Tom Batiuk: Still Funky After All These Years

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Tom Batiuk

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?

Absolutely! (laughs)

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 [2012], 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: