By: Dave Astor
Two couples in “Funky Winkerbean” recently got married in a double ceremony. Funky and Holly are honeymooning in Paris, and Wally and Becky will take a post-wedding trip to … Afghanistan.
“I think comics are at their best when they deal with what’s happening in the real world,” said Tom Batiuk, whose 33-year-old King Features Syndicate strip mixes humor and narrative for readers in nearly 400 newspapers. He told E&P that the Afghanistan sequence will start this Monday, July 4, and run uninterrupted through Sept. 3.
Wally — Funky’s cousin — served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan after 9/11. He was shot down while in a helicopter, captured, and held for ransom before escaping. Then, with the help of an Afghan girl and her family, he was rescued by American soldiers.
Deeply affected by his experience, Wally decides to return to Afghanistan next week for several reasons: to visit the girl, to find closure, and to join the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s (VVAF) project to clear Afghanistan’s many unexploded landmines. Becky also knows something about devastating injuries — having lost an arm in a car accident several years ago.
The upcoming sequence will show how Becky fares as a woman in Afghanistan, show Wally meeting the guy who captured him, and more. The exact story line will not be given away here, but there is a dramatic near-tragedy, then a massive car-bombing, and then the hope of a new life for a survivor of the bombing.
Batiuk researched the sequence by reading books and Web sites. “I’m probably on some Homeland Security list at the moment,” he joked.
The Ohio-based cartoonist also consulted with Joe Donahue, program director of the VVAF’s Information Management & Mine Action Programs (iMMAP) and a West Point graduate who served as an infantry and Special Forces officer. “He answered a lot of questions and helped me with the lingo,” Batiuk said.
Donahue told E&P he also showed Batiuk many photos and videos he took while doing iMMAP work in Afghanistan from late 2001 to mid-2002.
“We’re very, very thankful Tom decided to do this,” Donahue added. “It will be a great education vehicle. Europeans tend to be more aware of humanitarian mine action than American audiences.”
Donahue said one group especially endangered by mines in Afghanistan and other countries are curious children. He added that dealing with mines is also hard for iMMAP people. “We have some very brave men and women working for us in some very dangerous places,” said Donahue.
On an artistic level, the Sunday strips in Batiuk’s Afghanistan sequence have a great look partly due to a new colorist — Dave Stewart of comic book fame.
This is not the first time Batiuk has focused on real-life subjects. Over the years, he has addressed topics such as teen pregnancy, teen suicide, breast cancer, and (in his “Crankshaft” strip) Alzheimer’s disease. Batiuk is one of a select group of cartoonists — others include Greg Evans (“Luann”/United Media) and Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”/Universal Press Syndicate) — who combine humor and narrative in a comic genre somewhere between gag-a-day and continuity.
Putting reality in comics, said Batiuk, gives the cartoonist and readers “a way to assimilate” important issues.