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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 10/ 5/2009

Should 'Family Circus' Remain in Our Inner Circle? Time to Defend That Toon

By Michael Cavna

'FAMILY CIRCUS' (KFS)Enlarge Image

In a somewhat unusual move, I'd like to begin today's edition of "Defend That 'Toon" by addressing FAMILY CIRCUS creator BIL KEANE directly to say a few words. First off, just let me say: Happy birthday today, Mr. William Aloysius Keane. You turn 87 just one day after my own grandfather turned 94, and I have a deep and abiding respect for so much that the Greatest Generation has accomplished.

Second, let me say that I'm sorry, in a way, that yours was the first comic that I, as a debuting professional cartoonist, ever bounced from a newspaper. Granted, it was only one day a week, and you were in some 1,500 newspapers at the time and this lone Northern California newspaper was my only client. And perhaps more so, you'll forgive me because I wasn't yet 12 years old at the time. In short, thanks for giving a kid his first break.

My boyhood-themed strip drew a little national attention but lasted only a coupla years, as I moved on to other interests in adolescence. But you, sir, created a feature that hits the half-century mark next year. Let me say in advance: Congratulations.

"Family Circus," of course, is about as iconic as a comic can get -- from the characters to the observational banter to the head shapes (the kids' noggins still vaguely resemble squat Kool-Aid pitchers) to the distinctive shape of the very cartoon itself. Perhaps it's that very iconic look and feel, so largely unchanged (save for a hairdo change or two) for most of the past 40 years, that has made it so ripe for satirization. Yet that status has no doubt helped keep it a worldwide fixture in newspapers.

Then there's the time-capsule factor. The Emmy-winning "Mad Men" is both homage to and commentary upon the '60s; "Family Circus" feels like the authentic survivor of that decade -- as if one could draw a dotted through-line across the decades, as clear as following the Sunday path of Billy, Barfy, Dolly or P.J. (BTW: Jeff "Jeffy" Keane now famously inks and colors the cartoon.)

So what do you think, 'Riffs readers? Are you fond of "Family Circus," that noted gateway comic that helps get some kiddies to read the funnies? If not, feel free to Impugn That 'Toon here. Otherwise, now's your chance to Defend. That. 'Toon!

By Michael Cavna  | October 5, 2009; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  Defend That 'Toon  
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I guess it is hard to rag on a family friendly cartoon, but this strip has become entirely repetitive. It really needs to go to the cartoon retirement home.

Posted by: kcghost | October 5, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Family Circus is like For Better or For Worse (which the Post chose to drop when the "original" episodes ended), in that it largely re-runs old material that is only slightly updated (such as by changing Thelma's hairdo, as you noted). Many times you can predict the next day's cartoon by seeing the original sequence of a story arc from the 1960s. Even the "new" material seems tired and worn out. Surely this valuable space could be better used on some new one-panel strip, or maybe the Post could get rid of both Family Circus and Dennis the Menace and then add a couple of new 3- or 4-panel strips in their combined place.

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 5, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Do kids really read "Family Circus," as Michael suggests? Or "Dennis the Menace" or even the maudlin 80's rehashes of "Peanuts?" These strips are often pointed to as favorite with kids, but it seems to me (a non-kid) that their primary appeal is to grownups of a certain age who find nothing so amusing and entertaining as endless malapropisms and tattling. As my general tone may suggest, this school of "kids say the darnedest things!" cartooning holds no appeal for me whatsoever. Family Circus has a very limited stable of jokes, which it just rotates out. Like Garfield or Beetle Bailey or even Curtis, it could be produced just as handily by a computer at this point, and that's what bugs me about it.

Posted by: MaxineofArc | October 5, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

My daughter definitely became a comics reader because of comics like Family Circus. She's now singlehandedly supporting the manga industry (or so it seems) and writing her own comic.

I guess it's all a matter of where you stand. To me, with some experience under my belt and a fairly sophisticated taste, FC is repetitive, bland, and simplistic. To a nine year old, who hasn't seen the jokes before, and who hasn't the life experience of an adult, FC is funny and accessible. I remember being a little kid, searching out the 'easy' comics, the ones I could understand. I think FC still meets that need.

