March 17, 2003
CIRCLE OF FAITH:
Cartoonist Bil Keane
___By Kathi Wolfe
___Religion News Service
___PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. (RNS)--It's so retro you may not want your hip friends to know you read it. But for many newspaper readers, it's an oasis of comfort in times of uncertainty.
___It is "The Family Circus," a comic strip that appears daily in more than 1,500 newspapers in the United States and throughout the world.
___The panel revolves around a "typical" American family: Dadd
y, Mommy, their four children (Billy, 7; Dolly, 5; Jeffy, 3; and PJ, 18 months), their dogs Barfy and Sam, and their cat, Kittycat.
___This family is no more "typical" than the Cleavers in "Leave It to Beaver." Yet despite the dysfunction found in many families and the irony that permeates the culture in the age of "The Simpsons," readers love the "Family Circus" gang today as much as they did when the strip began more than 40 years ago.
___The "Family Circus" strip inhabits a small corner of American culture that hasn't been infiltrated by cynicism, said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Jerry Springer shows you the dark side of the American family. 'The Family Circus' shows you the optimistic side. Most families live between the two."
___The characters in "The Family Circus" are "absolutely like members of your family," said Mike Peters, creator of the comic strip "Mother Goose & Grimm." He added: "Everyone knows the kids, the mom and dad. You're charmed by looking at the world through the kids' eyes."
___Only a handful of strips are so integral a part of the fabric of America, Peters said.
___Bil Keane, 80, created the strip 43 years ago and has drawn it ever since it first appeared in 19 papers. The inspiration for "The Family Circus" came from his own life, Keane said in a telephone interview from his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. Keane and his wife, Thelma, have five children. Daddy in the strip, like Keane, is a cartoonist.
___The religious themes expressed in the strip grow out of his family's experiences, Keane said. The children express "the religious questions that I had as a child or that other children have."
___Jeffy, saying the Lord's Prayer, prays, "Our Father who art in heaven, how did you know my name?" Billy wants to know, "When we say grace, do we look up at heaven or down at the food?" Dolly wonders, "When people get to heaven, are they allowed to hug God?"
___Religion in the strip is expressed subtly. "It's not done to convert you in airports," Thompson said. "There's a subtlety to the message. It's not Jehovah's Witnesses. It says we should be nice to each other."
___When "The Family Circus" does bring in a Christian theme, such as Christmas, he added, "it's to give (the strip) density--window dressing. Like what the 'Goldbergs' (the radio, TV and comic strip) did with the characters being Jewish."
___Yet faith in "The Family Circus" isn't vacuous. Without being preachy, it delivers a message. When Dolly asks, "Is God white, black, brown, yellow or red?" Mommy simply answers, "Yes."
___"It helps to bring in a religious message only occasionally. Or my editor would say he's not buying a religious strip," Keane said. "It makes it more special that way."
___Keane was born in 1922 in Philadelphia and grew up there. Religion and drawing have been integral to his life since his childhood.
___"Religion was a part of our home life when I was growing up," he explained. "I attended Catholic school. It was a good education--for the spiritual end, as well as for its discipline."
___Humor always has been an element of his faith. "Laughter was a part of the church services I attended as a child," recalled Keane, a Catholic.
___Jesus must have had a sense of humor, he said. "Churches have made God and Christ on Earth seem solemn. Very seldom do you see a picture of Christ laughing or smiling."
___But that's not the way Jesus was, Keane said. "I like
to think of him as a guy who got people to listen to him by leaving them laughing and chuckling with one another."
___Keane never formally studied art. In sixth grade, he drew caricatures of the other students and of the teacher, Sister Anne. "She was a great teacher. Instead of chastising me for drawing her in a not-too-flattering way, she encouraged me."
___When he left her class, Keane added, "Sister Anne said, 'I hope someday to see you drawing cartoons.'"
___He taught himself to draw while he was a student at Northeast Catholic High School--drawing cartoons for the school newspaper. In the late 1930s, Keane and his friends produced a satirical magazine, "The Saturday Evening Toast."
___He stayed up nights copying the cartoons of his idols--New Yorker cartoonists Peter Arno, George Price, Robert Day and Whitney Darrow.
___"I learned by doing cartoons what was right and what was wrong," he said. At this time Keane dropped the second "l" in his first name, Bill. "I did this to be distinctive," he said.
___His first job after high school was as a messenger for the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. Keane served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945, drawing for Yank magazine and creating the "At Ease With the Japanese" feature for Pacific Stars and Stripes.
___After World War II, he returned to the Bulletin. He drew cartoons for the paper and created a Quaker character based on William Penn for "Silly Philly," a Sunday comic strip. In 1948, Keane married Thelma Carne, an Australian whom he met during the war. The couple lived in Roslyn, Pa., for 10 years before moving to Arizona in 1959.
___From 1954 to 1972, Keane drew "Channel Chuckles," a TV humor cartoon that was distributed nationally. He also drew cartoons on a freelance basis for magazines. The income enabled Keane to leave the Bulletin and work from home.
___He launched "The Family Circus" in February 1960.
___Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Keane said, he has received mail from readers "who are gratified that there is something in the comic pages that devotes some space to the influence of religion and God." It gives people hope that things can be the way they used to be, he added.
___"No one has an explanation for the attacks. But most people believe that guidance from above will help to beat terrorism," he said.
___Keane jokes that he has no plans to retire other than to go to bed at night. But he knows he won't be able to do "The Family Circus" forever.
___When Keane steps down from the strip, his son Jeff will take over. To prepare for this passing of the torch, Jeff does the drawings in ink after Keane provides the ideas and draws the panels in pencil.
___"He's warming up in the bullpen," Keane said. "He's doing a beautiful job."
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