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‘Family Circus’ creator Bil Keane remembered after death at 89

After his death this week, tributes to Bil Keane, the creator of “Family Circus” cartoons, have been spread across the Internet as fellow cartoonists and fans remembered Keane’s life and best work. As Michael Cavna reported:

FOR MILLIONS OF READERS, BIL KEANE reached out, day by reliable day, through the pure and distilled and comforting power of a single panel. "Family Circus" may play out within its distinctive circle, but to many fans, the debut of its midcentury family felt like a keyhole, then a fully inviting window into a reassuring world — an approachable, guileless realm of broad grins, wide-eyed observation and the winking malapropism.

And for many of us cartoonists, it was reassuring to meet its creator, who launched the comic with King Features in 1960. Keane, not unlike "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, seemed to absolutely embody a time in American life when things weren't necessarily more innocent, yet were somehow simpler.

The nuclear family in "Family Circus" was both a porthole into whimsical humor and, for some, a mirror of life with young children. In that way, the strip has long been a gateway comic for kids — a cartoon that, like "Dennis the Menace" — invites without overwhelming.

And having been launched at a time when the comic strip was still as central to the domestic landscape as family dinners and "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Family Circus" became a favorite of millions of readers — a juggernaut that launched TV specials and millions in book sales.

Keane was also tolerant of parodies of his cartoons, and some of the best cartoonist in the world took up the challenge of adding their own flavor to the classic panels. As Maura Judkis explained:

“Family Circus” was perhaps the most wholesome of all comics — which made it the biggest target for parody artists, eager to insert some mayhem, or even some sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in an otherwise pristine suburban livelihood. Creator Bil Keane, who passed away Nov. 8, was famously tolerant of parodies of his comic strip, which was the most widely-read syndicated panel in the world.

Mainstream cartoonists, such as Scott Adams (“Dilbert”) and Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”) spoofed his work, but in recent years, some web cartoonists have been putting a darker spin on the idyllic family of six.

Scott Gairdner, a Los Angeles comedy writer, created Scott Meets Family Circus, in which he inserts himself as a wisecracking and sometimes menacing figure who crushes the children’s self-esteem and lures the character of Mommy, based on Keane’s own wife, away from Daddy for liaisons in hotels.

There’s also the Nietzsche Family Circus, which turns the series’ four children — Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and P.J., all composites of Keane’s kids — into quasi-existentialist sorrowful geniuses. The blog pairs a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Nietzsche quote, and the pairing produces instances of Mommy disciplining Billy with the caption, “The growth of wisdom may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill temper.”

“Family Circus” creator Bil Keane passed away on Tuesday at his home in Arizona of heart failure,according to King Features Syndicate, at the age of 89. As Matt Schudel reported:

Bil Keane, creator of the comically endearing “Family Circus,” the world’s most popular single-panel daily cartoon, died Nov. 8 at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. He was 89. He had congestive heart failure, his distributor, King Features Syndicate, said in a statement.

Mr. Keane began drawing his “Family Circus” cartoons — always enclosed within a circle — in 1960. Life inside that circle of Daddy, Mommy and their four children changed little in the half-­century since.

When “The Family Circus” debuted, it appeared in 19 newspapers. It is now the world’s most widely syndicated single-panel cartoon, according to King Features, carried by about 1,500 papers, including The Washington Post, with a daily readership of about 100 million.

There is no irony, no war or hunger, no anger that a well-meaning parent can’t resolve. If some critics have complained that “The Family Circus” seems hopelessly saccharine and out of date, countless others have found comfort in its abiding values.

“We’ve just lost the Norman Rockwell of comic strips,” Mike Peters, the cartoonist of “Mother Goose & Grimm,” told The Washington Post. “He was as American as Irving Berlin, and that’s why [“The Family Circus”] was a part of everyone’s morning.”

Mr. Keane spun off his creations into animated television specials and more than 65 books, which have sold more than 15 million copies. His son Jeff Keane, who has helped his father for years, will continue to draw the cartoon.

“The Family Circus” was never a series of illustrated jokes but was designed to be a subtle, if soft-boiled, mirror of the simple joys of family life.

“I don’t have to come up with a ha-ha belly laugh every day,” Mr. Keane told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2003, “but drawings with warmth and love or ones that put a lump in the throat. That’s more important to me than a laugh.”

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