The first real live cartoonist I ever met

By Jeremy Meltingtallow

Today is the birthdate of the late Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus. Here’s a repost from the Cartoonist Studio blog I wrote earlier this year.

Baby Blues title panel tribute to Bil Keane from July 23, 2000

In June of 1976, I met my first cartoonist. I was taking night classes at Phoenix College, and in my Art Appreciation class, the final assignment was to interview a local artist. At the time, my interest was in becoming a professional cartoonist, so obviously, I thought of interviewing a cartoonist. Bil Keane was one of only a few cartoonists in the Phoenix area. He was, by far, the most well known and high profile. How do you go about trying to locate a famous cartoonist?

My first step was to check the phone book.

And right there it was: Bil Keane, in Paradise Valley. I called the number, expecting to get an assistant or secretary, whom I would have to maneuver my way past in order to get to the famous man myself.

He answered the phone. I recall being taken by surprise. I’m sure I was flustered by this and probably tried to sound much more substantial than my 22-year-old greenhorn self. Apparently, I sounded legitimate enough, because Bil made an appointment for me to meet him at his studio in his Paradise Valley home to interview him.

Click photos to biggify

He gave me directions, and when I got to the big mailbox with his famous signature on the side, my quest to become not just a professional cartoonist, but a syndicated one, was ignited. The fire was fueled when I entered his studio with a view of a lush back yard and Camelback Mountain, and saw the map of the United States with pins in it for every city where The Family Circus ran. Decades later, Jerry and I started a similar wall map with pins for Baby Blues clients—many, many fewer pins.

I sat across from his drawing table and put my cassette recorder between us and we talked. For nearly an hour, Bil told me about his career and the business of syndication and I soaked it all up like a sponge. He was funny and friendly, and serious when it came to the business end of being a cartoonist. I thanked him for his time, and put away the recorder. At some point, I had mentioned to Bil that I was an aspiring cartoonist. Bil asked me if I’d like to have an original Family Circus.

Of course, I would!

Not only had I met my first cartoonist, but I had scored my first original. He pulled a daily panel out and signed it to me.

I wrote up the interview and passed the class with high marks. Not long after that, Jerry and I sent our first comic strip idea to him for some feedback, and he referred us to his syndicate editor. The encouragement from his response fed our persistence for years.

Recently, I unearthed the tape after many years of it being missing. It was an amazing record of my first meeting with a cartoonist.

And I feel quite lucky that it was Bil Keane.