Tom Batiuk (rhymes with 'attic') has been writing and drawing the Funky Winkerbean comic strip (syndicated to more than 400 newspapers in the U.S.) since 1972, and over the years he has explored, with a great deal of sensitivity and insight, a wide variety of controversial subjects including alcoholism, teen pregnancy, breast cancer, racism, dyslexia, teen suicide, the deadly legacy of land mines, and most recently the arrest of a comic book shop owner for selling an adult comic book to an adult. ICv2 first reported on this example of a comic strip taking on comic book censorship when Batiuk introduced the storyline back in March (see 'Comic Strip Takes On Comic Book Censorship'). Although it is filled with hilarious bits of character driven comedy, the Funky Winkerbean comic strip is far closer to reality than the vast majority of its competitors from the funny pages, so it is no surprise that the trial of John, the comic shop owner, takes place as it would it real life--months after his arrest. As this storyline is coming to its conclusion, Batiuk graciously acceded to ICv2's request for an interview concerning the reasons he chose to take on this controversial subject.
What inspired you to take up this storyline about the comic book retailer arrested for selling an 'adult' comic to an adult?
Batiuk: Well John has been running the comic shop, the Comics Corner, in Funky for quite a while, and I'm always looking for new storylines and I was obviously aware of some of the things going on through the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the way that comic stores have come under attack for all the wrong reasons, and I thought it would be an interesting story to tackle to try to educate the public a little bit about some of this stuff and kind of put my characters through their paces at the same time.
Were you inspired by the Castillo case in particular?
Sure that was one of them. I am a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund so I get Busted, the magazine, and I have been keeping up with stuff and following things and Charles Brownstein [of the CBLDF] was helpful in making sure that I had all the information that I needed.
What were you hoping to get across to your readership with this storyline?
Actually there are three things, and at least two of them are very self-serving. The first is defending a medium that I love (I guess that is self-serving too). I think it is a medium that doesn't get the kind of respect that it deserves, so it was a chance to put that out there and shine a spotlight on that a little bit. Secondly, in coming to the defense of comic book shops and comic book storeowners, I am really coming to the defense of myself because if they are allowed to come under this kind of attack, the comic creators could be next. And the third thing, which was really summed up in Lisa's summation to the jury--I constantly fight a battle in the newspapers to do mature material and they come back at me saying it's a medium for children, it's the funnies, it's the comics, and I try to explain to them that it's not a genre, it's a medium and it's capable of tackling a broader range of subject matter than we've seen so far in the newspapers.
How did John Byrne get involved?
John's a friend of mine and I was just yanking around with him. I needed a witness for the trial so I threw John in and he was nice enough to allow me to do it.
What sort of reaction have you gotten to this storyline?
Well it's been terrific. I was just at the Mid-Ohio Con over the weekend so I got a lot of feedback and response from it and it was very positive. A lot of it was curiosity -- how did it come about, but the people who are involved in comics, who like comics really appreciated it.
When is the storyline going to end -- the verdict came in today, will that be the end of it?
The rest of this week I deal with the fact that John now has to put his life back together and his comic shop back together, and the other characters kind of help him do that -- I try to take it to a better resolution, than just being declared 'not guilty.'
In addition to a plea for freedom of expression, your storyline really seems to emphasize that comics aren't just for kids, doesn't it?
Very much so. In fact in the final scene they throw a party for John in his shop. It's sort of a big open house to get customers back, and one of the characters, Becky, returns a comic book spinner rack that he had sold on eBay and instead of using the 'Hey Kids, Comics' sign that goes at the top of those things, I used one that also appeared and I think is more applicable and says 'Comics For All Ages,' and that was definitely the point I was trying to make.