Comics: Meet the Artist
With Bil Keane
Cartoonist, "The Family Circus"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, March 1, 2002; 1 p.m. EST
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin.
Bil Keane's daily panel cartoon, "The Family Circus," records the lives of a hypothetical average American family, made up of Mommy and Daddy, and their four children: Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ. The daily panels are routinely drawn within a circle, meant to underscore the sense of closeness between the characters. Faithful readers of the comics pages tend to either love it or hate it -- there is no grey area for "The Family Circus."
Keane was online Friday, March 1 at 1 p.m. EST to discuss "The Family Circus," the art of cartooning and the role of morality in cartoons.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Greetings, comics fans and welcome to "Comics: Meet the Artist" with our guest Bil Keane, creator of "Family Circus" who is joining us from his studio in Arizona. Welcome, Bil! When I did a Web search on your name, I got 6,750 hits, which is definitely a record for any of my guests.
Bil Keane: Hi, Suzanne! Happy March Fool's Day! For you comics readers on the Internet, greetings from Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, PJ and all of us in the "Family Circus"! I'll try my best to read your questions through these smears of peanut butter and jelly on my screen.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What inspired you to become a cartoonist? How did you become one?
Bil Keane: When I was in high school at Northeast Catholic in Philadelphia in the late '30s, I found that drawing caricatures of the teachers and satirizing the events in the school, then having them published in our school magazine, got me some notoriety. I never studied art, but taught myself to draw by imitating the New Yorker cartoonists of that day, instead of doing my homework.
Herndon, Va.: What audience are you trying to capture with your strip?
Bil Keane: The biggest one I can get.
Charlottesville, Va.: Do you make a lot of money off of your comic? Can you give us a ball-park range?
Bil Keane: Well, it's not Yankee Stadium, it's more like the sandlot field of the Crescentville Arrows, a team in Philadelphia that I used to watch in the '30s when I was a kid.
Arlington, Va.: So what do you think about the occasional appearance of your characters in Zippy the Pinhead? Do you know Bill Griffith?
Bil Keane: I've never met Bill Griffith in person, but I assume he looks exactly like Zippy. He contacted me sometime ago about having my characters appear in a sequence and asked me if I would draw in the characters and letter in their responses to Zippy, which I was happy to do. I think it's a novelty for cartoon characters to cross over into another strip or panel occasionally.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Keane, how do you feel about those Web sites like "Dysfunctional Family Circus," which parodied your work by keeping the artwork but changing the captions? Do you see such works as an homage or an insult?
Bil Keane: I've always felt flattered by any of the satire that has been done on "Family Circus." Many of the network television shows have done takeoffs on "Family Circus," including "David Letterman," "Friends," "Roseanne," and others, and, in my estimation the use of them is a compliment to the popularity of the feature, which just by mentioning it's name sets up the image of a warm, loving family-type feature. In the case of the "Dysfunctional Family Circus" on the Internet, I was aware of it and enjoyed many of the captions that were supplied to the cartoons. Some of them were really funnier than the ones I wrote. However, after 4 1/2 years of contributions from the Internet fans, in order to make the operator of the Web site laugh, they got dirtier and dirtier. I did not want to be a wet blanket and blow the whistle, but when they got to where they became objectionable, and a lot of letters were coming in from my readers asking why don't I put a stop to this because their children were logging on to the Web site, and this was of concern to me, then I went to the syndicate's lawyers and had them send a cease-and-desist letter. The site's answer to that was to publish the letter itself on the Web site. I then had a telephone conversation with the Webmaster who turned out to have graduated from the same high school I did (about 100 years later than I) and after talking to him for 2 1/2 hours, he agreed to take the site down. He was not aware that I was being offended. He was true to his word, and all of the creators of those funny captions must be sending them in to the Playboy cartoonists now.
Ashburn, Va.: I'm 26 now, but I remember as a young kid buying many of your books at school book fairs, and really enjoying them. Even now, whenever I actually read the comic pages (not often), your cartoon is still my favorite. My sense of humor and outlook on life is considerably more cynical now than it was in childhood, but my enjoyment of your cartoons still endures.
Bil Keane: Thank you, you have certainly grown wiser in recognizing that the "Family Circus" stands pretty much alone in the support of good simple family humor. I feel the comic page is the last frontier of decent humor in America.
Annandale, Va.: When Charles Schulz passed away a couple of years ago, newspapers began running old "Peanuts" strips, per his request, rather than having the strip continue with someone else in creative control. Will you pass the reigns to "Family Circus" to someone -- your son perhaps -- at some point?
