When it comes to comic strips, everybody in my family can agree on Peanuts. Beyond that, however, our tastes vary wildly, from my brother’s favorite strip, the dearly departed Calvin and Hobbes, to my grandma’s, Family Circus – which happens to be Nathan’s least favorite. In fact, it doesn’t make much sense to call it a strip, since it almost exclusively comes in the form of a single panel, much like the Ziggy comics of yesteryear. In production for more than 50 years, this wholesome comic focusing mostly on the cute and exasperating things that kids say and do is frequently to be found on the refrigerators of parents and grandparents.
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In Sing Me a Loveaby?, a Family Circus collection my grandma recently handed down to me, Bil Keane collects 125 black and white cartoons into a slim volume. On each page, the cartoon is enclosed in a thick black circle, and in most cases, dialogue from one or more of the characters is printed beneath the circle. Once in a while, there are dialogue bubbles within the circle, but usually you just have to take your best guess at who is talking. For the most part, it’s pretty obvious from the picture who the speaker is, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell.
The Family Circus clan includes the bespectacled and often beleaguered Bil, the father who is a two-dimensional version of the cartoonist, and Thelma, his short-haired but rarely short-tempered wife. Also based on Keane’s own family are the four children, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and toddler PJ, all of whom are sweet at some times and annoying at others. Jeff, the son upon whom Jeffy is based, now serves as his father’s assistant, while Glen, upon whom Billy is partially based, works as a Disney animator, so the love of family-friendly artistry runs in the blood.
While most panels only focus upon those six characters, other friends, neighbors and relatives occasionally show up, along with family dogs Sam and the unfortunately named Barfy and cat Kittycat. The most prominent of the human side characters is the children’s paternal grandma, who is a widow; her husband often appears in outline form as a spirit watching her and the other characters, but he is not a part of this collection.
The cartoons featured here are pretty typical for the series. We have many instances of the children making cute observations or asking odd questions with an air of wide-eyed innocence. For instance, in one cartoon, as Thelma is pouring herself some coffee, Dolly explains to Jeffy, “We have orange juice and that’s Mommy juice.” In another panel, one of the kids calls his grandma on the phone while wearing a clown costume and says, “Hi, Grandma! Betcha can’t guess who this is!”
The humor is generally very mild and related to a child’s fresh perspective on the world. Much of it is linguistic in nature as the kids make unintentional plays on words. One of my favorites in this book is when a mouse-eared Dolly, upon returning home from a vacation, tells her friend, “After Disney World we went to Apricot Center.”
I was a little surprised at how many specific cultural references were in this book. I tend to think of these cartoons as being pretty general; their popularity seems to lie in their applicability to families of all types, with panels from the 1960s making just as much sense to contemporary readers. In this book, we get nods to Rush Limbaugh, Bart Simpson, Dr. Seuss, Game Boy and General Schwartzkopf, as well as the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast and the Biblical Battle of Jericho. Christianity plays a prominent role in Family Circus in general, with the children often reacting to the pastor’s sermon or a Bible story or simply engaging in some out-of-the-blue theological musings. It’s actually not a big part of this book, but a few panels delve into religious topics.
With just 125 panels, each usually only containing a one-sentence caption, Sing Me a Loveaby? is a quick read. Family Circus is not a laugh-aloud type of comic; most panels are only worth a weak chuckle. Nonetheless, this book is likely to bring at least a smile or two to the face of anyone who knows what a circus life can become when you have a family with young children.
Because of the Disney World reference and the connection between Billy and a Disney animator, this review is a part of the All Things Disney Write-Off.
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