Bil Keane, ‘The Family Circus’ cartoonist, dies at 89

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 If some critics have complained that “The Family Circus” seems hopelessly saccharine and out of date, countless others have found comfort in its abiding values.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.”

Mr. Keane’s cartoon family grew directly from his own experiences as the father of five and the grandfather of nine. He never ran out of material.

“The Family Circus” endures as a kind of eternal world of “Donna Reed” and “Father Knows Best,” reenacted each day on the comics page.

The family dogs, Barfy and Sam, and cat, Kittycat, are constantly underfoot. The children — Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ — say the darndest things as their exasperated but adoring parents try to make sense of it all.

On occasion, Mr. Keane quietly introduced religious themes into his cartoon.

One time, Dolly asked, “Is God white, black, brown, yellow or red?”

Mommy answered, “Yes.”

“For kids like me, there was a map and a compass that was hidden [in] ‘Family Circus,’ ” cartoonist Lynda Barry told The Post. “The parents in that comic strip really loved their children. He put that image in my head, and it stayed with me.”

William Aloysius Keane was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 5, 1922. He had no formal artistic training but taught himself to draw by imitating newspaper and magazine cartoonists. Soon after publishing his first cartoon at 13, he dropped the final “l” from Bill, “just to be different.”

During World War II, he served in the Army and drew cartoons for the GI publications Yank and Stars and Stripes. While working as a staff artist for the Philadelphia Bulletin from 1945 to 1959, he began selling cartoons on the side.

He had a syndicated comic strip about the foibles of television, “Channel Chuckles,” from 1954 to 1977. One year after moving to Arizona in 1959, he launched “The Family Circus,” which was first called “Family Circle” until the magazine of the same name objected.

Mr. Keane’s cartoons were often parodied, and he seldom objected, except when the humor turned what he called “blue.”

Mr. Keane was well liked by other cartoonists, especially in his continuing role as host of the annual gathering of the National Cartoonists Society.

On April Fool’s Day 1997, he and Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert,” switched cartoons for a day, creating a bizarre sense of comic dislocation.

“Critics were sometimes harsh” on Mr. Keane, Adams told The Post. “But allow me to point out the obvious: If other cartoonists could make a family-oriented comic that was as popular as ‘Family Circus,’ they would have done it.”

Mr. Keane’s wife of 59 years, Thelma Carne Keane, died in 2008.

Survivors include five children, nine grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

In 1984, Mr. Keane told The Post about how he decided to add a new character to “The Family Circus” by introducing a baby into his cartoon family.

“My wife was outside the studio working in her garden, the flower bed,” he recalled. “I ran out of the studio and said, ‘Thel, what would you think of adding a new baby to the family?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s all right, but let me finish the weeding first.’ ”

Staff writer Michael Cavna contributed to this report.