Bil Keane never formally studied art, but by faithfully re-creating the world around him, he developed the phenomenally successful cartoon panel The Family Circus. The first Family Circus cartoon, in February 1960, showed Mommy surrounded by a roomful of toy clutter, answering the door to a survey person who asked, Any children?
The panel records the lives of an average American family, made up of Mommy and Daddy, and their four children: Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ. Rounding out the beloved cast are two dogs, Barfy and Sam, and Kittycat.
Keane, who routinely drew the panels within a circle to underscore the sense of closeness between the characters, believed that the family is the source of a lot of happiness, a lot of love and a lot of laughs. I like to feel that what I'm doing portrays this: a family where there is love between mother, father and the kids. It's a subject that is dear to me, he said.
Through the years, Keane made his family life the center of his professional world and always tried to portray the typical American family. His Family Circus characters were based on his own family: himself, his wife, Thel, and his five children, Gayle, Neal, Glen, Christopher and Jeff.
Keane did not always try to make his cartoons especially funny. I would rather have the readers react with a warm smile, a tug at the heart or a lump in the throat as they recall doing the same things in their own families, he said.
The popularity of The Family Circus is found in the fact that the cartoon reminds people of all ages about themselves, their kids and their parents. The panel has been embraced by people the world over, as The Family Circus continues to show us how the American family lives now. King Features Syndicate distributes the panel to more than 1,500 newspapers around the globe, making it the most widely syndicated panel in the world today.
If The Family Circus has any social value, Keane said, it shows parents that their children are normal. And if there is a philosophy behind the feature, it's this: A home filled with love and laughter is the happiest place in the world.
Bil died in November 2011. His son, Jeff, who worked with his father for years, remains at the helm of the great feature and continues his dad's tradition of putting a smile on readers’ faces every day.