Posted By Art Baxter


Bil Keane - October 5, 1922

I have great respect for Bil Keane as a cartoonist. I generally don't give a crap about his characters: the five kids, two parents, grandparents or pets in THE FAMILY CIRCUS. What I've liked about Keane is his Sunday strips. I like the effort he puts into his drawings. Who can't look at a Sunday FAMILY CIRCUS and not follow Billy's roundabout paths as he is distracted from a simple straightforward journey. I love the boring, everyday, mundane details Keane put into a drawing of the backyard of a suburban, split-level, tract house. I love the way Keane uses the space on his Sundays. Sometimes they are full of nothing, sometimes they are incredibly dense, sometimes they are both at the same time. I also think that the emotional and psychological topography of the strip and it's characters are as deep and personal to Keane as the PEANUTS strip and characters were to Charles Schulz, abet not as completely developed.

Although I was never a regular reader of THE FAMILY CIRCUS, I would look at it it something caught my eye. Most of the time it would be a Sunday strip. In the 1990s I slowly became aware of a reoccurring motif that Keane used having to do with death. The character of Granddad, the father of the Father character had passed away in the mid 1980s yet often Granddad would still appear in the strip as a ghost or in heaven. In this strip from July 1, 1986, Billy is discussing his recently dead grandfather with his father. The father gives him some comfort by telling him that his grandfather has been reunited with his family and friends. We see Granddad, in the mind's eye of Billy, about to enter the golden gates of heaven being welcomed by his old pals in white robes and wings.

In the strip of February 15, 1987, Jeffy inquires of Grandma if Granddad can hear him to which Grandma replies yes and that she speaks to him all the time. Jeffy then gives Granddad a big "hello" but then wonders if Granddad heard him at all. We know he did. The ghost of Granddad can be seen sitting next to Grandma with his arm around her waist.

Most of the Grandma/Granddad strips I remember seeing were similar to this strip from May 5, 2002 (most likely Keane's last one), where Grandma prompts thoughts of Grandad and what he is doing in heaven. It's kind of mild, bland place where everyone gets along. It's sentimental and comforting but if that's what it's really like, I think I'd prefer hell, thank you.

4 Comment(s):
Art said...
Bil Keane was staff artist on the (now defunct) PHILADELPHIA EVENING BULLETIN. He lived in Roslyn, PA. He was there until 1959 when he moved his family to Arazona. He started the FAMILY CIRCUS shortly thereafter. Clink on the link provided, Slavko, to see his Wikipedia entry.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008 11:57:51 PM
slavko vorkavitch said...
hey art: you did not mention, but I seem to recall reading someplace that Bill Keane lived and worked most of his career in Havertown. I almost had the chance to meet Glenn Keane when I was visiting Disney 2 years ago, and I was going to ask him about that...but, he was out of his office when we passed by, so didn't get the chance. Do you know if this Havertown rumor is true?
Wednesday, October 8, 2008 11:45:11 PM
Art said...
I come to praise Bil Keane, not to bury him. Today, I remembered that the final scene of my favorite movie, Fellini's "8 1/2," is not dissimilar to Grandad entering heaven. I paged through some of my FC collections and see that there is often a subtext to the strip in a "not in the family" participant putting up with a family member's crap. There are also strips where the family faces real potential violence. A major "Best of" collection would not be out of the question.
Monday, October 6, 2008 11:10:45 PM
april said...
what i love about this commentary is that you set this up very lovely tribute and in the sentence you completely assassinate the damn thing. well done! i am not a fan of the family circus, but is did enjoy it as a kid. that's before i would discover how very creepy it is. but as you've said, you can appreciate keane's chops as a cartoonist which is really evident in comparison to the sub par his son cranks out.
Sunday, October 5, 2008 11:59:55 PM
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