Bil Keane: Yes, after Schulz died, I started signing my son Jeff's name to the cartoons in addition to my own, as he is the assistant on the cartoons. That change was to let readers he's warming up in the bullpen to take over when I retire. I do the ideas and the penciling and he does the inking. When he was 3 years old, he was the model for the character Jeffy, because he was a little nuisance around the studio. Now that he's 43, he's a big nuisance around the studio.
Virginia: Speaking of comic strip characters crossing over, I love the year that the comic strip writers exchanged strips. You and Scott Adams switched, didn't you? I definitely remember his version of Family Circle and yours dealt with the pointy-headed boss. It certainly demonstrated to me that you have a great sense of humor!
Bil Keane: Yes and a lot of people feel that Scott's drawing of the "Family Circus" was the best art it ever had. That was a one-time April Fool surprise engineered by the members of the National Cartoonists Society, and there are no plans to repeat it.
Silver Spring, Md.: What is Mommy's name? Doesn't it demean her not to have a name other than Mommy?
Bil Keane: Here name is Thel. And of course the children refer to her as Mommy, and she is drawn to look like my wife Thel, who I met in Australia during World War II. She is my business manager and editor. The only kissable editor I've met. (Although I haven't met you, Suzanne.) I check all of my cartoons with Thel before sending them out to the syndicate. In 1962, after the feature had been running for two years (at the time I was drawing three of the children--Billy, Dolly and Jeffy) I felt it was time to add a child younger than Jeffy, so I thought I could show Mommy wearing maternity clothes and have a new baby born into the "Family Circus." Thel was in the backyard outside my studio at the time working in the garden. I dashed out and shouted to her, "Thel, what would you think of adding a new baby to the family?" She said, "It's alright with me, but could I finish the weeding first."
Rockville, Md.: I noticed you made a subtle change with the mom's hair going shorter, but there hasn't been a more obvious change: THE KIDS AREN'T GROWING UP! Why did you decide to keep them young?
Bil Keane: Why kill the goose that's laying the golden egg? I did change Mommy's hairdo and it became a front page story in many of the newspapers carrying the "Family Circus." The Los Angeles Times even did a feature on the new hairdo after 35 years and they interviewed the top hairdressers coast to coast and they all gave it a thumbs up.
Arlington, Va.: A great many comic artists seem to lose their creative edge after ten years or so. Some keep it fresh by changing themes (For Better for Worse), taking sabbaticals (Doonsbury). But others have retired altogether rather than produce comix that are rote, unimaginative, and unoriginal (Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side).
If you wake up one day in the future find that your comics seem to have become lame, use the same gags over and over, or just aren't really all that funny anymore, do you think you would want to throw in the towel? Or would you just keep churning them out? (Or worse, hire writers?)
Do you think that what Watterson, Larson and Trudeau did was the honorable way out?
Bil Keane: Watterson and Larsen retired voluntarily and I understand why. Trudeau took a sabbatical but is turning out some of this best stuff at the present time. I have no plans to retire and the popularity of "Family Circus" is still going strong according to newspaper reader surveys. It's now in well over 1,500 newspapers in the United States and Canada, all of which have very discerning comics editors.
My son, Jeff, as I mentioned, is the heir apparent to the feature when and if I retire. I always answer the question "Are you going to retire" with "To what?" I am enjoying what I'm doing and the reader mail reaffirms that many others are enjoying it too.
Washington, D.C.: Hello Mr. Keane: About this time last year we lost Bill Hanna (of Hanna-Barbera) and last week Chuck Jones passed. What are some of your reflections on these losses?
washingtonpost.com: Animator Chuck Jones Dies; Created Warner Bros. Classics (Post, Feb. 24, 2002)
Chuck Jones, at The Acme of His Art (Post, Feb. 25, 2002)
Bil Keane: These were two giants in the animation industry. And they will be missed greatly.
I'm very familiar with the animation industry since my son, Glen, is a directing animator with Walt Disney Studios. He created the character of Ariel, "The Little Mermaid," and he did all the animation on her, as well as creating the Beast for "Beauty and the Beast," Pocahontas and most recently Tarzan. He's just completed a new film, "Treasure Planet," for Disney which will be released next summer. Not many people know that Glen, who was the model for Billy in the "Family Circus," created and animated these million dollar characters for Walt Disney Pictures.
My wife and I are proud of him as well as our other four children.
Alexandria, Va.: Why did you name the dog Barfy? Does he eat dead things and throw up a lot, like a normal dog?
