That big Catholic Family Circus

Among his fellow cartoonists, “Family Circle” patriarch Bil Keane was well known for many reasons, including his often surprisingly hip and bizarre wit (which, obviously, he deliberately left out of his oh-so-straightforward cartoons). Can you imagine Keane lending his pen to a series of “Zippy the Pinhead” cartoons? Sure, why not.

However, to his readers he was the cartoon cartoonist character — named Bil — with the flash-back family values that were so pure and wholesome that many online critics simply could not resist mocking them and worse.

The question that seems to have been left unanswered in so many of the obituaries for Keane is quite basic: If this man’s values were at the heart of his art, then where did these values come from? Obviously they came from real life and journalists had no problem discussing that. However, many clearly missed the higher source of those values.

The Associate Press report that ran widely, including The Washington Post, featured the usual language right up top:

PHOENIX – Bil Keane’s “Family Circus” comics entertained readers with a simple but sublime mix of humor and traditional family values for more than a half century. The appeal endured, the author thought, because the American public needed the consistency.

And later on:

Keane said in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press that the cartoon had staying power because of its consistency and simplicity.

“It’s reassuring, I think, to the American public to see the same family,” he said.

Although Keane kept the strip current with references to pop culture movies and songs, the context of his comic was timeless. The ghost-like “Ida Know” and “Not Me” who deferred blame for household accidents were staples of the strip. The family’s pets were dogs Barfy and Sam, and the cat, Kittycat.

“We are, in the comics, the last frontier of good, wholesome family humor and entertainment,” Keane said. “On radio and television, magazines and the movies, you can’t tell what you’re going to get. When you look at the comic page, you can usually depend on something acceptable by the entire family.”

Jeff Keane shared the sentiment, saying “Family Circus” had flourished through the decades because readers continue to relate to its values of family moments.

And so forth and so on.

However, Keane fans who were willing to search out other more “conservative” news outlets were able to read more about the roots of (a) those large family values and (b) all of the cartoon panels featuring stained-glass windows, pastors, prayers and other unusual elements, in the context of American newspaper humor.

Keane was, simply stated, a faithful, practicing Roman Catholic. While others ignored this fact, Catholic News Service put it right in the lede, as you would expect:

Bil Keane, the Catholic cartoonist who originated the comic strip “The Family Circus” more than 50 years ago, died Nov. 8 at age 89 in Paradise Valley, Ariz., near Phoenix. The cause of death was given as congestive heart failure.

Later in that same story, Keane himself notes:

The comic also is known for its occasional religious themes. While the worship depicted in “The Family Circus” is of a generic Christian nature, Keane told St. Anthony Messenger it came from the family’s long connection to the Catholic Church. “I draw out of my lifestyle,” Bil said. “I grew up Catholic, my kids grew up Catholic.”

Did secular journalists, writing for mainstream news sources, need to include this information?

That all depends on whether you thought that these journalists were writing to an audience that included “Family Circus” fans, the kinds of old-school newspaper readers who would be interested in the values advocated in all of those cartoons. If those readers cared about those values, and the man behind them, then, yes, it’s easy to argue that Keane’s Catholic faith should have been part of the mainstream story. Why not include that crucial element in his worldview and humor?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Did secular journalists, writing for mainstream news sources, need to include this information?

    Does a journalist, writing for a mainstream news source, need to paint a fully three dimensional picture of someone when writing an obituary?

  • Julia

    The strip always reminds me of my large, Catholic, “square” family doings when growing up. I particularly like the circuitous path one of the kids would take to do a simple errand – a little child easily distracted because living in the moment. Charming and life affirming.

    Why not report the zeitgeist of his positive cartoon characters who were so ready to forgive each others’ failings? It might better explain his strips to those who are commenting at on-line news sites that his strips are “vapid” or even set their teeth on edge. I was surprised to see there are folks who are not just bored but have a real antipathy toward the Family Circus.

  • Dave

    Did secular journalists, writing for mainstream news sources, need to include this information?

    Yes. When the author of a popular strip/panel dies, the readers would like to know something of where in the life of the author the strip came from. Religious background is properly part of that package.

  • astorian

    Edgier cartoonists regularly lampooned “Family Circus,” but KEane himself never seemed to mind, so long as the results were funny.

    One of the current comic strips that regularly mocked “Family Circus” is Stephan Pastis’ “Pearls BEfore Swine. Pastis himself apparently knew and liked Keane, and wrote a rather nice tribute to him:

    http://stephanpastis.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/the-dotted-line-fades-away-a-few-words-about-bil-keane-1922-2011/

    As for me, I always knew that Keane’s cartoon family was Catholic. One of the first “Family Circus” cartoons I ever saw appeared back in the mid-Sixties, and showed the whole family at Mass. When the altar boys rang the bells (yes, they still did that at the time), Dolly squealed “It’s the ice cream man!”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    You can be sure that if Keane had used his strip to promote a negative view of the Catholic Faith, there would have been plenty said approvingly about that in the media upon his death.
    May God rest his soul and perpetual light shine upon him.

  • Harriet Kennedy

    The paper also includes devotional materials, and articles on historic Roman Catholic teachings and persons.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Does a journalist, writing for a mainstream news source, need to paint a fully three dimensional picture of someone when writing an obituary?

    Only if they want to write a good obituary.

    I’m not a fan of the funny papers, but when I get that far, Family Circus was hard to miss, being one panel set off from the strips. So I’ve read it periodically all my life, and never clicked to the inherent Catholicism. Of course, they had to explain Lord of the Rings as well, being as I’m not all that bright.

  • RW

    My absolute favorite Family Circus was a full color, broad Sunday strip where Dad is talking over the fence w/ a neighbor who comments on his unsightly lawn. Dad is watching his family play and says, “We are growing kids, not grass!”

    My dad was the same way as his 10 kids (I’m #9) were growing up and my lovely dh is the same w/ our brood of 11.

    Like others, I knew he was Catholic – who else would give his kids’ guardian angels??

  • Heather

    @ #7:

    Does a journalist, writing for a mainstream news source, need to paint a fully three dimensional picture of someone when writing an obituary?

    Only if they want to write a good obituary.

    That’s a big 10-4.


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