Posted by: marshlc | October 5, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Let's get rid of the old, tired, re-runs. There is fresh talent to be viewed.

Posted by: rockyromo | October 5, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Even if the Post says it wants to have a few gateway comics for young readers, surely there HAS to be such comics from younger, more relevant artists, right? Right? Please do away with those retreads and get some fresh ideas on the comics pages again. Heck, if you had a better comics section, it might even increase sales.

Posted by: psears2 | October 5, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Get rid of it! It is charming, inoffensive, and doesn't upset anyone. Children love it and can understand and relate to the mild humor of everyday incidents in a traditional nuclear family. Cartoons such as this perpetuation of traditional families with no hatred or political lessons to sell have no place in an "important" newspaper. Removing it provides more room for Doonesbury and similar cartoons which can be used to indoctrinate children with the valuable opinions of well educated cartoonists and thus further American society. I toss out the Sunday comics (thinned out as they have recently become) because they are not funny for the most part. Rather they indulge the egos of the authors who abuse the public looking for humor but who wind up getting fed the political and social opinions of undereducated cartoonists. 'Tis not the internet which is killing newspapers, 'tis the egos on display which are have become too much to stomach (IMO anyway).

Posted by: thomasmr2 | October 5, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Keep the Family Circus. as a 60 yr old...I still enjoy it, particularly the dotted line stories. Dump Peanuts..somebody needs the space!

Posted by: ZeldaJane | October 5, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

As a reader, I find that Family Circus has little to offer: it is neither humorous nor insightful. And it is too derivative and repetitive to be cute. If it disappeared, I wouldn't miss it. But it isn't badly drawn, offensive, or entirely anachronistic, either. So, while it is probably in the bottom quartile of the Post's comics, it is nowhere near the rock bottom. Thus, if I were an editor, I would probably look for something less iconic to eliminate.

Posted by: OTBerbur | October 5, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

I like it! If it's a choice betw FC and Dennis the Menace, give poor ol' Mr. Wilson a break.

Posted by: dklynn2 | October 5, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

When the most valuable aspect that a strip has is its potential to generate material for amusing parodies, then it is clear that the source has gone stale. Family Circus may not offend, but it is not creating or saying anything new at all. Back when the Post had four pages of dailies and two sunday sections, there was plenty of room for a few stolid old faithfuls, but that is no longer the case.

How about running a contest similar to the Op-Ed one? Invite new cartoonists to draw a weeks worth of cartoons, then let the voters decide which is best. If Family Circle can hold its own in an honest election, I would have no problem with letting it stay, but there should be some open competition for the spot that Bil Keane has been sitting on for so long.

Posted by: kilby | October 5, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

>> kilby:

I, for one, am absolutely in favor of head-to-head competitions or "test slots," such as The Post did last year when sampling reader reaction to such strips as "Knight Life," "Daddy's Home" and "Little Dog Lost" while "Doonesbury" was on hiatus.

And was thinking just last week that a Next Great Cartoonist contest (a la the op-ed Pundits Contest) could be a good and engaging competition. I'm interested to hear what others think.


Posted by: cavnam | October 5, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

What about the new strip "Fort Knox". It debuted today. Surprised the Post did not find a spot for it. I think the WPWG is distributing it.

Kind of off topic. But, I think they should do test strips for a month or so and then gauge reaction.

Family Circus = better than most other Zombie strips. And the artwork, like Blondie, remains true to the original.

Posted by: brainiac1077 | October 5, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

No way the Post has the nerve to cut it.

Posted by: greasypores | October 5, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

The only thing I like about Family Circus is that I don't have to squint to read the comic. Not only are the comics getting smaller so you have a hard time reading it, but most of the older ones are dull, boring and repetitive. Family Circus, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, Garfield, and many more on the comic pages need to be replaced by other strips that are more relevant today. These comics are like open toed shoes, you hope that one day it will just disappear because it is something you don't want to look at on a daily basis.

Posted by: Amanda97 | October 5, 2009 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Family Circle might still have a place with the regular comics section, but is best suited for the kids' page at this point. The WaPo would be better served by starting to either cut or wean out the zombie strips to bring in new talent (even on a trial run).

