RIP Bil Keane

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.

The Family Circus was such an iconic comic that it became a blank canvas for Internet wags who mercilessly parodied Keane's work. He had a high tolerance for that; he told Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis that his parodies were fine as long as they were funny, and he actually did a crossover with Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead after Griffith featured Jeffy in his strip. It seems to be Amazon, not Keane, who purged the facetious "reviews" of his books such as this one:

It has been decades since Mr. Keane first turned the comic strip world upside-down with his revolutionary approach to the craft... his sparse, minimalist backgrounds, depicting the empty barren futility of the tangible universe vis a vis the soul and essence of our being... his characters rendered with almost stingy economy, e.g. a single nostril clearly Implies a second one... and not least of course the circular framework, which speaks of infinity in all directions, and breaks the rigid iron boundaries of the suffocating Teutonic rectangles..

One of the earliest web parodies (it started as a zine) was The Dysfunctional Family Circus, which posted Keane's panels and invited readers to submit their own captions. Initially, Keane was cool with it; he told American Catholic magazine, "Some of their captions were funnier than mine." When he felt the captions were going too far, though, he called the creator of the parody, Greg Galick. (OK, he had his lawyers write to him first, but most people would have stopped at that.)

And when the conflict was personalized, Galcik wrote, it spelled the end. "[A]s we got further into the conversation, I just realized I couldn't really go on doing what I'm doing," Galcik's announcement notes. Bil Keane had surprised him. "He's actually a nice guy...."

And Keane agreed to let Galcik run the comic for another week, so he could get to number 500.

The Family Circus may not have been most people's idea of great art, but when I was a kid it made me laugh out loud. Not only has it become a fixture of everyday life in America, but Keane has contributed several cartoon concepts to the popular vocabulary, including the fictitious imps Ida Know and Not Me (who are the chief wrongdoers in the Family Circus household) and the dotted line that describes Billy's detour-filled path around his suburban neighborhood. Best of all, Keane always seemed to enjoy what he was doing, and in his personal life as well as his professional role, he made a lot of people laugh. You can't ask for a better legacy than that.

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