Tom Batiuk was 25 when he cracked the comics page and was touted as a voice for his generation. Today, at 75, the Ohio-based cartoonist remains true to that mission.
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He smiled with an understatement: “It’s a whole other world.”
Batiuk believes his longtime readers have acquired the wisdom of life just like his characters – through the long arc of experience and perspective. And starting Monday, “Funky Winkerbean” will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a storyline in which a gray-haired reunion of the main character and his Westview High peers leads to senior discoveries.
‘I look behind the scenes at meetings,’ Batiuk says of the underlying honesty the initial artifice of such a gathering, as former classmates realize that they all felt “clueless” in high school.
The reunion arc shines a light on aging characters who have weathered so much of the half-century of “Funky,” from enduring love to deep loss — a golden milestone rarely achieved by a single syndicated creator. And no modern mainstream comic this side of “Doonesbury” has so often addressed the challenges of mental and physical health, and so sensitively dealt with the death of a beloved actor.
Suicide. Abuse. PTSD. ETC. And most poignant, cancer. Given such subject matter, pain and mortality often lurk in “Funky Winkerbean.”
Batiuk proudly owns this creative space, balancing cockiness and gloom. He smiles when the serious themes of “Funky” are satirized on the Comics humor site Curmudgeon, and laughs when he remembers a reader emailing him accusing him: “You’re ruining comics for everything. the world”.
“I never wrote a comic so I wouldn’t get complaints,” says Batiuk. “I’m on this railroad that goes around the other comics – I’m out there all alone. No one bothers me and I can do whatever I want. This includes handling import themes with optimism, including LGTBQ acceptance at a ball. Now, “No one moves an eye.”
Batiuk also notes that in discussions with King Features, he negotiated editorial control of “Funky”, which his union says is distributed to around 400 newspapers. (The Washington Post does not carry the tape.)
“One of the things that Tom does beautifully is he’s really able to tell serialized stories that are real, serious stories, and balance that really well with humor,” says Tea Fougner, editorial director of comics at King.
She thinks “Funky Winkerbean” and “Crankshaft” — the spinoff Batiuk is creating with Chuck Ayers — “feel like sitcoms that deal with real issues that matter to people.”
It’s a far cry from where “Funky” started.
Batiuk was born in Akron and raised in Ohio, that famous birthplace of cartoonists, from pioneering 19th century writer-artist “Yellow Kid” Richard Outcault to modern greats such as Bill Watterson of “Calvin and Hobbes” . The “Funky” Creator graduated from Kent State – the year before the Vietnam War-era shootings on campus – and by the early 1970s was teaching graphic arts in college and pursuing an artistic career himself .
After drawing newspaper comics aimed at teenage audiences for his hometown Elyria Chronicle Telegram, Batiuk traveled to New York to visit the unions. Publishers had an appetite for new features depicting youth culture — a far cry, he recalls, from the malt shops and letterman sweaters in older comics.
During Batiuk’s first stop, a publisher handed him a newly launched ‘Doonesbury’ book from his union to peruse. A later stop, Publishers-Hall Syndicate, was “looking for something akin to ‘Doonesbury’.” Batiuk signed.
“As soon as I got my hands on my tape, I started running,” he says. “It was never like ‘Doonesbury’ – it kind of covered the same territory, but I quickly went to different places.”
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Batiuk built his original characters around people he knew: a roommate here, a teacher there, as well as students in the classes he taught. “I changed the names just to avoid being sued,” he laughs. And centering his band around high school life, including the geeks in the band — he was a trombonist himself — allowed him to “come to terms with something I really understood.”
“Funky” was a gag-a-day band for the better part of two decades. Yet Batiuk aspired to go further.
Batiuk stopped teaching for a while when he released “Funky”. One of his former high school art teachers, however, invited the cartoonist to occasionally attend his class — to stay in touch with how real students spoke and behaved. This environment has long sparked ideas.
At one point, Batiuk drew a pregnant student. A few weeks later, he found inspiration in this drawing. In 1986, he decided that a newly introduced student character, Lisa, would bear a child – the first time a mainstream comic had dealt with teenage pregnancy, according to the union, which received tens of thousands of requests for reprints of this series.
“I didn’t know at the time what it was going to do, because it changed my characters,” Batiuk says. “That little story arc allowed them to grow just enough that I couldn’t take them back to do silly stuff.”
As Batiuk delved deeper into his characters, he eventually chose to restart his strip. In 1992, “Funky” unveiled its first time leap: a cast graduating from high school suddenly stepped into young adult life – a character aging that is relatively rare in newspaper comics, and most enduringly executed by “Gasoline Alley”, a comic Batiuk read as a child.
“When I did the first time jump, it was amazing – it was a Road to Damascus moment” in the band’s evolution, Batiuk says, noting that it went from “doing entertainment and from escapism to something more adult and confrontational.” His strip reflected reality more sharply. He realized, “I could stop writing about cartoon characters and I could start writing about human beings .”
Batiuk headed for longer arcs. In 1995, he broached the subject of teenage suicide. Later in the decade, Lisa and her boyfriend Les got married, as did the main character and his girlfriend, Cindy. Then in 1999, Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer; Batiuk described her journey, including chemotherapy and a mastectomy.
Lisa had a daughter and pursued a career in law before her cancer returned in 2006. Her death a year later shook many fans. Batiuk was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2008 for his portrayal of Lisa’s battle, and the collected cancer tapes were released as “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe”.
“The cancer story almost chose me,” says Batiuk. Between the first and second parts of Lisa’s medical story, Batiuk himself learned that he had prostate and thyroid cancer (he is cured today). His own diagnosis, he says, “made me realize the difference between empathy and personal experience.” He tapped into emotions such as fear. “I think that’s what deepened the work when I got to the last part of the story.”
He also heard about cancer patients while doing signings in coordination with hospitals. A woman told him she had been checked – her breast cancer was detected early – because of “Lisa’s story”, he says.
Shortly after Lisa’s death, Batiuk decided to reboot “Funky” because he didn’t want to dwell on Les’s grief. The tape leaped forward a decade. “As I’ve aged these characters, my readers have gracefully aged with us — with me and my characters,” he says. “These are the people who still read newspapers, and that’s a very good thing.”
Batiuk considers himself lucky to have chronicled his comic world for so long: “I’m just following this work that I created 50 years ago, where I’m sitting in this high school and drawing and seeing things happen and I translate them into stories.”
And now that he is 75, is retirement on the horizon?
“Willie Nelson had the perfect answer to that. Someone asked him if he was going to retire. He goes: ‘Retreat from What?’ This is what I wanted to be all my life. This is my dream job.