THE FAMILY CIRCUSMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1960
Creator: Bil Keane
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Bil Keane didn't take a single art course before deciding on a career as a freelance cartoonist in the late 1930s (which is also when he dropped the
second L in his first name, just to be a little different). He simply studied the work of successful magazine cartoonists of the time, including Peter Arno, Whitney Darrow, George Price and others. The strategy seems to have worked. By 1942, he was doing a regular strip, At Ease, for the U.S. Army's Yank magazine (where George Baker's Sad Sack first rose to fame).
Keane freelanced newspaper and magazine cartoons for years before The Family Circus began appearing, on February 29, 1960. (It was originally titled The Family Circle, but the well-established magazine of that name objected.) By that time he'd been married 12 years, so inspiration was coming thick and fast for cartoons about a family with small children — in fact, he started the feature mainly because he'd noticed most of his magazine cartoons were taking that theme.
Keane's work isn't startlingly innovative — even one of its most distinctive themes, the dotted-line child's path through the neighborhood, was anticipated by decades in the work of Clare V. Dwiggins (School Days, Ophelia's Slate). But response from other parents of small children came swiftly, and continues strong to this day. The King Features cartoon is currently the most popular panel in the world, appearing in over 1,500 newspapers. It's been the subject of three prime-time animated TV specials, and has been collected into over 60 books. Also, it's a merchandising bonanza, appearing on calendars, T-shirts, beach towels and even, in the 1980s, cereal boxes.
Keane doesn't go for belly laughs. He prefers a warm smile of recognition from parents who "know the feeling", or have heard similar precious gems from their own kids. He's been so successful in evoking the familiar situations of parenthood, that newspaper editors who run "cute sayings by kids" columns have to keep an eye on his panel, lest readers submit Keane's gags as their own work.
Non-parents seem to take a less benign attitude toward The Family Circus. Like Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, it's often ridiculed by readers unable to see the sophistication that goes into any work that can achieve such popularity with the general public. But it is very much appreciated by Keane's peers in the professional cartooning community — in 1982, the National Cartoonists' Society bestowed its Reuben Award on him, designating him Cartoonist of the Year.
Keane's children have long since ceased to provide inspiration for The Family Circus — but a steady stream of grandchildren keeps the ideas flowing.