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.”  

How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The star of dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comics, and one big-screen feature (which spawned a couple of straight-to-video follow-ups), Casper the Friendly Ghost has enjoyed a great deal of spooky success since he debuted in 1945. An affable spirit, the seemingly pre-adolescent blob of ectoplasm only wants to make friends. Unfortunately, people are consistently wary of his ethereal qualities. In the earliest shorts, he preferred to hang out by himself near a tombstone.

Does the tombstone belong to him? By virtue of being a ghost, doesn’t that mean Casper was once a real, live boy who suffered a tragic fate at a young age?

The Ghost With No Name

When Casper was created back in 1940 by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, the question apparently didn’t come up. Reit and Oriolo planned to have Casper—who did not yet have a name—be the star of an illustrated children’s book, with Reit writing and Oriolo illustrating it. They never got the chance. The two, who worked at Fleischer Studios on animated shorts, were both drafted to serve in World War II. When they returned, Fleischer Studios had been purchased by Paramount, renamed Famous Studios, and wanted complete control over the intellectual property of work created by employees. The two sold Casper and other characters for a total of $200 to Paramount.

When Casper made his animated debut in the 1945 Famous Studios short “The Friendly Ghost,” he finally got a name, but no mention was made of his origins. The short references his “brothers and sisters” who enjoy scaring people but offers no other details of his private life.

A second short, 1948’s “There’s Good Boos To-Night,” shows Casper leaning on a tombstone while reading a book, with a “Love Thy Neighbor” sign hanging nearby. The ghosts in the cemetery are referred to as his “neighbors” and appear to rise from their respective resting places when it’s time to go haunting. This would imply Casper is relaxing at his own gravesite, though his name doesn’t appear on the tombstone. If so, it would support the idea he once occupied the land of the living.

As Casper moved into another medium, however, a case began to be made for his existence as something other than human. In 1949, St. John Publishing produced five Casper comics. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over the license. In an effort to expand Casper’s world, Harvey gave him a ghost family, including a mom and three uncles. None of them were named until 1955, when the uncles were dubbed Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether Casper’s relatives were all deceased as well or whether the Casper mythology implies ghosts are simply "born" ghosts.

The Pneumonia Theory

When the Casper feature film starring Christina Ricci was released in 1995, producers apparently thought moviegoers would be confused by a lack of explanation, and so the Casper of that film was portrayed as a boy named Casper McFadden. He was said to have died of pneumonia at the age of 12 after staying out in cold weather for too long playing with a sled he had just received as a gift.

There is one alternative, and slightly darker, theory that was purportedly first floated by The Simpsons. In the 1991 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book,” Bart and Lisa speculate that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey Comics icon. (The two bear a resemblance.) Lisa believes that his realization of “how hollow the pursuit of money really is” caused Richie to take his own life. Other observers have speculated that perhaps Richie’s parents killed their son for the insurance money.

This is, of course, virtually impossible, as Richie Rich wasn’t created until 1953, 13 years after Reit and Oriolo conceived of Casper.

So what is Casper—former boy or forever ghost? Given his comfort hanging around a tombstone and his pleasant nature preventing him from besmirching the grave of another, it seems likely he was once human. To date, only the 1995 feature has attempted to detail what led him to the afterlife. Considering Casper's appeal as a children's property, that's probably for the best.

The Far Side Is Officially Online—And New Art Is Coming

Courtesy of FarWorks
Courtesy of FarWorks

In September, a cryptic update to cartoonist Gary Larson’s The Far Side website hinted that something new might be in store for fans of the popular single-panel comic strip. This week, Larson and his syndicate, Andrews McMeel Universal, made it official. The irreverent cartoon, which originally ran from 1980 to 1995 and explored the perils of anthropomorphic cows and science run amok, will now be available online for the first time. But it won’t be strictly archival material: Larson plans to periodically revisit his bizarre world with new art.

In an open letter posted to the site, Larson explained that he was initially taken aback by fans using scanners and posting his work on the web without permission. According to Larson, part of his reluctance to share his catalog of work was due to the questionable resolution of older computer screens, which might miss some nuances of his artwork. With new displays making that concern obsolete, the artist decided to enable readers to enjoy the strip without having to go looking for illicit files.

In a interview with The New York Times, Larson also addressed his plans to supplement his collection with new panels, though readers shouldn’t expect anything resembling a schedule. “I’m not ‘back,’ at least in the sense I think you’re asking,” he said via email. “Returning to the world of deadlines isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”

Fresh artwork will likely be seen in 2020. But for the moment, The Far Side site will be home to a revolving library of content, from random daily posts to curated and themed collections. Larson will also post sketches and other ancillary material.

Larson is not the only iconic cartoonist to make a return. In 2014, Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame ended a near-20 year sabbatical from the comics pages to ghost-pencil cartoonist Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine. And in 2015, Berkeley Breathed resurrected his Bloom County for Facebook.

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