I feel like I’ve made hundreds of Family Circus parodies over the years. Even when I was a kid reading Garfield books, I found it banal. Its gentle wholesomeness was always bewildering to me. Whenever I draw a comics page, I always start with that one-panel circle, because it’s just so iconic.
The majority of Family Circus parodies are terrible – most people just throw in some violence or incest and call it a day. But there’s some real gems out there. There’s a particular strip that stands out in my mind – I think it was from Mad Magazine – where Billy is holding a turtle and he says something like “His skin’s all gnarled and wrinkly, like Grandma!” Perry Bible Fellowship’s “homage” is exquisite. My personal favorite is The Nietzsche Family Circus, which pairs a random strip with a random Nietzsche quote. It has an amazing hit ratio.
Mini-comics godfather Steve Willis used to have a feature in his “obscuro comix networking bi-weekly newsletter” City Limits Gazette called “The Bil Keane Watch,” where he and other contributors deconstructed and pontificated on The Family Circus, which raised the bar for Family Circus scholarship by putting out theories and observations, including the Single-Nostril Theory (each kid only has one nostril, for some reason) or the observation that telephone poles are always drawn without wires (an obvious crucifixion metaphor). I think he’s collected them all on his website. Here’s Volume 5 of “The Collected Bil Keane Watch,” featuring a panel drawn for him by “The Master” himself.
A couple days ago I was reading Will Pfeifer’s article “Family Circus of Horors” (collected in The Book of Zines) and it gave me newfound respect for Keane. There are indications that Keane was funnier and hipper than people give him credit for – the 1960’s version of the strip, where “Dad” looks like he wandered in from a bar napkin gag cartoon, for example, or a cameo from none other than Zippy the Pinhead. There was also an April Fool’s Day strip where he took over Dilbert – I can’t find it, but basically Dilbert is at his cubicle being Dilbert and then Billy runs in and makes a joke about him having three square meals a day (because Dilbert is three square panels a day, you see?).
And then there’s this strip from September 1990, as described by Pfeifer:
Billy and Dolly are standing in a field overrun with weeds. Flies buzz around their heads. The sky is dark. A factory and some nearby houses belch smoke. A pick-up in the distance spews more muck and blasts a loud “boom boom boom” music (rap?) as the driver tosses garbage from the window. A sickly green stream sits stagnant before the kids, filled with cans, tires, and rotting fish. A sign that reads “No Shooting” stands riddled with bullet holes. In the midst of all this desolation, there is no clever remark from Billy. No innocently humorous “Dolly-isms.” All Dolly, wearing a world-weary variation of the blasÃ© expression can ask is this:
“Why do babies leave heaven to come here?”
I have no idea what to make of this strip. Did Jean-Paul Sartre write it? Is it a pro-abortion strip? A pro-birth control strip? It’s definitely the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen in the Sunday funnies, and that includes the glory days of Peanuts, when Charles Schulz examined the pain of childhood in excruciating detail. This is way beyond that.
RIP Bil Keane.