In the beginning, this was a gag-per-day strip set at a High School. Funky Winkerbean was a happy-go-lucky student. Other regulars were Les Moore, Candice Kane, band director Harold Dinkle and pizzeria owner Montoni. Regular gags/stories involved, among other things, silly answers to test questions, Les Moore's incompetence at gym, a sentient school computer with a transporter beam, and Harold Dinkle's attempts to win the Battle of the Bands (which was generally rained out).In 1992, Tom Batiuk, the creator of the strip quite deliberately decided to initiate Cerebus Syndrome (not that it was called that then): He figured that 17 years in high school was long enough. He ran a graduation storyline, and to indicate and hammer in the change of tone, he had the class overachiever commit suicide in the yearbook room after hearing that the position of valedictorian would be chosen by popularity, and after a brief standoff. Then we got Les Moore's valedictorian speech (which is universally considered underwhelming), and then there was a Time Skip...And then there was Angst: For every good thing that happened to the cast (Funky married to Cindy, Les married to Lisa) there were two bad things (Funky is a divorced recovering alcoholic, Lisa died after a breast cancer relapse) and one thing that was revealed to be worse than we thought (Lisa's teen pregnancy retconned into date rape, Bull's Jerk Ass nature as a result of parental abuse).And then in 2008, Batiuk decided there needed to be a second Time Skip to turn things over to the kids of the original cast. Even then, the majority of the storylines have focused more on the adults experiencing even more traumatic events and angsting about them and less on their children, though a handful of stories have focused on the lives of the teens.
Age Cut: Time Skip II officially began with a Sunday strip. Les began to say "You know your mother would be proud..." while young Summer and he hold hands. The next panel is a much older Summer's hand still holding his. Les finishes with "...of the young woman you've become" as the final panel shows the teenaged Summer and middle aged Les.
Always Someone Better: Keisha, Summer's basketball rival whose great talent overshadows her and thus deprives her of her love for athletics.
Artistic License - Medicine:Lisa is correctly told that radiation cannot cure her Stage IV breast cancer. This is mostly true, as pretty much nothing will kill recurrent breast cancer. She is however not told that radiation and chemotherapy can put the cancer into a temporary remission or that some Stage IV breast cancer patients are able to survive for twenty years or longer. This omission influences Lisa's decision to discontinue treatment. Worse, it takes the better part of a year for her to die, which means that she could have beaten it back: had the cancer been so invasive that chemo or radiation wouldn't have helped, she would have been dead within a few weeks.
Artistic License - Military: Pretty much everything relating to the storyline with Wally is a slap in the face to anyone who has even a smidgen of knowledge of the military, POWs, and basic procedures for declaring a soldier killed in action (hint: they tend to involve identifying the body and not grabbing random corpses without even the most basic of forensics testing)
This may have been inspired by the controversy some years back over the deliberate misidentification of skeletal remains recovered in Southeast Asia. (A forensic scientist claimed that he had positively identified fragmented skeletal remains from a crashed bomber when in reality it was impossible to tell whether the specific remains sent to each family were actually from their loved one, from one of his comrades, or even from an animal.)
Author Avatar: Without a doubt: Les, especially post-Time Skip. This became blindingly obvious in October 2010 as Les embarked on his book tour (which takes place mainly at Montoni's) and is surrounded by adoring hordes of middle-aged women who worship the ground he walks on - and who are all clearly inferior in some way or another to him.
Call Back: Funky's time traveling is real since he's the "old geezer" who told his younger self to save the comic book.
Can You Hear Me Now?: For unknown reasons, Les never bothers to use a cellphone (or any phone, for that matter) to call home and check and see how his teenage daughter is doing. Nor do people at home call him. This results in bizarre situations like the February 6th, 2011 strip, where for for some reason he's completely shocked that his daughter got injured.
Cerebus Retcon: Several sitcom-y plot points were retconned into something significantly less funny.
