Trailing Billy Keane

By | Wednesday, June 02, 2021 Leave a Comment
Family Circus
One of the reasons I like looking at original art is to see more of the process that creators put into their work. How did they go about actually creating the page? How did they achieve certain effects? I find it gives me a better insight into both their specific methods, but also comics production in general.

Here's an interesting example: a 1978 Sunday Family Circus from Bil Keane featuring the oft-copied/parodied dotted line showing Billy's path as he runs through the neighborhood.
Family Circus original art
What I find interesting here is how Keane actually drew that dotted line. My assumption had always been that he inked a solid black line, and then went in with some white paint to create the spaces between the dashes. That would strike me as the easiest way to have done these. But let's take a look at what Keane actually did...
Family Circus original art close-up
You can just barely make out the pencil marks in a few places that show he did indeed sketch things in as a "solid" line. Two parallel pencil lines snaking throughout the piece. He's then gone in with a brush to ink between those two pencil lines to make a single, solid black line. In a few places here, you can see how the ink of his brush flows from one trapezoid to the next. And then there are stripes of white paint cutting through the line to create the dotted effect, as I guessed. But it's very high quality white that, over three decades later, still retains its pristine color and hasn't even begun chipping away.

All of which says what? Well, first, that Keane was no idiot. He knew how to create that dotted line effect efficiently. And, although I didn't touch on it much here, there's some subtlties in the execution of it, too, that make it a lot more readable than it might've been. That's probably why so many people remember the motif -- because Keane always did an excellent job of communicating the line even as it weaves in and out of other lines on the page. The reader never has to question where it goes. In large part because Keane spent some amount of time on the details of the line itself.

The other thing this says is that Keane used some really high quality materials on his work. Granted, he'd been doing the strip for nearly twenty years at this point, so we're not talking about a fresh-faced kid but a middle-aged adult who'd already made a successful career for himself, and could afford quality materials. He was a professional, and treated his work very much as a professional would.

I'm still not a big fan of Keane's style of humor, or his occasional heavy-handed religious iconography, but the man was unquestionably talented in his illustration and studying an original of his for the first time does give me a greater appreciation of his work.
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