Bil Keane 1922-2011


Bil Keane has passed away. The creator of The Family Circus was a talented man, an in my brief meeting with him, a truly funny one and seemingly kind. That panel has been running for over half a century (Schulz wrote an intro to the 25th anniversary collection), and while it’s an easy cartoon to make fun of, part of that is due to its strengths – it’s recognizable and clear communications.

I reckon tomorrow we’ll start seeing some tributes of questionable taste, probably little cartoons of dotted lines showing how Bil went to Heaven, or perhaps using Bil as the Ghost Grandpa character. Today, I’m mainly seeing written tributes with bad spelling, particularly where his name is concerned. But that’s hardly something new, as you’ll see it misspelled here on the cover of this collection:

To make matters worse, this was the seventh printing. Yes, they reprinted the book repeatedly leaving his name misspelled.

But this does bring us to another point: while everyone will be looking at The Family Circus, understandably, it was not the only thing Keane did, and it’s not just a matter of failures-before-he-had-a-hit. The Channel Chuckles material was from a few years after the start of the better-known feature. I’m not certain, but I believe this was a weekly panel, probably targeted for the weekly TV. (ADDED LATER: Apparently I was incorrect, and this was a daily feature.)¬† As you can see, it was also a single panel, and its appearance settles in somewhere between the early Family Circi and a default generic magazine cartoon look.

Its existence that reflects the way things go in the cartooning business; when you’re a success, you are both busy and in demand. People are more willing to take a chance on your second idea if your first is going gangbusters. And so, just as Schulz ran his Church of God material (seen in the book Schulz’s Youth, and It’s Only a Game, Keane did various other things overlapping with his run on Family Circus.

Sideshow featured simple little illustrated puns, and it too was running concurrently with the first decade of the Circus. Neither of these seems to have survived the decade, although the fine folks at Scholastic Books managed to keep them in print entertaining the kiddies for a while longer. (That was one of the nice things about Scholastic at the time – if kids would like it and it had some easy hook to sell it, they kept selling it to kid after kid.)

How did he get so much extra work done? Obviously, he cut corners on his main series…

Keane left a large body of work, much of which is rarely seen these days… but all of it I’ve seen is good, straightforward and funny. He lived a long life, had success, and generated millions of moments of pleasure. Most of us would be very lucky to leave this world with that status.



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