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.
That is why today's sad news about Keane, who died Tuesday according to a King Features representative, resonates with so many readers. Keane, who was born in Philadelphia in 1922, was 89.
Personally, I remember the first time I felt a direct connection with Keane. I was 12 years old and a professional cartoonist. In my Northern California town, my single-panel comic inspired partly by "Family Circus" began running on Saturdays. The editor said he needed space, so each weekend, he would bump one strip from the paper.
That strip, it turned out, was "Family Circus.”
It was an early lesson in the limited real-estate of the comics page.(Although even today, "Family Circus" commandeers about 1,500 newspaper clients — a testament to longevity and fan loyalty.)
And personally, I remember the first time I met Bil Keane. He was emceeing the 1998 Reuben Awards -- the National Cartoonist Society's "Oscars" -- in Pasadena. Bespectacled and white-haired, looking about as dangerous as a family dentist, he proceeded to strafe the room full of tuxes and ballgowns, his deftly sarcastic barbs toward his fellow creators somehow proving as reassuring and comforting as his strip (which is now drawn by his son Jeff Keane — the basis for the character Jeffy).
Comic Riffs has asked some of Bil Keane’s fellow cartoonists to share their thoughts upon his passing. From interviews, here's what they tell us:
LYNDA BARRY (creator of “Ernie Pook’s Comeek”):
I was a kid growing up in a troubled household. We didn’t have books in the house, but we did have the daily paper, and I remember picking out ”Family Circus” before I could really read. There was something about looking through a circle at a life that looked pretty good to me.
For kids like me, there was a map and a compass that was hidden [in] “Family Circus.” The parents in that comic strip really loved their children. He put that image in my head and it stayed with me.
I’d always heard that great art will cause people to burst into tears, but the only time it ever happened to me was when I was introduced Bil Keane’s son Jeff. As soon as I realized who he was, I just started bawling my face off because I realized I’d done it. When I shook his hand, I realized I had climbed through the circle to the side Jeffy was on.
To me, they are family. My soul family. That’s why if someone says a word against “Family Circus” to me, I will slug them so hard.
MIKE PETERS (“Mother Goose & Grimm”):
We've just lost the Norman Rockwell of comic strips. He was as American as Irving Berlin, and that's why [“Family Circus”] was a part of everyone’s morning.
He spent those early years observing his own family, and that was his secret. How could such true and sweet cartoons come out of such a wicked sense of humor.
God love you. Bil. ‘Course, I'm sure He has your cartoons already taped on the Gates.
STEPHAN PASTIS ("Pearls Before Swine"):
I got to interview him once on behalf of the Schulz museum, and we spoke for hours about the strip, his life, his family. He was great. And I know that whenever someone dies, people say how nice he was, but Bil was truly kind to me. Showed me around his house in Phoenix, told me great stories.
I used to call him just to talk to him. And he was funny then too. One time, at the end of a long telephone conversation, he said: "Well, great talking to you. Now my dinner is cold."
I even got to ask him what he thought of the parodies I did of 'Family Circus.' He said, "I don't mind at all, as long as they're funny. So be funny."
And he was absolutely hilarious as the Reubens emcee all those years. Most non-cartoonists didn't get to see that side of him. But he was laugh-out-loud funny.
The truth is that as a little kid, my parents used to let me get one book at the bookstore when we'd go out together on Sundays. And frequently, I'd get one of those paperback “Family Circus” collections. And I loved them.
LYNN JOHNSTON (“For Better or For Worse”):
I think my memories of Bill will echo those of so many others: He was generous, kind, talented and very, very funny. He loved his wife, Thel, so much that when she died [in 2008], I think the light went out in his life. Despite the love and companionship of family and friends, he never really recovered. I wish that we could all have experienced such devotion in a partner.
Bil was such a good example to us all — not only was he a hard and prolific worker, he was a man of honor, principle and integrity as well. He will be sadly missed.
JERRY SCOTT ("Zits"):
I first met Bil when he was the president of the NCS and he and Mell Lazarus ("Momma," "Miss Peach") were pulling together plans to bring the Reuben dinner to Los Angeles. Of course, he put me right to work.
Throughout my career, Bil was a friend and a mentor. One of the highlights of our friendship was writing and performing in a skit during the Family Circus Roast one Reuben Weekend. Rick Kirkman ("Baby Blues") and I came up with the idea of re-creating several classic Family Circus panels with live actors (well, cartoonists) wearing Foam Core masks of Mommy, Daddy, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, P.J. and Barfy posing in front of a giant 'Family Circus' signature backdrop circle. Of course, we made up our own wildly inappropriate captions to go with the re-creations, and Bil roared.
What a wonderful man. I'll miss him a lot.
SCOTT ADAMS (“Dilbert”):
Bil was a misunderstood creative genius who knew how to write for his target audience. Critics were sometimes harsh, especially other cartoonists. 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.
He was also a great guy. I was a big fan.
DAVE COVERLY ("Speed Bump"):
You're going to get a lot of cartoonists telling you how he influenced them as kids who wanted to be cartoonists themselves, how he was such a gentleman, and how funny he actually was in person. And I'd agree with all that. The only thing I'd add -- and to me, this was his greatest lasting influence on the cartooning community -- is that he was a role model when it came to respecting the younger generations of cartoonists who followed him. He embraced the newcomers and made us feel more than welcome. In fact, he had a gift for making you feel like a peer, which is the highest form of respect any of us could want. He was one of The Good Ones.
HILARY PRICE ("Rhymes With Orange"):
I remember being so surprised when I met him in person -- he was a really funny guy! One of the greatest things about attending the National Cartoonists Society events is getting to know the people behind the strips. You see their work differently after that, because you've shaken the hand that holds the pen. For me, meeting Bil and his family turned the small circle he drew in the corner of the newspaper into a deep well.
MIKE LUCKOVICH (Atlanta Journal-Constitution):
Bil Keane was a great human being. Two years ago, I hosted the Reuben Awards in L.A. My daughter Lucy — [age] 8 at the time — was helping me. Bil received a lifetime achievement award [and] every time he said something, Lucy would signal the drummer to give a rim shot. A bum-bum-bum. Bil kept talking and began to wonder what all those rim shots were for. I whispered to Lucy to knock off signalling the drummer. The next thing Bil said, she signaled to the drummer for another rim shot. He took it in good humor.
I'm going to miss him.
WILEY MILLER (“Non Sequitur”):
As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and Bil Keane was a very good thing.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you what close friends we were, or how much his work influenced me. What I will tell you is how much he influenced me, both as a professional and as a person. I do not measure up to him in either of those categories, but he served as a benchmark for me to keep working toward. You will hear from many saying what a good man he was, as well as being a great wit. I can tell you that these are not exaggerations — they're [not just] being polite in speaking of the departed. They are genuine sentiments and reflections of the man. You can't ask for more than that in life.
His presence has been missed over the past few years with his failing health, but there is solace now in knowing he's back with his beloved Thel. I don't have to say, “May he rest in peace,” as I'm certain he is doing just that.
BIL KEANE: The “Family Circus” creator dies at age 89.