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The Last Remaining Folk Art Comic Strip

A chapter in the book Funny Pages

The Family Circus Cartoonists

by Brett Matthew West

American Cartoonist William Aloysius "Bil" Keane is probably most noted as the originator of "The Family Circus" comic strip. Now drawn by his son Jeff Keane, who figured prominently in "The Family Circus" as a young child, the cartoon began in 1960 and remains in syndication today.

As a schoolboy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bil Keane taught himself to draw by copying the style of the cartoons published during the time in The New Yorker. The weekly magazine was known for essays, fiction, satire, commentary, journalism, poetry, and cartoons.

Keane's first cartoon was published on May 21, 1936. It appeared on the Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid newspaper's, amateur page. While still in high school, Keane spelled his in-comic signature as Bill Keane. Early in his cartooning career, he changed the spelling to Bil Keane to make his name distinctive.

While in the Army from 1942 to 1945, Keane drew cartoons for Yank, the Army's weekly magazine of World War Two. However, his best known cartoon of the era was "At Ease With The Japanese" for the Pacific edition of Stars And Stripes, a daily military newspaper emphasizing those serving in the military outside the United States.

Bil Keane launched his first comic strip, known as "Silly Philly," while a staff artist for the Philadelphia Bulletin's daily evening paper from April 27, 1947 to September 3, 1961. This was a Sunday strip featuring the quirky, goofy, juvenile William Penn. The gist of the strip had the lad jump down from his 37 foot tall statue on the tower of the Philadelphia City Hall and become a scamp. Keane's strip often displayed jokes submitted by readers of the newspaper.

"Channel Chuckers," a television-themed comic strip, appeared from February 15, 1954 to the end of 1976. Bil Keane received the National Cartoonists Society's 1976 Special Features award for this strip.

A couple standouts from "Channel Chuckers" were a caricature of Mr. Spock, of Star Trek fame, receiving letters from television watchers requesting advice on child-rearing. This was a reference to Pediatrician Benjamin Spock, the author of Baby And Child Care, which remains one of the biggest selling books of the 20th Century.

Another showed a young boy watching a General Electric commercial and his father told him, "And progress is our most important product. Do your homework!"

On February 29, 1960, "The Family Circus" debuted in nineteen newspapers. According to King Features Syndicate, "The Family Circus" is the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world and appears in 1,500 newspapers, with more than 100 million daily readers.

For 16 years, Bil Keane was the emcee of the National Cartoonists Society's annual awards banquet. He served as the organization's president from 1981 to 1983. During those same years, in collaboration with his son Jeff, Bil Keane published the comic strip "Eggheads." Jeff Keane also served as the president of the National Cartoonists Society for four years in two 2-year terms.

Thelma Carne, Bil Keane's wife, became the "Mommy" character of "The Family Circus." Their children Gayle, Neal, Christopher, Jeff, and Glen were the inspirations for the children in "The Family Circus." Glen Keane was a character animator for Disney. His credits included The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Tangled, and Pocahontas.

Bil Keane received the National Cartoonists Society's award for Best Syndicated Panel in 1967, 1971,1973, and 1974. In 1982, Keane won their Cartoonist of the Year Reuben Award, and their Elzie Segar Award for unique contribution to the cartooning profession. In 2002, he received their Silver T-Square Award for outstanding dedication to the cartooning profession.

Beginning in 2011, Bil Keane's youngest son, Jeff Keane, has been the Inker and Colorist of "The Family Circus, a comic strip he has assisted with since 1981.

Jeffy, the main character of "The Family Circus," was based on Jeff Keane when he was a youngster.

At the 2015 Reuben Awards, Jeff Keane was presented the Silver T-Square Award by the National Cartoonists Society for outstanding service to the cartooning profession.

There have been some eighty books, five Special Compilations, seven Collections, and six Illustrated books of "The Family Circus" published to date.

Next Time: "The Family Circus"


Circus Tiger, by Cindy Sue Truman, selected to complement my posting.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by Cindy Sue Truman at FanArtReview.com

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