“The strange thing about the comics page, given its youth-associatedness, is that it has long been anchored by men of the World War II generation,” I wrote in the April 2000 issue of GQ, shortly after Charles Schulz died. “The Family Circus’s Bil Keane is 77, the same age Schulz was at his death; Mort Walker, of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois fame, is 75; Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketcham is 80; Tiger’s Bud Blake is 82; and B.C.’s Johnny Hart is 69. These old-timers have displayed a remarkable stick-to-itiveness over the years—no wussy Garry Trudeau sabbaticals for them!—but frankly, they don’t have that many working years left.”
Thus began the cranky-old-man phase of my writing career, in which, at the age of 33, I found myself writing almost exclusively in lament form, relishing the past and forlornly shaking my head at latter-day cultural developments. In light of Johnny Hart’s recent passing, I’ve posted that old GQ column. Since it was written, Blake and Ketcham, too, have gone to that Great Cartoonist’s Syndicate in the sky.
But lo, the ovoid-headed Family Circus gang continues to hang on, as does its creator, Bil Keane, who will turn 85 this year. A confession: I used to find The Family Circus unbearably corny, and took pleasure in ridiculing it. (As did Chris Elliott, who, on David Letterman’s old NBC show, did deadpan segments in which he paged through albums of his “favorite” Bil Keane cartoons.) But all that changed in 1992, when, as a young editor at GQ, I got the idea to do a Family Circus parody in our election-themed issue. On Sundays, when The Family Circus is in color, Keane often does large, single-panel strips depicting young Billy’s meandering path (over a fence, across a puddle, aboard a found tricycle, through a hollowed-out log, etc.) from school to home.
I thought it would be funny, in light of all the tribulations that Bill Clinton had faced en route to the Democratic nomination, to do a Family Circus-style cartoon that traced “Little Billy Clinton’s” winding path to the top of the Dem ticket. Unfortunately, the legal people quashed the idea of hiring an illustrator to do a Keane parody, on the grounds that Keane could sue. But Robert Priest, then GQ’s art director, said, “Well, why don’t we just ask Bil Keane if he’ll do it himself?”
To our surprise, Keane was thrilled to do it, and promptly delivered a wonderful two-page cartoon based on my script. (I’d show it here, but Keane owns the rights.) Little Billy Clinton looked just like any other ovoid-headed Circus-er, except he wore a blazer and had a head of bushy, graying hair. I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments that I got Bil Keane to draw Sister Souljah, the militant rapper-activist who achieved a measure of minor ’92 fame when Clinton repudiated her inflammatory racial remarks. (Souljah actually looked kind of adorable with an ovoid Keane head.) Keane also drew a nude Gennifer Flowers making goo-goo eyes at Billy from behind a bush, and Arsenio Hall applauding Billy as he played sax. I never knew Keane had this side to him, and I also gained a new appreciation of his clean, uncluttered draftsmanship, which rivals Charles Schulz’s. From then on, I’ve been a fan.
And when I wrote the column to which I’ve linked above, Keane did the illustration: The Family Circus’s Billy opening up the April 2000 issue of GQ and exclaiming to his sister, “Look, Dolly! There’s somethin’ about us in here!”