Bil Keane: An Appreciation

My first contact with The Family Circus creator Bil Keane was at the Reuben Awards dinner in San Francisco in 1990. This was when the National Cartoonists Society was still largely dominated by "old guard" cartoonists like Mort Walker and Bil and had the feel of a "Raccoon Lodge" convention out of a 1956 Honeymooners TV sitcom. I distinctly remember some sort of inebriated pissing contest going on in the hotel men's room.

I also remember Bil Keane's talk to the assembled crowd. It was flavored by what his generation would call "pretty salty language." For the creator of such a family-friendly strip, his comments were a surprise--and a pleasant one. I began to realize these "old-timers" were not at all like the characters in their G-rated comics; they were people like me. Well, sort of.

On the comics page of any big city daily newspaper, my Zippy strip tends to look like a fish out of water amid all the middle class families and talking animals, but in the context of a large ballroom full of working cartoonists, I felt a professional kinship.

I was surprised when Bil told me he read Zippy in his local Arizona paper and liked it. He didn't even qualify his opinion with the usual, "Of course, I don't always get it." Until then, I hadn't paid much attention to The Family Circus, but I slowly began to see that you could read more into it than what appeared on the surface.

This was before internet wise guys began mashing up random Friedrich Nietzsche lines for Billy and Jeffy's and riffing on the strip as unconscious surrealism. But The Family Circus didn't need hipsters to substitute incongruous dialogue to make the case that it was unconscious surrealism. It was unconscious surrealism on its own.

Somewhat in the vein of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, there was a reductionism going on in The Family Circus that engendered an odd detachment from reality. The seemingly innocuous humor could be read on more than one level. Viewed from a certain angle, Billy's dotted line jaunts around his suburban neighborhood took on a zany, Dada-esque quality.

And then, in 1994, I decided to do a series of strips in which Zippy enters the Family Circus reality, looking for enlightenment. Or at least a few random dotted lines to follow.

I remembered Bil's affection for Zippy, so I decided to bite the bullet and call him to ask if, instead of me parodying his strip, he'd agree to jam with me, drawing and writing Billy and Jeffy's lines as they conversed with Zippy. And, much to my surprise and delight, he said yes. The only thing was, he said, he'd draw and letter the strips, but he'd let me do all the writing . So there they are, in all their crazy strangeness--Zippy and the family from The Family Circus, cavorting in Zippyland (the dates are 12/14-17 1994).

To this day, people ask me if those strips are "real."

But it gets better. In 1995, Bil returned the favor and asked me to draw Zippy into a Family Circus panel. That collision of worlds took place on March 7, 1995 and featured Billy being awakened from a dream of Zippy and asking, "Why did you turn it off, Mommy? I was watchin' Zippy the Pinhead."

Again, people who see this strip often ask me if it's "real."

Ah, but perhaps that question lies at the heart of all Zippy strips---and all of The Family Circus as well--what is real? Maybe Jeffy knows.