Archive for the family circus

thrift store finds: a eulogy for bil keane

Posted in eulogy, thrift store finds with tags , , , , on November 12, 2011 by Christopher Pearce

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.


odds and ends: goodbye borders

Posted in odds and ends, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2011 by Christopher Pearce

Our local Borders closes its’ doors for the last time today. I wanted to note the store’s passing for a couple of reasons.

I don’t think I can stress how much Borders helped my classroom in the past year. During their recent promotion/partnership with DonorsChoose, I was able to get over $3,000 dollars worth of funding out of the store thanks to their “make a purchase, get a $15 dollar DonorsChoose gift certificate” promotion. I expanded my classroom’s lending library to an insane degree and was able to purchase an iPad for classroom use. This promotion was HUGE for my students and although I’ve said it here in the past, I suppose it bears repeating. Thanks for that, Borders.

Secondly… and this is a purely selfish concern: of all the big box chain bookstores that are out there, our local Borders has always been the store where I did my book shopping. I’ve had my issues with the place, I won’t lie. It always seem absolutely insane to me that Borders expanded itself so crazily into CDs and DVDs. The company didn’t even have a website for books until around two years ago. Those are strange business practices. I’ve also had run-ins with surly employees. Our local store had one clerk in particular who never failed in making me want to leap over the counter and throttle him.

By and large however, our local Borders was the most comfortable bookstore with the best selection. I will miss being able to rummage through their wares. Most of my book shopping, both for my personal collection and my classroom lending library, comes from secondhand stores and Half Price Books… but Borders, I’ll miss you.


…and yes, before you ask, despite my sadness, I did make a couple of purchases at Borders before it closed. I sort of hate myself for it.

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Thrift Store Finds: I’ll Shovel the Cards, A Family Circus Collection

Posted in commentary, thrift store finds with tags , , on February 20, 2010 by Christopher Pearce

Last week, I talked a little bit about Bil Keane’s The Family Circus and I may have done the venerable strip an unkindness by saying that I found it “as bland as boiled celery.” I have to be honest though, it’s never been a favorite of mine. I didn’t enjoy the antics of Billy, Jeffy, Dolly, and PJ they way I felt like I was meant to. They just set my teeth on edge.

I suppose what I disliked about The Family Circus as a kid can be reflected in some of the other comics I was readily enjoying at the time. Calvin & Hobbes was still in the newspapers every day when I was a kid, and Calvin made Billy Keane look like a choir boy. To say nothing The Far Side, the other major one panel strip that was competing for space on our comics page when I was a kid. The sensibilities of those two strips, side by side, made for a weird pairing. If memory serves, Gary Larson even took a couple of shots at The Family Circus during his tenure.

That bein’ said, I found this book in my thrift store and I picked it up because I pick up any and all of these types of comics.

I’ll Shovel the Cards is a relatively late addition to the comic paperback genre; the copyright information indicates this came out in 1992 but I’d hazard a guess a lot of the strips collected here came from the late 1980’s. Comic strip collections really started to change in 1980 with the publication of Jim Davis’ first Garfield trade, Garfield at Large. While before At Large, most strip collections were formatted like Shovel the Cards, after the gigantic success that Davis found with his first book, publishers gradually started changing size and format to accommodate comic strips.

This Family Circus collection entirely encapsulates my problem with the strip in its very title. The saccharine punning, the just slightly naughty behavior of the kids, all those things just didn’t ring true to me as to a young reader. Why did Keane stick with these collections for so long? The back cover seems to have an answer:

FIFTIETH IN THE SERIES. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to keep on keeping on with the paperback format, even in the wake of greater successes from fellow cartoonists’ work. I’ll also say this… one panel gag strips like The Family Circus collect far more comfortably in these paperback collections than stuff like Peanuts strips or old MAD Magazine features.

Also interesting is the picture of Keane with wife Thel, the basis for the Mommy character in the strip. I knew Keane modeled most of the family in the comic after his own brood, but I’m so familiar with Mommy’s black helmet of hair that seeing the inspiration for the character is sort of disconcerting.

At any rate, how are the comics? Well… they’re Family Circus comics.

Cutesy and disposable. Although there’s nothing that explicitly says when these comics were printed, they seem to be collected from early March through the summer. There are a lot of St. Patrick’s Day and Easter jokes to bear that assumption… which brings me to another point. Last week I said something about how unspecific Keane tends to be with this comic. I think this is most greatly represented in this comic.

Look at the title of that movie off to the left! Am I reading too much into this, or does that not sound like a porno flick?

I will give credit where credit is due however… Keane does draw a mean Optimus Prime.

This gave me some pause as the copyright information says that this book was printed in 1992. Usually the strips in a collection are about a year or so old, which would point toward these strips being written and drawn in 1990 at the latest.  According to Wikipedia (that unimpeachable source of information) the Transformers cartoon was cancelled in 1987. That strikes me as a HUGE gap in time between the time that Billy would be playing with Transformers toys and the time that this book’s copyright details say I’ll Shovel The Cards was printed.

Of course, there’s probably a very easy explaination for the strip. Either it appeared earlier than 1990 and was just included here for kicks… or Keane was a few years behind in drawing a Transformer into his comic. I’d wager on the latter. Still, it’s a cool little reference!

The best part of the book for me was the extended vacation to Boston the Keane’s take toward the end of the collection. I lived in Boston for a year and a half during graduate school and I can safely say I have never enjoyed living in a place more. If money weren’t an object, I’d pick my family up and move back to Boston in a second.

Honestly, the Boston strips show a wonderful depth of cartooning that make them quite fun to read. I’ve knocked Bil Keane a few times myself, but he’s got a great line… and when you consider how small most newspapers shrink their comic strips, everything in these two Boston strips is completely readable.

Although the back cover of this collection promises “many more to come”, The Family Circus paperback collections only continued into 1995/96. The strip continues to this day with Keane’s son Jeff becoming involved (and, if I had to guess, completely taking over the strip when Keane either retires or kicks the bucket… the latter being more likely at this point, I guess) The strip continues its tradition of inoffensive hijinx and if you’ve read it in papers recently, it’s pretty much the same its always been. Again, I’m not a great fan, but I’ll definitely pick up another collection if I see ’em.