Bil Keane, the creator of Family Circus, passed away last week at the age of 89.
Keane came from the same line of thought as Santa Rosa legend, Charles Schulz. In the Associated Press article about Keane’s death, Schulz was quoted as saying ” I think we share a care for the same type of humor. We’re both family men with children and look with great fondness at our families.”
Peanuts and Family Circus are two sides of the same coin: the world of adults as seen by children. They even placed themselves into the action, with Schulz being Charlie Brown and Keane and his son being Dad and Billy. But whereas Peanuts left the children to themselves in their own world, Family Circus focused on a single family. Keane also left the subversion to other cartoonists, succeeding in making even the most mundane comic seem edgy with his wholesome humor and the strong values that ran through Family Circus. But in his all-ages humor, Keane never passed judgement on other people. The only problems the Family faced were cleaning up Billy’s mess as he left a dotted line path wherever he went. And just like Peanuts, Family Circus remains one of the strongest staples on the comics page in every newspaper.
But that is the problem, isn’t it?
Any argument that could be levied against comic books and a lack of originality can be said about newspaper comics, but even more so. Open to the Press Democrat’s comic section and you’ll see comics that have been in publication since the 50s (like Family Circus, Peanuts and others such as Beetle Bailey, Rex Morgan, MD and Blondie, which has been in print since 1930). Many, just as is the case with Family Circus, haven’t been drawn by their original creators in years.
No one can deny the massive impact that Keane and others have had on the comic section. Cartoonists like Mort Walker, Dik Browne, Hank Ketcham. Along with Keane and Schulz, these were the men who brought about the changes and reinvention to comics that allowed Bill Watterson to do Calvin and Hobbes or Jim Davis to do Garfield. Lynn Johnston, Scott Adams, Garry Trudeau, Gary Larson or even Santa Rosa’s own Stephen Pastis; the names that are associated with the comic strip owe a debt to Keane and his contemporaries. But the world now is very different from that February day when Family Circus debuted.
In a fitting passing of the torch, Keane’s son Jeff, the basis for the character Jeffy, now draws the strip and has for a few years now. Jim Davis produces Garfield with a staff of over 50 people and even ten years after the last strip, Peanuts still runs every day. And the comics page is still the same as it was a decade ago. The passing of Bil Keane only serves as a reminder of the stagnation of the art form he helped pioneer. It is rare that a mention of comic strips is found in the millions of articles about the decline of the print newspaper, but like the local sports page and Dear Abby, comics are a quintessential part of the American newspaper. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst developed comic strips as a way of communicating the news to non-English speaking immigrants, and thus, sell more newspapers. This is where comics like The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids came from: as marketing tools for newspapers. But as people started buying newspapers, in part, because of the comics, publishers began to develop their own staple of series.
But now, that is no longer the case. With newspapers shrinking, comics are getting the short end of the stick and the syndicates (the distribution companies that send out the comics you and I read in the paper) are banking on the established titles instead of trying to create the next big thing. Why look for the next Peanuts when you have 50 years of reruns of the real thing? If someone retires, why find a new comic when someone else is willing to take over the old one?
This may be the twilight of the comic strip. But if it is, at least the comics can go out with a kind dignity, thanks the warm heart that Bil Keane gave Family Circus. And Keane’s presence will be seen for years to come. You just need to look for the dotted lines.
To Bil Keane, there may never be another like him.
All images are copyright of Bil Keane, Inc.