Serio-comic tragedy

It’s not often that events in a newspaper comic strip are reported in the “real” news, but there’s considerable buzz in the media this week about the death of a character in the “Funky Winkerbean” strip. Creator Tom Batiuk has never shied away from tackling “serious” issues such as teen pregnancy, alcoholism and censorship, but the recent storyline concerning Lisa Moore and her battle with breast cancer since 1999 is certainly one of the most ambitious subjects to appear in the “funny pages”. As the end has grown ominously closer in the last month or so (and despite a mountain of letters and emails from readers pleading with Batiuk to spare her), Lisa finally succumbed to the disease in the strip published last Thursday, crossing over the veil of tears hand-in-hand with Masky McDeath (looking strangely like The Phantom of the Opera). An archive of the last month of the series can be found here.

The storyline has generated a surprising amount of controversy; some readers have sent angry letters of complaint to their newspapers, feeling that weighty matters such as disease and death are inappropriate alongside the likes of Garfield, Dagwood, Hagar the Horrible, et. al. Others feel anything that increases cancer awareness is a Good Thing, and anyone who has had to deal with the grief of losing a loved one to the green monster couldn’t help but be touched by the delicate way Batiuk has handled it with his characters. As one commenter on The Comics Curmudgeon put it:

At least FW puts a more human, imperfect face on death and dying, and one that includes struggle, regret, suffering and attempts at closure. It sucks to lose someone from cancer; it’s not easy and it’s not pretty. But there is a certain grace in surviving the struggle, getting through the deep dark emotional stuff, and moving on … not stuff I really want to read in the “funny” papers, but I give FW snaps for dealing with all the imperfect, unfunny aspects of illness and death.

Batiuk has stated that his reasoning for pursuing the plotline was inspired by his own personal battle against prostate cancer, and he has also released a book entitled “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe” which contains all the strips from her initial diagnosis up to her passing, along with source material on breast cancer including early detection, information sources, support systems, and health care. Proceeds will be donated to cancer research.

Following this traumatic event, Batiuk will kick off an all-new story line for the strip with the launch of Funky Winkerbean: Generation Next. The flash-forward storyline follows the lives of the characters 10 years into the future, focusing on the sons and daughters of the strip’s original core group. Les Moore, who was an awkward teen when the series began in 1972, will be nearly 50; at the end of this week, his newly-elder character was previewed talking to a psychologist about the events following Lisa’s death.

FW is not the only strip to face “non-funny” issues; For Better Or For Worse is dealing with one of it’s central characters suffering a stroke, and “B.C.” frequently takes on religion. Perhaps we’re seeing the start of a trend; since so many of the funnies are now taking a serious bent, allow me to suggest a few plot lines that the other strips might like to explore:

Dilbert: Fed up with years of abuse by his pointy-headed boss, Dilbert finally “snaps” one day, and brings a semi-automatic rifle to the office where he shoots The Boss, Dogbert, and several other co-workers to death.

Blondie: Dagwood, Blondie, Herb and Tootsie become swingers. They’re engaged in a serious wife-swapping orgy one night when Alexander and Cookie return unexpectedly and catch their parents en flagrante delicto. Years of therapy and marriage counseling follow.

Garfield: Garfield and Odie slip out of the house unnoticed by Jon, who is busily trying to woo his latest girlfriend. The dog and cat are picked up by animal control officers and euthanized after three days of efforts to determine their owner are unsuccessful. (Look carefully at the image on the right: do you see either of them wearing a collar, ID, or rabies tag? I didn’t think so.)

Dennis The Menace: Up until now, Dennis has been frozen in time as a mischievous five-year old. Announcing a “new direction” for the strip, the creators begin aging Dennis in real time; he becomes a juvenile delinquent, starts smoking crack, joins a teen street gang, and is finally shot by police while holding up a liquor store. However, he recovers from his wounds, finds religion, and goes on a mission to show his former gang-mates the Healing Power of Jesus.

Marvin: The cute, rascally, lovable, sagacious babe is unexpectedly and tragically taken by SIDS.

The Lockhorns: This one is almost too obvious. Leroy divorces Loretta so that he can carouse with the shapely young women he is frequently portrayed as flirting with in the strip. Unfortunately however, his new-found freedom doesn’t last long: he has a heart attack and dies while having sex with a 22-year old on a cruise ship, and since he was always too dim-witted to keep up with paperwork, he never bothered to update his will after divorcing Loretta and she gets everything. (At least he doesn’t have to eat her cooking any more.)

Beetle Bailey: Beetle and Sarge are sent to combat duty in Iraq where they are seriously maimed by an improvised explosive device.

Peanuts: Charlie Brown is arrested for illegally downloading mp3′s. The rest of the Peanuts gang attempt to organize a musical show to raise funds for his defense, but in an ironic plot twist, the kids are foiled when they realize they don’t have performance rights for the tunes they want to sing. Chuck is released from the slammer only after paying a $220,000 fine to the RIAA.

The Family Circus (man, you can see this one coming, can’t you?): Since a recurring theme of the series is that seven-year-old Billy often substitutes as cartoonist and draws the Sunday strip in a childish scrawl, authorities decide to investigate the family for possible violation of nepotism and child labor laws. They discover that, not only is little Billy drawing the strip that appears in US papers because Big Bill is frequently too drunk to hold a pen, the child has also been forced by his father to crank out a full-time knock-off comic called (loosely translated) “Carnival of Relatives” in Chinese that appears daily in Peking, Hong Kong, and a variety of other Asian markets. Obtaining a subpoena for the cartoonist’s hard drive, investigators are subsequently shocked to find obscene photographs of 3-year old Jeffy and 5-year old Dolly, and realize that Bill is a major player in the kiddie porn market. Bill claims that the real culprit is an invisible gremlin named “Not Me”, but police arrest him anyway. In the final strip, as he is led off in handcuffs, he tells the audience to “bite me”, and kicks Barfy on his way out the door for good measure while the ghost of Dead Grandpa Al hovers in the background, hanging his head in shame.

This has got to be only the tip of the iceberg, and there must be a ton of other possibilities. Readers?

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