FOR MILLIONS OF READERS, BIL KEANE reached out every day through the comforting power of a single panel. “Family Circus” may play out within its own single circle panel, but viewing its family felt like you were looking through a keyhole. Or maybe taking a trip back through time.
For many of us cartoonists it was reassuring to know the creator’s work, (Keane) who launched the comic with King Features in 1960, would remain a staple of American cartoon strips. Keane, not unlike “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, seemed to absolutely embody a time in American life when things weren’t necessarily more innocent, yet were somehow simpler. And having been launched at a time when the cartoon strip was still as central to the domestic landscape as family dinners and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Family Circus” became a favorite of millions of readers.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Keane taught himself to draw while attending Northeast Catholic High School by mimicking the style of the cartoons published in The New Yorker. His first cartoon was published on May 21, 1936 on the amateur page of the Philadelphia Daily News. While in high school, his in-comic signature spelled his name “Bill Keane”,but early in his career, he omitted the second L from his first name “to be distinctive”.
Keane served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, drawing for Yank and creating the “At Ease with the Japanese” feature for the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes. While stationed in Australia he met Thelma “Thel” Carne.Bil and Thel were married in Brisbane in 1948and settled in Roslyn, Pennsylvania. Thel, the inspiration for the “Mommy” character in his long-running strip, died on May 23, 2008, from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. They have five children, Gayle, Neal, Glen, Christopher and Jeff. Glen works as an animator.
Keane worked for the Philadelphia Bulletin as a staff artist from 1946 to 1959, where he launched his first regular comic strip Silly Philly. His first syndicated strip, Channel Chuckles, a series of jokes related to television, premiered in 1954 and ran until 1977.In 1959, the Keane family moved to Paradise Valley, Arizona. Keane’s daily newspaper panel The Family Circus premiered on February 29, 1960. Keane was the president of the National Cartoonists Society from 1981 to 1983 and was the emcee of the Society’s annual awards banquet for 16 years.
From 1981 to 1983, Keane published the gag strip Eggheads in collaboration with his son Jeff, who now draws and writes The Family Circus and continues the strip with his own insight and humor. Like his father, Jeff Keane has been president of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), serving two consecutive terms (four years). The NCS is the organizing body that honors cartoonists with the Reuben Awards.
Bil Keane died on November 8, 2011, at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona (near Phoenix), at 89. The cause of death was given as congestive heart failure.