Saturday, April 25, 2015

"My own household wasn't particularly troubled, so The Family Circus didn't carry anything like that emotional weight. But it was a much-anticipated fixture of Sunday mornings. Especially the 'dotted-line comics.'

These were strips bursting with color and detail, which told a story — actually several mini-stories — in a single, vast, mural-like panel. To accomplish this, Keane pulled back — way back: we readers suddenly found ourselves looking down upon the family's pristine suburban development like a benevolent god.

A dotted black line followed a character's (usually Billy's or Jeffy's) carefree peregrinations through the privet-lined, strangely carless, possibly post-Raptured streets of his neighborhood. Here, Billy dallies on a jungle gym. There, by the babbling brook, he catches polywogs. And all the while, that dotted black line follows him, jumping over tree stumps and skirting around barking dogs.

It's impossible to read these strips, which depict a small child blithely wandering on his own through verdant backyards and quiet cul-de-sacs, without feeling a pang of nostalgia for a time before stranger-danger and Amber Alerts. But that's exactly what Keane was selling, of course. Because his dotted line always, always circled back to end where it began: On the doorstep of the family home.

The Sunday dotted-line strips required a level of planning — and evinced a clean, meticulous draftsmanship — the daily strips never needed to. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the way Keane cheated the perspective so as to fill the entire panel with detail — even those places and objects farthest away from the reader's eye.

To a suburban kid, these strips provided a new and quite literal perspective on my world, which so closely resembled the four-color, zipatoned Levittown Keane depicted.

Reading them in the car on the way home from church, those strips were like tiny, epiphanic visions. It was the easiest thing in the world to see myself as Jeffy; the realization that all the adventures that filled my days could fit below the fold of the Sunday funnies was jarring. Those strips took me out of the everyday and let me see what my life looked like, at a remove."

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