“Family Circus” creator Bil Keane provided the cover artwork for OSV’s July 4, 1982, cover. OSV archive

Bil Keane, a lifelong Catholic who chronicled the exploits of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and P.J., their parents and pets in the beloved comic strip “Family Circus,” died Nov. 8 at the age of 89 in Arizona. 

Our Sunday Visitor will remember Keane in a special way, as he created a “Family Circus” cartoon in which he mentions Our Sunday Visitor. It appeared on OSV’s cover in the July 4, 1982, issue. 

In an interview inside the same issue, Keane told OSV that he wasn’t necessarily trying to make the comic strip funny, but rather wanted to depict “typical” situations in family life. 

“I like people to have a recognizable scene so that they can say ‘The same thing happened in our house.’ Sometimes it’s funny, but not always. Sometimes it has a tender feeling to it — a tug at the heart,” he said. “I like to have a bit of nostalgia in the cartoons; to have people remember when their kids did the same thing or when their grandchildren did the same thing. And for young people — they know that when they get married the same thing is going to happen to them.” 

Nun’s early support

Born William Aloysius Keane in Philadelphia, he taught himself to draw while a student at Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia. He got his first cartoon published in 1936 on the amateur page of the Philadelphia Daily News. 

But the urge to do cartoons started even earlier. While a sixth-grader at St. William School in Philadelphia, Keane drew a picture of his teacher, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister named Sister Ann. When she caught a glimpse of his art, though, she responded in a way no one expected: She decided the class needed its own newspaper and Keane should be editor. Sister Ann also told Keane that she’d pray for his future success as a cartoonist. 

Keane served in the Army 1942-45, drawing for Yank magazine and later for the Army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes. While serving in Australia, he met his wife, Thelma, the inspiration for “Thel,” the mother in “The Family Circus.” She died in 2008. 

Returning to Philadelphia after his military service, he got a job with the Philadelphia Bulletin daily newspaper, first doing a comic strip called “Silly Philly” and later “Channel Chuckles.” 

Family-friendly fun

In 1960, after the family had moved from Philadelphia to Arizona, Keane came up with the idea for “The Family Circus.” He had planned to call the strip “The Family Circle,” but Family Circle magazine objected. 

His five children served as the models for Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and P.J. In later years, his interactions with his grandchildren inspired the strip. The family pets, dogs Barfy and Sam and the feline Kittycat, were also inspired from real life. 

“I think my whole basis for humor is to show how much fun life can be in a home where there’s love between the mother and father, between the children, respect for the parents, the interplay of little family situations — all that is the setting for what I consider a typical slice of life,” Keane told OSV in 1982. 

Keane, who was named “cartoonist of the year” in 1982, did not shy away from depicting religion in the strip, but always made sure it was in good taste.  

“I think the beauty of religious humor is that it deflates what is normally a very serious, pompous type of situation,” he told OSV. 

Although Keane is gone, the exploits of his beloved characters will live on. One son, Jeff, took over drawing “Family Circus” and will continue the strip. 

Visit www.familycircus.com/.