The January-February 2013 arc has perhaps the most depressing, severe retcon yet. Peripheral character Fred Fairgood suffers a stroke. As recently as Autumn of 2012, he and his wife Ann had been depicted as a happy couple, looking back on their past with joy, love and pride. However, upon waiting in the hospital, Ann tells their son Darin that their marriage was a loveless union of lies and convenience that crushed her previously unrevealed dreams of being a writer. (The fact that in 2012 a major plot point was her great accomplishments in teaching girls' sports seems to be forgotten). Darin also discovers that his father had a family before he married Ann, complete with a daughter he hasn't seen in decades. Shattered by the revelations, Darin does nothing to comfort his mother or spare kind thoughts for his father, instead wandering off with a smirk to hope the government would give him money. In just a couple of weeks, Tom's transformed what previously seemed like an unusually (for Westview) happy family into a group of miserable, self-obsessed, deadbeat losers. Dark indeed.
This is veering sharply into Unreliable Narrator territory as of February 2011, with Les reminiscing about his grad-student days to an old schoolmate and blatantly re-casting the gag-strip period of his life as a bleak, existential affair where he and his friend would dream of escaping their small-town life and doing Big Things (complete with visuals in no way reminiscent of On the Waterfront's famous "contender" scene, no less!) Not to mention the visuals reinventing his old dorky young-adult self as looking more like a beat poet.)
Chew Toy: Lisa never could catch a break. Even Batiuk admitted in an interview during the second cancer storyline that he didn't quite understand why she was always getting so much drama.
Les used to go through through this, but these days seems to be getting the opposite treatment. Possibly to make up for years of torture, and possibly because Batiuk has started to identify with him more.
Comic Book Time: started off this way, then went to real-time progression (or maybe slowed-down time progression) after the first Time Skip, then... well, it's hard to tell now. Both time skips seemed to take the strip from the present day to... still the present day but with everyone being older.
In the original timeline, the characters were ca. 15 years old in 1972, which presupposes a birth year of roughly 1957. The first timeshift had them graduate in 1988, implying that they were born in 1970. The third timeshift has them at roughly 46 years of age in 2010, giving them a birth date of about 1964.
Crapsack World: And the characters clearly are aware of it. Hell, Funky even described life as a curse.
Les appears to be the most aware, and at all times seems to be merely waiting his turn, if only to be with Lisa again. A 2012 strip had him openly admit to not wanting to appear too happy lest the universe conspire against him.
Deus Angst Machina: Especially the cancer plots, but pretty much everyone has had a pile-up of horrible events.
Poor Les, what the heck is he going to do with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? (the critics admit that it is a rather daunting "vacation") He'd rather just go to Disney World.
Diabolus ex Machina: Ever since the first time skip. One of the worst being Wally being declared AWOL because his discharge papers were filed one day too early (and not by him), and sent back for an entire year of active duty in Iraq. Did we mention that this is also how he ended up missing for ten years and declared KIA, thus spending years in captivity and returning home to his wife having remarried and his son never knowing his face? Oh, and developing serious PTSD that prevents him from going out in public and holding steady work? Yes, this is a typical life for a Funky Winkerbean cast member.
For just one example, one week in 2009 covered an entire miserable day for the middle-aged Funky. This started with him facing laying off employees, progressed to his wife getting involved in a car wreck, to his father falling and breaking his hip, to him picking up his son from detention, and ending with the revelation that all this happened on his birthday. Oh, and while at the hospital, listening to the TV blare on about the horrible economy, Funky gets an e-mail warning him of elevated PSA levels - meaning he's also looking at the threat of prostate cancer. About halfway through the day, he even got upset at God for his string of failure. Regular readers simply wondered why more characters don't curse out the malevolent deity that controls their universe..
Drowning My Sorrows: An entire week in late 2009 depicted Wally doing this as a response to the complete implosion of his entire life. It ended with him talking to his adopted daughter while hiding a gun behind his back.
Funky thinks about doing this, but decides not to.
Fan Nickname: "Masky McDeath", "Funky Cancerbean," "Funky Cancercancer". Occasionally, the comic is called the Chunkyverse as the readers noticed how most the cast put on considerable weight during the Time Skip, some to the point of being unrecognizable (especially Funky and his new wife).
Flashback Effects: shading flashback panels to look like old photographs in an album.
