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Saturday, January 1, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Family Circus Creator Draws From Experience

The Dallas Morning News

Bil Keane compares his job to that of a filmmaker.

"I can have the characters, I cast the scene, I write the script, I do the costumes and decide who's going to do what and what angle it's going to be shot from."

And the finished product is always rated G.

Keane is the creator of the single-panel cartoon The Family Circus, where the humor is gentle, a domestic crisis is usually no more serious than having to play indoors on a rainy day, and Billy, the oldest of the four kids, never goes anywhere in a straight line.

The cartoon will mark its 40th anniversary in February, and while Keane includes the occasional contemporary reference, not much has changed since the arrival of PJ, the youngest, in 1962 ("a very ticklish thing" at the time, Keane says, because "you couldn't even mention the word `pregnant' in a comic strip in a family newspaper"). Daddy goes to work, Mommy stays home with the kids, the two dogs and the cat, and there are more than enough hugs to go around. Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ - with their squat bodies and oblong heads - are baby boomers, only they haven't aged enough to realize it.

In real life, Keane, 77, has five children. Originally, he patterned the character of Billy after his own boyhood memories, but it was probably inevitable that his oldest son, Glen, would come to personify The Family Circus' most rambunctious - by comparison - sibling. Daughter Gayle became the model for Dolly (her mother's nickname for her). Youngest son Jeff is the only one to have a child in the cartoon named for him, but sons Christopher and Neal also contributed to the mix of composite characters.

"I didn't really try to draw our children in there," Keane says. "They didn't know it, and I didn't know for sure that I was drawing them. But when you're sitting there drawing cartoons day after day about kids and you're looking out in the back yard (at children playing), as I did in my studio, you are drawing your own children and your own experiences."

Keane's childhood was spent in Philadelphia. Many cartoonists fed their early drawing habits by copying characters from comic books and newspaper comic strips. But Keane had a more sophisticated source of inspiration: The New Yorker. He was captivated by the work of Peter Arno, George Price and the magazine's other regular cartoonists.

"I never really had ambition to do a comic strip," he says. "I liked the idea of the single-panel cartoons. The stuff that I saw in The New Yorker was so great because they would jump on anything that was current and very topical and do a cartoon that wasn't really a joke as much as it was illustrating a recognizable phrase or incident or scene that would make a satirical comment on that particular phenomenon."

While working on a humor magazine as a teenager with a group of friends, he shortened the spelling of his first name to Bil. "I thought it was a little more distinguished, and started signing my cartoons that way. And it stuck."

He worked as a messenger at the Philadelphia Bulletin before joining the Army in World War II. He was able to use his artistic skill while in the service, drawing for Yank magazine, Pacific Stars and Stripes and other Army publications. While stationed in Australia (where he met his wife, Thelma), he even painted murals on the walls of Red Cross facilities that U.S. soldiers used while on R&R.

He returned to the Bulletin after the war, this time as an artist. He did cartoons and illustrations for newspapers and magazines before his now-familiar feature made its debut in 1960. The original title, The Family Circle, was changed after several months when the magazine of the same name objected, but the cartoon is still framed in a circle. It appears in more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide including The Seattle Times.

The Family Circus, unlike most other long-running cartoons, makes specific pop-culture references to such things as TV shows, video games, PokÀemon, Teletubbies, even the "Is that your final answer?" catch phrase from the hit game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." This gives the cartoon a measure of currency, Keane says.

"The feature is 40 years old, and in most cases, a 40-year-old panel has lost a lot of its popularity. But Family Circus shows up in the top of readership polls mainly because I do keep it current. People look at it as a family of today's children and not just something out of the '60s or '70s or even '80s. I make an effort to keep it current by keeping my finger on the pulse and watching our grandchildren, who are involved in PokÀemon or Harry Potter books or whatever is going on.

"The only thing it does that's negative is it dates the cartoon . . . and I have so many (Family Circus) books out. . . . But when people look at them, it's almost a cartoon chronicle of that particular era. It's an ongoing thing . . . a cartoon that would be funny because it is about something that's current might not be funny three or five years from now. But I think people look at Family Circus as a record of family life during that particular time."

Historical value aside, Keane sees The Family Circus as "an icon of innocence among the comics. . . . It's a counterbalance to some of the way-out type panels and strips that are populating the comics pages today. I think the comics today are more of a force than they ever have been. They make commentary, not just political but social and on current events, etc. . . .

"I feel that (newspaper) editors like the idea of tempering the caustic humor with the recognizable and lovable-type commentary that's the mainstay of Family Circus."

Anything trying to be as wholesome and upstanding as that is a prime target. Keane says he doesn't mind being parodied, as David Letterman, Roseanne and others have done with his work.

Keane lives most of the year in Paradise Valley, Ariz., spending summers in Laguna Beach, Calif. Daughter Gayle and son Jeff help him with the cartoon. (Glen is an animator for Disney, having worked on the title characters for "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan.") Jeff does much of the inking and other detail work for The Family Circus, and has become a pretty fair master of his father's drawing style.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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