Fam­ily Cir­cus car­toon­ist mod­elled the fa­ther af­ter him­self

Ottawa Citizen - - CITY - VA­LERIE J. NEL­SON

Car­toon­ist Bil Keane chron­i­cled the lighter side of fam­ily life for more than 50 years,

Bil Keane, a car­toon­ist who chron­i­cled the lighter mo­ments of fam­ily life for more than 50 years through the gen­tle, heart­felt humour of the The Fam­ily Cir­cus comic strip, has died. He was 89.

Keane died Nov. 8 of con­ges­tive heart fail­ure at his long­time home in Par­adise Val­ley, Ari­zona, ac­cord­ing to King Fea­tures Syn­di­cate, which dis­trib­utes the comic.

The first car­toon ap­peared in 19 news­pa­pers on Feb. 29, 1960. It is a draw­ing of a cen­sus taker who in­quires of a puz­zled wo­man sur­rounded by a room­ful of toys: “Any chil­dren?”

The Fam­ily Cir­cus ap­pears in nearly 1,500 pa­pers around the world to­day, mak­ing it the most widely read syn­di­cated panel, ac­cord­ing to King Fea­tures.

The strip’s char­ac­ters re­mained largely the same age, year in and out — an age­less sub­ur­ban mother and fa­ther and their four chil­dren, Billy, 7; Dolly, 5; Jeffy, 3; and PJ, 18 months. The daily panels were rou­tinely drawn within a cir­cle, which un­der­scored their sense of close­ness, ac­cord­ing to the syn­di­cate.

Like many hu­morists, Keane mined his fam­ily for ma­te­rial. He ad­mit­ted to mod­el­ling the be­spec­ta­cled and of­ten be­fud­dled Daddy on him­self. His wife, Thelma, was the in­spi­ra­tion for the al­ways-lov­ing and ever-pa­tient mother, also named Thel.

“When the car­toon first ap­peared, she looked so much like Mommy,” Keane told The As­so­ci­ated Press af­ter his wife died in 2008, “that if she was in the su­per­mar­ket push­ing her cart, peo­ple would come up to her and say, ‘ Aren’t you the Mommy in Fam­ily Cir­cus?’ ”

The chil­dren in the strip were largely com­pos­ites of his own five chil­dren, but PJ “is the best of all my chil­dren: Cute, usu­ally smil­ing, once in a while naughty,” Keane told the San Jose Mer­cury News in 2004.

In one car­toon, Jeffy tells a friend: “His name is PJ — but most of the time, he’s called No-no.”

“I don’t just try to be funny,” Keane told the Los An­ge­les Times in 1990. “Many of my car­toons are not a belly laugh. I go for nos­tal­gia, the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, the tug in the heart.”

“Kitchens coast to coast have Fam­ily Cir­cus strips cut out of the news­pa­per on them,” Farago said, “be­cause you will be re­minded of some­thing that your sis­ter did or what your fa­ther said at break­fast.”

Wil­liam Aloy­sius Keane was born Oct. 5, 1922, in Philadel­phia to Aloy­sius Wil­liam and Florence Keane. Self-taught as an artist, he started out im­i­tat­ing the style of New Yorker car­toon­ists in the late 1930s. Af­ter Keane drew car­toons for four pub­li­ca­tions at his parochial high school, he re­al­ized that he had found his life’s call­ing, he later said.

His par­ents could not af­ford to send him to art school, so af­ter high school he worked as a mes­sen­ger at the Philadel­phia Bul­letin news­pa­per — and ob­served the staff artists.

While putting out a satire mag­a­zine, the Satur­day Evening Toast, with a group of friends in the late 1930s, he changed the spell­ing of his first name to “Bil” be­cause the other artists on the project were al­ter­ing their names.

He spent three years in the Army dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, draw­ing for the Yank mag­a­zine and the Stars and Stripes news­pa­per. Keane also sold car­toons to a national mag­a­zine and met his fu­ture wife while sta­tioned in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, when they shared of­fice space. He mar­ried the na­tive Aus­tralian in 1948.

In 1954, he launched a syn­di­cated comic strip, Chan­nel Chuck­les that lam­pooned the bur­geon­ing medium of tele­vi­sion. In one strip, a mother holds a bawl­ing baby in front of the TV as she ex­plains to the fa­ther: “She slept through two gun­fights and a bar­room brawl — then the com­mer­cial woke her up.” At its peak, Chan­nel Chuck­les was syn­di­cated in more than 200 pa­pers be­fore Keane re­tired the strip in 1976.

The Keane fam­ily moved to Ari­zona in 1958 be­cause of Bil’s al­ler­gies. Work­ing at home as a free­lance car­toon­ist, he re­al­ized that most of his humour re­volved around fam­ily life and small chil­dren, he later said. Two years later, he started draw­ing the comic that was orig­i­nally called “The Fam­ily Cir­cle.” When the mag­a­zine of the same name ob­jected, Keane changed Cir­cle to Cir­cus.

For decades, his youngest son, Jeff, has worked with Keane on The Fam­ily Cir­cus and will con­tinue the car­toon. An­other son, Glen, is an an­i­ma­tor best known for his work at Dis­ney.

Keane cre­ated three an­i­mated spe­cials for tele­vi­sion and pub­lished more than 40 books. In 1971, he col­lab­o­rated with his neigh­bour, fam­ily-humour colum­nist Erma Bombeck, on Just Wait Till You Have Chil­dren of Your Own!

In the fore­word to an­other Keane book, Bombeck wrote: “Mostly I ad­mire and re­spect Bil’s gen­tle­ness, his warmth, his re­spect for that bat­tered, floun­der­ing, much-ma­ligned in­sti­tu­tion — the Amer­i­can fam­ily.”

Keane is sur­vived by his five chil­dren, Gayle, Neal, Glen, Christo­pher and Jeff; nine grand­chil­dren; and one great-grand­child.


Bil Keane with char­ac­ters from his comic strip The Fam­ily Cir­cus.

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