The Family Circus Library Vol. 1 by Bil Keane

Posted by on March 17th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

IDW; 240 pp.; $39.99; Hardcover; Color and B&W

On Feb. 29, Bil Keane’s The Family Circus reached and passed the 50-year mark, and Jeff Keane, the founder’s son and heir, celebrated the anniversary the day before (a Sunday) with a reprise of his father’s 20th birthday cartoon, adding a taboret next to the drawing board on which he placed a photograph depicting members of the original cast — i.e., the Keane family. The Family Circus began in 19 papers and is now in over 1,500, and its widespread popularity doubtless inspired IDW to add the Keane cartoon to its elegantly produced Library of American Comics: the first volume of The Family Circus project reprints in strict chronological order the first two years of Keane’s cartoons (many of which have never been reprinted), ending with the release for Dec. 31, 1961, and beginning with a short biography that traces the cartoonist’s early career with the Philadelphia Bulletin and his first syndicated feature, Channel Chuckles.

In 1954, Chuckles was the first newspaper cartoon about the medium that newspapers at first feared would render them obsolete; by the mid-1950s, however, newspapers had reconciled themselves to living with their competition and had introduced TV program listings and gossip columns in special television sections, into which Channel Chuckles fit handily.

The biographical text, written by Keane’s fourth offspring, Christopher, is accompanied by samples of Keane’s other early works, including Family Circus’ immediate predecessor: called Spot News, it was a pantomime gag that highlighted some recently reported event. Unhappily, given the lead time that syndicated cartoons require, 4-5 weeks before publication date, Spot News couldn’t be very topical, and it soon faded. But an aspect of its design lingered: the cartoon appeared always in a smallish circle, which newspapers could insert as an “ear” above their front page masthead. Keane liked the circle — a visual novelty that almost guaranteed attracting a reader’s attention no matter where it appeared in a newspaper — and he next produced family jokes in a circle. Now, he had arrived at a subject he was intimately familiar with.

In 1948, Keane had married the girl he met while stationed in Australia during World War II, and he and Thelma (née Carne) started a family, which, by 1960, included five children, four boys and their older sister — a circumstance fraught with gag material for a family-focused cartoon. (Bil’s brother Bob lived next door with his nine children. Those Keane boys, gluttons for punishment.) Keane had continued to do Spot News while preparing The Family Circus: the syndicate’s plan was to launch Family Circus by switching it for Spot News, slipping it into the syndicate pipeline while hoping client papers would continue the circular cartoon with its new focus. And it worked: “Newspaper editors hardly grumbled about the swapped feature. They liked the new material and found room for the new comic inside their papers.” The feature’s title, however, created a small surmountable problem.

Keane had christened the cartoon The Circle Family, but his editor at the syndicate thought The Family Circle would be better. Within six months of its launch, the cartoon attracted the attention of the legal department at Family Circle magazine, which threatened to sue. Keane had his editor pondered a host of other title possibilities before Keane opted for The Family Circus, which, he said, “better described his own life experience.” The new title made its debut Aug. 15, 1960.

The Family Circus cartoons in the book are all dated, a boon to historians. In the early years of the cartoon, as we can see from the samples I’ve collected near here, the pater familia has a somewhat different look — a much more bulbous nose being the most conspicuous. “He looked like a big fat clumsy guy,” said son Jeff.

In appearance, he evoked the star of another earlier Keane cartoon called The Master. “The title,” Christopher explained, “was an ironic take on a father being more of an indentured dupe than master of the house. The gags focused on a constantly bemused, bewildered and often put-upon dad.” But the father of The Family Circus was no dupe: He was simply an ordinary dad, and over the ensuing years, he eventually looked more and more like Bil Keane. The nose got smaller, and “Father” started wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses. “Mother,” however, didn’t change much (although her hair-do achieved its stylized set after just a year or so). And in deference to her model, Thel, she always had a superb figure.

Jeff Keane began an apprenticeship on the panel some years ago and now does the cartoon solo. His father helps — “He’ll send me some roughs and some ideas and things,” Jeff told recently. “He’s not as involved as he used to be. My mom passed away on Memorial Day 2008. Since then he’s been less hands-on than he used to be. But he’s still there, he still reads, and he still tells me if I do anything wrong.”

The interviewer estimated that more than 18,000 Family Circus cartoons have been published and wondered how Jeff keeps the feature fresh.

“We don’t necessarily avoid repeating,” Jeff said. “I think a good thing with our cartoon is that families don’t change much as far as their feelings for each other and the love and all of that stuff. The environment certainly changes around them. I will redo cartoons that have been done before but have them seem more current — change the TV to a flat screen TV or have them talking about Facebook or change the dialogue. There are always new things. My dad has a whole file of gags and things that he had saved from when we were growing up. I’ve got a whole file from when my kids were growing up. So I use those and play off them.

“The main thing is to maintain the family feel,” he continued. “It’s not necessarily a ‘ha ha’ joke. My dad always said it’s a tug at the heart or a lump in the throat. Sometimes that’s a more effective cartoon, and that, I think, is the unique quality of Family Circus. With the IDW book, you can see in those early years it was much more of a gag-a-day type of cartoon. As the years go by, all of a sudden you’ll see where there’s a sort of a sentimentality that’s there and a true love for each other that starts to get expressed. I think that really came through from my mom. My dad realized that sort of the unique quality of this particular cartoon was his ability not to be afraid to make something emotional as opposed to just a joke.”

Asked which cartoonists his father admired, Jeff said: “He idolized George Lichty [Grin and Bear It] and George Price [New Yorker] when he started cartooning. He says his favorite cartoonist working today is me.”

A mystery unexplained in the book is why Keane’s first name has only one “l.” Fellow cartoonist Mell Lazurus claims Bil used to have two ls but he, Lazurus, appropriated one of for himself.

Of the lot of IDW’s “complete reprintings,” only Terry and Scorchy have been completed (the latter in a single volume), but that isn’t stopping IDW. Another classic is George McManus’ Bringing Up Father from 1939-40; subtitled “From Sea to Shining Sea,” the volume features Jiggs and Maggie and their daughter Nora on a tour of the U.S., which McManus and his long-time assistant Zeke Zekley reported by including in the strip recognizable landmarks from every city their cast visited. The second volume of Alex Raymond’s revered Rip Kirby is in the works, as is Jack Kent’s supremely fanciful King Aroo, which has been available up until now only in an antique Doubleday reprint of 1953, is out and available. And another collection of never-before-reprinted Krazy Kat daily strips by George Herriman is in the offing: Krazy and Ignatz in Tiger Tea revisits the daily sequence in which Krazy acts krazier than usual because he has imbibed a psychedelic brew. The first volume in IDW’s Bloom County series by Berk Breathed came out last fall, reportedly equipped with ample annotation to explain the topical references that lace Breathed’s strip.

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