45 years in, ‘Funky Winkerbean’ creator isn’t going for funny

Sep 10, 2017

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.


Aging gracefully

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.

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