September 20, 2014

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Creator of popular comic strip tackles gay rights

Inspiration comes from a variety of places for cartoonist Tom Batiuk.

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The creator-writer-illustrator of the long-running “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip got his latest dose of inspiration from — of all things — a newspaper.

“I was reading a story over breakfast about a protest by a parent group at a school in Hilliard, Ohio, that seemed to be about tolerance toward gays,” Batiuk said by phone Wednesday from his studio.

As he sat pondering the story and its impact, Batiuk, 63, gradually got the idea to create a “Funky” storyline about a gay student couple who cause a flap when they want to attend the prom at the strip’s fictional Westview High School.

The monthlong storyline will kick off in more than 400 newspapers nationwide, including The Chronicle-Telegram, starting April 30.

“It struck me that whenever I sit in classes at Midview High, which I still do, my overall impression is that the younger generation’s attitudes toward gays is more open and accepting than their predecessors,” Batiuk said. “It’s not perfect, but it shows promise for an emerging generation that will bring this issue (intolerance) to an end.

“I wanted to take those two opposing viewpoints to reach across that divide of intolerance.”

The upcoming same-sex storyline will be one of the strip’s most socially significant since publication of “Lisa’s Story,” Batiuk’s 2008 Pulitzer finalist about the battle one of his strip’s central characters had with breast cancer. The story eventually morphed into an award-winning book published by Kent State University Press.

Not one to shy away from socially relevant and controversial topics, Batiuk also has tackled teen pregnancy, suicide, alcoholism and teen dating violence over the course of the comic strip’s 40 years, which will be celebrated with the publication of “The Complete Funky Winkerbean: Volume 1 (1972-1974).”

“Most of my ideas have to rise to the top on their own,” Batiuk said. “In the past, I tried to force some things from time to time, and they didn’t work out as well. Stories rise up when they’re ready.”

One of those ideas that didn’t pan out the way he planned was a storyline about a convict on death row who had been defended by Lisa, an attorney, whose teenage pregnancy was Batiuk’s first major exploration of a serious topic in the context of his long-running comic strip.

“I was never totally happy with it,” Batiuk said. “Readers reacted rather tepidly. I chalk that one up to struggling with it, with forcing to make it happen.”

As a 20-something middle school art teacher in Elyria, Batiuk began his storied career drawing cartoons for a weekly feature that appeared in The Chronicle.

Batiuk acknowledges that rapid changes in the print world inhabited by his daily comic strip may have skewed the reading audience he taps into as “a little older.”

“If anything, I know I’m writing to that audience more,” he said. “Some days I feel like the last of the Mohicans out here, and that people from the brave new Internet world are destroying our way of life.”

So Batiuk isn’t letting any grass grow under his feet.

“I’m ready in case they stop making newspapers,” he said. “I’ll just do the entire strip on computer,” which is what he does now. “It all goes out electronically when I’m done. No more trips to the post office.

“Personally I’m not as happy creating it that way,” Batiuk said. “I like newspapers.”

Looking back, Batiuk does have one big regret.

“If I’d known this (‘Funky’) was going to last 40 years, I would have worked on the name more,” Batiuk said. “It’s either the best name in comics or the worst one.”

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.