MEDINA COUNTY, Ohio - An artist, seemingly working alone, with a pocket of pens and paints makes magic in his cartoonist's studio in the quiet of Medina County, Ohio. However, though you cannot see others in the room with him, they are there and they whisper their stories in his ears.
Tom Batiuk complies with their wishes and tells their stories, which are unveiled in the nationally-known comic strips "Funky Winkerbean" and "Crankshaft." For 40 years, Batiuk has been with pen in hand, drawing the characters in his strips and writing the words that they say.
All of the scenarios that are depicted in his strips, which are published in 700 newspapers in the U.S., are from real-life situations.
"They're only about a quarter-inch from real life," said Batiuk, who is a familiar face in Midview High School in Lorain County. It is in the school hallways, study areas and surrounding grounds that he finds inspiration for his strips. "My Westview High School is Midview and then we are off and running.”
Though he does not appear to age in the comic strips, "Funky Winkerbean" has turned 40. Readers of the comics have followed his ins and outs, and those of others in the strip for the entire time. Comics often tug at the heartstrings of their readers, usually bringing laughter, but sometimes bringing smiles.
"They are a part of people's lives," said Batiuk. "I think that makes them more powerful and more compelling," said the artist, as he drew at his easel that is next to the window on the second floor of his home. Batiuk is surrounded by the work of other cartoonists. He trades artwork with some, finds other pieces of their work at art shows.
Since his childhood, Batiuk has been a fan of the comics, although he admits the word itself is a misnomer because there are instances in the comics where the subjects are heavy. A few years ago, Batiuk filled one of his comic strips with "Lisa' Story." It was the ongoing storyline of a woman suffering from breast cancer.
"Art, as is core, helps us share out humanity and sometimes, it provides us insights and just even in writing Lisa's story, I learned a lot about cancer," said Batiuk in a quiet voice. "I learned a lot about the situation and it made it less fearful.”
With his comic "Crankshaft," about an aging school bus driver, Batiuk said he called upon memories of a school bus driver he knew from many years back. Crankshaft is a senior citizen who stays active in his community and often gives his philosophical thoughts. Batiuk said he believed many of his readers identify with Crankshaft.
"Especially," he said, "where the characters are aging along with the readers."
Soon, the " Funker Winkerbean" strip, often surrounding life at Westview High School, will take a serious tone with two gay students announcing they will go to the high school prom as a couple. The storyline will generate debate and discussion among the characters in the strip. Batiuk sees the importance of comic strips drawing out debate on social issues of the day.
He said each strip becomes "like a breath; a passing moment."
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