Cartoonist Tom Batiuk has written the Funky Winkerbean strip for the past four decades, and since 1986 has periodically surprised readers by taking on mature and controversial topics including, teen pregnancy, suicide, cancer and teen-dating violence.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the daily cartoon strip is taking on its first LGBT-related issue: gay kids attending prom. The storyline launched April 30 and will conclude at the end of May.
"This started a year ago," Batiuk said. "I saw an article in the paper where a parents' group in Southern Ohio was protesting a high school, and they were protesting apparently the school's more tolerant policy towards gays. I contrasted that with what I observe when I go out to my old high school. ... It seems to me that this younger generation has a more open and accepting attitude toward issues like this. It's not perfect, I'll be the first one to say this, but I think overall there is a generational divide here. I thought that would be a good topic to use in Funky. It's basically an issue of intolerance versus tolerance, and that is something that has been a lynchpin of Funky since the beginning and it gave me a chance to speak to that again."
This is the first time Batiuk has included any LGBT characters in the strip. The two gay male students are not Funky regulars and are not integral to the storyline beyond providing the catalyst for the debate that follows. The story instead centers on the variety of consequences and reactions that follow as the Funky characters face this issue.
The prom storyline kicked off when two gay students purchase prom tickets. Jinx, another student at the school, doesn't see an issue with the guys going together but Roberta Blackburn, a community member, has problem with their ticket purchase. This sets the plot in motion, as opinions fall on both sides of the issue and tension builds between those arguing for acceptance and those against the same-sex couple attending.
The school's principal is finally forced to bring the two sides together and gives a speech about tolerance. Batiuk mentioned that the speech is where he gets to express his own opinion on the topic. He promises that the storyline will end with an unexpected twist as well.
What is his view on the issue? "I don't have any problem with it," he said. "I don't see anything wrong with it. They have as much right as anybody to be at the prom."
Batiuk said he has received both positive and negative responses to the storyline from fans, and said that some of the 400 newspapers that carry the strip have chosen not to run it, but he seems pleased with the overall reception the strip is getting.
The storyline has garnered a positive response from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and from Stephanie Laffin of the "It Gets Better" Project. Batiuk said GLAAD's response was gratifying and means that he achieved what he set out to achieve.
"The best thing you can hope for is that people will just look at the work and consider it and it makes people think," Batiuk said. "Comic strips, all they can do is frame the question. It can't provide answers. The answers have to come from the readers. They're the ones who are going to have to decide what they're going to do in life, but I think comic strips are in a unique position in readers lives, showing up in the newspaper every day to provoke this question and frame it and then let people think about it."
So far, Batiuk has succeeded in presenting serious topics through Funky Winkerbean. In 2008 his breast-cancer storyline, "Lisa's Story," became a Pulitzer Prize finalist and became an award-winning book.
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Batiuk's work is being reprinted in its entirety. Volume 1 came out earlier this year and covers the strip's first three years. Batiuk will be at the Wizard World Chicago Comic Con convention Aug. 9-12 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center (5555 N. River Rd., Rosemont), and he will be at the Midwest Band Directors Convention in December in Chicago.