Covering cancer in Funky Winkerbean
As you may or may not know, the character Lisa Moore in the comic strip Funky Winkerbean passed away today from cancer. I talked to cartoonist Tom Batiuk about the storyline and readers' responses to it in today's paper. Here's the unedited version:
Rest in peace Lisa Crawford Moore.
The 36-year-old beloved attorney, mother and wife passed away today following a bout with breast cancer. She is survived by her husband, Les, and daughter, Summer.
These aren’t real people; they’re characters in the daily comic strip “Funky Winkerbean.”
But that hasn’t kept Lisa’s illness and death from upsetting a lot of readers.
“I cannot look at the strip. It is that depressing,” said Elaine Baumbach, 60, of New Cumberland. “If it catches my eye, right away I feel bad. I fold the paper over as soon as I get to that page.”
The strip, written and drawn by Tom Batiuk of Medina, Ohio, has been around since 1972 and runs in about 400 newspapers, including the Patriot-News.
And Baumbach is just one of a number of local readers who have complained in recent months about the current cancer storyline, calling it too much of a downer for the proverbial “funny pages.”
“There’s nothing funny about [cancer],” said Keith Roth, 79, of Newberry Twp. “It’s sad and serious and a terrible thing and we have too much of it today anyhow in the real life without looking at it in the paper.
“It’s not that I don’t think it shouldn’t be in the paper, but it’s in the wrong place,” he said.
Joshua Fruhlinger, whose Web site, The Comics Curmudgeon (joshreads.com), regularly pokes fun at contemporary comic strips, sees something else in readers’ reactions.
“I think one of the things that’s interesting [about people’s reactions] is it says something about their attitudes about sickness in general,” said “A lot of people were really mad about the character’s decision to stop doing chemo, which I think they saw as giving up.”
Cartoonist Batiuk, 60, has heard the complaints.
“They [readers] feel that I’m violating an unwritten comics code by not providing a punch line for them every day. I sort of feel that what I owe them is the very best work that I can do,” he said during a recent phone interview.
“I love being funny. But I think there are times when we need to try to build something a little bit more than that.”
Dan Stencovage, 47, of East Pennsboro Twp., agrees.
“It’s a good tool. There may be people out there battling cancer or any other disease who may not take care of their own health needs. Maybe by reading that they’ll go ‘I better take care of myself. Maybe I better have that mammogram.’¤”
That’s partly why the storyline concludes at the start of October, which just happens to be National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (though Batiuk suggest that luck played a part in that bit of timing).
According to Heather Hibshman, executive director of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, Lisa’s death isn’t that far from the reality .
“About 2,200 women in Pennsylvania lose the battle each year. It’s relevant to a lot of people. we all know someone with breast cancer,” she said from her office in Ephrata. “This will bring awareness to thousands of people reading this strip about how prevalent this disease is.”
Batiuk originally had Lisa battle breast cancer back in 1999. Once she recovered, he thought that was the end of that particular storyline. Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003.
“It was when I was diagnosed myself when I realized there was a huge void between empathy and personal experience,” he said. “I knew as I was going into that process that I was going to be writing about it again.”
Following Lisa’s death today, the strip will jump ahead 10 years, with a goateed and much older Les reflecting on Lisa’s funeral and his subsequent mourning.
From there the strip will focus on the sons and daughters of the strip’s original core characters.
“I wanted to bring the characters closer to my age,” Batiuk said about the time jump.
Interest in the story has also led to Lisa’s Legacy Fund, created by the University Hospital’s Ireland Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the premier cancer treatment centers in the country.
One hundred percent of the donations made to the fund will go towards research and education at the center. For his part, Batiuk has pledged to donate all royalties from his upcoming book, “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe” to the fund.
Despite the criticism, Batiuk remains confident in his work.
“I feel it’s some of the best work I’m ever going to do,” he said while signing copies of “Lisa’s Story” at the center. “It’s certainly some of the most hard won.”
“It’s an ambitious thing to do and I’m all in favor of people doing ambitious things,” Fruhlinger said. “The comics page is full of people who are happy to do the same thing for 30 years.
“Whether or not it was successful for everybody, he did try to do something that was really different and I have to say I think more people should do that.”
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007
Labels: comic strips