thrift store finds: a eulogy for bil keane

No new Thrift Store Finds this week… but I did want to take a moment to note the passing of Bil Keane.

I didn’t much like The Family Circus when I was growing up. I found it bland and boring, even when I was a little kid. I was lucky to grow up in the last great gasp of creativity and life in newspaper comics. Billy, Jeffy, and Dolly could not compete with Calvin, Hobbes, and Gary Larson’s cows. I read The Family Circus, I processed it… but I can never say I enjoyed it.

When I started writing these weekly Thrift Store Finds, the very first book I looked at was a collection of Bil Keane’s lesser-known comic stirp, Channel Chuckles. I remarked at the time, having some small perspective on drawing my own comic strips, how impressed I was with Keane as a draftsman and designer. I think there’s a real talent to pulling off a one panel gag strip… and even in a silly comic like Channel Chuckles, it was clear that Keane knew what he was doing.

Later, I looked a couple of Family Circus paperbacks and I was again impressed with Keane’s work, crafting that small world into something millions of readers enjoyed everyday. There were, at least in the two paperbacks I looked at, far more details in Keane’s penwork than I remembered as a kid. Keane’s syndicate recently re-ran a parcel of “The Family Circus goes on vacation to Boston” comics I looked at in I’ll Shovel the Cards and I remain impressed with those strips. The cobble streets of Beacon Hill, the various touristy details of Boston all looked lovely, even when shrunk down to the size most newspapers run their comics.

I was so intrigued by The Family Circus after this point that I picked up a couple of IDW’s Family Circus hardcover reprints, collecting the first four years of the comic. I was unexpectedly impressed by those comics, which paint a much grimmer picture of parenting than the modern Family Circus ever had. It’s clear that Keane always intended for heartwarming punny chuckles to be a part of his comic, but in the early years, he tempered those maudlin gags with some genuine commentary on parenting. The Daddy of the early strips was often seen taking a nip from a flask or ogling beautiful women, edgier fare than I had ever seen in newspapers when I was growing up.

There are aspects of the strip that are cloying. The overt religious aspects of Keane’s life did encroach into the strip at times. Entire weeks could go by in The Family Circus without the comic approaching anything resembling an actual gag. I can’t deny any of that. Don’t think I’m arguing for The Family Circus to be included in the great works of mankind or anything. I was just surprised and pleased to find more to appreciate about his work when I started writing these weekly posts.

…and I guess that’s what I wanted to say. In an odd way, I feel like I owe Bil Keane a debt, as he was the “road in” for me in beginning these Thrift Store Find posts. Most weeks here, I try to  take something most people would think is worthless and reexamine that thing in an interesting way. Writing these TSF posst has made me a more thoughtful consumer of comics… and perhaps even a little better at drawing them.

So thanks for that Bil. Rest in peace.

I wrote about Channel Chuckles here.

I wrote about I’ll Shovel the Cards: A Family Circus Collection here.

I wrote about Peace Mommy Peace: A Family Circus collection here.


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