the strip. So he's coming more to life.
So, no, it's nothing like that. It's just, with Les, I guess I always kind of gravitated to him. I identify with him a lot. I don't know why I never put him in the band. That would have been so smart.
Without giving too much away, are there any more "big events" planned for the cast, and can you tell us what topics might be touched on through the story?
Sure! There are a bunch of big events, inside and outside of the strip.
Inside the strip -- and I'm looking ahead to next year -- the girls' basketball team is going to be vying for the State Championship. There's going to be a storyline in May when a same-sex couple wants to attend the prom together. In the middle of the year, Les and Summer are going to climb Kilimanjaro. And then at the end of the year is Les and Cayla's wedding. In fact, I just picked out the wedding dress the other night -- I was in a Barnes and Noble going through wedding books and I found the one I want.
So those are the big events within the strip. But also, next March 27 , will be Funky's fortieth anniversary. It's a little hard to believe -- you sit here at the drawing board, and all of a sudden you look up and it's like, "What happened?"
The other thing that's really cool is that Kent State University Press -- the ones that brought out Lisa's Story -- are going to be bringing out Volume One of The Complete Funky Winkerbean in March of next year. The neat thing about this book is that it does have the artist's voice, where with a lot of the older books the artist isn't around to comment. So it has the artist's voice, and a lot of the stuff I was able to find in my attic.
Thanks to Tom Batiuk for sharing with fans an early peek at the upcoming fortieth anniversary strip:
Cartoonist Illustrates Message of Rally for Music Education
MENC Executive Director John Mahlmann, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and cartoonist Tom Batiuk at the Rally for Music Education
At the June 18 Rally for Music Education, MENC presented Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with a special cartoon created by Tom Batiuk. The cartoon illustrated the message MENC hoped to convey to Duncan through the rally: that music is a critical part of education. The Petition for Equal Access to Music Education asks that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act "not only identify music as a core subject, but also recognize music education as a mandatory component of every public education curriculum in the United States."
A recent Pulitzer finalist for cartooning, Batiuk created and draws the "Funky Winkerbean" comic strip. A longtime supporter of music education, he creates the "Halle Dinkle" comic strip, which explores the life and times of a general music teacher, just for MENC members.
"It was incredibly exciting to be a participant in the Rally," said Batiuk. "MENC had asked if I could create a cartoon using my Funky characters to present to Secretary of Education Duncan, and, of course, I was more than happy to. I heard the Secretary of Education remark on PBS recently regarding the importance of art and music in the curriculum, so it seems the Rally helped reinforce that idea."
"Secretary Duncan seemed very pleased with the cartoon," Batiuk added. "He remarked that it was his first appearance in one."
"Tom Batiuk is one of music education's greatest friends," said John Mahlmann, MENC Executive Director. "MENC and all our members are grateful for his support of our efforts to raise awareness of the importance of music in every child's education."
During Music Education Week, Batiuk was honored by MENC as a Lowell Mason Fellow. "I'm very gratified that the MENC feels my work has done something to raise awareness about music education and its importance," he said. "If that's the case, it's simply been a payment in return for what my music education gave to me."
For information on reprinting this cartoon for music education advocacy, contact email@example.com
Photo by Becky Spray.
--Elizabeth Lasko, July 30, 2009. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education
Weekend Edition, NPR
Aired August 16th, 2008
Remembering The Birth Of Superman
The Cartoonist's Cartoonists: Tom Batiuk
The Daily Cartoonist
By Alan Gardner
Tom Batiuk began his cartooning career while teaching Jr. High in Elyria Ohio in 1970 when he created a comic panel for the Elyria Chronical-Telegram. The panel was the precursor to what later became his strip Funky Winkerbean that was launched in 1972. In 1979 Tom created a second comic strip called John Darling, which he wrote and Tom Armstrong drew, with one of the infrequent characters of Funky Winkerbean (think comic strip spin-off). The strip ran until 1991 when the lead character was murdered. In 1987, another spin-off, Crankshaft was created involving Funky character Ed Crankshaft which he team creates with Chuck Ayers.
