For more than four decades, Tom Batiuk’s “Funky Winkerbean” has been a fixture in the comics page of newspapers nationwide. Initially set in high school centered around a group of students and a handful of teachers and employees — including the secretary who actually ran the school and Harry L. Dinkle, the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest band director.” In 1992, Batiuk relaunched the strip, jumping forward in time, something he did again in 2007.
During this time Batiuk has received both praise and criticism for combining dramatic and comedic elements and tackling issues ranging from bullying to teen pregnancy to cancer and death. In 2007, Batiuk was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “”Lisa’s Story”,” a story arc in which the character succumbed to cancer. In addition to his work on “Funky,” from 1979-1990 Batiuk wrote the strip “John Darling” and since 1987 has been writing “Crankshaft” for his former classmate Chuck Ayers to draw.
Kent State University Press just released the second volume of “The Complete Funky Winkerbean” and CBR News took the opportunity to speak with Batiuk, who will be a Special Guest at Comic-Con International in San Diego this July.
CBR News: Tom, thanks for taking the time. I know you’re a big comic book fan from way back.
Tom Batiuk: If you could see my drawing board now. I’ve got a project that’s going to come up starting the end of the year and it’s really cool. It involves Funky’s wife Holly. Her son Cory is in Afghanistan and she’s looking to complete his comic book collection for him as a way of staying in touch. So she’s going to complete his collection of Starbuck Jones comics, which is a character I made up when I was in the fifth grade. I have seven covers that I’ve had guys create for me and it’s such a kick. I feel like a small comic book company right now. It’s very cool.
Who are the seven artists creating work for you? Can you say?
Joe Staton, Terry Austin, Mike Gilbert, Neil Vokes, Bob Layton, Mike Golden and Norm Breyfogle. It’s incredibly cool.
Anyone who reads “Funky” knows you’re a big comic guy and it was interesting to read the introductions to the collected editions and learn how you flew to New York and took your portfolio around to Marvel and DC when you were younger.
It was probably the best break of my life, not getting a job at Marvel. [Laughs] I just finished the book that just came out, “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” and it’s horrifying.
I’ve read “Funky” on and off for my whole life and I know that the strip has changed, but reading the first few years, I’m not sure I was prepared for just how much it’s changed.
It has been quite a journey.
You were in your mid twenties when strip started.
I was 25. I was 24 when I started working on the strip. I had gone to New York and the publisher who was going to bring it out was moving to Chicago and it took them a year to complete that process to launch “Funky.” Which was actually a really good thing because I knew for a year that the strip was coming out so I could work and write and do all kinds of stuff and learn how to letter. [Laughs] It really helped me immensely.
At the time you sold the strip you were teaching, correct?
I was teaching at a Junior High School in Elyria, Ohio. I was doing some cartoons for a local paper and it was for their teen page. I got hired based on some sketches that were in my sketchbook. I would do sketches while I was teaching and put captions on them and have fun with it. I had done that for about two and a half years. That’s what I took to New York and that’s why I focused on a teen strip. I thought, I’ll write about a milieu that I understood. I was just got out of school and I was still connected with school through my teaching and it was perfect for me. If I had sat down to try to calculate what would be a good idea for a comic strip, I don’t think I would have picked that, but I accidentally landed at a time when that particular genre was ready for an update.
Around that time you were one of a number of new voices that came into comics.
Maybe it was just one of those generational things where it was time for things to be updated across the board. I mean I went to Kent State from ’65 to ’69 and the changes were just phenomenal that were going on in the country and in youth culture at that point. I think “Funky” picked up a lot of that stuff.
I know that you’ve gotten complaints about the dramatic stories, and though I love them, I can see how from a certain point of view, all the elements might sit uneasily with some readers.
Well first of all you always fight this culture that thinks the comics are supposed to be funny. I keep making the argument every chance I get that they were called “the comics” by accident, but people take it as a Webster’s definition in terms of how you’re supposed to handle things. And then of course I really think of it as a plus. People identify so strongly with these characters that when you do something to those characters, they feel it too and that’s a good thing. In some ways more than any other art form comics are better suited to this because they’re in people’s homes every day. Or on their computers every day now. They’re there with them on a daily basis and you build a closer relationship with the characters that somebody creates.
