Family cartoon not corroded by acid culture 

Dwight Eisenhower was president and American womanhood still appeared publicly in hats and gloves when “The Family Circus” made its debut in American newspapers 50 years ago.

Featuring the gentle foibles and humorous hijinks of cartoonist Bil Keane’s then-young family, the single-panel daily strip has endured through all the culture’s subsequent weirdness and excesses, remaining a safe little circle in the comics section where so much else is edgy and political.

For the strip, Keane (with the later collaboration of a son) condensed his five children into four: Billy, Dolly, Jeff, and PJ, the littlest. And throughout the years, that circle has been comfortingly unbroken.

Oh, a few things changed, ever so slightly: PJ arrived in 1962 and grew into the 18-month-old he is today. Twenty years in, the family traded its station wagon for a minivan. Fourteen years ago, Thel, the mother, had her hairstyle tweaked. And recently the children added iPods to their supply of toys.

But otherwise, The Family Circus has resisted change, remaining a tiny, apolitical porthole into sweet domestic normalcy. Within the visual embrace of the circle, small children accidentally break things (and blame “Not Me” or “Nobody”), adore their parents, strew their belongings around, and make embarrassingly candid remarks in front of grandma.

Naturally, snarky hipsters have long delighted in scorning Keane’s work, calling the strip “unfunny” and “saccharine” and sharper, less easily printed names. In the late ’80s, more substantial mockery took shape as critics began circulating parodies depicting “The Dysfunctional Family Circus.”

Funsters competed to give Bil Keane’s drawings of round-headed young children vulgar new captions dealing with such witty topics as incest, gay sex and bulimia.

It is very easy to sneer and to destroy. It is much harder to create and build. Even some of the comic strip’s most acid ironists have come to respect Bil Keane’s honorable and sustained effort.

Indeed, one of the cruelest and most successful parodists, Greg Galcik, agreed to fold his Web site in 1999 after talking with the decent Keane (as well as receiving a probably-defensible copyright challenge from King Features, which syndicates the strip).

Fifty years is a long time. Americans opening their breakfast newspaper read The Family Circus before the United States entered the space race. They read it when we beat the Soviets to the moon, and they’re still reading it today, in some 1,500 papers, as we retreat from space.

The cartoon has been through the civil rights era, the sexual revolution and the rush of mothers to the workforce. It’s been through Presidents Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama.

And here it still is! The country may have changed, and the culture certainly has, but the nature of small children has not. Children are wonderfully steady, even as all about them is jolted by events.

Every fresh generation of future jaded teenagers starts out in open-hearted innocence, eager to “help” in the kitchen (cue scenes of catastrophe), to wash unwilling pets, smash vases, and make surprisingly acute observations.

Bil Keane’s achievement, it seems to me, is to manage for 50 years to keep his eye fixed on what is good and tender and humorous in domestic life. That ain’t nothing. It’s a great achievement.

Happy birthday, Family Circus, and well done, Mr. Keane!

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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