Batiuk's All-Star Team Brings "Funky Winkerbean's" Starbuck Jones to Life

Tom Batiuk needs little introduction. "Funky Winkerbean" has been a mainstay of the comics page in newspapers across the country for decades. The third volume of "The Collected Funky Winkerbean" was released recently released and "Strike Four," a collection of baseball strips from his other strip, "Crankshaft," has also been released.

Recently in "Winkerbean," Batiuk has been running a storyline about one character, Holly, trying to complete her son's comic collection while he's stationed in Afghanistan. There have been plenty of jokes about how that's not usually what mothers do when their kids leave home, but as part of this storyline, Batiuk reached out to a number of prominent comics creators to get them to draw covers for "Starbuck Jones," a fictional sci-fi hero and comic book created for the story. Batiuk talked with CBR News about the storyline, how it came together and brought covers from his all-star lineup of artists.

CBR News: Where did the idea for this "Starbuck Jones" story start?

Tom Batiuk: It started with the fact that in the strip, Funky's stepson Cory is in Afghanistan. I had done some stories with him over there and I wanted to continue that but I also wanted to do a homefront story about what it was like for the parents. I was casting about for ways to get into this story when I thought of what if Holly -- Cory's mother -- discovered that he had a comic book collection and there were some comics missing. As a way of staying in touch with him and feeling like she was doing something she would go out and collect the missing comics for him.

And this plays off the fact that, especially for your generation, when people left home their mothers tended to throw out their comics.

Oh yeah, and I made use of that along the way that this is not how mothers usually react. It's not their traditional role. [Laughs] And that's part of the fun because Holly goes into this knowing absolutely nothing about comics. She goes to the comic shop and starts getting schooled on comics and ends up moving from low-level comic shop owners to high-end dealers and collectors.

I suppose that one big challenge is just how to make hunting comics dramatically interesting at three panels a day.

Obviously the job of the comic strip is to bring people back every day whether it's with a laugh or to find out how it's going to end. It's that second thing that I make big use of. How is it going to end? Is she going to succeed? How is that going to happen? That's the hook of the story and hopefully it's enough of a hook that people want to find out what's going on. With "Volume Three" [of "The Complete Funky Winkerbean"] and also this "Crankshaft" book, "Strike Four," coming out this spring I've been doing a lot of book signings and I've been hearing a lot of comments from people. The people who read the strip are enjoying it. To the point where some people are getting worried. One person put it, "You have a tendency to go down a dark hole and I'm afraid something is going to happen to Cory when she completes the collection." But you keep readers on edge and coming back to find out what's going to happen.

Where did this character, Starbuck Jones, come from?

I knew I was going to need several issues to use and I really didn't want to use a real comic book character seven times. I would surely be hearing from lawyers. I went back and took a hero that I created in the fifth grade. I used to make a lot of comics and Starbuck Jones appeared more than anybody else. I don't know when the idea actually occurred to me but I thought what if I had some guys who actually do this stuff -- some heroes of mine and people I've admired for a long time -- create some actual covers that I could use. That's where it got into me contacting these artists to do "Starbuck Jones" covers. I just thought it would be fun.

RELATED: Tom Batiuk Talks "Funky Winkerbean"

It's often hard to see who drew them in most newspapers, so who are the artists involved in this?

It started with Joe Staton. I was at the Akron Comic Con with Joe and presented my project and I said here are these characters and would you like to create one of these covers for me. They all got it. They smile and they know it's a fun project. That's why Joe deserves a lot of credit because he teed it up for everybody. He created the "Starbuck Jones" logo and the trade dress, his look and uniform. He just did a marvelous job.

Bob Layton did a cover. Neil Vokes, Michael Gilbert, Terry Austin, Mike Golden and Norm Breyfogle. Again it's a chance to work with artists that I really, really admire and it's an homage to these guys and to comic books.

I have to ask, did people jockey for the one that Terry Austin drew of Starbuck Jones as a monkey?

[Laughs] No. Terry made that up. I said, "Hey, you've got carte blanche. Just give me a cover. Whatever you want will be fine." Terry Austin came up with the monkey thing, but he also mentioned the Xaxians. When Norm and I were talking about his cover there was a moment where Norm said, "I really don't know what to do." I said, "We could do the 'Death of Starbuck Jones.'" I mentioned the Xaxians that Terry had on his cover and the Xaxian-Krull War and that the Xaxians could be the ones who killed Starbuck Jones.

