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.”