Bil Keane, creator of the venerable Family Circus comic strip, passed away Tuesday at the age of 89. His son Jeff, on whom Keane based the character Jeffy, said his father died from congestive heart failure.
Family Circus debuted on Feb. 29, 1960, after Keane decided to draw stories about a family similar to his own. He named the parents after himself and his wife, and the four children were fictionalized composites of Keane and wife Thelma’s five children.
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The inches-wide circles that Keane drew became synonymous with the daily snapshots of a truly all-American family — Bil, the comic’s patriarch, is a World War II veteran, while Thelma is a college-educated homemaker.
Their kids, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and P.J., provide most of the action and voice, though only P.J. has aged in the strip’s 51-year duration. As such, Circus retained an air of childlike innocence since its first publication.
Long before the entrenched cynicism of The Boondocks or Dilbert, Circus attempted to anchor the funny pages in pure comedy, not cheap or tawdry jokes.
“We are, in the comics, the last frontier of good, wholesome family humor and entertainment,” Keane once said. “On radio and television, magazines and the movies, you can’t tell what you’re going to get. When you look at the comic page, you can usually depend on something acceptable by the entire family.”
Exemplary of Keane’s philosophy is the strip that he believes brought Circus to its prime in the mid-’60s.
“It showed Jeffy coming out of the living room late at night in pajamas and Mommy and Daddy watching television and Jeffy says, ‘I don’t feel so good, I think I need a hug,’” Keane said. “And suddenly I got a lot mail from people about this dear little fella needing a hug, and I realized that there was something more than just getting a belly laugh every day.”
As Keane aged, he made his work as family-oriented as the comic by enlisting Jeff’s help to ink the drawings. Another one of Keane’s many surviving family members is his son Glen, a Disney animator whose most recent work includes the hit film Tangled.
According to publisher King Features Syndicate, Circus is the most widely syndicated cartoon panel in the world, appearing in 1,500 newspapers. Keane’s seminal characters have appeared in 89 book compilations, three television specials, and are set to appear in an upcoming live-action feature film.
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