WASHINGTON, November 11, 2011 – Bil Keane, a U.S. Army veteran and originator of the long-running comic “Family Circus” died on November 8 at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. The cause of death, according to the cartoon’s longtime distributor, King Features Syndicate, was congestive heart failure. He was 89.
William Aloysius Keane was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 5, 1922. His staunchly Catholic family made sure he attended parochial schools, and he was a proud graduate of Northeast Catholic High—hence the “NC” that readers often spotted on sports banners in the “Family Circus” cartoons over the years.
It was during high school that he began to draw humorous cartoons, inspired by the classic cartoons of the golden age New Yorker. He soon became quite accomplished, and was proud of having his first published cartoon appear on the amateur pages of the Philadelphia Daily News when he was not yet fourteen years of age.
Young Bill first encountered the newspaper business in earnest when he took a job as a messenger for the Philadelphia Bulletin. When he entered the U.S. Army in 1942 he got another lucky break. The military magazine Stars and Stripes spotted his talent, drafting him to create a new feature dubbed “At Ease with the Japanese.” He also managed to do some drawing for Yank, the Army Weekly and frequently created posters and other artwork for the war effort.
While working in an office in Brisbane, Australia, Keane got lucky again when he given a desk next to a young Aussie girl named Thelma Carne who worked in accounting. As Keane later put it, “Thel was a very pretty 18-year old with a gorgeous figure, long brown hair, and I…got the nerve to ask her out. We started laughing then and never stopped.” They were married in Brisbane in 1948 and moved back to the Philadelphia area.
Keane himself had first returned home in 1946, returning to the Philadelphia Bulletin as a staff artist where he also started his first regular strip, “Silly Philly.” Following the latest trends, he next launched “Channel Chuckles,” a strip dedicated to the brand new phenomenon of television that was sweeping the country. The strip made its debut in 1954 and ran for 23 years. It was also during this period that Keane dropped the final “l” from his first name, “to be distinctive,” as he later put it.
In 1959, with his cartoons entering syndication, Keane decided to move his family—which now included five children in addition to Thel—to more wide-open spaces in Paradise Valley, Arizona, a suburb located near Phoenix. It was there, shortly after the family’s move, that he launched the “Family Circus,” which soon became the most widely syndicated single panel cartoon in the world according to King Feature Syndicate. King still syndicates “Family Circus.”
Unlike so many strips and panels today, “Family Circus” has never been really edgy, still retaining a warm and sometimes hokey sense of family humor, which grows out of the ridiculous predicaments of moms, dads, kids, and unruly pets. It’s this endearing, relatively risk-free joking that has kept the cartoon popular, even over the last several decades of social turmoil.
Families will always be families, and it’s this that Keane grasped early on, modeling his cartoon on the antics of his own family, including Thel, who served as the model for “Mommy” in “Family Circus.”
Keane was on familiar terms with many of the era’s more popular cartoonists. He served as president of the National Cartoonists Society (1981-83) and served as emcee for their annual awards banquets for over a decade-and-a-half. He was also friends with Erma Bombeck, and even illustrated one of her books.
Far from being as straight-laced as “Family Circus” might indicate, Bil Keane had a flexible sense of humor, particularly in his interactions with fellow cartoonists. He chuckled when other cartoonists satirized the Circus. When Bill Griffith, author of the popular, surrealistic, pop-culture obsessed strip Zippy the Pinhead poked fun at Keane, Keane got in touch with Griffith and ended up as a “guest cartoonist,” dropping his “Family Circus” characters into the context of Zippy’s world for an extended series.
Keane also participated in the widely-noted April Fool’s Day “Cartoon Switcheroo” in 1997 in which several popular cartoonists actually switched into each other’s strips for the day. In this case, Keane and Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams swapped places.
During his many years as a cartoonist, Keane never forgot his service in the Army, and how important entertainment was for the morale of the troops. He frequently signed on to join USO tours during later U.S. conflicts, earning the appreciation of successive generations of American GIs. His son Jeff, who gradually took over the production of “Family Circus,” continued his father’s tradition of supporting our troops, according to Washington Post comics blogger Michael Cavna, bringing fellow cartoonists along on recent USO-style tours into the treacherous back country of Iraq and Afghanistan to visit with and entertain American soldiers there.
Keane mourned the relatively recent loss of his wife, “Mommy” Thel, in 2008. She died from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. The couple leaves their five children, Gayle, Neal, Christopher, Jeff, and Glen. Glen also carries on his father’s legacy as a writer, animator, and illustrator widely respected for his character animation in the Disney features The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and others.
(Note: “Family Circus” fans can still visit the extensive “Family Circus” website which contains a treasury of all things Bil and Jeff Keane.)
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