Success in cartooning speaker: Jeff Keane

Jeff Keane is a past National Cartoonist Society president and does the comic panel The Family Circus which was started by his father Bil Keane in 1960. His presentation gave us a look at how his father’s career started and evolved and eventually created one of the most iconic comics on the funny page.


  • Bil’s first cartoon was published when he was age 14 for $1
  • Bil loved word gags throughout his career and they showed up in his early cartoons
  • Bil served in WWII and met Thel at the war bonds office.
  • Did cartoons for Stars and Stripes and Yank newspapers.
  • Created Keane Korn Krib – a feature full of puns and word play.
  • Bil learned to draw quickly and well and did caricatures for soldiers
  • Came back from the war and sent out two resumes: one for a DJ job and the other a staff artist at the paper. The first response came back from the paper so that’s where his career started.
  • The Spirit (comic) was very influential. Bil began a friendship with Bruce Horton, the syndicate’s regional sales manager who sent the advance art for The Spirit to him each week. Bil and Bruce built up a relationship. That relationship helped Bil get a feature launched called “Channel Chuckles” in 1954
  • He started to sell cartoons to magazines in 1952
  • By end of 1950s with 7 kids the family moved to Arizona and Bil worked out of the house which placed him close to the family for ideas
  • Selling to magazines from AZ was harder than when he was living on the east coast
  • Jeff showed some of the early strip ideas Bil created before Family Circus. You can start to see the Family Circus style developing artistically
  • Jeff shows some of the syndicate reports on income and sales. Times were lean.
  • Not wanting to lose his sales for his feature Spot News, he suggested the syndicate change it to a family panel and propose to call it The Circle Family because the panel was drawn in a circle. There was a magazine at the time called The Circle Family so the feature was changed to The Family Circus
  • The Family Circus grew in popularity. Bil would use material and concepts from previous features
  • Bil would write off toys (‘gag props’) purchased for the kids on taxes
  • Over the years, the cartoon changed. 60s was magazine gag style; tighter in 70s. Much more simple in 90s. Jeff denies it’s because he’s lazy. The papers reduced the size of the comics to the point that to be legible, Jeff had to leave out detail.
  • Jeff showed us a number of cartoons that were “high school date killers” – cartoons featuring him (Jeffy)
  • Bil did Family Circle and Channel Chuckles until 1977, then he ended Channel Chuckles
  • Jeff graduated from college and Bil asked for help working a strip called Eggheads – a pun strip that ran for 2 years.
  • After the 2 year run with Egghead, Jeff started working on Family Circus.
  • When Jeff is drawing, he still thinks about what it is something his dad would do
  • Jeff showed the process for how a gag was created by his dad and then he’d take the pencil draft to the finished product
  • Jeff colors the Sundays himself.
  • Jeff is now showing cartoons that unexpectedly became controversial due to mentioning “God” or about pets and insects dying.
  • Jeff: I feel bound to my parents to keep the sprit of the strip true to the original. He was blessed 3 kids that gave him his inspiration.
  • Question from audience: When did the dotted lines show up? Answer: first used in first year of Family Circus and can even be found in cartoons before Family Circus. it takes a long time to do those; papers print so small, it’s tough to do it legibly.
  • Question from audience: Is there a 3rd generation Keane being trained? Answer. None of Jeff’s kids have expressed interest in taking over the strip.
  • Question from audience. Do you plan which days your panel will show up? Answer: Yes. Best stuff on Mondays. Weakest on Saturdays.
  • Question from audience. Do you draw old school or computer: Answer. Old school. Enjoys the paper process

One thought on “Success in cartooning speaker: Jeff Keane

  1. Nicely summed up Alan, thanks! It was a great time!… A minor correction, the syndicate sales manager was Bruce Horton, not Bill… one Bil is enough…

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