Dying of a stroke on April 7, 2007, Johnny Hart, creator of the caveman comic strip B.C., could not have arranged a departure with more evocative symbolism. He died with his boots on, so to speak—at his drawing board, like the dedicated brandisher of pencil and pen he was. But he wasn’t at his drawing board because he was chained to it, like most of his brethren, by the perpetual deadlines of the syndicated cartoonist.
He drew quickly, reported Joe Maxwell of Today’s Christian in 1997, producing “a week’s worth of strips in a mere matter of hours, deftly moving from a pencil sketch to a final, inked version.”
No, Hart was in his studio by choice, not servitude. The studio’s atrium—30 feet high, the walls richly paneled—is filled with incidental amusements, two pool tables, a piano and set of drums, a bar and exercise equipment, but its most engaging feature is a panoramic picture window overlooking Hart’s 25-acre lake on his 250-acre estate. The view is quiet and restful and conducive to what many might call meditation, but Hart called “mental rambling,” a self-induced state of reverie.
“I trained myself to make my mind wander,” he told Jud Hurd in Cartoonist PROfiles (No. 48, December 1980). “I know how I waste a lot of my time,” he said to Maxwell, tongue in cheek: “I just sit and think, who knows what, and it all gets logged up there, and I guess I draw on it. Sometimes I don’t go home until six or seven o’clock at night, and sometimes I don’t eat at all. That’s what’s wrong with me: my brain is plodding, and very often, it’s plogging, too.”
But it’s productive work for a gagman, and that’s what Hart was, more than anything else, the writer of two highly successful comic strips, the other being Wizard of Id, drawn by Brant Parker, Hart’s longtime friend, mentor and, even, inspiration. Hart sat nearly every day in his lake-view studio, “snowballing,” he called it—a free-association method of conjuring up hilarities—guided by two hand-lettered signs on the walls: “simplicity” and “cartoony.”
Another reason for saying that April 7 was symbolic is that it was a Saturday, the day before Easter, and if Hart had to pick the day of his death, he might well have chosen that day in the Christian calendar. Holy Saturday, which he usually called “kick-butt Saturday,” is the day before the annual remembrance of the Resurrection, and Hart fully expected to be resurrected.
A “re-committed” fundamentalist Christian who taught Sunday School every week in the little Presbyterian church in the nearby New York town of Ninevah, Hart frequently delivered sermons in his comic strip. Said Maxwell: “Hart believes the Lord put him into the cartooning world for a reason. Every prudent chance he gets, he takes advantage of it. On Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter—and many days between—Hart’s characters offer messages reflecting the cartoonist’s own firm belief in the gospel message. ‘I find myself trying to put the gospel into practically every strip I create without being obvious about it,’ he says.”
I suspect Hart enjoyed Easter more than other Christian holy days. In recent years before his death, his B.C. strips for Good Friday and Easter Sunday were notorious for their Christian message content, more blatant and mystical than his Yuletide efforts. I think he, like many evangelicals, found greater inspiration and religious conviction in the image of death and resurrection. I’ve always preferred Christmas. Easter is the horror story of a person being attached to lumber with nails through his hands and feet—it makes you shudder with horrified revulsion (at least it did me, when I was a kid); but Christmas, with its newborn child, inspires hope and joy—you think about the infant growing up, a metaphorical vision of another chance we all might get at finding happiness and fulfillment as if we could live our lives over in the life of the newborn.
Hart’s Easter messages became increasingly mystical, it seems to me. The day after he died, the message was numbers. We overhear a conversation between a teacher and a student in an anthill school. The “correct answer” to the final math question—“How old was Jesus when he was crucified?—is, we learn, 33. “Johnny” has apparently misunderstood the exercise, handing in a language answer rather than a numerical one.
He, however, is not as dim as his teacher presumes he is. His answer, he explains, is “a numerical dialogue between three persons—a thief, a king, and a soldier—which sums up the Truth of the Resurrection in four quotes, which add up to 33 words. That’s math!” It’s also the correct answer. “Wow!” says the teacher; “what can I say?” To which the young prodigy says: “Try amen plus.”
