Last Saturday I had a chance to be interviewed by a student in the Brunswick Schools video program. The program known as the Beat is comprised of 35 award winning student video journalists. They write print articles and tape 3 to 5 minute TV segments every week which air on the school’s cable channel. It’s a bona fide production studio which even includes a news desk donated by a local news channel. I had a great time and got to meet a lot of sharp, up and coming young journalists. The following is the text of the interview that took place:
Over the past decade, schools across the nation have lowered or completely dropped the funding for music and arts programs. Many people, however, believe that it is still important that programs for the fine arts are kept available to all students. One of these people is cartoonist and Ohio native Tom Batiuk, the creator of Funky Winkerbean.
Funky Winkerbean was first published in syndication in 1972 by Publishers-Hall Syndicate. The strip mixes cartoons and comedy with current events. However, it started off as a, “…teen genre strip…” according to Batiuk, which focused on the comic’s core set of characters and their lives in high school. “As time went on,” he continued, “they [the characters] started to grow up [and] I started expanding.” He began to mix the plot of the comic strip with more current issues. “One reason I changed things was because I realized that they can’t stay forever.” Batiuk also created several other setting locations for the characters to interact and grow that are still commonly seen in the strip today. He said, “…I’ve basically followed these core characters from high school through their whole lives.”
The fine arts and school music programs have been addressed in several panels of Funky Winkerbean. “I’ve done that all along,” Batiuk said. “When I was young, I took piano lessons, I was in the junior high band. And I created my band director character Harry L. Dinkle, ‘The World’s Greatest Band Director.’ So he’s been a big part of the strip – I’ve always gotten a great response to him. So it allowed me to tap on my musical background and keep using it all the time.” Batiuk said that he’s done panels in the past where they [the characters] have tried to save the music program. The recent panel, like others that have touched on the music program, was as Batiuk describes it, “… a one-off. It’s not going to be extended into a long story. But it’s so interwoven and become such a part of the strip that I’ll always be touching on it.”
Batiuk believes continuously keeping music and arts programs available to students is still very important today. “I think it’s such an important part of life. It’s like Harry said at the end of that one week… he never went to Carnegie Hall to listen to a banker… it’s all part of the fabric of things. And there are studies that show that, like taking music for example, helps with math. It’s just all of these things I think make us better citizens and more well-rounded human beings, and that’s what I think their importance is to the core curriculum.”
Batiuk understands personally how important programs for the fine arts can be. His life and career today would be very different without them. He said, “I took art in high school and it was very important. Although interestingly my art teacher would never let me draw cartoons in class…” Batiuk took art classes in college which helped with his career. However, he also took a lot of literature courses. “…I took a lot of English lit. courses, read a lot, and that was very important for the writing aspects of the career.” Then, when Batiuk started Funky Winkerbean, his old high school art teacher invited him to come back to the high school and visit whenever he wanted. This opportunity and experience help Batiuk to make the strip more grounded and real. Without the art programs that were available to Batiuk in school, Funky Winkerbean and his career in general would be nowhere near where it is today. “I’ve been very very lucky… Not every cartoonist gets to have his characters grow up and gets to follow them through their lives… so that has been a very fortunate thing for me and I hope I can continue to do it.”
For those of you who can only relate to videos, you can see the interview at www.thebeat22.com by clicking on the “View Beat Videos Online” link. For now, that’s about the size of it.