Since its debut in 1972, Funky Winkerbean has been known to delve into sensitive isues such as alcoholism, teen-dating abuse, suicide and rape. The latest issue, the death of the Lisa Moore character again set off a national debate on the appropriateness of such issues on the "funny pages." For his work with the Lisa Moore story-line, Tom was honored as a finalist by this year's Pulitzer Board for "a sequence in his cartoon strip "Funky Winkerbean" that portrays a woman's poignant battle with breast cancer."
Here now are the 10 cartoonist whom Tom admires or has influenced his career.
Frank King - Frank King's gentle magic continually amazes me. His work lives and breathes like real life, reflecting the society in which it was created. I wish I knew his trick of aging his characters right before the reader's eyes.
Stan Lee - I went to Kent State, but while I was there I was attending the college of Stan Lee. Stan's school of story telling taught me so much about getting readers to invest in your characters and keeping them engaged with masterful story telling.
Milton Caniff - I don't know what I could say about Caniff that hasn't been said a hundred times over. Elegant art over elegant story telling. The thing that sometimes gets overlooked is the humanity of his characters. Very emotionally real treatments.
Chet Gould - Allow me to completely contradict myself. Gould's art on Tracy in the fifties was almost abstract (check out the way he drew trees). The characters were beyond belief and the plots were insane. Totally worked for me.
Roger Bollen - His work on Animal Crackers always made me laugh. Plus Rog was just a really nice guy. I went to him as a young cartoonist and he told me the secret of how to get syndicated.
Jim Childress - Jim's strip Conchy was a sadly unheralded masterpiece. It was quite possibly the most brilliant humor strip I've ever seen. I'd give five hundred Krazy Kats for one Conchy.
Mac Raboy - From captain Marvel Jr., to The Green Lama, to Flash Gordon. Some of the most gorgeous art that's ever been laid to bristol board. Thank God we live in the age of great reprint books.
Burne Horgarth - Now some folks swear by Hal Foster's Tarzen, but, for my money, Horgarth takes the gold medal. The sequence where Tarzan is fighting the giant gorilla on the wing of the twin engined plane as it dives through the air pretty much says it all.
Jim Meddic - One of today's cartoonist's who consistently amuses me. It reminds me sometimes of things that I used to do in Funky except that Jim does them better.
Charles Schulz - As Stan Lee was wont to say: 'nuff said.
Lisa's Story Continues Winning Awards
Published June 09, 2008
The Daily Cartoonist
By Alan Gardner
Funky Winkerbean creator Tom Batiuk's book, "Lisa's Story," has been honored with several awards. The book, which is a compilation of cartoons involving the story-line of Lisa's cancer, was awarded a silver medal from the Nautilus Book Awards in the Aging/Death & Dying category; it was a finalist in the Popular Culture category of ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Awards; and the third award is a bronze medal in the Most Life Changing category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY's).
Tom Batiuk is 2008 Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Published April 07, 2008
The Daily Cartoonist
By Alan Gardner
Tom Batiuk creator of the comic feature Funky Winkerbean is one of the three finalists for this year's Pulitzer Prize. This is the fourth time a comic strip has been considered for American journalism's top prize. Two previous comic strippers have won the prize Garry Trudeau (1975) and Berkeley Breathed (1987).
According to the judges, Tom's work was deserving "for a sequence in his cartoon strip "Funky Winkerbean" that portrays a woman's poignant battle with breast cancer."
"Lisa's Story" was the biggest story in syndicated comic strips last year as many readers wrestled with reading a story-arc regarding breast cancer in the "funny pages." Worse yet, the story ended with the death of the strip's main character spurring more debate on the comic's appropriateness.
Funny page appropriateness debate aside, Tom's work certainly raised the profile for breast cancer and funds as well. Proceeds from Tom's book "Lisa's Story, The Other Shoe" go to a new fund called Lisa's Legacy Fund that helps fund cancer cure research.
Today's announcement places him in a very select crowd. It is not entirely unusual for a comic strip cartoonist to be a finalist or even win the Pulitzer. As mentioned above Trudeau won the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 1975 for his dealing with Watergate and has been nominated three more times (1990, 2004 and 2005). Breathed won the prize in 1987 for his social satire in Bloom County and Lynn Johnston was nominated in 1994 for her strip, For Better or For Worse which dealt with the coming out of a gay character.
