Family life epitomized by Family Circus

  • November 15, 2011

The death of Bil Keane, cartoonist and evangelist of culture, was a reminder that even the former can be an instrument of the latter.

Keane, who died on Nov. 8 at the age of 89, drew the Family Circus cartoon for more than 50 years. It launched in 1960 — during a leap year on Feb. 29 — and is still being published. The one-panel comic was in the form of a circle, and Keane had originally called it the Family Circle. A popular magazine of the same name objected and so Keane changed it to Family Circus, the protest from the eponymous periodical proving serendipitous, for the antics of Daddy, Mommy, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ were often circus-like.

Keane’s genius was to lift up the ordinary adventures and misadventures of family life, often seen from the viewpoint of the children, and show the humour in them. But the comic offered much more than a laugh. It was a comfort and consolation to millions of families that their adventures and especially misadventures were normal and to be taken delight in.

“It’s reassuring, I think, to the American public to see the same family,” Keane said in 1995, when the cartoon was only 45 years old, and he hadn’t changed the age or situation of the family. “We are in the comics, the last frontier of good, wholesome family humour and entertainment. On radio and television, magazines and the movies, you can’t tell what you’re going to get. When you look at the comic page, you can usually depend on something acceptable by the entire family.”

That might be saying too much for the comics as a whole, but it was true of the Family Circus. As a young boy we had several collections of Keane’s comics in our home, and I remember both us children and my parents enjoying them and sharing a laugh. Like all good family humour, we recognized so many of our situations in Keane’s drawing.

On his web site Keane wrote that “we now have nine grandchildren that I like to follow around for grand ideas.” Indeed, a Family Circus comic is much like listening to my own parents tell their latest stories after visiting my own nieces and nephews, having spent several days more or less following their grandchildren around.

Cartoons are not often thought of as culture — at least not in the same way as novels or movies or newspapers. But culture is at heart the telling of stories, and expert cartoonists are master storytellers. Keane was one of the all-time greats, for in one panel and a few words he could convey an entire tale.

On Sunday, the story would be a bit longer, as instead of the once circular panel there would be a multi-frame strip. Some of these were the most beloved, including the famous “dotted-line” strips, in which the circuitous route the children would take through the house or neighbourhood would be traced, chronicling how the curious minds were distracted by the wonderful things a four-year-old notices. Keane helped adults recognize again those wonderful things. 

Keane was an evangelist of culture, for in chronicling his exceedingly normal family, he included as a natural part of family life the supernatural. The children were often praying, and the family routine included going to church. A common device was Mommy being alerted by her guardian angel that some child-caused disaster was about to take place. Every mother who has ever stepped into the next room just in time to prevent a child from pulling a lamp down on his head knows how real the guardian angels are.

Keane was Catholic and while often the Family Circus portrayed generic church scenes, there were also specifically Catholic ones. There was one from the 1960s where the whole family was at Mass, and upon hearing the altar boys ringing the bells, little Dolly could not contain her excitement, exclaiming: “It’s the ice cream man!” Dolly was partially right, as children usually are; someone had arrived, but One even better than the ice cream man.

Keane was not a preacher, and an evangelist need not be that. His mission was not to preach about family life, but to portray the blessed burdens of family life as just that — blessings and burdens. Keane reminded us of what is so often obscured in other parts of our mass culture — that family life is good, noble and yes, funny. All goodness points to God, the source of all fatherhood and the origin of family life.

I don’t know where our old Family Circus books are, but I hope my parents can find them and pass them on to my brother’s children. In the age of high-definition Blu-Ray discs, the simple circular panel still has something to teach them.

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