Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The lost genius of Family Circus, or on overstaying one’s welcome

leave a comment »

Earlier this week, I was browsing at Borders in Oak Park, which has slashed its prices dramatically in preparation for going out of business, when I found myself leafing through the first volume of the new complete edition of The Family Circus. Over the past decade, of course, a number of publishers, notably Fangraphics, have produced fine collections of many landmark strips, starting with the flagship reprints of Peanuts. At first glance, Family Circus might seem like an odd candidate for canonization: nearly everyone, going back to that famous speech in Go, seems to agree that the strip is terrible. Yet as I started browsing through the first installment, which dates back to 1960, something strange started to happen: I laughed. Bil Keane wasn’t a genius like Charles Schulz, but he was a skilled artist and gag man, and those early strips are genuinely funny. (It isn’t hard to see how Bil’s son Glen grew up to become one of the most accomplished of the recent Disney animators.)

Reading these strips reminded me strongly of my own childhood, when the house was filled with my dad’s yellowing paperback editions of comic strips from the fifties and sixties. Most of these collections (nearly all of which are out of print, but which you can pick up for a dollar or so at any used bookstore) were of comics that had never been much good in my lifetime: B.C., The Wizard of Id, Andy Capp, Dennis the Menace. Yet almost invariably, when I went back to the classic period of a given strip, I found that it was funny, energetic, and lovingly rendered. By the time I was old enough to read them in the paper, these strips had been around for twenty years or more, the artists had grown more conservative, and the comics were tired shadows of their former selves. But when you look back at their early days, when their creators were still young, hungry, and excited by the medium, you can see why these strips endured for decades.

Of course, certain strips are so beloved that they can survive a dramatic fall in quality with most of their goodwill intact. Peanuts, in particular, has a reputation, deservedly, as the greatest comic strip of all time, but it’s hard to deny that its last fifteen years were a pale reflection of its past glory. And while the original strips have always been available in collected form, it’s still sad to think that there’s a generation of readers who only know Peanuts from its final days in the daily paper, and can reasonably be expected to wonder what all the fuss is about. Similarly, while nothing can take away from the brilliance of the first ten seasons or so of The Simpsons, its recent retreat affects more than the show’s legacy: as Dead Homer Society has pointed out more than once, the new episodes threaten to drive out the old in syndication, to the point where younger fans may never see some of the show’s greatest moments.

Needless to say, this is a tragedy—but isn’t it also a tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale, that the solid early years of Family Circus remain mostly undiscovered? Any work of art that runs over a long period of time, whether it’s a comic strip or television show, deserves to be judged by its glory days, but that doesn’t always happen. And as the recent roundup of classic newspaper comics at the A.V. Club reminds us, while it’s easy to feel sad that Gary Larson and Bill Watterson chose to end their strips in their prime, from an artistic point of view, it makes perfect sense. Few artists, even the greatest, have shown any inclination to quit while they were ahead, even though nearly every career shows some falling off at the end. The most we can do, then, is keep the memory of their best work alive, and hope that others will do the same for us. After all, who wants to be remembered primarily as a shadow of one’s former greatness? Not me.

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2011 at 9:00 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: