See that kindly face over there? You’ve probably seen his name and work a thousand times in your life, but you likely don’t know the face. That’s Bil Keane, who brought the single-panel comic Family Circus to your local newspaper pretty much every day since 1960. Keane died earlier this week at age 89, and you can read all about him in The Washington Post obituary right here.
While I was never a hard-core Family Circus fan in the way I was absolutely devoted to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Keane’s strip was one of those that my entire family read. In particular, we loved the paperback book collections. Visiting our cousins in Kansas usually meant getting an armful of new Family Circus paperbacks to take along on the car ride — and when we got there, we would ransack our cousins’ own collection, trading paperbacks back and forth until, between us, we’d read them all. They were a quick and easy read, drawn in Keane’s accessible style, with punchlines that even a seven-year-old could understand. I liked the sequences featuring the ghosts “Not Me!” and “Ida Know!” (our Mom would take those jokes and run with them, in fact) while my brother loved the panels that followed characters with a dotted line as they made their way to school, a garage sale, or around the back yard.
People often criticized Keane’s cartoon for being too dated, and too lost in an idealized past or family structure. For that reason, it was an easy target for satire — but no one laughed harder at the parodies of the strip than Keane himself. Keane, in fact, was much funnier than he let on in his strip; he would apparently knock ’em dead each year as the host of the National Cartoonists Society’s annual banquet. But his own inherent sweetness was the real strength behind Family Circus—and Keane also made it look way too easy. “[A]llow me to point out the obvious,” said Dilbert‘s Scott Adams. “If other cartoonists could make a family-oriented comic that was as popular as ‘Family Circus,’ they would have done it.”
No one did — and likely no one will ever do it as well as Bil Keane.