That big Catholic Family Circus

Among his fellow cartoonists, "Family Circle" patriarch Bil Keane was well known for many reasons, including his often surprisingly hip and bizarre wit (which, obviously, he deliberately left out of his oh-so-straightforward cartoons). Can you imagine Keane lending his pen to a series of "Zippy the Pinhead" cartoons? Sure, why not. However, to his readers he was the cartoon cartoonist character -- named Bil -- with the flash-back family values that were so pure and wholesome that many online critics simply could not resist mocking them and worse.

The question that seems to have been left unanswered in so many of the obituaries for Keane is quite basic: If this man's values were at the heart of his art, then where did these values come from? Obviously they came from real life and journalists had no problem discussing that. However, many clearly missed the higher source of those values.

The Associate Press report that ran widely, including The Washington Post, featured the usual language right up top:

PHOENIX -- Bil Keane’s “Family Circus” comics entertained readers with a simple but sublime mix of humor and traditional family values for more than a half century. The appeal endured, the author thought, because the American public needed the consistency.

And later on:

Keane said in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press that the cartoon had staying power because of its consistency and simplicity.

“It’s reassuring, I think, to the American public to see the same family,” he said.

Although Keane kept the strip current with references to pop culture movies and songs, the context of his comic was timeless. The ghost-like “Ida Know” and “Not Me” who deferred blame for household accidents were staples of the strip. The family’s pets were dogs Barfy and Sam, and the cat, Kittycat.

“We are, in the comics, the last frontier of good, wholesome family humor and entertainment,” Keane said. “On radio and television, magazines and the movies, you can’t tell what you’re going to get. When you look at the comic page, you can usually depend on something acceptable by the entire family.”

Jeff Keane shared the sentiment, saying “Family Circus” had flourished through the decades because readers continue to relate to its values of family moments.

And so forth and so on.

However, Keane fans who were willing to search out other more "conservative" news outlets were able to read more about the roots of (a) those large family values and (b) all of the cartoon panels featuring stained-glass windows, pastors, prayers and other unusual elements, in the context of American newspaper humor.

Keane was, simply stated, a faithful, practicing Roman Catholic. While others ignored this fact, Catholic News Service put it right in the lede, as you would expect:

Bil Keane, the Catholic cartoonist who originated the comic strip "The Family Circus" more than 50 years ago, died Nov. 8 at age 89 in Paradise Valley, Ariz., near Phoenix. The cause of death was given as congestive heart failure.

Later in that same story, Keane himself notes:

The comic also is known for its occasional religious themes. While the worship depicted in "The Family Circus" is of a generic Christian nature, Keane told St. Anthony Messenger it came from the family's long connection to the Catholic Church. "I draw out of my lifestyle," Bil said. "I grew up Catholic, my kids grew up Catholic."

Did secular journalists, writing for mainstream news sources, need to include this information?

That all depends on whether you thought that these journalists were writing to an audience that included "Family Circus" fans, the kinds of old-school newspaper readers who would be interested in the values advocated in all of those cartoons. If those readers cared about those values, and the man behind them, then, yes, it's easy to argue that Keane's Catholic faith should have been part of the mainstream story. Why not include that crucial element in his worldview and humor?

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