The Dotted Line Fades Away — A Few Words About Bil Keane (1922-2011)

Bil Keane was funny.

Maybe that comes as a surprise to those who see the Family Circus as primarily sweet, but it was true.

For years, he hosted cartooning’s annual Reubens banquet, which he would open by saying, “It’s more than a pleasure to be here tonight.  In fact, it’s a damn inconvenience.”

At times during the event, he would purposely lapse into this odd gibberish in which he might say every other word in a sentence, causing you to either check your hearing or wonder if the PA system had broken down.  It was awesome because he never gave any hint that it was a joke.  You either got it or you didn’t.

And his work in the Family Circus could be edgy.  That’s right.  Edgy.

Consider this early strip from the 1960′s where two of the kids are arriving back home after attending a football game with their Dad.  One of the kids says to their mother:  “And we each had a bottle of soda.  Daddy brought his own in his pocket.”

I was lucky enough to spend time with him on a couple of occasions, even interview him at his house for the Charles Schulz Museum.  When I was there, we talked about the parodies I did of the Family Circus.  He told me he didn’t mind them at all.  “As long as they’re funny,” he added.  “Just be funny.”

It was during that visit that he told me about his USO-sponsored tour of Vietnam, and I remember thinking to myself how much I would like to do something like that.  And sure enough (with the help of his son Jeff), I was able to go on such a tour a few years later in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bil was my inspiration for that.

Sometimes I would call him at his house.  I thought at first he enjoyed the calls, but at the end of one conversation, he said, “Well, great talking to you.  Now my dinner is cold.”  I would have been offended, but I was laughing too hard.

I parodied his comic because it was an icon.  A status those in my generation can only dream of.   And in parodying it, I saw what amazing care Bil took in drawing his strips.

But most of all, he was a kind person.  Every year he sent me (and surely dozens of other people) a signed Christmas calendar.  It was a small thing, but it made me feel like a big shot to get a signed calendar from Bil Keane.

Through his own conduct, he showed each of us in the profession how we should act toward each other, and how we should act toward those just starting out.

And his low-key, friendly reaction to my parodies taught me more about class than any lecture ever could have.

I’ll miss him.

85 thoughts on “The Dotted Line Fades Away — A Few Words About Bil Keane (1922-2011)

  1. You were actually the first person I thought of when I heard that Mr. Keane had passed away. His family … and their circus certainly brought many laughs over the years. Even now, when I read his bio on the familycircus.com, I laughed – simply, because he is so funny. He had a clever way with words ~ Thank you, Mr. Keane you will be missed.

  2. Thank you for these wonderful words of such a cartoon icon. He will be greatly missed. I hope you continue to honor him in the future by including Family Circus in Pearls.

  3. Thanks for a touching tribute to Bil Keane – one of the true masters of the art form. His work brought many a smile to my face and I’m sure millions more to a million others.

  4. Pingback: Cartoonists react to the passing of Bil Keane The Daily Cartoonist

  5. I think Stephan’s parodies of Family Circus are a great tribute to Bil Keane, in the same manner that many musical artists considered Weird Al’s parodies to be tributes to their songs. It’s obvious Stephan had a true admiration for Bil.

  6. I just saw the story on Yahoo news and I immediately came to your FB page. I loved reading Family Circus when I was a kid and I can’t tell you how much I love when you mention Billy or do a take on the Keanes in your strip! Very nice tribute Stephan. You’re one of the few of this generation that can hold a torch to the likes of your predecessors like Keane or Schulz. Keep up the good work and eventually you’ve got to make it out to Detroit for a book signing!

  7. Stephan, thank you for a wonderful tribute. Bil created an amazing strip that many of us could relate to, as parents and as children. I enjoyed reading about Billy and Jeffy and Dolly and I’m glad their stories fell to Jeff to continue.

    RIP Bil and thanks for making us all a part of the Family Circus.

  8. What an awesome tribute. I always thought you disliked his work. Now I know you respected and admired him. Thank you for setting that straight. You are right, he was funny. He made us laugh for many years.

  9. Beautiful, touching tribute. I have to say, Family Circus always made me smile, and I always appreciated that. Pearls Before Swine often makes me laugh out loud, and I appreciate that even more. Keep doing what you do, Stephan. Keep doing what you do.

  10. Lovely tribute. I’m so glad that Bil appreciated your parodies; it speaks to him having a wonderful sense of humor (which it sounds like he had in spades.)

  11. No worries; you’re always funny. Thanks for these sweet thoughts about Mr. Keane. You made him very human and reachable.

  12. Nicely done! But I can’t help remember the first PBS strip I read that made me fall in love with it – The one where Osama bin Laden hid out in the Family Circle! “Osama, we say ‘amen’ at the end of our prayers not ‘America is the Great Satan.’” I snorted hot tea out through my nose I laughed so hard

  13. Why are all the revolutionaries of their respective fields leaving us? First Jobs, now Bil Keane, who’s gonna be next?

  14. Stephan, thanks for the nice tribute. The comics are the first page (used to be pages-sigh) I turn to in the paper, and both PBS and Family Circus are favorites. I always enjoyed the times you pulled Billy and Jeffy into your world, and wondered how Mr. Keane felt. Now I know, and admire you both a whole lot more. Thanks.

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  16. Yup, good tribute. I loved the story you told in a previous blog about how you were at some kind of cartoonist’s banquet or awards show, and after you got finished at the podium telling everyone what a good sport he was about your parodies of the Family Circus, he jokingly shouted “**** YOU!” …Now that’s comedy.