The kid’s quotations are from the Bible and conclude with: “Assuredly I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” And: “It is finished.” And: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”Probably persons of Hart’s religious persuasion attach great significance to numerical matters of this sort. But the message this time baffles me, doubtless because I’m not enthralled by numbers. Hart assuredly was.
Hart was 76 when he died, not 33, an annoying numerical circumstance, no doubt, but Hart, who had a keen and comedic sense of the incongruous, would appreciate the humor in the analogy. He would realize, I’m sure, that the Almighty insinuated that irreverent thought into my mind at exactly this moment, and he would rejoice in yet another of the many instances of God “orchestrating” his life.
Religion among the Funnies
Some of Hart’s Easter messages never reached his congregation. For several years, the Los Angeles Times refused to publish any of the B.C. strips that convey doctrinaire convictions. The Times’ spokeswoman, Gloria Lopez, said Hart's strip wasn't the only one that the newspaper ever pulled, and she cited Doonesbury and The Far Side, saying, “The bottom line is the editors reserve the right to edit." Hart, however, persisted in believing that such treatment is symptomatic of the battle for America's soul, and he liked the idea that his flaps with the Times "have gotten Christians up in arms. That's what they all need."
Hart sometimes thought of himself as “the Pied Piper of the Woodwork Christians—they come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Way to go!’” he told Rick Marschall, who interviewed Hart in 1994 (Hogan’s Alley, No. 2; Summer 1995). Quoted in the Dallas Morning News in 1999, Hart said: “I get incredible response on the positive side. I don’t know if it’s the liberalization of this country or whatever that has taken prayer out of schools and pulled the Ten Commandments off the walls of courts, and we’ve become a nation of heathens. The Christians are still out there, but they’re hiding. They’re afraid because every time somebody tries to make a move, somebody steps on them and pushes them back or locks them out. So they think that I’m a hero, and I’m not. ... That’s probably the most pathetic thing of all, that they admire me and think that I’m courageous and brave to mention God’s name.”
Hart’s 2001 Easter strip went beyond a simple statement of belief: it riled many Jews, who saw anti-Semitism in it. The chief problem was that the imagery—the burned-out candles of the menorah morphing into the Christian cross—suggested an obscure religious attitude called “Replacement Theory” which asserts that Christianity “replaced” Judaism, superseding it and, in effect, destroying the religion of Moses, Joshua, and the rest.
Hart, caught in the riptide of Jewish outrage, issued a statement, calling Replacement Theory “an idiot theology.” Said he: “Replacement Theory is the stuff of lunatics and self-deluded fools. There is no foundation for it in scripture and there is no room for it in responsible society.” And in the orchestrated expressions of outrage, he saw a Jewish plot.
Both he and his syndicate’s president and founder, Creators’ Richard Newcombe, took note of the volume of reader response and that it began the week before the strip appeared. Sunday comic strips are printed at a handful of printing plants around the country and shipped in bulk to client newspapers a week or more in advance of publication, so Hart’s menorah strip had been seen by newspaper employees well before Easter Sunday. Someone, thinking the strip espoused an anti-Semitic attitude, alerted the Jewish Defense League, which got hold of a copy of the cartoon and posted it on its website a full week before Easter, urging viewers to contact their local newspapers and demand that the strip be pulled from the comics line-up that day. E-mails poured into newspaper offices across the land in one of the earliest manifestations of how the Internet can create mass protest.
It was “fundamentally unfair,” Newcombe said, “to Johnny Hart. Because of the Internet, one side of the story, or one interpretation of a complex cartoon, flooded the media day after day before any readers had an opportunity to see the comic strip in a newspaper and make up their own minds about what it meant. ... Never in history,” he continued, “has there been an organized smear campaign of a strip in advance of publication. ... I can guarantee it won’t be the last [time such a campaign will be mounted through the Internet].”
He also wryly observed: “I wondered if anyone else saw the irony in the JDL’s position, saying that the comic strip was so offensive that no one else should see it—unless they went to the JDL website! If all newspapers had taken their advice and refused to run B.C., then the only way newspaper readers could make up their own minds would have been through the JDL.”
In the cascading furor on the Internet, at the JDL website and elsewhere, opinions ran the gamut, some seeing anti-Semitism in the strip; others, seeing precisely the opposite. The cartoon was cerebral as well as religious, and its complexity, lending itself to diametrically opposed interpretations, effectively refuted the charge of anti-Semitism. Hart insisted he intended his cartoon to pay tribute to both Jewish and Christian religions.