And high school is so dramatic.
Melodramatic is more like it. [Laughs]
[Laughs] There’s so much that’s not funny about high school and you’ve touched on this in the strip especially in recent years. The contrast between, say, how once you might have played bullying for laughs but today you make a point of what was underneath that.
Even when I was doing it for laughs I always looked on Funky and bullying from the get go. It wasn’t funny in the sense that Les is getting beat up. [Laughs] I was looking for the trauma inside of Les and even though I was making it humorous it was about what it’s like to be in school knowing that somebody’s going to be waiting for you at the end of the day who wants to beat you up makes it difficult and how that affects your life. It was never thinking that bullying is humorous but I was always trying to pull humor from how Les had to deal with it.
I always thought of Les as central character of the strip.
He became the central character of the strip early on. It just evolved that way. He became the straight man for everybody and so Crazy Harry and all of the other characters could bounce off of him and Les seemed to get invested in all of the emotions of high school and what kids were going through. He and the Band Director were probably the first two characters to separate themselves and become really strong characters in the strip.
How much of Les is you?
[Laughs] There’s a lot. Any cartoonist takes things from their life to put into the strip and Funky is so close to real life. I’m only a quarter inch removed from real life so I pull everything. There’s a ton of me in Les. There’s also a lot of me in the other characters as well, but yeah, I really draw on a lot of experiences I had in high school, like climbing the rope in gym class. [Laughs] That was terrifying. I just couldn’t see the point.
I have to admit that one of my great reliefs in middle and high school was learning that they no longer did that.
I’m happy to hear that. [Laughs] But they probably do something worse like climbing a rock wall or something.
When you jumped forward in time the first time it became a little more dramatic and less comedic a strip. Do you think that’s fair to say?
That occurred right after I did a specific storyline. When I did the teen pregnancy storyline it pushed everything forward a little bit and it made it difficult. Les obviously wasn’t the father of Lisa’s baby, but he was her best friend and her confidant and even her lamaze partner during the birth. After the character has done that it makes it difficult to walk back and have him get stuck on the gym class rope again. It just didn’t feel right. It felt like these characters were starting to grow up and I was obviously older at that point and I think that particular storyline helped me begin to find my adult voice.
Once I made the time jump I was able to deal with things that were more pertinent to being an adult. For example in high school the romantic relationships are very simplistic and naive and most of it’s about trying to get a date. But adult relationships are much more complicated, much more nuanced and much more fun to write about. The great gift that my readers have given me is allowing me to continue to write the strip as I’ve continued to write about my adult experiences in the strip. I’ve been very fortunate to have that happen.
Lisa was the focus of a second jump in time as well. I’m curious why you decided to jump as opposed to aging characters over course of the strip?
Because I forgot to do that. [Laughs] I have a vague remembrance of when the strip started out thinking — I mean, I really like the strips that age, I like that concept and I enjoy it and I didn’t want to get locked into doing a teen strip forever and ever, but I didn’t do it for a long time. And I think part of that was due to the fact that I was doing another strip, “John Darling,” and then “Crankshaft” came along, so I had an outlet for all kinds of ideas for more adult things. I think that retarded the process a little bit too, but again, like I said, after the teen pregnancy story I thought, I can’t keep repeating the same things over and over again. It seemed to be something that let the strip grow and move forward. And so that’s why I did that. It necessitated the time jump because, as I say, I forgot to do it gradually. And I don’t even know if I know how to do that. I look at Frank King’s work on “Gasoline Alley” and I’m just in awe of how those characters age right before your eyes. Each strip is like a day passing and it’s just totally amazing. But the time jumps have their own benefit because they’re fun because all of a sudden you see the characters older and it’s uncomfortable and disconcerting but it’s also interesting.
It’s interesting to look at the new ones and there’s a shock of how things have changed. It gives a different dynamic to the strip and would have been a different feeling if it had happened slowly.
There are some advantages that pop out of that. Another which was an advantage at the time when Lisa died, I didn’t want to go through two years of mourning. It allowed me to skip over that and Lisa dies and then you see Summer talking about Lisa’s race, her legacy race, and that was real nice because you could have something positive coming out of that right away. It helped me over that hump as well.