Fully Absorbed Finale: The Funky Winkerbean spin-off John Darling ended very suddenly in the early 90s with the title character's murder on panel, as sort of a Take That to his syndicate during a heated battle over the strip. The murder was never solved in that strip and in fact, at the time, Batiuk had not intended to ever solve it and had not originally planned who the killer was. In the later 90s, Batiuk returned to the storyline when Les wrote a book about the murder and through the writing process solved the mystery.
Hatedom: Many of the strip's older readers only hang on to know what they're complaining about.
Hide Your Gays: After the principal's speech about no sexual discrimination in the student handbook, he's later seen talking to someone who's very awkwardly hidden by props in the foreground. Speculation is that it's either a known character or the personification of closeted gay teens everywhere (but just the light-skinned ones), but the plot point remains unresolved.
The couple that started the whole business stayed in the story exactly long enough to establish that a) they wanted to purchase prom tickets and b) they were a gay couple, after which they were never seen or heard from again.
Hope Spot: Lisa's cancer going into remission. Psyche! Turns out the hospital mixed up her paperwork with someone else and because she lost months of valuable treatment time, her cancer is now terminal. Of course, since recurrent breast cancer is always terminal (the best she could hope for, even if detected in a timely manner, would be a few more years at most), the Hope Spot was rather pointless - not to mention her doctor doesn't bother telling her this. Or that the therapy they're giving her can't cure her cancer. Did we mention Lisa was a lawyer?!
Hot for Teacher: Susan, as a teenager, had a crush on Les, her teacher during the post-Time Skip 1 era. When he married Lisa, she tried to kill herself. She returned as a teacher - still with a crush on him - and eventually told him she loves him, throwing herself into his arms and kissing him. When a photo of the kiss spreads throughout the school, she immediately resigns and leaves, Les making jokes about her obsession and smirking smugly all the while.
Jerk Ass: Funky had an abrupt change post time-skip into an unabashed selfish, greedy jerk. Then again, this is a Crapsack World, it's enough to turn even the most idealistic heart to stone.
Les is coming off as this when he brings in two women he's involved with for a relatively self-centered demands to help him with the book, with the implications they're going to have to compete for his affections by agreeing with him.
Les on his Kilimanjaro adventure and annoying everyone by making "Livingston, I presume" jokes and unforgivably bad puns. In his defense needs some kind of stress-release considering he's climbing a mountain in a foreign country with only a few months of preparation from his ex-bully-turned-high school coach.
Just Plane Wrong: So Les is on a plane that gets grounded by a bomb threat called in by Lisa's ghost to prevent the plane from crashing. According to Les, the plane (with all the passengers and luggage still on board) sat at the gate for a couple hours after which they were given seats on a later flight—instead of being immediately removed from the plane and undergoing intense scrutiny by the TSA, as one might expect in the circumstances. Oh, and apparently there's no trouble getting an entire planeload of people seats on a later flight, though it's only a few days before Christmas.
Karma Houdini: In Crazy Harry's case, it's escaping the bad karma the rest of the original cast soaks up. The worst thing he's experienced is losing his job as a postal worker...which by this universe's standards is a slap on the wrist.
Love Triangle: Between the post-Time Skip II Les, his former suicidal student-turned-colleague Susan, and fellow post-Time Skip II teacher Cayla. It eventually ended with Susan causing a scandal by being seen kissing Les and her departure from the strip, leaving Cayla the winner to eventually marry Les. At least she had the approval of Les' dead wife's ghost!
Summer Moore (Les and Lisa's daughter) is liked by both a nerdy boy who looks suspiciously like Les and his slacker best friend who's defined by his goofy hat — however there's no proof she likes either (critics were thankful that Generation Xerox was avoided... for now). Complicating matters is an unnamed blonde girl who likes the nerd but he doesn't know she exists even after she texts him thanks to a prank by the slacker.
Off the Wagon: Teased in a 2010 strip, though subverted - while the Saturday strip showed Funky ordering a drink, the next day's strip showed him simply chatting up the bar tender about his horrible life, then leaving the full glass behind. Because that is how depressing this comic is.
Out of Focus: Funky himself hasn't been the strip's central character in a long time; see Secondary Character Title, below.
