Tom Batiuk, Creator of Funky Winkerbean

9 August 2002

    Guns, cancer, teen pregnancy and alcoholism are tough topics to discuss in any forum, let alone in cartoons. Tom Batiuk (sounds like “Battick”) takes on those hard issues and more in his comic strip creation, Funky Winkerbean. Batiuk shares information and support in articular with teenagers that find themselves in troubling positions. And somehow, the cartoonist is able to find humour in the serious events.

    The first cartoons created by Tom Batiuk as a youngster appeared in his elementary school newspaper in Elyria, Ohio. After winning a national art award in high school and the encouragement of his art teacher, Batiuk chose art as his future career. He attended Kent State University, graduating in 1969 with a BA in art and his teaching certification. He went on to teach Arts and Crafts at Eastern Heights Junior High in Elyria.

    With an understanding of teenage students, and being only 25 years old himself, Batiuk created a cartoon called Rapping Around in 1970. The panel was aimed at teens and published weekly in the local Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. Gradually, the comic evolved into a comic strip by 1972 using some of the same characters. Considering suggestions from his art class students, the name Funky Winkerbean was chosen. Prentice-Hall Syndicate snapped up the cartoon and it began publication in newspapers on March 26, 1972.

    The starring character, Funky Winkerbean, and his cartoon friends attended Westview High School, portraying the lives of busy students. The characters age naturally and have returned to the strip as teachers and parents of teenagers themselves. Batiuk is now drawing the third generation, including the older teachers who taught Funky. In a brave and popular move (judging by his readers assessments), Batiuk took the cartoon’s theme from day-to-day laughs to more serious storylines.

    Teen pregnancy was the first significant issue tackled in the Funky Winkerbean strip. Batiuk was “concerned that perhaps a comic strip wouldn’t be considered the proper place for such a topic” in 1986, but felt the issue was important enough to put his worries aside. He pushed ahead. More than 60,000 requests for reprints poured in from fans, including teachers and parents from around the country. *(1)

Batiuk1

    In creating the comic strip series, Batiuk consults with topic experts to base Funky Winkerbean issues on fact. The subjects brought forth in each series lead to more publicity for agencies trying to help teens and others. For example, the general media picked up on the suicide series, making room for discussions, advice and information. Similarly, the series on guns, dating abuse, and racism have given teens an outlet for their thoughts and fears, yet still finding humour through the life-like characters.

    Breast cancer took on a major role in the comic strip in 1999. Lisa, one of the adult characters, fell on her chest during a sporting event and then found a lump afterwards. Batiuk carefully described the steps and trauma of diagnosis, surgery and treatment through the eyes of the character and those who loved her. He researched breast cancer and his storyline for four years before bringing Lisa’s Story to publication. Mostly praised, the cartoon received mild criticism for using herbal therapy to relieve nausea symptoms from the treatments – few herbal remedies have been tested for this use. He also was criticized for using a young adult (Lisa was about 27 when she discovered the lump). The American Cancer Society expressed fears that younger women would think they were at higher risk than they actually are. According to statistics on personalmd.com, women's chances of developing breast cancer are:

  • Up to age 25 - one in 19,608
  • 30 - one in 2,525
  • 35 - one in 622
  • 45 - one in 93
  • 80 - one in 10

    On the other hand, the American Cancer Society praised Batiuk for highlighting the need for mammograms and self-examinations. *(2)

    Awards have poured in for Tom Batiuk and his comic strip. His bandleader character, Harry L. Dinkle, known as “The World’s Greatest Band Leader,”inspired state music education associations to award the cartoonist for his contributions to education, naming him honourary member to several groups. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the Music Educators National Council. Harry L. Dinkle was made spokescharacter of the Music Educators National Council public awareness campaign, plus spokescharacter for The Child Welfare League and The March of Dimes in 1986. Batiuk received the Band Directors of America Medal of Honor in 1988.

    The 100th Rose Bowl Parade in 1989 was the setting for the comic high school band’s appearance (The Scapegoats) both in the newspaper strips and in the parade itself. It was the first parade to feature marching comic strip characters.

    The California Teachers Association recognized Batiuk for “his contribution to the public’s understanding of education issues in 1991, and in the same year he won First Place in the American Library Association’s Best of Show contest for “Funky Winkerbean Wild… About Reading.”

    In 1995, the Journalism in Education Association awarded Batiuk the Media Citation Award. He received the Jonquil Award for making a significant contribution in the fight against breast cancer from the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1999. The Ohioana Citation in the Field of Art was awarded to Batiuk in 2001, by the Ohioana Library Association for “distinguished service and accomplishments in a specific field or area in the arts and humanities.

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    Tom Batiuk has co-created two other cartoons on which he is the writer. “John Darling” was created with cartoonist Tom Armstrong in 1979. Gerry Shamray took over the cartooning from Armstrong in 1985. It ran until 1991, when writer Batiuk killed off the character in the last strip – he was shot to death. (Doesn’t seem very funny there.) His third cartoon is Crankshaft, drawn by Chuck Ayers and published under the Universal Press Syndicate. It focuses on a crabby school bus driver and appears daily in almost 300 newspapers.

    King Features Syndicate published the popular Funky Winkerbean, enjoyed in over 400 newspapers. With his wife Cathy and son Brian, Tom Batiuk lives in Medina, Ohio. He occasionally steps into the classroom as substitute teacher, just to keep his finger on the galloping pulse of teenagers.

Funky Winkerbean home site:
www.funkywinkerbean.com

King Features site of Funky Winkerbean:
*(1) http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/fwinker/about.htm

Article about the strip and breast cancer:
*(2) courier-journal.com (article no longer active)

Crankshaft on King Features Syndicate:
http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/crank/about.htm

© Susanna McLeod 2002
TheCartoonists.ca  

   
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)