Features & Columns

My Career as a Cartoon Vandal

Sure, everybody loves 'Family Circus' now, but 20 years ago, a band of San Jose ziners and art vandals started a satirical meme that still thrives today

So Bil Keane is no more. At age 89, this celebrated and beloved cartoonist has gone to meet Winsor McCay and Charles Schulz. The creator of The Family Circus, a redoubt of simpler times for more than 50 years, died Nov. 8.

Few among us have not gloried in the world's most widely syndicated one-panel cartoon, or chuckled over the gentle, homey foibles of Bil, Thelma and their four rambunctious kids, Billy, Jeffy, Dolly and young P.J., as well as the grim specters "Ida Know" and "Not Me."

Semiautobiographical cuteness was Keane's m–tier, and he worked it hard. He led his ageless family through adorable malapropisms, harmless joshing and many church services. One of his trademark techniques was a twisting, turning dotted line that Billy often pursued in getting between points A and B. It was such a perfect picture of cute that it almost came out the other side as horror.

Noted alternative-press cartoonist Lynda Barry claims to have burst into tears when she finally met Keane. "I come from a very difficult, violent, horrible home," she wrote, "and I look in that circle and see a happy little life. And I always wanted to get to it."

No puritan in real life, Keane could dispense some very salty jokes at comic conventions. Stephan Pastis of the comic Pearls Before Swine mentions what a wit Keane was, and how he was amused by Pastis having parodied one of his kids as drunk and disorderly. Keane collaborated with cartoonist Bill Griffith to give Jeffy a cameo in Zippy the Pinhead. Griffith's tribute to the man's inspiration can be seen in his obit for the Comics Journal. Griffith says, "Viewed from a certain angle, Billy's dotted-line jaunts around his suburban neighborhood took on a zany, Dada-esqu e quality."

King Features Syndicate and the dedication of his son, Jeff, will keep Keane's cartoon kids frolicking in the nation's daily press.

If the characters could only age, a half-century from now the comedy might play out with one wrinkled but still oval-headed sole survivor talking to a houseful of ghosts like a character in a South American novel.

My Confession

I learned of Keane's passing last Wednesday afternoon. Immediately, I started to hear, via email, from some old partners in slime. I was in a little circle of my own, a circle of shame. Yes, it was time to confess.

I was one of a group of three or four who started the Dysfunctional Family Circus meme. My friends and contributors slipped pamphlets full of re-imagined Family Circle cartoons adorned with snide and troubling new captions to unsuspecting receipients like Penn Jillette and Sonic Youth. And it all began in an apartment building in San Jose's Japantown.

The year was 1991. I was gainfully employed but still living like a college student. A frequent visitor was my good pal Mike Monahan (please purchase many copies of his new book Shock It to Me: Golden Ghouls of the Golden Gate, about the beloved horror hosts of late-night TV.)

Back then, we had a nice solid proposition for a book on the lesser-known spy movies of the 1960s. We had a title, The Second Best Secret Agents in the Whole Wide World. We even had an New York agent, who was quite optimistic. Aren't they all.

We spent our weekends as urban archaeologists; writing up proposals, hitting the library, comparing notes and raiding thrift shops looking for spy-movie memorabilia.

The Savers at Bascom and San Carlos was then a trove of old spy pulp. One memorable day, we noticed that some aged crock had just jettisoned a large set of Family Circus paperbacks.

I hadn't seen the comic in a while, and I looked at it with fresh annoyance. As I flipped through the books, the demented contentment of Keane's little kids in it brought out the thug in me.

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Mike recalls that moment at Savers: "Looking back, I heard this chuckling sound. What, you thought Family Circus was funny? What did I miss there? And then you started talking about 'fixing the captions.'"

Heedless of the commandment Thou Shalt Not Deface a Book, I crossed out the caption on one of the cartoons and scrawled one of my own. I was about to put the book back on the shelf for some other aged crock to discover, when my inner Mr. Hyde spoke up again: No. Buy it.

That evening, we went over the text with a mad purpose. Keane helped us out. He had once spent an entire mortal week doing variations on a gag about those newfangled ceiling smoke detectors. (The older me, a somber bore, notes that "Keane probably saved a lot of lives by publicizing those wretched things, you know.")

The family was posed, staring at the shrieking coming from their ceiling and jabbing at it with a broomstick. Our caption was a natural: "The upstairs neighbor is fucking his howler monkeys again!"

We scrawled away. My pal and neighbor Broos Campbell (now a novelist, once a Metro columnist) joined in on the vandalism. His personal best was Dolly as literary critic: "Characters in existential novels aren't supposed to be realistic, you depressing little simpleton." Broos says he prefers his caption of a tableau of the family at the zoo, with Dolly protesting, "Ibex, my ass! That's a goat!" My pal D. (who still insists on anonymity) added his own lines.

