Bil Keane in Paradise

Posted by on December 7th, 2009 at 2:42 PM


As possibly the last person in the comics press to give The Family Circus a positive review (sometime in the 80s, I believe it was), I was naturally was intrigued by The Family Circus Library Volume 1, IDW/The Library of American Comics’ answer to a question nobody was asking.  From Christopher Keane’s informative introduction we learn that his father’s career was a model of pragmatism.  If Little Orphan Annie had set out to create a successful newspaper cartoon (which for all I know she did) she could hardly have shown more pluck, stick-to-it-iveness and horse sense than Bil Keane.  His originality beginning and ending with spelling his name with one “l”, he knew he wasn’t going to make his way based on any personal vision.  What he was equipped with was a desire to make a living by drawing pictures, a clean clear line, an ability to turn out a portion of clean family humor every day of the year, and the conviction that if he could find a niche in the market he could dwell there for the rest of his days.  With remarkably few false starts he hit on a panel gag aimed in the first instance at editors looking for a bit of art to liven up their women’s pages and in the second instance at the burgeoning households starting new families in new suburbs.  It was called The Family Circle until the long established magazine raised legal objections, but as the cartoon is probably thought of as The Family Circle by most of its readers anyway the renaming made little difference.

The newspaper comic read by people who did not turn to that particular page of the newspaper expecting a comic strip exists in a kind of shadow realm.  That The Family Circus did in fact spawn animated specials (characteristically hooked to two off-brand holidays plus the compulsory Christmas) despite being the sort of newspaper comic that doesn’t spawn television specials is a triumph of the wide net.  Where Dennis the Menace comes to revolve around highly particular characters and situations, The Family Circus strives to be a mirror in which as wide a variety of families can see themselves as humanly possible.  There is a definite skill to this, and I believe that Keane in his prime was a more resourceful gag man than Hank Ketcham, with stock gags recurring with less frequency.  In the beginning Keane followed the practice of drawing the father figure for humorous potential and the mother to keep the peace at home, to be repeated these many years later by Kyle Baker.  This would be seen later as an error, and the father would be refined to keep with the comic’s generally naturalistic style. 

For all its planned genericness you can see in these early cartoons something of their times, and as Keane had children my age I feel a certain recognition.  Keane was getting in at the ground floor of the nascent child-centered suburbia.  Actually more like Ground Zero, for as the photograph above indicates the Arizona subdivision he brought his family to was essentially a moon colony if a moon colony had cactus.  (The choice of Arizona over the more obvious California is another example of Keane’s thrifty pragmatism.)  For all our cultural obsession with the war babies, Keane, who had to fetch his war bride from Australia, was raising children at the very peak of the baby boom.  Though already an obsession child rearing had not yet become obsessive; you did not yet see a whole wall of every suburban home dedicated to the Shrine of the Child.  Parents had their Baby and Child Care manuals but the parenting industrial complex was in its infancy.  Since these were the children who’d grow up to vote for Reagan I don’t know how thoroughly I can endorse this approach.  The Family Circus is reassurance, not satire, but cartoons drawn when there were still children in his house are bound to be less sappy than those based on reminiscence.  The humor of the situation is in the realization that one has given one’s house over to what amounts to a pack of wild animals.  What will surprise the modern reader is the straightforward representation of parents smoking and drinking.  In future years the family strip parents would be more careful to disguise their vices, even if their real life counterparts didn’t.  (One imagines this frankness extending itself into the 70s, with Billy, Jeffy, Dolly or PJ stumbling onto their parents’ wife swapping parties.)  Surprising also are the occasional topical references, as to Khruschev banging his shoe, for instance. 

Like Dennis the Menace, The Family Circus would be better served by selective rather than comprehensive reprinting, and in the oblong format the panels must bounce around like the Olympic rings.  One volume will satisfy the appetite of many readers, but people who bet against Keane’s long term appeal lose their money.  As for the way of life itself, while it’s the people who abandon it that write the books and the magazine articles, the children and grandchildren of the pioneers like Keane have ratified their forebears’ choice by maintaining it.  Their biggest complaints about it by and large come from those who can’t have it like their parents did.  When a house in the moon colony becomes too dear, they start a new colony on Mars.

Photograph copyright 2009 Bil Keane.

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One Response to “Bil Keane in Paradise”

  1. Dirk Deppey says:

    I looked at that picture and thought, “That’s what MY neighborhood looked like when I was seven!” But then, I grew up ten miles from the Keanes.