RIP Bil Keane

You know, I like to think of myself as a pretty cool dude, it’s true. But I’m a pretty cool dude with some remarkably uncool interests. Primary among those interests is being basically the youngest person currently living (and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m OLD) who has an actual abiding interest in newspaper comics.
It’s unique among media, in that it happens every day, and is generally (for the most part) done by one or two people (exceptions exist, but they’re the far from common). For that, it’s a uniquely American sort of art form as well, at least in its theoretical form: one guy with a talent, setting out to make his dreams come true using only his pen and his gumption, etc.
Anyway, the point is, I like the comics. I read them every day, I talk about them, I think about them, I know a bunch of dumb crap about them. I realize that, thanks to the internet, this is hardly unique, but in general I like them much less ironically than is the standard amount.
For as long as I’ve been aware of comics, there’s been a dichotomy in place, in the form of Bil Keane. For all of my life, his work has been almost criminally unfunny, useful more as an instant punchline than as a comic in and of itself. In fact, it’s had a much more creative and comedically-fulfilling life as the butt of paleolithic web-entertainment The Dysfunctional Family Circus, and all of its many, many offshoots.
And why shouldn’t it have been? It was cheesy, it was lame. Its devices were many, and it got all the mileage it could out of them (and some of them – especially any of the cloying interactions with their grandparents – were unbelievably hokey). It was, basically, ripe for satire. Thing is, it wasn’t entirely because of the things it did poorly. Bil Keane’s skills as a comedian were lacking after a bit (early panels actually do reveal that he was much funnier, but he was still master of the Dad Joke, so really…), but his skills as a cartoonist were top-notch. He wasn’t a particularly skilled artist in the traditional sense, but his mastery of shape and placement were always apparent, and he had a very distinctive line.
Come to that, while the devices he used were certainly well-worn (and after decades of drawing the same strip, how would they not be?), they were at least his, and they were identifiable to anyone with any familiarity with comics in general (Billy’s dotted lines and the “Not Me” ghost especially1), which bespeaks a creator’s talent that pretty much any cartoonist is going for, frankly.
He didn’t make people laugh for a long, long time (and his son, Jeff, has done what is rumored to be the lion’s share of the work for awhile now), but there is something to the fact that he did it in a mind-bogglingly succesful way, in a format that was not known for giving rise to successes. I think there’s probably also something to the fact that two of his children (Jeff’s older brother, Glenn, is an animator) decided to be artists themselves.
So hats off, Bil Keane. Your panel was not necessarily entertaining, but it was certainly an excellent example of a form executed well, and it was as pure a distillation of its creator as anything else on the comics page. The fact that you did a wonderful job filling the world with something without any edges, while making you a target, certainly did nothing to diminish your clear and obvious talent and love of your craft.
I would like to leave on these words, by Lynda Barry2, an extremely gifted cartoonist whose work occupies almost exactly the mirror-image of Bil Keane’s:

“My absolute favorite comic of all time is…are you ready? It’s Family Circus…The reason why I loved Family Circus so much was because I came from a very difficult, violent, horrible home and I look in that circle and see a happy little life. And I always wanted to get to it. And I realized when I shook [Bil Keane’s] hand that I had come through the circle. I was on the other side. And the way I did it was by drawing a picture.”




1 and really, is there any better evidence in support of this idea than the fact that I can refer to them as “Billy’s dotted lines and the ‘Not Me’ ghost” and have people know what I’m talking about?

2 taken from http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/culture/2010/12/887670/barry-and-kalman-state-illustration-sort

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