Garry Trudeau came to comics around the same time, around same age as you, and it’s interesting he was writing a college strip while you were writing a high school one but you both reached a point where you wanted to change the dynamics and do something more dramatic and more adult.
You realize that those possibilities are there. And I know why a lot of strips don’t change. They’re afraid of ruining the mystique or whatever it was that got them syndicated in the first place or whatever people were interested in in the first place. After the fact I got more nervous about it because from time to time because people would say, “I saw that time jump and I thought this is going to be awful but I really liked it.” You don’t pay any attention to that. I mean, I knew what was coming. I’m a year ahead on the strip so when I made that time jump, I was already a year down the road and I saw what was going to be happening with these characters and I saw where they were going which gives you a feeling of comfort. You can say, hang in there, it’ll be okay.
You’re a year ahead? I’ve never met a cartoonist that far ahead.
It’s an incredible luxury. It was done because of just existential things like my folks getting older and I could see things coming down the road that were going to be problematic for me time wise and so I made the effort to get a year ahead so that if something popped up I could deal with it and it wouldn’t bring everything to a screeching halt. But once I got a year ahead I found out that I could think long thoughts. I didn’t have to come up with something for Friday. I could have an idea like “Lisa’s Story” and let it gestate for a long time. In fact “Lisa’s Story” was written a long, long time before I ever put it into the strip. And I think being a year ahead has made the work so much better because I have a better perspective on it and can coordinate it. You’re not just going from incident to incident and hoping for the best. You can interlock things. Like this big long story I described to you at the beginning where Holly goes on this comic book hunt. It runs over quite a few months and I’m able to coordinate it with the activities I have going on and the covers that I’ve got and it also crosses over with “Crankshaft” at one point and if I wasn’t so far ahead, I couldn’t do that.
We talked a little about Les, but Lisa was a key character for you.
When Lisa was first created, none of this was on the table. I had no idea that she was going to become THE character, such a major character and a key focal point of the strip. That’s one of the fun things about doing something like this because even you’re surprised at how they evolve from time to time.
She’s really been the dramatic heart of the strip.
With that first storyline, the teen pregnancy storyline she opened the door for me and showed me that there was not only an audience for this type of work but there was more interesting work and more substantial work that could be done. And she kicked it down with “Lisa’s Story,” taking the characters to wholly different places.
When you killed her, you had to know that killing her would get a response. There was an outcry when “For Better or Worse” cartoonist Lynn Johnston had Farley the dog die.
I knew it was coming and so did the syndicate so we tried to do as much as we could to prepare for it. Again, the work was pretty much finished by the time people were seeing it so I thought it was resolved in a good way and that gives you some confidence. There was a huge outpouring of affection, both pro and con. There were people who just hated to see Lisa die, but there were people who understood. There were people who liked it because they related what was happening in “Funky” to what was happening in their lives and that was the whole reason for doing that. When I was starting out at twenty-five, cancer wasn’t even on the horizon. You don’t think about it as a twenty-five year old. It was a great outpouring across the board in all manners. Mostly positive but there were a lot of people that were really upset about it.
I loved the very end of it and you concluded it beautifully. Did you have that in mind from beginning?
Thank you. I was at that point in the writing and Cathy, my wife, and I had gone to a concert at Oberlin College. It was a baroque group called Apollo’s Fire and at one point they had dancers come out in baroque costume and I saw the mask on the one and I said, that’s it, that’s my death. Except I put him in a tuxedo. It’s very rare that you can point to one instance and say, that’s exactly where that happened. I was sitting there that night. That story was in my head and it was with me all the time; I took it everywhere and as I saw it that night, I thought, that’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to do a little bit of magical realism and it allowed me to confront death directly without it being gruesome.
You must have felt some satisfaction being named a Pulitzer finalist that year.
Yes, absolutely. That was incredible. “Lisa’s Story” was that rare, rare story and it doesn’t happen to cartoonists very often because we’re a very insecure bunch. [Laughs] I’m pretty sure I can speak for all of us. With “Lisa’s Story” as I started rolling towards the end I thought, really for the [first] time in my career, I thought I don’t care if everybody on the planet thinks it’s a bad idea, I really like this story. I feel good about it. The Pulitzer finalist was a real nice affirmation of that.
