Bil Keane 1922-2011

201111111830 Illustrator Robert Ullman wrote a nice eulogy for Bil Keane, creator of Family Circus:
The funnies lost another grand old man today with the passing of Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus. Family Circus, along with Peanuts, was one of the very first comic strips I remember ever reading...but though my fondness for Schulz's masterpiece grew and grew over time, I really soured on Keane's work as the years went by, as it seemed to lose every bit of its edge and descended into endlessly repetitive jokes and treacly, Extreme Home Makeover-esque forced sentimentality. Still, the first 20 years or so, as good a run as anyone could ever hope for, were often brilliant, helped by the fact that the kids came across as real kids (ie. sociopathic little bastards) rather than the type of children you'd find on greeting cards.

I even managed to work one of Keane's tropes into one of my odder Savage Love illos a few years ago, in response to a letter from a reader who surmised her boyfriend must be cheating on her, as the supply of condoms in the house always seemed to be running low. Not Me, indeed!

Rest in Peace, Mr. Keane!

Bil Keane 1922-2011


  1. Mr. Keane won my eternal respect when Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead made a cameo appearence in The Family Circus. Billy and siblings paid a reciprocal visit to Zippy’s world.

    I’ve often thought of Mr. Keane’s bravery in the exchange, as his usual audience was far less prepared for the event than Griffy’s. A Dada experience for the unsuspecting, for sure.

    RIP, Mr. Keane; you gave me a funny-pages surprise I’ll never forget.

  2. Keane was also remarkably good-natured about the take-down of Dysfunctional Family Circus. He drew the site’s impresario (sorry, I’m blanking) a nice picture.

    It might have been Jeff Keane who did the Zippy trade-off. He has been the primary artist the last few years.

    I enjoy Billy’s occasional appearance in Pearls Before Swine.

  3. My favorites were the Sunday strips where Billy was sent on an errand or something, and the dotted lines showed us all the more interesting places he went on the way.  Those were Bill Keane at his best.

    1. Yes! For a long time I’ve only remembered the dull daily panels, but that comic could come alive on Sundays, especially on the “dotted line” days.

      There was something fresh about the style, in the early days. Keane took the simplicity and kawaii round-headness of Schultz and added a glossy finish to it. I think the mom may have been an early crush …

  4. There was something reassuring about Family Circus, sort of like looking at a train wreck with blood and dead bodies everywhere, and thinking to yourself, “Well, at least I know now that this is the worst that can happen. No matter what happens in my life, it will never turn out this bad.”

    1. Don’t worry!!  Thanks to our good syndicate friends knowing how to keep beating a dead but copyright-owned horse until the last ossified cartoon has permanently frozen, you’ll never have to do without.

      1. Jeff “Little Jeffy” Keane has been drawing the strip started by his father for many years, so nothing about it will change.

  5. My father was teased for most of his life for not using profanity, and sometimes using children’s language. I had the Family Circus strip framed for him where the dad is leaving a business meeting, and one of his co-workers is saying to another, “Did he just sat he had to go potty?”

  6. Is it just me – or was Family Circus always the lamest cartoon in the paper?
    Sorry Mr. Keane.  R.I.P.

  7. Another example of Bil Keane’s being a good sport was, when comix writer Steve Willis (MORTY THE DOG) would do his FAMILY CIRCUS WATCH where he’d pull out all of these deep Freudian moments in FAMILY CIRCUS, Keane apparently thought it was pretty funny.

  8. I lost interest in the FC after I turned 11 or so, but the “dotted lines” were a favorite of everyone (and usually saved until last)

    The dysfunctional Family Circus wouldn’t have been nearly as funny without the context of the originals in my youth. 

    Rest in Peace.

  9. With a couple minor exceptions this thread is a lot less mean than a couple I saw on this topic. Amazing, in a world full of monsters, the venom that a less-than-cutting-edge comic strip (which would be pretty much all of them *except* “Zippy” nowadays) could  generate.

  10. How very strange.  I felt the exact same way about Peanuts and Family Circus as Mr. Ullman.  As a kid, I hated Peanuts, and that hatred extended into early adulthood.  It just wasn’t funny to me.  I even wrote a smarmy essay on how Peanuts was a thinly veiled allegory for Satanism.  Now that I am older, I find Peanuts to be beyond subtle and I look forward to the classic reprints every day.  There is a sense of despair and frustration running through it and it illustrates many principles of human behavior in a mostly amusing way.  Charles Schultz was a genius, and I have since found out that he was also a quite amazing man.  Concerning Family Circus, tracing Billy’s path from school to home lost its luster after the ten thousandth time.  “PJ’s not feeling well, Mommy,” is NOT a  punchline.  It’s not even a clever glimpse into family life.  It’s just a commonplace scenario and nothing else.  I don’t know why, but that family always struck me as Mormon.  Maybe because the mom & dad reminded me of my Scout master and his wife.  I am not Mormon myself, but if a boy wants to be a member of the BSA, Mormonism is a part of it and has been for decades.  But I digress.

    This is way too much to hope for, but I would request that Family Circus be allowed to pass with its creator.  Johnny Hart, of B.C. fame, was a great cartoonist.  Some of his strips surpassed brilliance.  After his death, his family continued the strip.  The Mastroiannis, his grandsons, are doing a good job of drawing the strip, but the writing is beyond awful.  It is cringe-inducing and a mockery of Hart’s legendary wit.  I try my best to skip it when reading the comics page in the newspaper, but you know? It’s just three panels and the eyes absorb it anyway. It would have been preferable had they went the same way as Peanuts and reprinted it from the start.   Homer Simpson famously collected ALL the Family Circus circles and was elated that he had done so, then shrugged and threw the collection in the fire.  Matt Groening effectively showed how Family Circus is a refuge for the unimaginative.  Far be it from me to discount a man’s entire life work, but what did it mean to society?  Reading the comments on Yahoo! News in reaction to his death is quite a revelation into the level that most Americans operate on and where our society stands.  Half of them said that the strip was the antithesis of funny and the rest said it was brilliant.  Schizophrenia on a half-shell.  Now that Bill Keane is gone, you can bet that there is an interested party who will perpetuate the strip because a revenue stream cannot be allowed to die.

  11. The Family Circus was a fantastic comic for the sort of people who like that sort of thing. I think they’re the same folks who are the reason for word searches and possibly horoscopes. Hey, it’s not my thing, but if it entertained a lot of people, good for him and good for them.

    I do recall, sometime in the late nineties, during one of the comic syndicate’s April Fool’s comic swaps (where the artists would trade strips for the day), Bil and Scott Adams did the switch. Scott had recently been pretty hard on the Family Circus in one of his books.

    I seem to remember that Scott’s Family Circus was pretty lame, although I don’t remember the strip itself. Bil’s Dilbert was freakin’ hilarious, tho’. So he gets double points there – both for taking Scott’s jabs at his comic with good humor and for surprising me by making me laugh.

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