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The Family Circus: 1960-61
posted March 2, 2010


Creator: Bil Keane
Publishing Information: IDW, hardcover, 240 pages, November 2009, $39.99
Ordering Numbers: 1600105483 (ISBN10); ISBN13: 9781600105487

Two things came to fruition over the last few years that make a massive volume of early Family Circus strips a consider-to-buy for a lot of hardcore comics fans, the same fans that might have fallen on the floor laughing at the possibility of such a purchase 15 years ago. The first is that Lynda Barry during her extended press and signing appearances on behalf of What It Is in 2008 and 2009 spoke eloquently to the role that Family Circus played in her own comics reading, its trademark circle a window into another world of less dire and bewildering childhood experiences. The second is that in this Age of Reprints we've become cynical readers of press releases and publishing announcements in a way that serves IDW's effort here. More people than used to know that Bil Keane is a well-liked and funny member of the comics creating community. More folks know about Keane's magazine and cartooning past leading up to his strip's launch. Enough people know that observed-humor strips like Family Circus are frequently funnier at the beginning of their runs, when the personal experiences that speak to those in the comic strip are fresh in mind and when there's very little in the way of a franchise to protect.

imageI couldn't tell you if these early strips (a full two years) are the kind that provided the young Barry some solace. That's okay; there's going to be an audience for work like this that exists outside of my ability to tell them anything at all they don't already hold in their hearts. I think that intimacy is a difference between the way comic strip and comic book collections are sold -- the former sneaks up on their fans, or at least rests in their memories without a lot of commentary or reconsideration required. I can tell those fans it's put together reasonably well. The comics look just fine to me; I'm less fond of the screened imagery that fills blank spaces, but I was able to tune them out during my initial reading. The front cover (above) looks odd with Flying Dolly And Jeffy, but the back one is kitschy, warm and appealing. An essay by Christopher Keane emphasizes the slightly scattered quality that even the most successful strips have in their early days: the false starts, the sifting through titles, the arbitrary decisions that later fans will come to consider at the heart of what they enjoy, all of which together I think is a perfectly reasonable way to look at a series launch. There are cute pieces of trivia, like the Keanes got their Barfy after the kids in the strip did. It works on that level.

As to the whether it's a quality strip or not according to one's suspicion of same, I enjoyed a lot of the material I read here. The father in the strip (Steve) had more of an oblong head and seemed 15 years older than the eventual and current model Bill does; the mother is recognizable as Thelma, albeit a bit more curvy; the majority of the kids are there. The one classic rule of cartooning that Keane routinely violates is that his characters in the early days yelled at one another -- a lot -- but save for the super-sensitive souls that came to dictate newspaper comics content in the '70s and '80s, I can't imagine anyone not finding Keane's harried suburban family members at least appealing on some basic, human level. It's also surprising how many of those initial observations, the gags, are sturdy enough to be recognizable today: both across the years and as the basis for the same joke being told over again in, please forgive me, future episodes of Family Circus. There are even two craft elements I liked: Keane has a knack for the way clutter infects a space that may be unmatched before or since, and the colors used in the Sunday have those rich 1960s reds that you never saw in any other time. The material will make no one reconsider strongly-held opinions, but it may leverage a few softly-held ones. I don't know that I'll be buying the entire run of this series or would miss it if it ceased publishing, but I'll consider buying a few more books like this one if it sticks around.