The Family Circus
I was surprised when Bil told me he read Zippy in his local Arizona paper and liked it. He didn’t even qualify his opinion with the usual, “Of course, I don’t always get it.” Until then, I hadn’t paid much attention to The Family Circus, but I slowly began to see that you could read more into it than what appeared on the surface.
We mentioned the other day that the late Bil Keane once did a Family Circus crossover with Bill Griffith’s Zippy. Griffith has a nice piece at The Comics Journal that explains how the crossover came about and reinforces what everyone says about Keane being a nice guy but also sharper than his genial comic would lead you to believe; he also posts the Zippy strips that feature Jeffy and the Family Circus panel that features Zippy in all their surreal glory.
The world of comics is filled with tortured souls, but Bil Keane was not one of them.
The creator of The Family Circus passed away Tuesday at the age of 89, after what was by all accounts a wonderful life. Keane started drawing The Family Circus in 1960, and it is still going strong today — his son Jeff took over in recent years — and his 60-year marriage to Thelma Keane, the model for the mother in the cartoon, was a love match. Keane served as the president of the National Cartoonists Society from 1981 to 1983 and emceed its awards banquet for 16 years. Even before he died, his fellow cartoonists unfailingly described him as the nicest of nice guys, and startlingly funny. His niceness, apparently, had a bit of an edge.
Keane took The Family Circus seriously, seeing his mission as providing “good, wholesome, family entertainment,” a sort of cartoon comfort food for readers whose real-life families may not have been quite as warm as his fictional clan. In fact, one of the most touching tributes to his work came from Lynda Barry:
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.