King Features Syndicate via AP
"Family Circus" was never the hippest newspaper comic strip out there, but hearing that cartoonist Bil Keane had died was very sad news. He felt like the uncle you were always fond of, even if you didn't see him much anymore.
I still remember owning a much-read and loved collection of battered "Family Circus" paperbacks. I don't remember buying them or asking for them, but they showed up anyway, because "Family Circus" was definitely a mom-approved read. No, it wasn't the place for sharp social commentary, but like "The Brady Bunch," it was a simple look at a family that loved each other and never went to bed angry.
In its small round panels we were reminded that what's important isn't what the rest of the daily newspaper chronicled. It doesn't really matter in our lives if Kim Kardashian stays married, or if Tim Tebow throws an interception. What matters is family, parents who care enough to love each other and raise their kids to be decent people, too.
The constants in the strip are well known. "Not Me" and "Ida Know," the little ghosts responsible for the actions that get Dolly, Billy, Jeffy and P.J. in trouble. Dotted lines show a kid's path through the house or neighborhood. Occasional strips are "drawn by Billy," who doesn't quite have his dad's artistic skills yet. Grandpa's ghostly spirit watches benevolently (and a little creepily) over the family. The consistency is so beloved that it was even big news when mom Thel updated her hairdo (fans definitely need to read how that came about.)
"Family Circus" also carved out its own place in pop culture. A now-removed website called The Dysfunctional Family Circus mixed "FC" panels with raunchy captions. The Nietzsche Family Circus places quotes from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche under the familiar panels. The 1999 movie "Go" delivered a harsh judgment of the strip, with a character saying "It's always there, in the lower right hand corner, just waiting to suck." For a while, Amazon.com reviews of the "Family Circus" books were hilarious too -- readers would write reviews comparing Keane to Shakespeare and other literary lions and piling elaborate praise on the simple books.
That was kind of the whole point. "Family Circus" never wanted to be Shakespeare, but thank the heavens, it wasn't a one-note-joke like "Garfield." (Did you know that cat likes him some lasagna?) The kids goofed off, they even got in innocent kinds of trouble, but in their little world, everything would always be OK. Today we need that stability just as much as we ever did.
Rest in peace, Bil Keane. Thanks for making us part of the "Family."
Did you read "Family Circus"? Tell us in the comments.
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