November 10th, 2011
Though he published nearly 100 books, not a single one of them is available for the Kindle. For more than 50 years, cartoonist Bil Keane wrote the one-panel Family Circus comic strips which appeared in 1,500 newspapers around the world. Some readers complained that its sweet familiarity was out of place in the modern world. But when Bil Keane collided with wise guys, both on Amazon.com and on the web, he ultimately proved that he was a very good sport.
I’d like to share that story today, because Bil Keane died Tuesday, less than a year before his 90th birthday. The L.A. Times remembers that he’d seemed almost proud to be old-fashioned when they interviewed him in 1990, and the cartoonist explained that he wasn’t going just for punchlines. “I don’t just try to be funny. Many of my cartoons are not a belly laugh. I go for nostalgia, the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, the tug in the heart….”
Keane drew those comic strips — and regularly collected them together into books — starting all the way back in 1961. He based the mother in the cartoon family on his own wife — also named Thelma — and the family’s father’s, of course, was named Bil. Even the children in the strip were modeled after Keane’s own five children, according to the L.A. Times. One of his son’s eventually grew up to be an animator at Walt Disney Studios.
But it was Keane’s daily comic strip that made him famous — so much so that after several decades, it became an easy target for other would-be humorists. For example, just a few years after Amazon.com was launched, Keane’s books began receiving some very strange reviews from Amazon customers who seemed to be taking them just a little too seriously. (“Having already taken his place among the company of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky, with the publication of Daddy’s Cap Is On Backwards Bil Keane now emerges as the master of them all…”) It was one of the first fake reviews that I ever read on Amazon, and its humor rests on everyone’s familiarity with The Family Circus characters — and the fact that the review is obviously describing the wrong plot. “The turning point of the narrative is the episode where Jeffy sells his soul to Mephistopheles for power and knowledge, yet this can be fully understood only in contrast to the many events that precede and follow it — such as the haunting scene where little Billy carries his father out of the burning city on his shoulders, or the passage where PJ, now the viceroy of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers as the boy whom they sold into servitude years before…”
Soon dozens of fake reviews sprouted up on several of Keane’s Family Circus collections — and I thought Bil Keane handled it like a true gentleman. When he was reached for a comment by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, they reported that Keane laughed and said genially that while some of it was in bad taste — some of it was also funny, and “I assume my readers are intelligent enough to know I didn’t do the bad stuff…”
Keane was also apparently friends with cartoonists who drew some of the ‘hipper” cartoons. According to Wikipedia, Keane once even agreed to draw his characters into a special series of Zippy the Pinhead strips, while their dialogue was provided by its creator, Bill Griffith. And while the Pearls Before Swine strip used to mock The Family Circus, in real life, the two cartoonists behind the strips were good friends. In fact two years ago, Bil Keane even wrote the introduction to a Pearls Before Swine collection.
But the amateur satirists — and the internet — weren’t through with Keane yet. By the 1990s, Keane’s characters were also appearing in a rowdy (and wholly unauthorized) “zine”. (Back before the dawn of ebooks and personal sites on the web, self-publishing authors would just photocopy things they’d written and drawn, circulating them through the mail or at live concerts.) One zine-ster decided to photocopy Keane’s newspaper comic strip, but then type in their own raunchier captions. A MacWorld columnist wrote that sometime back in the 1990s, if you posted your e-mail address in one of the internet newsgroups about comic strips, “this would set into motion a complex and mysterious chain of events that would ultimately result in an unmarked envelope with no return address arriving in your mailbox… and inside you’d find a handmade mini-comic entitled The Dysfunctional Family Circus!”
The zine eventually inspired a similar parody web site, which began inviting its readers to type in their own crazy captions for Keane’s Family Circus cartoons. And by 1995, when that site went down, a 25-year-old webmaster in Chicago had decided to keep the new tradition alive. Amazingly, for the next four years, he presided over the “Dysfunctional Family Circus” web site, and more than 2,500 enthusiastic people submitted crazy new captions for Keane’s cozy newspaper comic strip. (Like “I finally did it! All ten commandments in one day..!”) It proved to be very popular, and ultimately the webmaster and his friends picked through nearly half a million “alternate” captions, publishing dozens and dozens of the best ones (along with Keane’s original cartoon).
And then in a surreal moment, “The Family Circus‘s lawyer” showed up, threatening legal action if the site wasn’t taken down. The defiant webmaster pondered a “freedom of speech” defense, and even posted more of Keane’s cartoons online, letting his community weave their own reactions into still more new captions for the strip. But this showdown finally ended in the most unexpected way imaginable. One day the webmaster picked up his phone, and discovered he was receiving a call from cartoonist Bil Keane himself.
Bil Keane was already 77 years old, and for the next 90 minutes, he engaged the 29-year-old webmaster in a long conversation. The webmaster never revealed what they talked about, but “…as we got further into the conversation, I just realized I couldn’t really go on doing what I’m doing,” he wrote later on his web page. Bil Keane had simply surprised him. “He’s actually a nice guy….”
It seems that Bil Keane’s real-life sweetness had won over the wild webmaster. He voluntarily removed all the Family Circus pictures from his site. Bil Keane even sent him a personal thank-you note — on Family Circus stationery that included the “Billy” character from the comic strip. In the end, the webmaster simply scanned that, and posted it in place of the other 500 strips.
I’ll remember that as the day when a moment of Bil Keane’s genuine warmth somehow magically escaped from his comic strip — and found its way out into the real world.