Bil Keane died on Tuesday, and the news filled me with such an odd mix of emotions.
Keane, who had just turned 89, was the creator/author/artist of "The Family Circus," a single-panel comic strip that I dutifully have read on a daily basis for probably 40 years in spite of the fact that I have never liked it. Hard to say for sure, but I think it is possible that I have never once so much as chuckled at the strip, let alone laughed at it, which is actually not all that surprising, since Keane's goal was always more "cuteness" rather than humor.
I have spent a lifetime addicted to the comics page, and I began reading "The Family Circus" back when I looked at every comic in the paper other than the serials. Being a creature of habit, I simply never stopped following the family-friendly exploits of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ, who (as I once wrote) were so warm and fuzzy that they made the Huxtable family look like the Osbornes by comparison.
All of which leads me, in a roundabout way, to the day about a decade ago when I spent almost an hour on the phone talking with Bil Keane.
The events leading up to the call are very strange, too ridiculous to really explain here. Let's just say that some friends and I had noticed some odd visual subtext in several recent "Family Circus" panels that had led us to speculate that Daddy had fallen on hard times. Like, fallen hard. And that Mommy, patient soul that she is, had cast him out.
Of course, it was all a joke. We knew that. But it came to take on a life of its own, and at some point the thought struck me that I could get a funny column out of it - but only if Bil Keane would play along. So I rolled the dice, called his syndicate and inquired about a phone interview. To my surprise, I was quickly given his home phone number and told that he was eager to chat with me.
Nervously, I placed the call to Paradise Valley, Arizona, which just seems like the place where Bil Keane would live, don't you think? He greeted me warmly, and I explained to him that I wanted to ask him a very, very offbeat question, that I understood completely if he wanted nothing to do with it, and that he had my assurance that I had no intention of writing anything that cast his beloved strip in any sort of ugly light. Amused and intrigued, he told me to go for it. So I asked him if it was possible that Daddy had developed a drug addiction.
We laughed. We talked. I described to him certain visual details that had puzzled me and led to such speculation, and he talked passionately about how callous newspaper editors had squeezed the comics pages so badly that artists were forced to omit a lot of detail that simply wouldn't show up in such tiny panels. And, no, he said, Mommy and Daddy were still doing fine.
With that detail cleared up - imagine my relief - we commenced to just talking. He told me wonderful stories about his longtime friend Charles Schulz, who had died recently, and we both spoke in worshipful tones about the legacy of "Peanuts." We talked about baseball, a topic dear to both of us, and he told me how he had just recently thrown out a ceremonial first pitch at a Diamondbacks game. He chatted so easily with me, as though I was a comfortable friend rather than a complete stranger speculating about the influx of narcotics into "The Family Circus." Before we hung up, he gave me his home address and asked that I send him whatever I wrote.
Several weeks after we spoke, a Sunday "Family Circus" strip featured, in great detail, Mommy and Daddy sleeping blissfully side-by-side. Mommy's left hand was outstretched to show her wedding ring. Could it be, I wondered with astonishment, that I had affected the content of the nation's comics pages? I sent a note to his home, asking if this strip was his response to my phone call. He wrote back, in that handwriting that was so familiar to me, and said of course it was. I kept his address, and a few years later he was generous enough to comply with my request for an original, hand-drawn "Family Circus" panel for a friend's charity auction.
I never did warm up to "The Family Circus," but after my interaction with Bil Keane, I felt a little less enthusiasm when I would find occasion to make fun of the strip. And I never missed an opportunity to tell people what a kind, gracious and genuine man he was.
Mike Holtzclaw is a senior reporter at the Daily Press, and he still begins every morning by reading the comics in the same order every day. Yes, including "The Family Circus." He can be reached at email@example.com.