Over at the Comics Curmudgeon, they like to hate the comic strip Funky Winkerbean. I share their sentiments, mostly, and for the same reason, namely that the creator seems so unrelievedly grim in his sensibility since he initially aged the strip past being a fairly ordinary whimsical life-style strip. Characters are alcoholics, they get wounded in war, they suffer all sorts of pain and loss. I wouldn’t mind the drawn-out death of one character from cancer if that was set against a strip that was doing other things with and to its characters.
But I’m kind of interested at the latest turn in the strip since the creator, Tom Batiuk, is for the second time allowing time to pass and his characters to age and change, something that most serial forms of popular culture avoid because of the problems it creates for an ongoing work. I’m interested in part because he’s done something truly weird, and I wonder a bit if he realizes just how weird it is. Following the death of his character Lisa from cancer, he’s aged everyone ten years. But the thing is that Lisa died right now, in 2007. I don’t think that’s been explicit in the last month of strips (no headstone, the character was cremated) but one of the other characters has been stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Batiuk might get away with saying that “ten years ahead” takes us to 2012 rather than 2017, but it’s not right now, at any rate.
So now we’ve got a weirdly science-fictional strip posing as a soap opera on the comics pages. The characters of Funky Winkerbean now live in a world where there is (or has been) a President Clinton or Giuliani or Obama. Where we’ve bombed or not bombed Iran. Where the shows on TV are all different. And so on. I’m kind of wondering how he’s going to write himself out of this situation when he gets around to the character who was in the military–or whether he’s going to embrace it and run with it.
From what I’ve heard second-hand, Batuik has been asked about this issue, and his simultaneously boring and puzzling answer is that it doesn’t interest him. There’s a certain logic to it — after all, Stage I FW (the one where everyone was in high school and it was wacky and whimsical and nobody died of cancer or went deaf or lost limbs) ran for 20 years with everyone staying the same age, and Stage II FW (time jump forward followed by death, misery, mayhem) for 15, with the character ages staying more or less the same throughout each though the pop culture references advanced with the times. Presumably the point is that every strip is intended to be contemporary with the reader, despite the characters’ agelessness; the jumps age the characters but don’t advance them against some kind of absolute calendar (since the strip never acknowledged such a thing anyway).
The flaw is, as you have pointed out, the recent storylines tied heavily into the current events, as Wally Winkerbean has fought in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and brought an orphaned child home from the former. So either Wally’s been at war for 10 years — and the war is still happening for 10 years — or something’s wonky. It should be noted that the updated cast list on the FW Web site has Wally’s wife married to someone else, and listed as the mother of the adopted Afghan girl, but the baby she gave birth to with Wally just before the time jump is unmentioned, as is Wally himself. It will be interesting to see how this gets ironed out.
A more extreme version of the calendar problem can be seen in Judge Parker, the slowest-moving of the soap opera strips. It’s not uncommon for single days of action in strip time to take several months of real-world time; however, the seasons within the strip change to match the publication date, leading to some days being bucolic and summery in the morning and snowy by sundown.