Lisa was such a big character, and she still has a presence in the strip, but do you ever think of a story for her or something else you could do with the character?
That’s interesting. I’ve done a few little flashback items but not a great deal. I seem to complete everything I had to do with Lisa at that point. Having said that, let me now contradict myself completely. [Laughs] I’ve got a storyline coming up and it’s sort of a Lisa story. It’s interesting. A couple of summers ago I felt compelled to go back to Elyria and take some pictures around my old apartment and the alley across the street from us. I don’t know why but I took all those pictures and I ended up writing a story where Frankie — he’s been mentioned a couple times and has actually appeared in the strip very briefly, the guy who got Lisa pregnant — returns. In the return of that story we deepen the teen pregnancy story and say that it was a little more than just youthful indiscretion on Lisa’s part. There was some coercion involved and it’s like a coda to “Lisa’s Story.” This character was always hanging there. Whatever happened to him he comes back into their lives, disrupts them completely and then everything gets resolved, so in a way I guess that does involve Lisa. We find a journal of hers and we’re reading her journal so she kind of speaks to us from the grave.
Walk us through your process on putting together “Funky.”
I try to write every day because you never know what the day holds for you and I hate to miss what’s going on in that particular day. I have one book where I just write down ideas. Things that are funny, puns, whatever. I have notebooks by my bed, in the car. I pull all those together and then write them down in a book and it gives me a source of material there. My other thinking is, like I said, the thinking of a long broad storyline and then when I sit down to write I combine those two things so that I can inject humor into the storyline as it moves forward and I can create new material that’s part and parcel of that storyline. It gets completely written out and then the pencilling begins. I used to describe it as the Henry Ford method. Writing is finished and then I’ll do batches of the drawing then the inking the lettering. Finally these days adding tone on the computer.
Being so far ahead, do you have a set routine or do you mix things up?
I can mix things up. Today I’ve got fifteen weeks that need to be scanned into the computer for “Funky.” I could have been inking some strips. I could do some writing. I chose to just write today. My favorite days are when I’m just sitting writing and I thought I’d give myself a nice day. The day is relatively clear and after I go to the doctor later, I’ll do some more writing. It’s nice to immerse yourself in it. Even inking, it’s not a technical challenge so much anymore but it does help to do a lot of them at one time, I think.
Do you still do everything by hand?
Yes. I do have a program on my computer, Manga Workshop, and I have done a few weeks where it’s been done on a computer. I just wanted to learn that in case one day they call me up and say, we’re not making paper anymore. [Laughs] I have my font on the computer and it’s beautiful. I would defy anybody to tell me whether I hand lettered it or it’s the font. But my favorite place to be is sitting in front of a board so even though I have the option [of drawing it on the computer], I like working on the board.
How do you write “Crankshaft?”
I just work up the scripts and every two weeks Chuck and I get together. I give him the next two weeks of “Crankshaft.” We go over them. He’s very polite. [Laughs] We cover everything we need to cover and then I don’t see him again for two weeks. That works so well because Chuck is simply an amazing artist and he’ll take the most average idea and he’ll send it to the moon and back. It’s wonderful. I don’t worry about that and it gives me tremendous freedom. We were at Kent State at the same time and have a very similar background so there’s not a lot of back and forth that has to go on.
You mentioned in one of the books that the two of you were at college together.
We were even in kindergarten together. We didn’t realize that, though [at the time]. We were having dinner one night and somehow we got to talking about going to elementary school in Akron and I was like, “Wait a minute, when were you there?” We were in the same school in Mrs. Peters’ kindergarten class. I should have recognized him. He would have been the little kid with the tie-dyed t-shirt and the peace symbol and the long beard.
“The Collected Funky Winkerbean” is coming out through Kent State Press. How did that end up happening?
What happened was that Penguin brought a book out of “Lisa’s Story” and basically after it didn’t make the morning talk shows, nothing else was done with it. It was out just a few months when I got a call asking if I wanted to buy some copies before it was remaindered. It was too bad because they did a beautiful job with it.