Others took whacks at the piata, which was left lying around, or brought it to the old Ajax Lounge on South First Street for doodling on when the music was too loud for conversation.

I have another friend who would prefer to be nameless—and in fact, he'd prefer it if this story wasn't told. "Why interfere with the mystique?" he asked when I approached him to talk. It's better when they seemed to come out of nowhere. Misdirect the public, tell them some lies about where these things came from.

This silent partner was versed in the then-arcane science of desktop publishing. He made the little booklets look good, getting the proper typeface to match the original newspaper font.

When we had boxes of professional looking 12- or 24-pagers, we left handfuls of them of them in public places around San Jose and the valley. Our influence was Jack Chick, the Chino-based comic-book evangelist whose millions of free pamphlets still turn up like lint at the Laundromat. This silent partner, who had superior Internet skills, distributed them online by request.

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Mr. Anonymous' publishing signature was the anagram names he made of Bil Keane—Bean Like, I Be an Elk, etc. That's how you can always tell ours, as in the complete set that can be found at the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor at the San Francisco Main Library.

We knew what we were doing was semilegal, if that. We weren't just skirting certain sacred rules of copyright, we were making jokes about always uneasy subjects like molestation and incest. For some odd reason, this is the first direction a nihilist humorist takes when disfiguring cartoons about a blameless family.

In an 1999 article for Gettingit.com, David Cassel interviewed Seth Friedman, then editor of the zine roundup Factsheet Five. Friedman said he expected lawyers coming out of the woodwork when he saw the Dysfunctional Family Circus booklets: "We were kind of surprised at the time to hear that there was no legal action coming down. I think the anonymity of it really helped."

The cabal finally broke up with the same forces that destroy bands and marriages. Humor, like water, seeks its own level, and the more people who contributed meant more excrement jokes. Admittedly this kind of humor was a gimme from Keane, since Jeffy was a muddy kid.

I always thought the best gags revolved around Satanism (always a laugh-getter), psychedelics and homicide. A picture of the family enduring a near vertical hike up a mountain suggested that the bloodhounds were after them. Jeffy: "You know, a few dollars worth of quicklime could have prevented all of this."

Mike notes that "there was rudeness, and then there was funny in the context: like the one I did where the kids are in the backseat of the car, and we see a detour sign through the windshield: 'Story of your life, eh, Pop?'"

Word got out. A friend presented me with a T-shirt he bought in Berkeley, picturing Thelma and the children confronting a baffled dad: "I'm taking the kids to where you can never hurt them again, you sick bastard." Fame at last.

"Within the year of the first pamphlet," Mike recalls, "I picked up Mad magazine, and they were running their own Dysfunctional Family Circus comic. ... We got ripped off by Alfred E. Neuman! He ripped off our ripoff!"

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Meme of Mine

During the mid-1990s, after we had quit, strangers scooped up the meme and ran like deer with it. The Dysfunctional Family Circus website ran 500 panels, each one a caption contest. It sometimes drew 70,000 hits a day.

Trevor Mills, a livery company VP in Texas, was a regular contributor to the site. "People's captions were so brilliant,"Mills recalls. "The DFC became the perfect pastime for me in between mundane tasks at a horrible receptionist job in the '90s. I'd answer the phone laughing all the time. And to actually have one of my captions accepted once in awhile was very addicting."

After 1999, the website was gone, though it persists on a Facebook appreciation group. David Matthews, from eastern Pennsylvania, has administered the Facebook page for two years. He took over from the previous administrator, who went off to the Naval Academy. ("He liked the high quality of my captions, if you don't mind me bragging," Matthews tells me.) For reasons known only to Facebook, Matthews hasn't been able to post new entries, except to older files.

Online, one can see relics of the old DFC site. One example was an especially tough panel to caption: a kind of ordinary drawing of a breakfast table, with the little autocrat of it, Jeffy, complaining about something or another.

The submitted captions broke down like so: scat jokes 1, sex jokes 12, and only a couple that seemed closer to the bull's-eye: "Why does my cereal taste like bitter almonds?"

One caption really opened my eyes: "Why mother, you look smashing! Simply smashing! Seriously, would it kill you to freshen up a little bit?" I read it and instantly became the last person on the planet to realize that oval-headed Stewie Griffin on Family Guy is based on Jeffy in Family Circus.

"If I thought I was responsible for Family Guy in any way, I'd eat my service revolver," Mike observes.

Greg Galick presided over the old DFC site, with a team of editors. As the site's FAQs put it, "So you see 50 to 100 funny captions, instead of 1,000 captions ranging from funny to lame to inexplicable. ... The record is well over 1,600 a day."