In 2001, Passover transpired the week before Easter, and Hart found the conjunction inspirational. An artist, he discovered the source of an idea to express that coincidence in simple visual imagery. “I noticed one day that the center section of the menorah—the sacred symbol of Judaism—bore the shape of the cross,” he wrote. “I wanted everyone to see the cross in the menorah. It was a revelation to me that tied God’s chosen people to their spiritual next of kin—the disciples of the Risen Christ.”
For Hart, Christianity grew out of Judaism; it didn’t replace it. In a statement circulated three days before the publication of the cartoon, Hart wrote: “True Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah; I am one of them. ... The first Christians were all Jews. The olive tree is the symbol of Israel, and by God’s grace and the work of the Apostle Paul, all non-Jewish people who believe as I do are grafted into the olive tree. Therefore, I, too, am a Jew. One who believes that the Jewish Messiah is King of kings, Lord of lords and the savior of all mankind.”
Warned that his strip would anger many, Hart issued his statement in advance of the release date: “The true purpose of Christmas and Easter is to honor a man. The same man, Jesus. They are not designated holidays to honor red-suited Santas or egg-laden bunnies. Yet, whenever I try to honor this man of men, hackles go up. The God of Judaism and the God of Christianity is the same, and the people of Israel are his chosen people and Jesus is one of them. This is a holy week for both Christians and Jews, and my intent was to pay tribute to both. I sincerely apologize if I have offended any readers, and I also sincerely hope that this cartoon will generate increased interest in religious awareness.”
Newcombe also issued a statement: “The B.C. comic strip for ... Easter Sunday is simply a calendar recognition of two important religious holidays: Passover, which occurred the week before, as indicated by the menorah [the candelabra], and Easter Sunday, which begins the day the strip is run, as represented by the cross. Some have mistakenly interpreted the strip to be anti-Jewish. This is ridiculous. Far from being anti-Jewish, the strip is simply a celebration of Passover (the week before) and Easter, which begins the day the strip is run.”
Looking at the strip itself (as you, being dutiful to a fault, have done), it’s fairly easy to see how some readers might be offended. And as more than one cartoonist (writing on the chat board of the National Cartoonists Society) pointed out, a key element in Hart’s message is contained mostly in the opening panels, the “throw-away” panels (logo and the other two on the first tier) that many newspapers don’t publish because, for them, B.C. is a quarter page strip, not a third page.
Dropping those panels does serious damage to Hart’s Easter sermon. In those panels, Hart set up the strip’s metaphor by drawing attention to similarities. And penultimate panel, in which the Christian cross seems to have emerged from the Jewish menorah, is another of those similarities: the menorah “contains” the shape of the cross. But the “similarities” connection was destroyed (in fact, nearly obliterated) by leaving out the opening sequence. What remained, then, was a conspicuous Jewish symbol—the menorah. Right away, that's a red flag, drawing attention to itself and demanding some kind of “interpretation.”
Without the “similarities” setup, an interpretation must focus on the extinguishing of the candles one by one, and the interpreter might well conclude that Hart was saying Judaism was extinguished by Christianity, replaced by Christianity. Or, perhaps, one could conclude that the last picture in the sequence means that Christianity is but a charred remnant of the religion in which it originated.
I read it that Christianity emerged from Judaism—but I was persuaded by actual history, of course, more than by Hart's symbolism.
And when the menorah appears to be saying “It is finished,” I assumed that meant Jesus’ role as a Jewish teacher was over. It was over because he had emerged as a symbol for a new religion. And that symbol—this time, the cross—is put into the context of the new religion in the last panel, which has specific reference to the crucifixion and the last supper.
Moreover, “Do this in remembrance of me” can be interpreted to refer to both Christ's final passion and his teaching AND to his Jewish heritage—“this” referring to the whole chain of similarities and connections Hart has laid out, thus embracing and “honoring” both religions.
But I suspect many people didn't make any of this sort of sense of the strip for four reasons:  if their paper omitted the opening panels, then Hart's setup of similarities was missing and his intended meaning wholly obliterated;  Hart's over-all effort COULD be misinterpreted and if something can be, it usually is—at least by some people;  Hart's well-known born-again stance with its evangelical inclination made him persona non grata to people who are put off by this kind of religious enthusiasm; and  this was the first time I can recall that Hart alluded specifically to another religion, and, given the self-righteousness many of those who have been born again, those of the other faith must, perforce, feel they are being picked on (whether they are or not).
I suspect that my second and third reasons had the greatest weight in creating the furor, although the fourth reason is undoubtedly the cause of the Jewish Defense League getting in an uproar.
Reacting to all the fuss, the Los Angeles Times dropped B.C. permanently from its comics line-up. The strip had been running in the paper for 33 years. But, as I said, the mystique of numbers evades me.
The Slur on Islam
Then in 2003 during the holy month of Ramadan, Hart managed to offend the
one billion 2.6 million practicing Muslims in the U.S. (Well, some of the 2.6 million anyhow.) The first inkling of trouble appeared in a Washington Post Internet chat shortly after the publication of the strip for November 10 (which is reproduced with the 2001 Easter strip above). It makes no sense, the reader opined, except metaphorically. As a metaphor, it slammed Islam. The caveman goes into a house marked with the Islam crescent and then says it (the House of Islam) “stinks.” It’s just an ordinary outhouse? Maybe, but as a finishing twist of deciphering, someone noted that the lettering in the space between the first and second panels— SLAM—appears vertically, in the shape of an “I,” which, presto, turns “SLAM” into “ISLAM.
Hart professed to be dumbfounded by this interpretation of a gag he described as “a silly bathroom joke.” Said he: “This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam—subliminal or otherwise. It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people’s beliefs.”
Newcombe averred that giving any religious interpretation to the strip was “reading too much into it.” Maybe.
But given Hart’s record as an outspoken and therefore somewhat arrogant-seeming Born Again possessor of the Religious Truth, I tend, this time, to veer off in the direction of the metaphorical meaning of the strip. If not intended as a sly sort of slur, why all the crescents in the pictures? Why did Hart pick nighttime if not to enable him to put crescent moons into the sky as well as on the outhouse door?
A clever use of symbols and sequence, just the sort of thing that would appeal to a Born Again cartooner who regards anyone not of his conviction as somewhat misguided—certainly all those towel-head Muslims out there, not to mention any of a half-dozen other world-class religions. This time, Hart’s story doesn’t wash. This time, he was too cute for his own good.
Interviewed online by Washington Post comics editor Suzanne Tobin, Berke Breathed gave Hart’s slam a creditable value. “The good news about Hart’s Islam-is-poo strip,” Breathed said, “is that at least you know a real human has shown up for work with his strip. The paper is littered with cartoonists too—well, deceased—to actually participate in their own strip. It’s a pity because there’s a rather agitated bunch of very alive cartoonists that are waiting for their space to show us what a little passionate cartooning can be. The other side of the Affaire Hart is his disowning of his gag. This is the part where he insults his audience, which he might want to avoid. I’m all for bigotry in the public square [but] for people to respond accordingly, they need to own it. Either Johnny is fibbing or he needs to get back in touch with his inner Id. I’m surprised that Garry Trudeau urged everyone to leave him alone. We’re in the business of not being left alone. It’s a fascinating bit of insight into the artist behind the feature, and, by God, let’s get into it. It’s the very bit of life that the comic page is needing as it gets consumed by the Jim Davises of the world and their writing staffs.”
(At the time, Breathed was crusading for the launch of his rejuvenated penguin in the Sunday only strip, Opus, insisting that papers run the strip at half-page size, larger than most other strips. By way of getting editors to create the necessary space for his strip, Breathed urged them to drop all “legacy” strips, strips being produced by the descendants or staffs of the originators. In commenting on Hart’s latest B.C. imbroglio, he did not neglect the opportunity it afforded him to beat the drum of his argument again.)
Every time B.C. was dropped by newspaper editors hesitant of offending one religion or another, the issue of freedom of expression was conjured up again. If Garry Trudeau is permitted to exercise his religion—“the secular religion of politics” as one wag put it—why can’t Hart do the same with his religion? By way of edging up to an answer, the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten took some B.C. strips around for Trudeau to look at. Trudeau looked at them and laughed.
