*This story first appeared in The Budget’s May 2, 2018, Local Edition
By Stacey Carmany
It’s been 46 years since cartoonist Tom Batiuk sat down in his Elyria apartment to ink the first panel of what would become the Funky Winkerbean comic strip and nearly two decades since he began working on the storyline that would take him to some of the most rewarding and challenging places in his career.
“When Funky came out in 1972, it was an incredibly amazing time to bring out a comic strip,” Batiuk said during a recent appearance at Dover Library as part of the library’s Nights at the Round Table author series. “There was just so much going on. So much creativity, so much invention that was happening.”
For the first 20 years of the comic’s production, Batiuk said he continued to obey what he refers to as the “cartooning commandments,” creating “gag-a-day” strips featuring episodic storylines and a cast of high-school-age characters who never grew up.
Then, one day, the cartoonist gave himself permission to disobey the commandments and began writing storylines that reflected heavier real-world issues. “I think that tragedy and comedy side by side are the best representation of the world that we live in,” Batiuk shared.
In 1992, Batiuk rebooted his popular comic strip featuring the characters as young adults in a more serious and continuous narrative touching on issues like teen pregnancy, suicide and gun violence.
“In doing that, it showed me three things,” Batiuk shared. “It first showed me that the medium I was working in was capable of carrying the weight of substantial ideas and that there was an audience out there for this kind of material.
“The third thing that it showed me was that my characters were going to have to start growing up,” he continued.
For the most part, the changes were well received by audiences, and so, seven years later, in 1999, Batiuk introduced another heavy topic into the comic as one of its main characters, Lisa Moore, began her battle with breast cancer.
“It grew out of a number of things but mainly the biggest thing was I was growing up, and I was beginning to hear stories from people around me, family and friends, of people who were dealing with this illness, and there was a lot of groups doing a lot of hard work to raise people’s consciousness about the illness,” he said.
After undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy treatments, Lisa was able to overcome her cancer, and at the time, Batiuk thought he was done with the topic.
That changed several years later when the cartoonist received his own cancer diagnosis. “I suddenly realized that there’s a huge difference between empathizing with something and experiencing it first-hand,” he said.
Drawing upon his own emotions and experiences, Batiuk introduced the final chapter of Lisa’s Story in the spring of 2006, which began with the return of Lisa’s cancer. “This time, when I looked at that internal landscape, it was much more emotionally charged,” the cartoonist said. “There was anger. There was rage. There was worry.”
Ultimately, Lisa succumbed to her cancer on October 4, 2007, an ending that received both praise and criticism from fans. “At that time, there was a lot of pushback from people who didn’t think a story like that belonged in the comics,” Batiuk shared. “I always kept saying that I wrote the work because I wanted to be as honest as I can and just tell a true story.”
Others hailed Batiuk for his sympathetic portrayal of the experiences of those touched by cancer. In 2006, he was honored by American Cancer Society with the Cancer Care Hall of Fame Award. The series was also recognized as one of three finalists in the cartooning category of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
Now 10 years after Lisa’s death, Batiuk has re-released the story in a three-volume anthology titled “Lisa’s Legacy Trilogy” (Kent State University Press 2017). The book is available online in both print and e-book formats through Amazon and at www.kentstateuniversitypress.com, with a portion of the proceeds from each sale to be donated to the Lisa’s Legacy Fund, established by Batiuk in 2007 following Lisa’s death to fund cancer research and education at the University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center.
To learn more about the Lisa’s Legacy Fund or make a direct donation, visit www.lisaslegacyfund.org.