Bil Keane: At the time I started "Family Circus" in 1960, the word "barf" had just surfaced in a number of movies and novels. And I grabbed on to it as something unusual that the kids called the dog. Now after 42 years of drawing him, sometimes he makes me barfy.
Lafayette Hill, Pa.: Do you believe that it is appropriate to include so many cartoons with explicitly Christian themes in a comic strip primarily aimed at pre-schoolers? Do you believe that it is proper to proselytize through comic strips?
Bil Keane: My only reason for using the religious or spiritual themes in the "Family Circus," is to show what our family was like when I was growing up and how religion was a part of the family life of Bil and Thel Keane. When I show Granddad in heaven sitting on a cloud enjoying his grandchildren on earth, coming down occasionally to comfort his widow, Granma, I'm drawing my dad, Al Keane, who died in 1956, four years before I started the feature. Grandma was my mother, who is now since gone, but who will live on as the Grandma in the "Family Circus."
I don't believe that a comic should concentrate on any particular religion and have never indicated what sect the members of the "Family Circus" belong to. The cartoons that I occasionally do with a spiritual theme draw more positive mail than any others. When I first started mentioning God in the cartoon, I received critical mail from readers who said "How dare you put God's name in a comic!" Today, those same people write and thank me for putting some spirituality onto the comics page.
Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the "creative" reader reviews your books have drawn on Amazon? Amused, annoyed?
Bil Keane: Again, I like the opinions expressed (for the most part) and it does give publicity to the books. The most recent book, "The Family Circus by Request," is a hardback coffee table collection of 200 of the most requested cartoons and it's entirely in color. It can be ordered through our Family Circus Web site at www.familycircus.com.
Seattle, Wash.: You seem to have another side that appreciates darker (Dilbert, Zippy, etc.) humor. Have you ever considered doing another strip to explore that?
Bil Keane: No, I reserve that side of my humor for when I'm doing stand-up comedy, usually for the National Cartoonists Society. That's when I write one liners that can make people laugh, and get an immediate reaction. I am often the emcee at the Reuben awards dinner at the NCS annual convention.
The last appearance I made before the NCS was when we honored the memory of Charles Schulz in 2000 at the World Trade Center. Here is one of my comments, "Charles Schulz and I had a lot in common. He had five children. I had five children. He was born in 1922. I was born in 1922. He made a million dollars a week. I was born in 1922."
Vienna, Va.: Do you still visit the "Sugar Bowl" in Scottsdale? I always enjoyed your cartoons on their menus.
Bil Keane: Yes, I visit there and get free ice cream.
Reston, Va.: I read your comic strip almost every day and I've never laughed, ever. Are you trying to not be funny, or are your jokes just over my head?
Bil Keane: How is your eyesight?
Fairfax: The creator of the World's Safest Comic Strip knows enough about the Playboy cartoons to comment on them? What's next, will Billy find one of Daddy's girlie mags on one of his dotted-line journeys through the house?
Bil Keane: You must have seen my Sunday page coming up in August.
Bethesda, MD: I am an 11-year-old boy and I have been reading the comics in many different newspapers. I think that yours is by far the best. I have one question: What is your main source of ideas for your comics?
Bil Keane: Almost all of my cartoons are based on things our children have said and done. Now that they're grown, we had nine grandchildren who I follow around for ideas. They think Granddad is following them around lovingly and I'm out to exploit them.
I want to compliment you on your mature opinion and if you want to go into the cartoon business, now's the time to start. But, please, don't get too good and put me out of business.
Tampa, Fla.: Mr. Keane,
My name is Dan Shaffer. I've been an avid reader of "Family Circus" since childhood (I'm 39). I'm a TV meteorologist in Tampa and have always enjoyed the childrens' observations on the weather. Do you make original art available for purchase? I would be very proud to have a weather-related panel in my office. Thank you for your response.
Bil Keane: You can purchase originals or prints through my daughter, Gail (the model for Dolly), who handles all the merchandise orders. If you go to the "Family Circus" Web site, at www.familycircus.com, and click on the book order form, that will show you how to contact her.
Bil Keane: Thank you, discerning readers, for your participation. Now that we've met on this comics discussion, I hope you don't flood The Washington Post with letters demanding that they drop "Family Circus." God bless, I'll see you in the funny papers.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks, Bil, for being such a good sport. If your question didn't get posted, feel free to go to www.familycircus.com and click on the e-mail button, in order to send it directly to Bil. And we'll see you all back here in two weeks, when we have another victim, er, I mean artist, as our guest.
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