Les and Funky, from a 1999 strip. Artist: Tom Batiuk.


Original Medium: Newspaper panel
Appearing in: The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram
First Appeared: 1970
Creator: Tom Batiuk
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As a high school teacher, Tom Batiuk (pronounced "Battick") was a close observer of the teen scene when he created Funky Winkerbean. And since he was only 23 at the time, he wasn't …

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… so far removed from being a high school student himself. As a result, his strip about typical American teens rang true to its 1970s audience — sort of like Archie, but with realistic hormones.

The feature began as a series of cartoons Batiuk drew to while away tedious hours supervising study hall. They started appearing as a weekly panel, titled Rapping Around, on the teens' page in his local paper, The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, in 1970. In '72, he took some of the characters from it, reformatted the feature into a daily strip, and sold it to Publishers-Hall Syndicate, which started distributing it on March 26 of that year. After several switches, it eventually wound up at King Features, which distributes it today.

The strip focused on a group of students at Westview High School — Les, Lisa, Cindy and of course, Funky. Various members of the school's faculty, too, were featured players. Perhaps unfortunately, they were all handled so realistically, the students grew up. Les went college and returned to teach at Westview. He and Lisa married in 1996 (while dressed as Batman and Robin, respectively, by the way). Cindy became a newscaster. Funky went to work at Tony Montoni's pizza parlor, which he now co-owns with Tony.

Tony, by the way, somewhat resembles comic book writer and industry personality Tony Isabella (best known for DC's Black Lightning and Marvel's It, the Living Colossus), who happens to be Batiuk's neighbor. But the resemblance is coincidental — the character Tony was in place before Batiuk met the real Tony. Isabella does turn up in the strip from time to time, but he plays himself.

When the kids grew up, new high-schoolers replaced them — Wally, Becky, Monroe … So now the strip sports three generations — the older faculty who were there when Funky and his pals were students, Funky's generation, and the current students, whose doings and concerns are just as contemporary now as Funky's were back in their own time. (Batiuk stays current by continuing to teach on a part-time basis.)

Another way the strip has changed over time is its increasing use of serious themes. Batiuk takes the point of view that there are enough light fantasy strips on the comics page, so, while not failing to emphasize their humorous aspects, he goes for stories with an edge. He was the first American newspaper cartoonist to tackle teen pregnancy from the point of view of an ongoing character, which he did in 1986. He followed it with storylines on dyslexia, guns at school, teen suicide, and many other hard-hitting topics. This trend reached what is perhaps its apotheosis in 1998, when Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. But perhaps not — after all, Batiuk once scripted a strip in which the title character was murdered in full view of the readers (John Darling, in 1991).

The John Darling strip, which concerned a self-absorbed TV personality, is one of two spin-offs from Funky Winkerbean. The other is Crankshaft, about the curmudgeonly old schoolbus driver. But Batiuk never did more than write those. Funky Winkerbean is the one he both writes and draws.


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