  17. Thank you for sharing your warmth toward Bill Keane with all of us. There has always been something for eveyone to take from his wonderful work. I’m glad his Son is continuing the strip. Now HE can visit as a spirit – just like the Grandparents in the comic.

  18. Dear Sir, well put. I love The Family Circus and Pearls Before Swine – for the same reasons and for different reasons. Just came across your parody of The Family Circus regarding Billy shooting his parole officer.
    I trust you will have a tribute to Bil in an upcoming panel.

  19. Pingback: RIP Bil Keane | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

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  21. I grew up with “Family Circus”. I didn’t always get the humor, but felt comforted seeing it around for my entire life. Nice eulogy.

  22. Thank you for writing this moving tribute. As a lifelong Sunday funnies reader, I’ve been guilty of taking for granted the warmth and wit of the late Bil Keane—whose memory will, indeed, be eternal for everyone that’s ever snagged the comics page from the paper.

  23. What an enviable position, to be able to stand arm in arm with someone who is an icon in your field. What a perfect tribute to be honored this way by someone who is an icon in your field.

  24. To be honest I really felt that Circus was always 5 seconds of my day wasted. But I could never resist the siren call of those damn dotted lines.

    Rest well Bil, you have earned your rest.

  25. Lovely homage, thank you. Family Circus is usually a little sweet for my taste, but I always read it anyway. It’s predictability is actually rather comforting. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged, just reassured by someone’s observations of the small pleasantnesses and obstacles of daily life, and Bil Keane reliably produced that. This does seem to be the end of an era, although I’m glad to hear that his son will be carrying on the tradition.

  26. I was so surprised to find you Freshly Pressed on WordPress – one of my top favorite cartoonists! Pearls before Swine is a major start to my day. I always love when you include Family Circus in your strip – and it makes it more special to hear the thoughts behind that. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Wow, I remember Family Circus before I could read. It would drive me crazy that I couldn’t read the comics by myself. It seems like yesterday but it was actually back in the mid 1960′s. What an enjoyment reading the comics and I’ve always loved that one.

  28. This reminded me of the book, very great book, “Tuesdays with Morrie”.

    Thank you for posting.

  29. I always enjoyed Family Circus; it often said more in one panel than other strips. It was sweet, funny, well-made, and sometimes had an edge. The paths Billy took made me cry with laughter. Great tribute from a, soon to be great, stripper.

  30. Thank you. I loved your story on the interview about Bil Keane at the comic.con (or whichever speaking event it was). I thought it was hilarious and really highlighted your admiration of Keane (and his of you).

  31. Thanks for the great tribute, Stephan. I love your strip. And Family Circus was indeed an icon… my whole life, too! My mom loved it. I used to buy the paperbacks as a kid. That, along with Peanuts. Later I grew to Calvin and Hobbes and Mutts. Now Pearls… hmmm, that’s a lot of wacky animals. Again, great blog and keep up the good work in Pearls.

  32. So often when a public figure passes away, we think only of our own loss as fans of their work. Thank you for such a poignant reminder that his friends will miss Bil Keane, too.

  33. When my husband and I heard Bill K had died, we had a single thought: YOU! Your FC parodies have always been all the funnier for their obvious underlying affection. Your tribute above is perfect.

  34. Nice tribute. A small, shriveled, selfish part of me wonders if this will be the end of the Family Circus parodies. I did like them.

  35. I had been wondering how you would approach this and I think you’ve struck the perfect note. I wasn’t a fan of Family Circus but I read it every week. Billy’s path around the yard or the neighborhood rarely made me smile and I rolled my eyes at the strip’s overtly Christian content, but I suspected the man behind it was much like the one you’ve described. I’m sorry you’ve lost your friend.

  36. It was moving tribute, I’m glad he had such good sense of humor. I wish Bill was able to show full range his humor other venues.

    Thanks Stephan Pastis for writing this up. Bill will be missed.

  37. Thank you for the Bil Keane tribute in today’s (December 25) Pearls Before Swine!

    I grew reading the work of Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, and I probably discovered Darby Conley’s and your work around 2003, when I finally moved to a city with a paper large enough to carry them. And Bil Keane’s Family Circus was on my Sunday morning reading list for as long as I can remember. Thank you for taking the time to honor those who’ve passed, particularly those as impactful as Mr. Keane.

    Merry Christmas!

  38. When I saw your Christmas “constellation” today, I thought, “How perfect.” Your tribute of 9 November makes it clear that Mr. Keane would have gotten it *and* loved it that you saved that present to give his memory on a day holy to him. That was grace!

  39. Your Christmas strip today was very sweet and downright touching. Thank you for showing your own touch of class.

  40. Thank you so much for your Christmas panel honoring Bil Keane. It brought tears to my eyes, because I have enjoyed Family Circus for many, many years. (Our family was boy, girl, boy & boy like them) When we lived where they did not have that comic strip, my uncle would cut out all of them and send us a pack every couple of weeks.

    After reading your blog, I understood how much you respected him also. Thanks again

  41. I don’t usually write an author about their work, but when I saw the 12/25 strip, I find myself saying you nailed the commentary. It was most perfect!! Don’t read comics anymore though may start looking for Pearls Before Swine. I too have fond memories of The Family Circus when I was a kid and was sad to know Bil had passed.

  42. Thanks, ***, for *** Family ******. But, ******, please, **** Funky **********, Rex ******, MD, & ********* 3-G!

    It looks as though Bil enjoyed a wonderful life. Good luck to Jeff!

  43. I think from the line there was at the Powell’s Books “Larry in Wonderland” signing that you’re just as famous as he was…

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