Prom season is getting underway around the United States, and this year, Tom Batiuk of FUNKY WINKERBEAN created a prom story about two young men at Westview High School who decide to attend the prom together.
Controversies surrounding GLBT youth attending high school proms have heated up over the past few years. Tom was inspired by a similar, real-life story:
“I was reading the paper at breakfast one morning when I saw an article about a group of parents who were protesting at a high school over the school’s apparent tolerance of gays. I thought about how, when I sit in on the classes at my old high school, I get the impression that the younger generation’s attitude towards gays seems more open and accepting than that of their predecessors. Not perfect… but it seemed to show promise that this emerging generation might one day bring this cultural war to an end. I simply wanted to address that. It’s an attempt to reach across the generational divide and speak to the intolerance that still exists on the other side.”
As in Tom’s observation, the younger characters take the boys’ inclusion in the prom as a given, but some of the older characters respond with uncertainty and even indignation.
“One of the things that being ahead on the strip does is that it allows me a long runway when I’m developing a story. When you couple that with the large repertory company that I get to play with in the Funkyverse, I have an opportunity to reflect a little longer over how different characters are going to behave and react. The stripped-down theme of the story is tolerance versus intolerance, and all I was trying to do through my characters was to show both sides of that equation.
“The character of Roberta Blackburn represents a certain segment of society that’s afraid of the changes taking place in the world and their reaction is to pull up the ladders in an attempt to protect themselves. The problem is that it’s impossible to isolate themselves so they feel compelled to lash out at the things they feel are threatening them.
On the flip side, the characters like Summer and Keisha are young and idealistic and haven’t had to face too much compromise in their lives. Plus, there’s really no better way to declare your own independence than by making the adults around you a little uncomfortable.”
Many readers get a little uncomfortable when the “funny pages” turn to serious topics such as this. But Tom has been tackling comics that deal with real-life issues for decades now, and feels that comics can be an important vehicle for such stories:
“If this were any other art form, this question probably wouldn’t come up. But for some reason, when you combine words and pictures, in the minds of many it means that the work is only suitable for children. The term ‘comics’ itself is an accident of history. When Joseph Pulitzer added a weekly humor magazine to the Sunday World, he called it the ‘weekly comics.’ later the ‘comics.’ When cartoons were added, even though many were straightforward adventure stories, they were lumped under the same term and so the form came to be known as the ‘comics.’ The challenge in getting past that is to treat the form with the maturity that it’s also capable of exhibiting. I do that by trying not only to write about the things that I know, but also the things that I love. I choose to write about the places I do and the things I do because they have meaning for me and they allow me to, every now and then, get close to an emotional truth.
I think at its core, art helps us to share the human experience. It helps us to order our world, sometimes providing new insights, sometimes confirming our worst suspicions… but it’s shared. Comic strips are uniquely positioned to do this. Their presence in our lives every day allows readers to bond with the strips and their characters in a way that no other art form can. I believe that daily presence makes the stories and what happens to the characters so much more powerful and compelling.
Because of their unique place in our lives, I think that the comics are a good place to frame the question. Comics alone can’t affect the answer, but they can reflect a cultural shift and that’s what I want to do with this story.”
As in real life, some of the adult characters aren’t entirely sure what the best way to support the gay teens in the story might be. For parents and teachers who are trying to support GLBT teens in their lives, Tom recommends contacting organizations like GLAAD and the It Gets Better Project for advice.
We won’t give anything away, but the storyline contains a few surprises, and, as Tom says, “There is definitely an undropped shoe at the end of the story. What, if anything, will come of that is a writing problem for another day.”
We’re looking forward to it, Tom! Keep reading all month to see how the story unfolds in FUNKY WINKERBEAN.