December 18, 2014

Medina
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Local cartoonist Tom Batiuk first published in Gazette’s sister paper

Comic book men drawn in different directions

Tony Isabella and Tom Batiuk have a lot in common. As children, they both remember a family member reading the comics to them. As teenagers, they both had a fascination with comic books and spent long hours creating characters and writing comic book storylines. They both published comic strips, magazines and books. These are the stories of two Medina County residents who followed the same passion down two very different paths to national success.
This is Tom Batiuk’s story. To read Tony Isabella’s story, click here.

Tom Batiuk is shown at the drawing board surrounded with images from “Funky Winkerbean,” a comic strip syndicated in more than 400 newspapers. (NANCY JOHNSON / GAZETTE)

Tom Batiuk is shown at the drawing board surrounded with images from “Funky Winkerbean,” a comic strip syndicated in more than 400 newspapers. (NANCY JOHNSON / GAZETTE)

Tom Batiuk was an art teacher at Elyria’s Eastern Heights Junior High when he published his first professional comic on the teen page of The Gazette’s sister newspaper, The Chronicle-Telegram, in September 1970.

“Rapping Around” was a cartoon about teenagers negotiating the sometimes-funny, sometimes-difficult realities of high school. The cartoon turned out to be the forerunner to Batiuk’s wildly popular and award-winning comic strip “Funky Winkerbean,” now in its 42nd year.

Distributed by North America Syndicate, a division of King Features Syndicate, the comic strip appears in more than 400 newspapers worldwide.

As a youngster growing up in Akron, Batiuk had been intrigued by the Akron Beacon Journal’s comics, which his father read to him. As he grew older, he became a fan of serial movies, the kind that were shown before a feature film and that always ended with a cliffhanger.

One movie in particular, “The Phantom Empire” starring Gene Autry, was shown on Friday afternoons at Batiuk’s elementary school, impressing Batiuk with its ambitious over-the-top storyline.

Batiuk said his first comic book — “Tom Corbett Space Cadet” — ­was the clincher. He knew he wanted to be a cartoonist when he grew up.

The young Batiuk began drawing characters and writing their stories. Some of his earlier works featured detectives Chicken Coop Charlie and Pork Chop Chuck, Tank Thompson and The Amazing Mr. Sponge.

Batiuk reprised Starbuck Jones, a superhero he created in fifth grade, for the current “Funky Winkerbean.” This week “Funky Winkerbean’s” Holly is at Comic Con in San Diego seeking the elusive “Starbuck Jones” Issue No. 115 for son Cory who is stationed in Afghanistan.

Batiuk didn’t start out to be a comic strip creator.

“My goal was to create serious comic books for DC or Marvel Comics,” he said in an interview at his Medina Township home. But Batiuk soon would find himself on a different path.

After graduating from Kent State University with a degree in fine arts and a certificate in teaching in 1969, Batiuk traveled to New York to land a job with one of the comic book publishers.

Batiuk said DC Comics was less than welcoming to the aspiring cartoonist. But at Marvel, Batiuk found a kindred spirit in Roy Thomas, an associate editor and writer at the time. (Thomas later became Marvel’s editor-in-chief.)

“Roy Thomas was extremely gracious. And although he didn’t accept any of my material, he encouraged me to keep working on it,” Batiuk said.

Batiuk spent his days teaching art and his evenings working on material for Marvel.

After a discussion with his former high school art teacher, Jim Mateer, Batiuk decided to meet with then Chronicle-editor James Dauble to pitch the idea of freelancing.

Dauble was just launching the newspaper’s teen page and invited Batiuk to create a comic for it.

“From the beginning, ‘Rapping Around’ and ‘Funky Winkerbean’ were inside jobs,” Batiuk said. “I based stories on things that happened at the school where I taught or on my own school experiences. I had played trombone at Midview High (in Grafton), so I did a cartoon about a high school band. I took that idea with me when I created “Funky Winkerbean.” Band director Dinkle is based on Midview’s band director Harry Pfingston.”

In 1971, Publishers Hall Syndicate offered Batiuk a contract for a comic strip called “Moondog.” The strip eventually would be renamed “Funky Winkerbean” and would make its newspaper debut in March 1972.

“Funky” did so well that Batiuk had to leave teaching to focus on the strip. But he returned to Mateer’s art class once a week to remain close to “Funky’s” subject matter.

Over the years, Batiuk has tackled serious — and sometimes controversial — issues in the strip, including Lisa’s teen pregnancy.

“Once I did that storyline, I couldn’t go back to Les trying to climb the gym rope,” he said. “That propelled the idea of moving the story forward in time.”

Batiuk’s characters jumped ahead in time twice. In 1992, Funky and crew aged from high school students to college graduates. In 2007 after Lisa’s death from breast cancer, Batiuk moved the characters forward by 10 years.

“The second jump served two purposes,” he said, “When I created the characters, they were 15 and I was 24. Moving them forward in time brought them closer to my age. And we were able to skip the mourning process after Lisa’s death.

“When I did the storyline about Lisa’s cancer, there was a growing awareness of breast cancer. And I knew some women who had it. I wondered what would happen to Les and Lisa’s relationship if something like that happened to them. The first time around, I just skimmed over the surface. But when I was diagnosed with cancer — I’m fine now — I wanted to revisit the story. My experience deepened the work; I understood the stronger emotions that come with cancer.”

Since then, Batiuk has addressed other sensitive issues in “Funky” and in “Crankshaft,” the comic strip he writes with illustrator Chuck Ayers. In that strip, Lillian McKenzie, who lives next door to Ed Crankshaft, had to cope with her sister Lucy’s Alzheimer’s and eventual death. And while the “Funky” characters have grown into middle-aged adults, the Crankshaft crew is stuck in time.

“I can’t move them ahead — although I’d like to — because Ed is already old,” said Batiuk, who revealed — Spoiler Alert! — that Ed and Mary slowly will start dating as Ed’s friend Ralph runs for mayor.”

This month, Batiuk and Ayers released “Strike Four: The Crankshaft Baseball Book” (Black Squirrel Books, an imprint of Kent State University Press). The pair plans to release a book called “Roses in December” that will focus on Lucy McKenzie’s Alzheimer’s, much like the book, “Lisa’s Story,” focused on breast cancer.

Batiuk also is working on “Funky Winkerbean: Volume 4, 1981-1983” (Black Squirrel Books, an imprint of Kent State University Press).

“I’m actually having more fun now than I ever had working on both strips,” Batiuk said. “It’s hard to believe that I’ve been able to work at my dream job.”

Contact reporter Nancy Johnson at (330) 721-4065 or areanews@medina-gazette.com.