Posted by: BinM | October 5, 2009 9:40 PM | Report abuse

>> brainiac1077:

Indeed, "Fort Knox" was launched today by The Washington Post Writers Group. Some months back, I got a look at the strip -- in which cartoonist Paul Jon draws on his own experiences growing up as a military brat -- and wondered whether it might challenge "Beetle Bailey" and some family strips for more than a few slots.

For those curious readers who haven't seen the strip, you can check out samples here:


Posted by: cavnam | October 5, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

In 30 years of reading the Post I've never seen FC be funny. Mostly sentimentalism with a strong push for organized religion. If it disappeared I may or may not notice. Put it on kid's page, which is usually underserved, or drop it.

Posted by: olddog1 | October 6, 2009 5:22 AM | Report abuse

It would be interesting to know the name of the rock-headed editor who keeps insisting on relegating Frazz to Kids Post, despite the overwhelming majority of opinions that Frazz does not belong there, and does not deserve the reduction in days per week. Given the wealth of juvenile garbage that would be much more appropriate for children (such as Garfield or the Family Circus), there is no excuse for Frazz's banishment.

Among other parodies, the Family Circus can be improved by replacing the captions with quotes from Nietzsche (see

Posted by: kilby | October 6, 2009 5:44 AM | Report abuse

Its a nice peaceful, usually cute strip. While I thorughly enjoy Non-sequitor, Close to Home, and other edgier strips Family Circus, Blondie, Peanuts, For Better or Worse are enjoyable contrasts. Let's keep 'em. Post has plenty of room!

Posted by: treadlefish | October 6, 2009 6:33 AM | Report abuse

Family Circus shouldn't be dropped because it's a "legacy" or a "re-run". It should be dropped because it's been lame from the day it began.

But the truth is that most of the new strips are every bit as lame in their own way. I get the strong feeling that the comments section here is dominated by unemployed cartoonists who think that the function of a comics page is to provide them and their friends with a guaranteed income.

The only way that the comics page is ever going to get some life again is for the Post to drop its endless reader surveys (since most of its readers are idiots) and hire an editor with a real sense of humor. The result will be a mix of strips that range from the new to the old, but are selected on the basis of how funny they are, not their age. Family Circus might be the first strip to go, but it'd have a lot of company in exile.

Posted by: andym108 | October 6, 2009 6:48 AM | Report abuse

"...helps get some kiddies to read the funnies?"

I don't know how this statement can be supported at all. It's just as likely that a kid may read this and not think it's funny at all (and they'd be correct) and then decide all comics are not funny and never read them again.

I suspect they have other "gateway" comics and certainly other gateway vehicles for reading and entertainment.

While I have a soft spot for the old, traditional and antique I haven't read this comic in over 30 years when I was 14 -I guess I outgrew it.

Posted by: topwriter | October 6, 2009 7:40 AM | Report abuse

I agree that both Family Circus and Dennis should be dropped in favor of new strips. I really like the idea of rotating strips through on a trial basis. There HAS to be new stuff out there that is funny and thought provoking, not like some of the zombie strips that are running now. And please bring Frazz back to the main page.

Posted by: buckeye96 | October 6, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Please keep Family Circus (and Dennis, Peanuts, and For Better or Worse). Often I have a smile after reading them which is a welcome relief after reading the news.
Aren't some of our favorite jokes something we like to retell or that make us laugh when we hear them. The cartoons do the same for me.

Posted by: candasteiner | October 6, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

No they aren't. For Better or Worse isn't even in the paper anymore. Dennis, Peanuts etc need to go to make room for something new and maybe better. Why are we holding on to these old zombie strips instead of exploring what else is out there. With this type of attitude we never would have read Calvin and Hobbes or Boondocks and would still be stuck with Gasoline Alley and the Katz n' Jammer Kids.

Posted by: buckeye96 | October 7, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Maybe some kids do dig on FC. But that's not the only thing for them to dig on- I wore out my parents' Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes books back in the day, and half the jokes (certainly in the Bloom County days) were over my head.

Posted by: MaxineofArc | October 7, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

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