Tom, humbly added that this honor isn't completely his, that he had the help of a great editor, Jay Kennedy at King Features. Tom calls Jay a great "referee" who "had the ability to get the best out of me." Jay had read and reviewed the entire "Lisa's Story" script prior to his untimely death last spring off the coast of Costa Rica.
Tom Batiuk Discusses Funky Winkerbean's Pulitzer Nod
Published April 10, 2008
By Claire Lui
When the Pulitzer prizes and finalists were announced on Monday, April 7, the name Funky Winkerbean stood out in the sea of investigative reporter bylines. Written by Tom Batiuk, the funny-page staple was named as one of two finalists in Editorial Cartooning, making it only the fourth comic strip to be named as Pulitzer prize winner or finalist. (The other three? "Doonesbury," by Gary Trudeau, which won in 1975, and was also a finalist in 1990, 2004, and 2005; "Bloom County," by Berkeley Breathed, which won in 1987; and "For Better or For Worse," by Lynn Johnston, a finalist in 1984, and which lost to Michael Ramirez, an editorial cartoonist who also won this year.)
Batiuk was recognized for Lisa's Story, a series of strips where Lisa, one of the main characters in the Funky Winkerbean universe, dies of breast cancer. The story was originally introduced in 1999, and Lisa's cancer went into remission. Speaking on the phone from his home in Ohio, Batiuk said that when he had finished Lisa's story the first time, "I thought I had said the last word." After being diagnosed with cancer himself - he is now in remission - Batiuk realized that there was more to tell. "It gave me some insights, and made me realize that there was a deeper story, a more emotional story to tell."
The 2007 conclusion of Lisa's Story was unusually grim for the funny pages. Considering how many readers who had tried to convince Lynn Johnston from having Farley, the family dog, die in "For Better or For Worse" in 1995, Batiuk's decision to have a major character die in a comic strip was risky. The reaction to Lisa's Story was swift and significant - more than 7,000 emails from mostly supportive readers, many of whom had followed the strip since it began in 1972. "I don't think anything I've ever done or will do will match the response that I got," he says.
He received a fair dose of criticism as well. Batiuk groans a little when he recalls how many of his readers felt that comics were, by definition, cheerful. The angry readers "defined comics as only something that's funny on a childish level, and that I was not being faithful to my contract." (These readers were not referring to an unspoken contract between an author and his readers to entertain, but rather to Batiuk's actual contract with King Features Syndicate, which they seemed to believe required Batiuk to remain light in his comic matter.) "I was offended that they were offended because they felt a comic strip couldn't be serious," he said. Others wrote in to ask for a happy ending. "That's when the emails got very intense," he said. "It was probably the toughest strips in the series I had to write, and I had to be as honest as I could," he said.
In the final strips of the series, Batiuk indulged in some "magic realism," as he calls it, placing Lisa in an all-white room, with nothing in the background, allowing Batiuk to show her having conversations with her husband and other characters, even though she was ostensibly in a coma.
It was an ambitious move, one that even the ever-mocking Josh Fruhlinger, of The Comics Curmudgeon, and his commenters, admired. Fruhlinger described the death character as the "Phantom of the Opera/'Puttin' on the Ritz' guy," but on the day of Lisa's death, the final strip of the storyline, he wrote a rare compliment, saying that in Lisa's Story, "This series was undeniably trying at something a little grander."
After Lisa's Story concluded, Batiuk brought Funky Winkerbean into a time warp, fast-forwarding the story ten years into the present day, where the strip has remained. "I always wanted the characters to grow, but I wasn't good enough - like Frank King [who drew "Gasoline Alley"], to get them to the age they needed to be." The artificial jump, which had happened once before in Funky Winkerbean's history, allowed Batiuk to show Lisa in videos and other flashback devices.
Considering that most of the finalists and winners of the editorial cartooning Pulitzer prizes have been overtly political artists whose work is for op-ed pages, Funky Winkerbean's appearance on the Pulitzer list acknowledges the role and impact that the daily funnies have in people's lives. "It came as a very pleasant surprise," Batiuk says of the Pulitzer finalist nod. "I refuse to define newspaper strips so narrowly. I think you can create a work of substance with comic strips."
Cartoonist Tom Batiuk explores everyday life on the funnies page
Published March 2008
By Dave Korzon