11 Fun Facts About The Family Circus

King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

Since 1960, newspaper readers have found circular logic in The Family Circus, a single-panel strip about the misadventures of married couple Bil and Thelma and their four mischievous children: Billy, Jeffy, Dolly, and P.J. Known as the “Norman Rockwell of the comics page,” artist Bil Keane drew upon his own parenting experiences for the comic, which relies on misunderstandings and sibling rivalry to fuel its gags. Check out some things you might not know about Keane’s work, including some controversy over the strip’s title and why Keane wasn't always trying to be funny.

1. FAMILY CIRCLE MAGAZINE HAD A PROBLEM WITH IT.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Keane—who dropped one “L” from his first name while working on a satirical magazine project in the 1930s—pursued comic art as a vocation. In 1954, he created Channel Chuckles, a commentary on the new medium of television. While successful, Keane wanted to try his hand at something else. Drawing on his household experiences with five children, he created a slice-of-life strip titled Family Circle in 1960: The name was a reference to the circular panel Keane used. The house tips magazine Family Circle objected, thinking it might confuse readers. Keane obliged them, changing the strip to The Family Circus.

2. THE CIRCLE HAD A POINT.

Prior to Circus, Keane had an idea for a strip called Spot News, which would provide commentary on world events. Due to the six-week lead time of cartooning, it didn’t go well. But one element of the strip stuck with him: He decided to draw it inside of a circle because some newspapers would use it as a spot illustration above their masthead, guaranteeing a wide audience. Though it migrated to the comics pages, Keane kept the circle for Circus.

3. BIL KEANE BASED THE MOM ON HIS WIFE.

While serving in the Army in Australia during World War II, Keane met his future wife, Thelma Carne. Returning stateside and working on the strip, he modeled the cartoon Thelma (or “Thel”) on his real-life wife. The likeness was apparently uncanny, as Thelma would sometimes get recognized out in public. “When the cartoon first appeared, she looked so much like Mommy," Keane said, "that if she was in the supermarket pushing her cart, people would come up to her and say, 'Aren't you the mommy in Family Circus?’”

4. THE STRIP WASN’T ALWAYS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.

Keane’s sentimental observations of an American nuclear family were sometimes criticized for being too saccharine. According to Keane, that’s exactly what he was looking for. “I don’t have to come up with a ha-ha belly laugh every day,” Keane said, “but drawings with warmth and love or ones that put a lump in the throat or tug at the heart. That’s more important to me than a laugh. I would rather have the readers react with a warm smile as they recall doing the same things in their own family.”

5. IT USED TO BE A LITTLE RISQUE.

Keane’s approach wasn’t always so family-friendly. In the early days of the strip and while searching for the proper tone, Keane took a more cynical view of parenting, depicting the father drinking and having a wandering eye for passing women. Keane changed the direction after one mid-1960s strip—Billy wandering into a room asking for a hug—resulted in several reader letters saying the sentiment had struck a chord.

6. THELMA’S HAIRCUT MADE HEADLINES.

Sporting a distinctive bob for nearly 40 years, in 1996 Thelma made newspaper headlines when Keane decided to give her an updated style. The artist made the change after a reader complained the cut was too old-fashioned. Solicited for comment, celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber said he “would have made it sexier.”

7. IT GOT THREE CARTOON ADAPTATIONS.

Like many popular strips, The Family Circus made the jump to animation. ABC produced three primetime specials: A Special Valentine with the Family Circus (1978), A Family Circus Christmas (1979) and A Family Circus Easter (1982).  A live-action feature film has been in development at Fox since 2010.

8. IT WAS THE BASIS FOR AN EARLY WEB MEME.

Dysfunctional Family Circus began online in 1995 as a wry commentary on the original’s earnest approach: Readers could submit their own (often morbid) captions to substitute Keane’s own. After 500 submissions, webmaster Greg Galcik got a cease-and-desist letter from King Features Syndicate, which co-owns and distributes the strip, and discontinued the parody in 1999.

9. THE STRIP CROSSED OVER WITH ZIPPY THE PINHEAD.

Artist Bill Griffith’s subversive strip Zippy the Pinhead was the alt-rock of the comics pages, a dive into the surreal world of eraser-headed Zippy and his trippy adventures. When Griffith decided to have Zippy inhabit The Family Circus world, he called Keane and solicited his collaboration. Griffith drew several daily strips in 1994 featuring Zippy interacting with the Circus cast, which Keane would then finish by illustrating his own characters. “Life is a circus, Zippy!” Billy admonished him. “It can be a circus of pain or a circus of delight!” The following year, Billy had a dream about Zippy—with Griffith contributing art—in the Circus strip.

10. THERE’S A STATUE DEDICATED TO THE STRIP.

In 2013, city officials in Keane's adopted hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona unveiled a tribute to one of their most famous residents. A nine-foot-tall statue of Keane with some of The Family Circus kids riding piggyback went up at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. Keane, who died in 2011, had made several donations to town projects in Scottsdale and nearby Paradise Valley. When it came time to raise the estimated $75,000 cost of the tribute, donors quickly contributed $85,000.

11. KEANE HAD A DECEPTIVELY SHARP SENSE OF HUMOR.

Though The Family Circus may be dismissed by some as unchallenging, Keane possessed a very sharp and biting wit. Interviewed by journalist Jud Hurd, Keane heard himself described as an “unqualified success” and mused, “Think what I could do if I was qualified.”  

This Graphic Novel Scratch-Off Chart Lets You Track Your Comic Reading List

Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

With so many comic books being adapted into some of the most popular movies and television shows in Hollywood right now, you might find yourself wanting to go back to their roots on the page. But reading through the world’s most celebrated graphic novels isn’t so simple. There are so many different genres, publishers, and styles to choose from, making it overwhelming to find a proper starting point. This new scratch-off poster from the folks at Pop Chart Lab solves that problem by turning that daunting reading list into a colorful piece of home decor.

The chart features illustrated icons from dozens of different graphic novels from all around the world. Though you’ll recognize familiar sights like the bat signal from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan, they’ll be colored in a drab grey. Once you gently scratch off that monochrome outer layer, though, you’ll reveal a vibrant new image underneath.

The idea is to scratch off each title as you read through the list to turn the chart into colorful wall art that shows off your progress. And don’t worry, there’s no filler on this chart. Standards like Watchmen, Maus, and A Contract With God share space with recent hits, including the Civil Rights Movement title March, the spellbinding sci-fi world of Saga, and the coming-of-age tale This One Summer.

Pop Chart Lab's Essential Graphic Novels Scratch-Off Chart
Pop Chart Lab

It’s also perfect for fans looking to expand beyond superhero titles, as you’ll only find a handful of men in tights here, with the highlights being Marvels, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Killing Joke. The rest is made up of samurai epics (Usagi Yojimbo), fantasy classics (Sandman), memoirs (Fun Home), and crime comics (Stray Bullets).

The chart is 12 inches by 16 inches and costs $25 over on the Pop Chart Lab website. Once you pre-order, the pieces will start shipping on August 21.

Pop Chart Lab's Essential Graphic Novels Scratch-Off Chart
Pop Chart Lab

5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past

Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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