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Circus Maximus

They have at least two things in common. First, Paradise Valley cartoonist Bil Keane, 76, and Chicago Web developer Greg Galcik, 29, attended the same Philadelphia high school. And second, neither thought Keane's recent cease-and-desist letter to Galcik would prompt so much attention and outrage. "I just thought it would...
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They have at least two things in common.

First, Paradise Valley cartoonist Bil Keane, 76, and Chicago Web developer Greg Galcik, 29, attended the same Philadelphia high school.

And second, neither thought Keane's recent cease-and-desist letter to Galcik would prompt so much attention and outrage.

"I just thought it would simply be a matter of contacting the perpetrator and issuing a legal statement to make him realize he's treading on thin ice," Keane says.

Keane is the creator of The Family Circus, a 39-year staple of mainstream American comics' pages. Galcik is the creator of The Dysfunctional Family Circus (, a four-year-old Web site where readers offer captions for hijacked Family Circus panels. Since 1995, readers have submitted thousands of punch lines, and Galcik publishes the best 10 percent to run beneath Keane's panels. The DFC gets about 30,000 hits per day and contains 500 archived panels.

Anything goes, as long as it's funny.

On September 17, Galcik received a letter from Keane's attorney and The Family Circus' syndicate, King Features, demanding he cease publication and remove all Family Circus cartoons.

"At long last, the sledgehammer," Galcik wrote on the home page, an allusion to fans' longtime anticipation of such a request. For the moment, he has stopped adding new panels, but has not removed the site.

Stories appeared last week in Wired News, the Associated Press and the Arizona Republic. Fans of The Family Circus and The DFC seemed equally outraged at each other's gumption. Much of the commentary on the Internet has been decidedly anti-Keane.

"The Family Circus is one of the most saccharine comic strips ever to pollute the American newspaper this side of Love Is," wrote Web columnist Paul T. Riddell.

Some of the criticism of The Family Circus is probably deserved. But first, a little earned sympathy for Bil Keane.

Keane served in the Army during World War II, drawing for Yank magazine and Pacific Stars and Stripes. In 1960, he created The Family Circus panel (then called The Family Circle), basing the strip on his own experiences as a father and, later, as a grandfather.

The Family Circus is published in 1,500 newspapers worldwide, and is one of the few examples of unabashed innocence in today's media. It does not follow trends, it is never sarcastic. A modern prop may appear now and again (children Billy and Dolly watching Touched by an Angel, and Dolly says, "Mommy! Billy touched me!"), but the panel has remained a reflection of Keane's family ideals. Bil Keane seems like Ned Flanders come to life.

For the past four years, he's had to witness the ongoing South Park-ization of his beloved family by anonymous young Netheads. So it's understandable that Keane wants The Dysfunctional Family Circus site to go away and leave Dolly, Billy, Kittycat, et al., alone.

"I feel attacked, as my feature has been attacked," Keane says. "I feel I have to express my displeasure with the treatment of my characters. I don't mind parody and I don't mind satire, but I do object to the blue material, and if children can stumble on this, it can hurt my readership and image. It just shouldn't be allowed."

Galcik's Web site adds three new attributes to The Family Circus -- relevance, hipness and, most of all, truly funny jokes. The Family Circus has always been nearly offensive in its inoffensiveness, and The DFC has taken this most innocuous of comics and somehow made it cool.

Galcik says the site has been consistent in its offensiveness, noting the third archived panel from 1995, in which DFC contributors delighted in Keane's drawing of Dolly sitting naked on a rocking horse.

In naming some of his all-time favorite captions, it's apparent Galcik prefers the subtle contributions to the site, having become "somewhat jaded" to the more lurid comedy. "The Family Circus kids cursing was funny for the first 12 strips," he says.

Though many of the captions are brutally lewd, insinuating drug use, incest and violence, many are clever examples of postmodern humor.

There's self-referential (Billy to baby PJ: "Look, I know it's frustrating to spend 30 years at the same age, PJ, but look at it this way: at least you're young enough that you don't get sappy dialog assigned to you"), surreal narrative (panel with a houseplant in the corner: "While the humans were distracted, the plant edged itself into one more panel in The Family Circus, one more panel on the way to its own cartoon, and one more panel on its way to freedom"), and dysfunctional dialogue (perpetual housewife Thel standing over the sink: "Not now, honey, Mommy's busy washing her shattered dreams. . . . I mean, the dishes").

That last elevates The Dysfunctional Family Circus battle to something more than conservative cartoonist versus anarchistic Webheads. A family without divorce, sickness, addiction, scandal, lying or any significant conflict is the sort of idealized homestead that once was frequently portrayed on television sitcoms, commercials and films. The captions on The DFC could be viewed as generational protest -- cartoon panel graffiti to ensure that nobody believes (as stated on the King Features Web site) "the [Family Circus] reminds people of all ages about themselves, their kids and their parents."

It might also be seen as a twisted Rorschach test -- a series of family-oriented ink blots to test your psyche. One Family Circus reader might look at children gathered at the dining table and think, "Billy is telling his mother that he doesn't want to eat his breakfast."

While DFC writers view the same scene and write for Billy: "Okay, so we'll all eat rat poison so Daddy will feel bad about spending the night with his secretary."

Says Galcik: "A number of people have told me that the reason they don't like The Family Circus is that they don't think it applied to them -- they never experienced anything remotely like it."

The future of The DFC is uncertain. There are prominent copyright notices throughout the site to ward off potential lawsuits, and Galcik says he has never made a profit (there are no ads on the site). An argument could be made that the site constitutes parody and is therefore protected by the First Amendment, but Galcik is unsure whether he can afford to take on King Features -- mammoth syndicate of such antique staples as Mary Worth, Blondie, Apartment 3G and Beetle Bailey.

"I admit the possibility that [number 500] might be the last," Galcik says. "I can't even read the captions anymore. I tried reading them and I get all maudlin. The number of people who've been reading this over the past few years is so astounding."

In an interview last week with the Arizona Republic, Keane left open the possibility of compromise, saying: "I wouldn't mind . . . if it was kept clean and within the parameters of my intentions."

Except, of course, that staying outside the parameters of his intentions is the purpose of the site and the reason it's funny.

More recently, Keane told New Times there's no room for compromise as long as the archived material remains on the site.

"[Not adding new material] is sort of a halfway compliance, and I'm not sure that accomplishes what King Features feels would be a cease and desist," Keane says. "It's up to King Features, but I feel they will do whatever needs to be done to put a stop to it."

Contact James Hibberd at his online address: [email protected]

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