The man who defined parental stress, childhood mischief and dotted lines for America’s newspaper comics page has passed. Bil Keane, creator of the “Family Circus” comic strip, has died of congestive heart failure at the age of 89.
A self-taught artist who had previously published strips for the Philadelphia Bulletin, Keane first found national success with the syndicated, TV-themed comic “Channel Chuckles” which ran from the mid ’50s to the mid ’70s. However, like many newspaper cartoonists before him, Keane found his greatest success when he drew on his own life to make comics. Shortly after moving to Arizona with his family in 1959, the artist launched the uniquely circular gag strip “The Family Circus,” basing its rambunctious yet kind-hearted children on his own kids and the harried mother on his wife and business partner Thel.
The feature proved a massive success, lasting over 50 years and reaching a circulation of 1500 newspapers for a considerable amount of its run. In that time, Keane himself became very involved in the cartooning and comics community by serving as president of the National Cartoonists Society from 1981 to 1983 as well as acting as emcee of the Society’s annual awards banquet for 16 years. Over the life of “Family Circus,” the artist collaborated and crossed over with a wide variety of other strips and cartoonists including Stephan Pastis of “Pearls Before Swine” and “Zippy the Pinhead” creator Bill Griffith.
Though it drew some lampooning over the years for its wholesome nature, “The Family Circus” carried a unique visual style in Keane’s hands and came to represent a particular slice of Americana. “I think ‘Family Circus’ is a strip that for many people might be a guilty pleasure — which is a funny way of putting it, since it’s not a very ‘guilty’ kind of strip,” IDW Editor Scott Dunbier told CBR News shortly after finishing the publisher’s first volume of deluxe hardcover reprints of the strip. “‘The Family Circus’ has always been a strip I enjoyed,” Dunbier added today. “I would so many times remember a ‘Family Circus’ cartoon because I would see my children doing exactly what his characters would do. I think children are very alike in how they grow and being to understand the world, and, not to make a pun, Keane had a keen eye for the everyday absurdity of children. I’ve noticed his work in the actions of my two boys.”
The editor also noted the life-as-art nature of Keane’s own family impacting his strip. “I think it would have to be that way. Just the fact that he had his children in front of him doing their crazy antics – it’s the perfect fodder for a strip like that.”
Keane also drew fans across the spectrum of comics with acclaimed cartoonist Lynda Barry speaking to the strip in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. “I grew up in a house that had a whole lot of trouble,” she recalled. “As much trouble as you could imagine. In the daily paper, there were all these comic strips, and there was one that was a circle. It seemed like things were pretty good on the other side of the circle. No one’s getting hit. No one’s yelling.”
Thel Keane proceeded her husband in passing in 2008. Bil Keane is survived by their five children including his son Glen, an acclaimed animator for Disney pictures including “The Little Mermaid,” and his youngest Jeff who has served as inker on “Family Circus” for many years and is expected to continue the strip moving forward.