Published Sept. 8, 2019
The New York Times
by George Gene Gustines
“Funky Winkerbean,” the rare comic strip that allows its characters to grow and age, starts a 10-week story line on Monday that contains a tragedy. Fans of the long-running strip who would like to be surprised by what happens to a major character may not want to read further.
A newspaper staple since 1972, “Funky Winkerbean,” by the cartoonist Tom Batiuk, will focus this fall on sports-related concussions, which, in extreme cases, can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of degenerative dementia. The idea started close to home.
“The symptoms of C.T.E. really kind of mimic a clinical depression: the confusion, the anxiety, the agitation,” Mr. Batiuk, 72, said during a telephone interview.
He said he had been through a couple of bouts of depression himself, which gave him some insight into what will befall one of the strip’s recurring characters, a onetime high school football star, Jerome Bushka, who is known as Bull, and his wife, Linda.
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“It’s not just the person that goes through that,” Mr. Batiuk said. “It’s also their spouse or whomever happens to be their caregiver.”
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.”
The strip’s author laid the groundwork for the events of the coming weeks well in advance, with a 2016 installment of the strip in which Bull learned he had C.T.E.
Monday’s strip opens with a bit of weary humor. Bull’s wife mentions that his agitation is somewhat relieved by doing the laundry compulsively. “I immediately became the envy of the wives” in an online C.T.E. support group, Linda remarks.
In subsequent episodes, Bull’s friends deal with guilt (“Some of those hits he took on the field were from me”) and frustration (Linda receives a rejection letter regarding Bull’s application for disability benefits). In another strip, Bull visits his high school playing field, which a friend describes as “the scene of the crime.”
Two upcoming Sunday strips are notable. In one, a five-panel sequence shows Bull acting on the decision to take his own life. In another, a police officer delivers the news to Linda. In each, none of the characters speak. Pictures alone carry the dramatic weight.
In this wordless Sunday strip, a police officer gives Linda the bad news.Tom Batiuk/King Features
“Funky Winkerbean” appears in about 350 newspapers and can also be read online. Andrew Farago, 43, the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, said he had been a fan of the strip for about 35 years.
Unlike the characters in the great majority of comic strips and cartoons, the regulars of “Funky Winkerbean” do not stay frozen in time. That is quite a contrast from a traditional strip like “Little Orphan Annie,” whose plucky protagonist remained young from her debut in 1924 until the feature was canceled in 2010.
Mr. Farago said there were at least three comic strips that allowed their characters to age: “Gasoline Alley,” which was created by Frank King, and started in 1918 and continues today; “Doonesbury,” by Garry Trudeau, which began in 1970 and continues today with new Sunday strips; and “For Better or for Worse,” by Lynn Johnston, which ran from 1979 to 2008. In all three, characters grew older and, sometimes, died.
Aside from those exceptions, most comic-strip deaths, Mr. Farago noted, have been reserved for adventure serials like “Terry and the Pirates” or “Dick Tracy.”
“Villains would sometimes meet their fate at the hands of law enforcement,” he said.
Mr. Batiuk has laid other characters to rest. In 2007, a recurring character, Lisa Moore, died after suffering through breast cancer, eight years after receiving her diagnosis. The narrative drew a mixed reaction at the time, its author said.
“A lot of it, initially, was people didn’t feel that a story about a woman with breast cancer belonged on the comics page,” Mr. Batiuk said. “They were really kind of wedded to the idea that the comics are called the comics for a reason and are supposed to be funny.”
In the end, he said, his job is to tell stories, wherever they may lead.
“Whether they’re heavy stories or lighter stories,” Mr. Batiuk said, “I’m a storyteller.”
George Gustines is a senior editor. He began writing about the comic book industry in 2002.