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By Lynn and Bob Gillen

Links for Learners | November 2001

Bil Keane's Family Circus


Finding Curriculum Connections
Finding Links
Understanding Basic Terms
Images of Life
Images of the Teen Spirit
Research Resources

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Links for Learning

Finding Curriculum Connections for High School Teachers and Students

This month’s Links for Learners will support high school curriculum in:
Christian lifestyles—family life; communication of values; humor
Art—drawing and illustration; art careers
History—illustrating American and world history events/ politics

Finding Links for Discussion Group Leaders and Participants

Look for connections for use in programs outside the classroom, such as:

Parish sacramental preparation programs and CCD classes; young adult discussion programs; seasonal discussion groups; RCIA programs.
Parents will also find this material useful in initiating discussion around the dinner table, in home study, at family activities.

Understanding Basic Terms in This Month’s Article

Look for the key words and terms below as you read the article. Definitions or explanations can be researched from the article itself or from the resource materials cited throughout the Links for Learners. You can also find a list of terms on the glossary page of




Faith and values


Syndicated cartoon


Enduring character

Clean humor

Images of Life

Cartoon artistry significantly impacts our society. The National Cartoonists Society boasts over 600 members working in a wide range of artistic categories:

  • Newspaper panels
  • Newspaper illustration
  • Gag cartoons
  • Greeting cards
  • New media
  • Newspaper comic strips
  • Magazine and book illustration
  • Editorial cartoons
  • Advertising and illustration
  • Comic books
  • Television animation
  • Feature animation

While some might argue that gag cartoons and greeting cards, for example, don't make a substantial contribution to our lives, there's no question that even these art expressions can give us a smile or touch our hearts when we need a boost.

Certainly cartoon art is memorable. This month's article focuses on a well-known newspaper comic strip, Bil Keane's The Family Circus, a cartoon staple for decades. With his cartoons, Keane encourages us to smile at little snapshots of family life.

Some cartoon work can be sarcastic, inappropriate, even raunchy. Bil Keane chooses to spotlight family values and faith in his work. Keane's son Jeff, himself an animator, says that his dad's The Family Circus cartoons stay true to life. This universality is the key to their success.

Contrast this with another application of cartooning—editorial cartoons ("editoons"). Keane prefers not to focus on the negative and the controversial. Newspaper editorial cartoons, however, thrive on criticism, wit, ridicule, satire, social and cultural comment. Perhaps the best example is the recently deceased Herbert L. Block, known to readers of The Washington Post as Herblock. Herblock's "editoons" skewered politicians for decades, through 13 presidencies from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. Herblock is especially known for his ongoing criticism of Richard Nixon, from his early days in Congress right through his last days in the presidency.

Reflecting on the work of the two men reveals that Herblock may not have been all that different from Keane. Each man's work originates in principles, in courage and in personal character. Each man's work comes from what he knew from his life experience. For Keane it has been a rich family life. For Herblock it was the Washington political scene. Both have created work of enduring quality. Keane's family themes reflect universality. So does Herblock's political criticism. It is said a recent viewing of Herblock's earlier cartoons caused one woman to utter, "Wow! History repeats itself."

What common elements/themes can you find by comparing several cartoon artists from different fields? Suggested artists might include: Bil Keane on the family comics scene; Scott Adams on the business side; Herblock or Jeff Stahler on the editorial/political level; Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman for teen humor. Other links/sources for comparison include:

  • Charles Schulz created a cast of enduring characters in Peanuts, Snoopy being perhaps the best loved.
  • Jan and Stan Berenstain created the Berenstain Bears, childhood favorites among beginning and young readers. The bears reflect a series of first-time experiences: Mama's new job, a trip to the dentist, dealing with too much birthday excitement or how to handle money.
  • Lynn Johnston captures a taste of married life in For Better or For Worse.
  • Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, is wildly popular among business people who see themselves in Dilbert's experiences with ridiculous company management practices and workplace frustrations. Adams gets much of his cartoon content from actual situations sent by e-mail from his readers.
  • Editorial cartoonist Jeff Stahler of The Cincinnati Post is a well-respected contributor to the political scene. Stahler's editorial cartoon, for example, depicts four presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR with quotes from their profound speeches, then Clinton saying, "Show me the money."
  • Walt Disney's animation creations, from Snow White through Mulan, touch the human spirit, portraying courage, trust, hope.

After reading some of the above bios on artists from several categories, and viewing some of their cartoon work. Discuss the following points:

  • Do the artists have anything in common?
  • What values do they hold dear, based on their bios and their cartoon themes?
  • What principles motivate them?
  • What does each contribute to society?
  • Do the images they create carry any power?
  • Do they reflect any truth in our lives?
  • How does the impact of print cartoon images compare to that of television and feature film animation?

Images of the Teen Spirit

Has anyone captured the teenage experience in cartoon form? Who, if anyone, depicts teens with truth and humor? Find a cartoon or comic strip that illustrates what's important to you as a teen. For examples, look at the newspaper comic Zits, created by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Or Luann by Greg Evans. Do these comics speak to your life, your values, your sense of humor? Discuss with your class or group the life's truth captured in the cartoons.

Try your hand at creating your own cartoon to illustrate a truth, a reality in your life. More experienced artists can use the skills they've learned in art classes. Those of you who enjoy computer skills can visit an image gallery for animated Web images that may serve as the basis for your own animated cartoon.


Research Resources

Try accessing some of these Internet sources for further reference. Be aware, however, that some of these sites may charge for downloading articles contained within the site’s archives.

The New York Times
The Los Angeles Times
Time magazine
The Associated Press
The Chicago Tribune
People magazine
The History Channel
The Miami Herald
The Close Up Foundation Washington, D.C.-based organization
ABC News
Channel One’s online resource
The Vatican
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
The New American Bible
Documents of Vatican II

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