I remember Funky Winkerbean being one of my favorite comic strips when I was a kid. I eagerly looked forward to the next issue in the Spokesman Review. Over a period of time, the comic evolved into a more serious exploration of life with the characters. Today, with several changes, Funky and his friends don't look anything at all like they did when the strip premiered on March 27, 1972. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the strip, Black Squirrel Press, an imprint of Kent State University Press, has compiled the first three years into this amazing package. (Tom Batiuk, the creator of Funky Winkerbean, is a Kent State University alum).
Comic strip historian Robert C. Harvey has written the longest foreword I have ever seen. His insight into the mind of Batiuk and how the strip evolved over time is both enlightening and essential. The next section is a 30-page essay written by Batiuk. With photographs, drawings and sample comic panels, he takes the reader on a journey into his life and how he ended up creating the strip (and to a lesser extent Crankshaft, a spin-off he created with fellow Kent State alum Chuck Ayers). Reading Batiuk's essay helps understand what he was trying to accomplish with the strip and why he created it in the first place. This section is also essential.
The very first strip introduces the characters with Funky, Roland, Les, and the only female regular Livinia breaking the third wall and addressing the reader directly.
Funky Winkerbean follows the group as they try to navigate the treacherous waters of high school at a time in history when the United States was knee-deep in Vietnam, wrestling with social issues like women's liberation and in the second term of President Nixon. Batiuk has the characters address these issues once in a while, but the majority of the time focuses on their love lives, or lack thereof. He's able to mine comedy from the interactions between the characters and their individual quests to achieve good grades. Roland's father never leaves his easy chair in front of the television, and other adult influences include a guidance counselor and one of their teachers. In a short time, Batiuk has created a miniature world with a wealth of material at his fingertips.
Do the strips hold up after all of this time? The answer is surprisingly yes. The occasional reference to Watergate or women's lib is a bit jarring, but taken in the historical context is handled well without being racist, sexist or inducing cringes (watch some old Looney Tunes cartoons from the 1940s and you'll understand what I mean).
I have to mention one annoying habit that Batiuk utilizes in at least 80% of his strips in this collection. Two people will be talking, one will deliver a joke, and the other will turn their face to the reader with a look of "You've got to be kidding me." Here is an example:
Here's another example that also demonstrates that this comic is from the 1970s.
Reading the strips over again, and in some cases seeing for the first time, delivered a massive nostalgia trip. For fun, I looked to see how the strip appears today. The changes are shocking. The artwork is completely different, and the tone has gone from humor to soap opera. The old ones were so clever and funny, I actually cut some out of the newspaper, and taped them up in my locker at school. I can't imagine doing that now.
Here is an example of the strip today:
Is that Funky gazing at that bottle? Seriously?
Back to Volume 1 of Funky. It is a great resource for both the comic strip fan and the serious collector. It takes the reader back to the good old days when the strip didn't take itself too seriously. I personally can't wait for Volume 2.