The Family Circus

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The Family Circus

Bil Keane's daily single-frame comic strip began chronicling the mild misadventures of a white, middle-class suburban family on February 19, 1960 and is currently distributed to over 1,300 newspapers, making it the most popular panel in the world. Comics historian Ron Goulart has called The Family Circus "one of the gentlest and most heartwarming panels in comics history," and it is precisely this wryly humorous perspective which has made Keane's creation one of the clearest, most significant examples of the deep-seated American belief in the nuclear family as the moral center of domestic life. If a "circus" can be accurately described as a form of entertainment which displays human beings in control of both wild beasts and their own fears, then the ring which surrounds each panel of Bil Keane's strip is apt indeed, for The Family Circus takes everything that might be threatening or frightening about children or parenting and tames it with the whipcrack of a grin, the safety net of a smile.

Keane has reported that the idea for a comic strip poking fun at the foibles of family life occurred to him as early as 1952 while he was still involved in producing Channel Chuckles, a daily comic which encouraged readers to laugh at the new medium of television and at their own compulsive interest in it. Keane began keeping notes on 3x5 cards of the funny turns of phrase and humorous misunderstandings of his own children until, as he later said, he had "enough material for maybe 50 years." When The Family Circus debuted in 1960 (as The Family Circle), the Keane family's ink-drawn counterparts consisted of a Daddy in horn-rimmed glasses, a pert and neatly dressed Mommy, and three children—seven-year-old Billy, five-year-old ponytailed Dolly, and three-year-old Jeffy. Another baby arrived two years later and PJ has since been permanently fixed at a toddling 18-months. Barfy the Dog and Kittycat are the pets of the family, and all are occasionally visited by a stereotypical crew of in-laws, neighbors, and schoolchums—with the principal focus remaining exclusively on the central family of parents and children. The perpetual preadolescence of the brood enables Keane to ignore the more disturbing issues of parenting which arise with puberty, and a typical Family Circus panel is a simple illustration of a child's malapropism, mild misunderstanding of the adult world, or parental eye-rolling. Any variation from this formula is usually confined to the more experimental (and larger) format offered by the Sunday panel, and here Keane makes regular, innovative use of an overhead perspective tracing one child's path through the neighborhood and of a version of the strip "as drawn by" little Bobby—usually as a Father's Day "present" to the hardworking Bil.

Keane has helped define the unique tenor of his strip by noting that "There's a general tendency among people who want to be funny to exaggerate. I do just the opposite. I tone down every idea I get." While the resulting moderation can easily lull a reader into taking the strip for granted, the comic industry and the American public have been generous in their persistent recognition of Keane's consistently popular, understated art. The National Cartoonists Society has awarded Keane its highest honor, the Reuben, as Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year (1982), and The Family Circus characters themselves have appeared in three television specials, over 40 book collections, and uncounted calendars, figurines, advertisements, greeting cards, and Christmas ornaments.

While an occasional reference to contemporary matters helps keep the panel meaningful to its wide audience (e.g., a caption of Dolly advising Jeffy that "Conscience is e-mail your head gets from Heaven"), the strip retains its focus upon the timeless center "ring" of the family—the mild pleasures, sighing frustrations, and deep love which makes the "circus" a place we want to visit whenever it comes to town or is delivered to our doorstep.

—Kevin Lause

Further Reading:

Goulart, Ron. The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips. Holbrook, Massachusetts, Adams Media Corporation, 1995.

Goulart, Ron, editor. The Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present. New York, Facts on File, 1990.

Horn, Maurice, editor. 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics. New York, Random House, 1996.

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The Family Circus

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