Parental Abandonment: After his stroke, Fred's estranged daughter showed up to look in on the old man. It seems that he never seemed to want to tell Darin his disastrous first marriage or the daughter he was 'forced' to give up.
Parent with New Paramour: Time Skip II finds Becky married to John, the comic book store owner; the reappearance of her first husband Wally after years of captivity in Iraq has made her life somewhat awkward.
Les Moore eventually began to date again after the second time skip, though he frequently sought comfort from his wife's ghost (though whether this was merely in his head or not is unexplained.) The woman was Cayla Williams, who was also the mother of Summer Moore's athletics rival. Les eventually married Cayla in late 2012.
Phone Call From The Dead: Les Moore's deceased wife Lisa calls him in the airport to warn him not to take a flight that's destined to crash. He takes the flight anyway, but she saves him by arranging for the plane's mechanical problem to be discovered.
Several early characters, including bandleader Harry Dinkle and the late football coach Jack Stropp.
Put on a Bus: Most of the high school students from the first time skip, despite the second time skip ostensibly being to pass the torch to the younger generation. Then despite a great deal of build up to said generation of students, they were alsoPut on a Bus to largely focus on Les' daughter Summer Moore.
Funky's stepson Corey recently joined the army...without really resolving any of his own open storylines.
Prom Is For Straight Kids: A spring 2012 storyline featured a gay couple wanting to attend prom together. Said couple then vanish without a trace for the rest of the arc, not even getting names. When "Prom Comittee Member" Roberta Blackburn finds out, she launches a demonstration to force the school officials' hand and stop the couple from attending. However, Summer Moore decides that a bunch of students will skip class as a show of support, even though Batiuck makes it clear the majority of students just want to skip class, period. The principal who holds an assembly to point out that there's no discrimination based on sexual-orientation in the school handbook. Even though as Roberta was just a volunteer, he could have easily dismissed her instead of lecturing his students on a viewpoint they never put forth. Roberta is only stopped, however, by her milksop husband unexpectedly chewing her out in public, causing her to crumple like a damp dishrag.
Retcon: A few. The most recent has been to make Frank's partner Lenny white in several strips that he previously was African American in, even though he's clearly dark skinned in this one*
which might have been left because he might fade into the background if made any lighter
Samus Is a Girl: The Eliminator, a helmeted Bratty Half-Pint arcade gamer from the original strips, retconned late in the first time skip into Donna, a hot blond (and Crazy Harry's future wife).
Secondary Character Title: Also somewhat of an Artifact Title, in that Funky originally was the main character, or at least shared the spotlight with Les. Nowadays, it's pretty clear who the main character is and that this trope currently applies.
Shell-Shocked Veteran: The latest plot twist involving Wally is that he stopped going to his therapy sessions so he can sit in a crappy apartment and drink to forget; given that a recent strip had his ex Becky whine about how destructive he was, it's obvious that we're about to see a massacre that is All Wally's Fault for not Getting With The Program.
Wally in a very believable series of strips was given an assistance dog to help him with his PTSD. With the dogs support, he has become mentally and emotionally stable to take care of himself and start dating again.
Shout Out: In real life, Batiuk is a huge fan of comics and has a few friends in the comic book industry, such as his neighbor Tony Isabella and John Byrne, who once drew Funky Winkerbean for ten weeks while Batiuk recovered from foot surgery. This has manifested itself in other Shout Out moments during the strip.
From time to time, Batiuk will devote an entire Sunday strip to a replica of a Silver Age DC Comics cover, usually with a single panel tying it into whatever is going on with the characters' lives. Sometimes he parodies it by inserting his own characters into the cover, but other times the only appearance of Funky cast members is in the tie-in panel.
Les and Lisa got married wearing Batman and Robin costumes. When Les remarried he wore a normal tux, but he still referenced his first wedding and said he felt like Superman.
Straw Critic: The parents who don't like the drama class performing the play Wit because "School plays are for fun and relaxation, not art."
The snarking blogs and readers' comments note that Wit wouldn't be easy to mount with teen performers and would risk losing the school's money if their peers and families don't come to see it — not a smart move at a time when arts programs are suffering due to a recession. All things considered, the Strawman Has a Point. Other critics noted that a logical response to the Straw Critic's suggestion of doing Spamalot would have been to point out the prohibitive costs of licensing and producing a currently running musical versus the small cast and minimal set needed for Wit - but the comic naturally featured a pretentious lecture about the arts instead.
