Say what you will about Bil Keane’s comic Family Circus – heaven knows I, like so many jaded Millenials, have made my share of jokes. Say what you will, but this comic, and this man, was important. This comic had heart. It was shamelessly sentimental, yes, but whoever decided that was a bad thing? As a kid, before I learned about sarcasm and irony and the often mean-spirited humor so favored in entertainment, I drank the Family Circus up. It was the first thing I flipped to in my parents’ Sunday newspaper. As a child, I could relate to those wide-eyed children, just like I’m sure many parents have chuckled from the perspective of the adults, and grandparents have knowingly smiled at the universally heartwarming misunderstandings of their very-literal grandchildren. “How nice! Bob and Mary named their baby after me.” “They named their baby ‘Grandma’?” And I defy you to find me one person – any age – who didn’t enjoy tracing Jeffy’s dotted path through the neighborhood. It didn’t matter what shenanigans he got into along the way, it was that invitation into the journey that got us.
Maybe Bil Keane could have roped in readers of all ages by featuring a prominent teenage character (though he’d likely turn out as out-of-touch as Chip from Hi and Lois) but I think he stuck with what he knew, and if that meant losing readers while they trudged through the cynical, muddy waters of adolescence and early adulthood, there were probably many who returned once they started a family circus of their own. Bil Keane delivered exactly what he promised.
As a kid, I was frustrated by the more adult comics with punchlines that I couldn’t understand. I developed a theory about comics which was basically the Emperor’s New Clothes Theory, in which none of the jokes actually made sense but people pretended to laugh so as to appear smart (I think this still applies to many New Yorker cartoons). Sometimes I would pretend to get the joke and would laugh, but with Family Circus I never had to pretend. The jokes were written to be understood instantly, to smile at, and take a warm fuzzy feeling into your day. No, that’s hardly what sells in comedy today, but regardless, that early experience – having someone like Bil Keane who took children seriously enough to speak their language – probably made a world of difference for me. It kept me reading the comics, then later reading them with a more engaged and critical mind, and eventually creating my own. And the thing that he held so dearly, that sense of heart, that’s exactly what I’m striving for now in my own way.
Bil Keane’s death has made me feel a genuine sadness, though I haven’t read Family Circus in years. It might be heavy-handed to say it feels like losing a grandfather, but for some reason that is the comparison that keeps coming to me. The Family Circus did not push many creative boundaries (though his artistic legacy is not without his innovations: the passing of time with a dotted line keeps coming to mind) but there’s no denying its importance in the world of comics, and in the hearts of his readers and cartoonists for years to come. Yeah, that’s a pretty cheesy line, but in the spirit of Family Circus, let’s leave our sarcasm at the door and just accept it. This man was like a grandfather to us, and he will be missed.