Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean is no stranger to heavy topics such as teen pregnancy, suicide, and cancer. Starting on April 30th, Tom’s strip will launch into a month long story-line about two high school teens wanting to attend prom together.
The idea for the story was sparked after Tom read an article about a real-life gay students attending a school dance and the ensuing controversy it created. Tom feels like newspaper comics are uniquely positioned to reflect and delve into current topics of society because of their connectivity with readers on a daily basis. Because this story involves schools and students grappling with the topic it was a natural fit for his strip.
I asked him if there was any hesitancy to work with this topic given earlier treatments of the topic often generated controversy and newspaper requests for substitutions. He told me Funky Winkerbean has never shied away from topics – especially topics dealing with the things students are dealing with. “I think I’ve positioned the strip over the years that I can do this kind of story. My readers give me a lot of space to go in different directions. This is a pretty straight-forward expression of how I feel about the subject.”
The gay characters in Funky Winkerbean are not from his normal cast of characters – so there will be no drama about anyone coming out, but readers will see how other characters react. In fact the gay couple is only featured in 2 of the 24 strips – mostly to set the stage for dealing with the larger issue of intolerance surrounding homosexuality. “Dealing with intolerance is something I’ve dealt with many times before. Adding the gay angle is just a twist to the topic,” Tom says. “I’m not trying to shock anyone, I’m just telling a story.”
The topic of gay characters on the comics isn’t new, but has often been controversial. The more notable episode is the 1993 outing of the Lawrence character in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. Tom concedes that a lot has changed in those two decades – especially with the younger generation, who he believes are more open and accepting of homosexuals. “I believe they will be the ones that bring this issue to an end,” he says.
Since The For Better or For Worse controversy, society has become more accepting of homosexuals, but Tom concedes it’s still a difficult topic for many. “If I can do this storyline now, it either means the apocalypse is near or the culture war on this topic is over.”
The story doesn’t start running for another week or so. Tom is already fielding interview requests from the media and there is early indication that some newspapers are going to take a pass at the series. We will see in the coming weeks how tolerant society is – at least on the funny pages.