Take That: To fellow cartoonist Johnny Hart, for using B.C. as a medium to share his Christian beliefs. Which, given Batiuk's tendency to go into comic-tantrums when someone speaks out against his cancer-centric plotlines (see above, and below) is like a cannibal mocking someone for being a vegan.
Take That, Critics!: Batiuk has used this comic and his other strip, Crankshaft, to dish out some lumps of his own over criticism that the strip was overly dramatic.
Teen Pregnancy: Lisa went through this, giving birth to Darrin Fairgood, whom she gave up for adoption.
Teens Are Monsters: Funky's stepson Corey steals Lisa's cancer charity money and it's implied it's just his latest brush with the law. Funky covers for him by replacing the money himself...while appearing as a "good guy" because he makes a grand gesture of apparent generosity without telling Les where the money went. The plot has yet to be revisited.
Theme Initials: The one-armed teacher has the same first initial as her three sisters (something like Beth, Becky, Berenice, and Bella).
Time Skip: Two of them! The first one also signaled the comic's shift into more dramatic storylines.
Lisa as well, or at least her memory, seems to haunt Les. (As of the December 2010 strips, this seems to have become literal. Though, knowing Batiuk, this could turn out to be the beginning of Les' actual mental breakdown instead of the year's second Twilight Zone ripoff.)
Given the real phone call and the aircraft mechanics' discussion about it, it doesn't seem to be all in his head.
My Cage did a parody of this plotline in late 2009, in which Jeff's son portrays Masky Mc Death in a school play based on the (once-) popular newspaper comic "Groovy Blinkerlegume." This is likely also a dig at the Funky Winkerbean musical that was once popular as a high school production, and the then-recent Funky Winkerbean plot about the school doing a production of Wit.
The Un Reveal: What Cindy thought was an American military contractor being swapped in a prisoner exchange turned out to be Funky's cousin, Wally. The dramatic effect was blunted by Wally himself telling the story as a flashback.
Very Special Episode: After 16-plus years of following the tried-and-true gag-a-day format, Batiuk began a recurring story arc to address teen pregnancy. Lisa Crawford, a mousy outcast of a student who was butt ugly, had somehow caught the eye of all-star wide receiver Frankie Miller ... only for the relationship to go straight downhill after the two get drunk at a party and have sex. Frankie reveals his true colors and beats up Lisa after learning she got pregnant; her parents at home are zero help, leaving Lisa to turn to her only friend left ... the even worse outcast named Les Moore. Ultimately, Lisa gives birth to a baby boy and gives him up for adoption (unknown to her, the parents are her high school principal and his wife, Fred and Ann Fairgood, who give baby Darin the stable environment he needs).
After the success and critical acclaim of the "teen pregnancy" storyline, Very Special Strips would follow. While some storylines were rather mundane, several had very dark themes, most notably a recurring arc centering on Lisa contracting breast cancer that began in 2002 and continued for more than five years; it ultimately ended with her death. Other common Very Special Strip themes dealt with war issues and alcoholism.
Writer on Board: A plotline in which angry parents protest a school play about cancer and death and Les gets to defend it. Golly, that couldn't possibly be related to anything that happened in Batiuk's career that he's still pointlessly bitter about, right?
Les in general, really. He clearly has an unhealthy obsession with his late wife's death and is using his writing career as a platform for talking about it. Kind of like Tom Batiuk.
Yank the Dog's Chain: For most of the last few years, the Sunday strips were dedicated to watching Crazy Harry build up a collection of Tarzan novels; this seems to be so that he'd have to sell them off to pay the bills after the poorly-researched post office shutdown arc.
Younger Than They Look: Despite looking old enough to be his son's grandfather, Funky is only 46 years old. This could be applied to everyone, since they share the same world-weary appearance whether they're elderly or in high school.
From internal evidence (the day his birthday party ran in the papers), Funky was born on March 29, 1964 and is therefore the same age to the day as Elle MacPherson. He looks like Elle MacPherson's father.