Thursday, October 04, 2007

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 (, 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



At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comics should not be entwined with real life.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger CapeSummerGirl said...

I have been reading Funky Winkerbean for years and have loved watching the characters grow and change. It was like reading about an extended family for me.
That Mr. Batiuk chose to address a serious medical problem that affect millions of women worldwide is a courageous and commendable act.
While I was sorrowful at Lisa's death of cancer today, I treasured the matter in which it was handled.
My feeling is that the naysayers simply can't handle the realities of their own mortalities. I can't wait to see what's in store for Les and Summer and the rest of the Winkerbean gang.
Thank you, Tom.
RIP Lisa Moore.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CapeSummerGirl, it's not that I can't handle the fact of my own mortality. I've handled it very well considering the number of times I've faced it.

It's that Batiuk is patting himself on the back for doing good work, when actually it's hollow and fictionalized. Hospice care is nothing, nothing, nothing like what he showed in his strip. A nice neat bed in the living room, an occasional well-groomed nurse wandering through, and a quiet death. Anyone who's actually had hospice care in their own home is laughing bitterly at how Batiuk took the easy way out with that one. "Showed reality"? Please.

I'm all for comics showing real life. Doonesbury does it beautifully all the time -- death from AIDS, Alzheimers, PTSD, amputation, sexual abuse, and it's all handled unflinchingly. And he never, ever takes the easy way out.

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, this whole storyline brings to mind a scene from the movie “Tootsie”. The character played by Dustin Hoffman is telling his agent that he needs a job to finance his play. The agent tells him that no one wants to see a play about a family that moved back to the Love Canal. Hoffman’s character tells the agent, “But it really happened!”, and the agent answers back, “Who gives a $$$$! It’s a downer!”

That is how I feel about the “Lisa” storyline. I really don’t care how sensitive, or how true-to-life, or how challenging or powerful it is. It is still a colossal DOWNER, and it is robbing hope from people who are fighting this dreaded disease every day. It doesn’t need to be in a forum where people go to take a light-hearted break from the daily routine. If Tom Batiuk wants to take his own phobias and pawn them off to the public as art, let him put in a book and sell it.

Peace and Love,
---The Sandman

At 12:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as money comes in to Lisa’s Legacy Fund, he could probably care less what the haters think.

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life isn't always funny or happy. My wife and I have read every installment about Lisa. It has reminded her of the three months she cared for her father who died of cancer. And just this week we found out that the wife of one of her cousins has had her colon cancer return and is in a hopsice. While comic strips are mostly funny we all know that life is a mixture of funny and serious. While it brought my wife to tears we both feel it was appropriate and well done.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've long had a problem with Batiuk using the character as his personal "drama whipping victim" to shake things up. And having gone through watching my father die in a span of two weeks from cancer (and irony of ironies, he died on October 4), I could really, really do without seeing it all replayed (in a sanitized fashion) on the comics page.

I don't want to be reminded of brutal reality on the comics page. That's not what I go there for.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has been one of the most well-written and engaging stories that I've read (in any form) during the past several years. I look forward to Funky Winkerbean every day more than anything else in the newspaper. Tom Batiuk should be congratulated for his excellend writing and imagery. It's great stuff!

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife died of cancer almost exactly 20 years ago at the age of 38. She was partially paralyzed for the last year and a half of her life and lived in a hospital bed in the living room. I haven't seen all the strips dealing with Lisa's illness (I don't get the paper every day) but I feel that the strips I have seen ring quite true to my experience. While it is true that Batiuk's panels strike very close to home I would hesitate to call them "downers". They represent a serious attempt to illuminate and understand one of the mysteries of life (that being death). This happened 20 years ago to me and I don't pretend to understand it yet. I can't look at any of the Lisa's story panels without sitting down and reflecting on my own experience for a while, but I consider that a good thing. I think the purpose of comics (even the funny ones) is more to provide a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding than it is to make somebody laugh.

At 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I can appreciate the comments of Mr. Batiuk's detractors, I chose to reserve judgment on the subject matter until the event played out. I'm extremely impressed with the manner in which Lisa dies -- or should I say departs for her next destination -- and, especially, the fact that at such a moment she holds back just long enough to remember to tell her husband that she loves him. My mother left this earth under somewhat similar circumstances and the strip rings true to me. Also, to those who denigrate Mr. Batiuk's approach, I ask them to contrast it with that of "For Better or Worse," in which Elly's father, Jim, has apparently just had another stroke. That strip's author hasn't shown anywhere near the sensitivity in dealing with her character's plight that Mr. Batiuk showed with Lisa.

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John -

Last time I looked, Lynn Johnston wasn't trying to shill a book about Grandpa Jim's medical condition, so I don't see the comparison. In addition, I think that Tom Batiuk has shown all the sensitivity of a mack track with the Lisa storyline, where the FBOFW storyline has been treated a lot more sensitively. I guess you need to count me in with the rest of the posters who don't appreciate being hit in the head with a 2 by 4 when we go to the Comics page for a little levity.

---The Sandman

At 10:28 AM, Blogger cube said...

I didn't even know Funky Winkerbean was still around, much less dealing with cancer. Myself, I think I'd rather read something funny, or just vaguely humorous in the comics.

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Marge, Mod Mary's Vintage said...

I've been reading this strip since it started back when I was in marching band with a Harry Dinkle type band dirctor (are there any other kind?!).

Reading the strip in the last few months has been like re-visiting my own mother's death from lung cancer four years ago. She passed away after a valiant four year battle very much like what was described in this strip.

Even in the darkest times there was humor in my mother's battle and Mr. Batiuk touched on that as well as the abiding love that the characters have for each other.

Life is about choices. I'm the age of these characters. I say well done to Mr. Batiuk for taking a really difficult topic and presenting it in such a manner.

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't object as much to Lisa's death as much as I do the time shift. When Lisa dies, the Iraq War is going on; Becky is waiting for Wally to come back from the war. How is Batiuk going to explain away the war? Also, since people seem to marry after like two dates in FW, he'll have Les married off for sure--probably to that Susan Smith.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger BookBabe said...

I agree with anonymous - I feel cheated by the time shift. I am a high school teacher and really love watching the "kids" - Les, Bull, Becky, etc. - become teachers and deal with the students. I know that both FW and FBORW keep things moving in a realistic way (seems to be the trend - away from the old ones like Blondie) but I also want to know about Wally and Iraq, Harry in retirement (can he leave Becky alone to handle the band), Bull as he "grows" - but I understand that Batiuk can better relate to people closer to his age. So Les and Funky are now in their late forties? Les looks pretty good, Cindy is okay looking, Bull and Funky look terrible!

But as hard as it was to watch, the Lisa storyline was valuable. It is often the first strip I go to, followed by FBOFW to see how THOSE kids are growing up.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Been reading FW since it started. I agree with anonymous and bookbabe, the time shift left way too many loose ends. It's like the storylines of all the other characters were trivialized or deemed 'not worth telling.' Of course, tying up loose ends will provide countless new strips.

The "10 years later" FW reads like a whole new strip with characters I'm not sure I'm enjoying. Plus if 10 years have passed, why is everyone still so sad? I think that's the fallacy of the time shift; we weren't able to see the characters mend. Wouldn't it have been nice to smile when Les found that he still could.

At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that there can be humor even in dying. It is what makes us Human. To be able to celebrate the bittersweet. If we did not have would lack depth. I salute you Mr Batuk.....I could not and still can not wait each day to read Funky Winkerbean.

We have Alll been touched by death in one form or another. It levels the playing field.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading Funky for umpteen years and I do not like the new time frame, bring it back to way it was...........

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