When the Dysfunctional Family Circus site closed, the news went out to CBS and Wired alike. Galick had been caught in the twin prongs of a cease-and-desist letter from King Features and a long personal phone call from Bil Keane himself. Keane turned out to be a real nice guy about it, under the circumstances.

The website KnowYourMeme.com follows the gradual decline of interest in the many Dysfunctional Family Circuses that cropped up—the little line is now close to perfect flatness.

Despite that, others still play the game. One witty Wholly Functional Family parody urges readers to outwholesome Keane: "I drank all my milk today!"

Perhaps even smarter: the Losanjealous.com site's Nietzsche Family Circus, taking the master philosopher's words and putting them into the mouths of these children. For instance: "After the old god has been assassinated, I am ready to rule the world."

I think we might have put a Nietzsche gag in one of our pamphlets, but who knows. Mike recalls that his "own favorite was Billy yelling into a church, 'God is dead, pass it on!'"

"I certainly don't want to be mean to Bil Keane," he adds. "I got the sense that if I knew him long enough he'd probably get on my nerves, but he was likely a legitimately straight arrow."

He contrasts his reaction to the Family Circus universe with Lynda Barry's: "She saw this other family with envy. We saw it and said, 'Bullshit!' It all comes down to that fight or flight thing—either flight into fantasy, or fight the bullshit. Dreaming of these ideal families is such a panacea to people—it's so Republican."

Broos Campbell adds, "I always kind of liked The Family Circus, though. It's like looking into a shop window full of nice things that you know you'll never be able to afford. I suppose what made me want to join in on the vandalism was resenting the gulf between the Keane family's smug suburbanity, and what the suburbs are really like. The DFC was payback."

David Matthews was also a kind of fan of Keane's: "Altering the cartoon's aggressive, saccharine abnormality into something more, well, normal provides a transgressive thrill, like shouting to the emperor that not only does he have no clothes but that he also has a pimply butt. Most (if not all) DFCers respect the cartoon's craft. The Family Circus depicts aggressive, saccharine abnormality quite effectively. It creates its own distinctive universe of melonheaded children and invisible gremlins. Plus the late Bil Keane, at his peak, could draw very well, filling his panels with intricate detail."

"I mean, what do I have against Bil Keane?" Trevor Mills asks. "Absolutely nothing. He was very talented and obviously meant well. I would guess that most of the captionists on the DFC were just former class clowns, like me. With The Family Circus, you have this painfully antiquated comic strip with four enormous-headed, goody-goody toddlers and a hot-house mom doing every chore while her cartoonist husband appears to do nothing but recline and constantly remind them all that he wields the very pen that's kept them frozen in time for 50 years. Meanwhile, the kids have a missing nostril, the house is haunted by dead relatives and there's a guilt ghost for every kind of sloth. And yet with all this, Family Circus only ever delivers this dreadfully bland, sanitized humor. Rather than revenge, maybe we were just making it interesting for ourselves. I went for the laughs more than anything."

Before they shut down, Mike wrote the DFC website to tell them our story, but he didn't receive a reply. He wasn't impressed with it anyway. "There was nothing vaguely political or absurdist in their approach. There's a difference between being vicious and being mean. We were being vicious—it's the difference between the scalpel and the clown hammer. That DFC website had a lot of clown hammer to it. And reading those hundreds of captions was a classic roomful-of-monkeys situations. One monkey in a room is funny. A dozen of them aren't."

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I knew a '70s punk rocker who used to sit watching second-wave punk bands. He'd make nice to them after shows by saying, "I guess if it wasn't for me, you guys wouldn't be here."

Please don't think I'm trying to say we had a great idea once and you imitators ruined it.

Giving a sitting duck both barrels isn't exactly sporting. Disfiguring a comic was the method of the French Situationists, which was brought into the early world of English punk rock.

Like anyone, I admired the San Francisco Dadaists who went up billboards like steeplejacks and defaced them with anti-capitalist messages, or Marcel Duchamp disfiguring the Mona Lisa.

It's a well-paced, wide-shouldered road—a freeway really—that leads from one moment of jackassery in a thrift shop to the New Yorker Comic Caption competition.

My points are two: In these days of Mr. Guy Fawkes Anonymous at Occupy encampments, you can feel that you're protected from investigation, but almost everything online leaves a trail. The pamphlet, zine or samizdat, or whatever you call it, is still a peerless way to mysteriously distribute information. For decades, we were able to conceal our participation in something that went quite viral.

Second, as a partisan of the great city of San Jose, I want it to see it get its cultural respect—which always gets swiped by San Francisco or L.A. Believe it: San Jose is the place where this disgraceful international phenom began. But only Mr. Keane in heaven has seen the end of it.