Writing Non-Fiction posted November 25, 2023 Chapters:  ...14 15 -16- 17... 

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The Epitome Of Squareness

A chapter in the book Funny Pages

The Family Circus

by Brett Matthew West

"The Family Circus" comics launched on Monday, February 29, 1960. The strip was originally known as "Family-Go-Round," as well as "The Family Circle," a name used because of the comic strip most often being drawn in a single-captioned panel with a round border, as the daily strip generally is.

Other methods include the circle being split in two halves. Occasionally, both speech balloons are inside the picture and their captions are outside the circle. Normally, the daily strip does not follow a weekly story arc, unless the family is on vacation.

The Sunday strip format varies with several recurring themes. For instance, a single picture surrounded by multiple speech balloons. These represent the children's responses to the scenarios. The first of these appeared in the strip on May 30, 1965.

The comic's name had to be changed to "The Family Circus" because Family Circle magazine objected to the strip's originator, Bil Keane, calling his comic "The Family Circle." One of the so-called Seven Sisters traditional female-oriented magazines, Family Circle was published from 1932 until 2019. Other magazines included in this group included Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, Better Homes And Gardens, Woman's Day, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping.

"The Family Circus" remained the brainchild of William Aloysius "Bil" Keane until his death in 2011. (See Chapter 14 - The Family Circus Cartoonists, of this book, for an indepth and detailed biography of Bil Keane). Since that time, Keane's son Jeff (the central character of "The Family Circus" comic) has colored, inked, and written the strip.

According to King Features Syndicate, "The Family Circus" is the most widely syndicated comic strip in the world and appears in some 1,500 newspapers. To date, "The Family Circus" Compilations have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide.

Billed as "The West's Most Western Town," Scottsdale, Arizona is the setting for "The Family Circus" comic strip. A real life, and popular attraction, ice cream parlor known as the Sugar Bowl, the Scottsdale [Tennis] Racket Club, and Paradise Valley, have all been prominently featured in "The Family Circus" over the years. In addition to these elements, Bil Keane added aspects of his Pennsylvania boyhood home into "The Family Circus."

Containing many resorts, Paradise Valley is a desert and mountain town east of Phoenix. Camelback Mountain, and Mummy Mountain, dominate the scenery. Paradise Valley is also Arizona's wealthiest municipality. Bil Keane lived about the last fifty years of his life there.

Christian imagery and themes have been frequent aspects included in "The Family Circus." Bil Keane was Roman Catholic. As a youngster his family attended St. William Parish. Keane stated he included religious content that reflected his upbringing and family traditions. In addition, he contributed frequently to his high school newspaper, The Good News, at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys, in Philadelphia. Keane graduated from the school in 1940.

Thick dotted lines became one of the best-known quantities of "The Family Circus" comic strip. These showed a character's path through the neighborhood, or the family's house. An example of their use was a family vacation to Lombard Street in San Francisco, California, "The crookedest street in the world."

Jeffy, Jeffy and his grandfather walking in the park, Jeffy running around wildly, and Barfy, have all been displayed in thick dotted line strips. Calvin and Hobbs, Lio, xkcd, Marvin, Pearl's Before Swine, Fox Trot, and For Better Or Worse, have all parodied Keane's use of thick dotted lines.

Full of out-of-the-mouths-of-babes humor, "The Family Circus" family could not be simpler. The parents are (Bil Keane and his wife Thel Carne), and their children Billy, Jeffy, Dolly, and PJ (Peter John), who never seemed to grow any older in the more than sixty years the strip has been circulated. The exception is PJ. he has grown to the age of one and seldom speaks. Billy mentioned these clues in his August 26, 2013 strip when he referred to "Grandma Keane" and "Grandma Carne" as the surnames of the author's family.

The character "Bil" was first named "Steve" in the early years of the comic. Bil is an office worker, and strip hints over the years have indicated he is a cartoonist who draws large circles on the paper he writes upon. These have often been considered to be cartoon versions of "The Family Circus." Bil has also been referred to as a veteran of World War Two.

An interesting sidenote would be in 1996, Bil Keane updated Thelma's hairstyle. This prompted the LA Times newspaper to run a Feature article on her.

Modeled after Keane's eldest son Glen, who is a prominent Disney Animator with several major motion pictures to his credit including Tarzan, Tangled, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, as well as Aladdin, Billy is seven years old. He is the oldest "The Family Circus" child. Occasionally, Billy has been a Substitute Cartoonist for Sunday strips. Crudely drawn, these reflect Billy's views of the world and his sense of humor.

Billy's strips were first used in the 1962 This Week magazine, which was the oldest newspaper supplement in the United States when it ceased circulation in 1969. "Life in Our House" was the comic strip Billy's first rendition appeared in. It attributed the childish drawing to Bil Keane's six-year-old son Chris.

"Drawn by Billy, Age 7" are strips perputedly drawn by Billy. In them, he would do things like explain vocabulary, but since he does not understand the right word, he mixes the words, and their meanings, up. Hysterical and historical is one such case. Acquire, to mean a group of singers in church, is another.

The "Billy, Age 7" drawings often showed more detail of one of Bil Keane's strips. A well known one had the father away on a business trip. Billy explained his absence with several childish reasons including an alien abduction, and his father baked into a witch's pie. The story arc ended with Billy's father back home and the kids asking such preposterous questions as to where he'd been, their father was befuddled by them.

Dolly was modeled after Bil Keane's daughter and oldest child, Gayle. Thelma Keane called little girls "Dolly". Florence, who is Bil Keane's mother, appears regularly in "The Family Circus" comic strips as "Grandma". Al, his father, who the kids refer to as "Granddad," is dead but appears occasionally as a spirit watching over the family from Heaven.

On December 18, 1979, Al played a major role in the NBC television Special known as A Family Circus Christmas. Other "The Family Circus" television Specials included A Special Valentine With The Family Circus on February 10, 1978, and A Family Circus Easter in 1982.

The family owns two dogs, a Labrador named Barfy, and a shaggy-haired Mutt named Sam, who the children dragged home on January 26, 1970. They also possess an orange tabby named Kittycat.

Bil's boss, Mr. Horton, and Morrie, a playmate of Billy's, and the strip's only recurring Black character, make recurring appearances. Morrie was originally created in 1967 as a tribute to Bil Keane's close associate, and fellow cartoonist, Morrie Turner, who wrote the Wee Pals comic strip.

So entrenched in everyday culture, "The Family Circus" has offshooted more than a dozen tributes. One of them is known as "Nietzsche Family Circus". This version combines random editions of "The Family Circus" with quotes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The philosopher became famous for his criticisms of traditional European morality and religion, as well as his conventional ideas, social, and political pieties associated with modernity.

Bill Griffith, the creator of the "Ziggy," comic strip, described "The Family Circus" as, "The last remaining folk art strip. It's supposed to be the epitome of squareness, but it turns the corner into a hip zone."

Next Time: Beetle Bailey Cartoonist Mort Walker

Clowning Around, by Cindy Sue Truman, selected to complement my posting.
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Artwork by Cindy Sue Truman at FanArtReview.com

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