On Mike Gilbert's cover, he talked about "octo-sharks" so then on Neil Vokes' cover I had the characters refer to the "saber-toothed octo-shark." It was fun. I was able to riff off of their stuff and put it into the story. It's subtle, it's quiet but for anybody that's really paying attention it's a lot of fun.

You didn't give them any art direction, you just gave them the trade dress that Joe Staton designed and said, "Make it look like an old comic cover?"

I wanted to give them the freedom to have fun and create the kind of cover they wanted to create.

You didn't say, the artwork has to be half an inch by a quarter of an inch?

[Laughs] No, I just had them create actual covers. All the covers ran once in the dailies and then I ran them as a Sunday strip where they could get displayed. Except for Neil Vokes' cover. I did a crossover with "Crankshaft" where, as part of Holly's comic book hunt, she goes to the Crankshaft family because Jeff Crankshaft has comics in the attic. She picks up one of them there so Neil's cover appeared twice.

The first time I saw one with the cover being so tiny I thought, 'that's really detailed for something no one can see,' but then you dedicated the Sunday strip to showing the cover and it made sense.

Yeah. I wanted to do both. There are papers that sadly don't carry the Sundays. I wanted to have them appear in both places but Sundays are the main display.

We seem to be near the end. Without spoiling too much, what is coming next?

We have gone through six covers and we are building up to the last one. Holly is going to go to San Diego Comic-Con and it's going to run the same time that the Comic-Con is taking place.

So she'll pick it up there?

Well this is a spoiler if people want to stop reading.

She'll just miss it. I didn't know what I was going to do and how this was all going to play out but I was a guest at Comic-Con last year and while I was there the idea occurred to me. She's going to have a few near misses at Comic-Con and going to come away empty-handed. It will turn out that John the comic shop owner found it there and he takes her back home and he takes her to Tony Isabella's Garage Con. I don't know if you follow Tony's blog, but he holds these garage cons where he sells off stacks of old comic books. She's going to go there and find the comic in Tony's garage.

I won't ask about Cory and whether he makes it out of Afghanistan okay.

We'll leave that unspoiled.

As you mentioned, some people guess that it won't end well.

Well, that's my reputation. I've got to live with it. [Laughs] Actually it works in my favor because although this wasn't meant to keep people on edge, that factor does creep in there, and it's one more reason to keep coming back to see, "is he doing this again?"

You were a young man during the Vietnam War, and in the past decade you've really tackled the wars and tried to address them. I know that you're not alone in doing this but I guess I'm curious why that's important for you.

I'm going to give you an answer that puts it on a much more mundane level. With "Funky" I've always tried to tap into the times we're living in. Unfortunately these wars have been a big part of it. More than ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a lot of dislocation of people, people coming back harmed, and to just ignore that I think I wouldn't be doing the kind of job that I want to do. It's basically to let everybody know that we're all living in this space and these characters inhabit that space as well.

To ignore would mean you're not writing about the present.

For me, yes. For the kind of strip that I want to do, I want it to be dealing with the real world and the world we live in.

What comes after this comic book hunt story wraps up? I know that I can actually ask you this because you work so far ahead.

I'm going to be ever so slightly evasive. I've had so much fun doing this. It's like being a little comic book company. It's been so cool and so much fun that I'm going back and I'm going to dip into some of the other characters I created in the fifth grade. It was a great year for me. [Laughs] I'm going to resurrect them and put them to good use in the strip. I'll tell you about one. I have a character, The Amazing Mister Sponge. Ron Frenz did the cover for it and I'm talking to Ron about how this has got to be played straight. "I know it's Amazing Mister Sponge but this has got to be done straight," and he said, "I got it, we're good." I get it back and it's The Amazing Mister Sponge with his kid partner Absorbing Jr. I just laughed. It was so cool. I wish I'd thought of it myself. That's one hint of what's coming up down the road.

Do you have plans for what you're going to do with the covers?

I've decided that once the second round of covers is completed, I'm going to find a venue to auction them off with all of the proceeds going to the Lisa's Legacy Fund for Cancer Research and Education which has been established with University Hospitals here in Cleveland.

The final "Starbuck Jones" cover, drawn by Michael Golden, will appear in "Funky Winkerbean" on the final Sunday in July.

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