I was able to go to the Kent State University Press and it’s a much smaller press but I know the editors and I wanted was to keep the book in print. I went to them with that in mind and it turned out so much better than I expected. They just put out a beautiful hardcover copy. It was just an amazing book and they did a terrific job with it and they have become my publisher. They’re great to work with. It’s a good relationship and again it’s just wonderful. They put out beautiful books. And they’d never done comic books before. They do more academic books.
Did the idea for collecting “Funky” come from you or them?
It’s funny. A couple years ago I went in and I had a couple of book ideas. The first one was something like “Lisa’s Story.” In “Crankshaft” there was an Alzheimer’s storyline and there was a book put out, which is now out of print. I’ve done quite a bit [with that] since then so I thought we could do a book along the same lines as “Lisa’s Story” where we take the first book and include the material done since then and have a complete story. I got the rights to the first book back and they thought that was a good idea.
I had all the baseball stories that I’ve done in “Crankshaft.” “Crankshaft” had been optioned for a movie and they wanted it to be baseball-themed so they asked to see all those. I had gone through and pulled all those things and I thought it would make a nice book so I presented that. They liked that idea and we were just talking about it yesterday; it’ll be coming out next spring.
And then I had e-mails from people who wanted to know if there was going to be a complete “Funky” collection. That one I figured was the one that they probably wouldn’t want to commit to. It had two things going for it. It’s certainly a golden age for those kinds of reprint books right now. I think baby boomers have reached a certain age and they’ve got a certain amount of disposable cash and they’re feeling nostalgic so those books are doing well. I thought they may not want to commit to this project but they did and it surprised the heck out of me. The other things was that last year, when the first volume came out, was Funky’s 40th anniversary and I think they saw the synergy that could come from bringing out Volume 1 of the complete “Funky” on its 40th anniversary.
I hate to ask, but I know that the second part of “Lisa’s Story” was partially a response to your own health issues. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. I had prostate cancer but I had surgery, it’s doing fine. All is good. I’m feeling well.
You’re darn right. [Laughs]
I know that you don’t have any plans to end the strip, but have you given any thought to how you might go about ending it?
You know, it’s funny. You think about that sort of thing once you reach this stage. I’ve thought about different ways at times of how to end the strip and what I’d like to do. What I suspect will happen is it’ll be just like life. It’ll just end. You don’t get to plan things in life like that very often either, but I really don’t know. It depends how things are going. If I get a call one day about how I have one more year in my contract and by the way there won’t be any newspapers in a year I would definitely tie a bow on things and wrap it up. Like I say, right now I’m feeling good, I’m healthy and that’s obviously a factor. You have to feel good to do this but I’m enjoying it. I just signed a new contract. Hopefully everything will keep going for a long time. In terms of health I think the newspaper industry has more problems right now than I do. I mean, watch, I’ll go out and get hit by a car this afternoon. [Laughs] You should never say things like that. Luckily my studio is lead-lined just for that reason. [Laughs]
As a kid you were a letter hack on “The Flash” writing to Julie Schwartz and drawing comics, and here you are writing and drawing one comic strip, writing another. Looking back do you think, “I did okay”?
[Laughs] It feels good. The most fortunate thing is that I’ve been able to do something that I really really love and again it has just worked out perfectly for me. I fell into the right type of strip, the kind of strip that could endure over the years like we’ve been talking about. I didn’t get the job at Marvel because I’d be out of work right now. [Laughs] I would have been pushed aside years ago. I’m very fortunate to have gotten a chance to do this. You do feel good. It’s fun to write the strip now with the history that it has. When I first started out it was very difficult to do. Look at Charles Schulz. He had all this rich history to draw on in the strip even at that point and I didn’t have any of that. Now I can go back and play with things a little bit. I just did a strip where Funky was cleaning the attic and he found his old I Chong book which was a takeoff on the I Ching and I used to do those from time to time. Having him sitting in the attic reading this book again just brought a smile to my face. It probably means more to me personally than anyone else. It was just a silly idea but I felt, “Wow, he’s come a long way.” That feels good.
“The Complete Funky Winkerbean” Vol. 2 is on sale now from Kent State Press.