“Please tell me this is not controversial,” Trudeau said. “What’s the problem—that, God forbid, Hart still believes in God? These are good,” he continued. “What’s important is that he still honors his first obligation, which is to entertain. If he wants to stimulate people into thinking about the nature of faith, more power to him.” Agreeing with the wag quoted above, Trudeau concluded: “Hart is writing about his values as much as I am writing about mine.”
But the problem is not in the expression of opinion; it’s in the expression of a religious certainty. And the problem is not in the strips. Hart’s statements about his faith in his strip were always simply assertions of his belief; he did no proselytizing in these episodes. So the annoyance expressed by offended readers has its roots outside the strip.
The rhetoric of some fundamentalist religious attitudes assumes a posture of moral superiority that rubs persons of less aggressive convictions the wrong way. A dedicated evangelical fundamentalist often radiates an aura of smug arrogance. They say they are “Christians” in a way that implies that Catholics are not Christians; neither are Episcopalians or Lutherans or devotees of any of the other denominations of Christianity. In conversation, Hart displayed the same attitudes.
“I know it sounds like I know all the answers,” he told Weingarten during their interview (April 4, 1999). “I do. This is the truth. What purpose would I serve if I had the answer to the mystery of life only I did not tell it for the sake of what other people believe?” Unbelievers, like Abraham Foxman’s daughter, needed his message.
Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, was troubled by another of B.C.’s Easter Sunday sermons. In this one, Hart depicts a cavewoman washing clothes in a stream, and the clothes turn pristine white. She looks around and realizes that the stream is a river of blood running down a hillside on top of which are three crosses.
Foxman recognized that Hart was giving voice to genuine religious convictions and supported the cartoonist’s right to express them. But he still wondered about the appropriateness of that expression on the funnies page, and to make his point, he imagined a hypothetical scene in which a little Jewish girl, reading her favorite caveman strip that Easter morning, sees that the cavemen are telling her that Jesus Christ is Lord, redeemer of souls, the only road to Truth—and since that’s not what her parents have taught her, it suggests their beliefs are wrong. The problem, as Foxman saw it, is the exclusionary nature of the message.
“It is not a subtle exclusionary message,” he said, “it is a very clear exclusionary message if you are not of that faith.” And its presence on the comics page makes it insidious. “It is almost stealthlike,” he concluded. “The only way you can decide not to read it is after you have read it.”
Newcombe questioned the “exclusionary” nature of Hart’s message. “By that logic,” he wrote, “then the holidays themselves are exclusionary. The origin of Christmas is the birth of Christ, and we celebrate Christmas as a national holiday. This was a decision made many years before Johnny Hart was born.”
Foxman does not believe in stifling free speech, but he confessed to uncertainty about the appropriateness of advertising religious doctrine in the funnies..
Hart, however, felt no uncertainty. About Foxman’s little Jewish girl, he said: “If I drew a cartoon that said, Okay, you worship your God, and you can go to Heaven, too, then I am lying to her. I am sending her to Hell.”
Among Hart’s other convictions, he told Weingarten, was the certain knowledge that Jews and Muslims who don’t accept Jesus will burn in Hell, that homosexuality is the handiwork of Satan, and that the end of the world is approaching, maybe by the year 2010. (We seem to have missed that, thanks, perhaps, to Harold Camping, who, with his repeated predictions of the end of the world, wore out the idea. Hart, incidently, later backed off the predestiny for Jews.)
Hart’s certitude is disturbing. Certainty in any arena of human affairs is a dubious attribute. Certainty breeds intolerance, for one thing. If you possess the answer, then no one else does unless they share your view. And if they are ignorant and don’t share your view, they are not worthy of consideration—only pity, and maybe not even that. What consideration do infidels deserve?
And in matters of religion, as we all now too readily realize, it can be dangerous to be point of apocalyptic. How might September 11, 2001, have turned out if one of the hijackers on one of those airliner missiles had experienced a moment of doubt? None of them did, that we know of; and their certainty was their Truth and the death knell of 3,000 fellow human beings. To devout Muslims of a particular perverse persuasion, all of those dead deserved their fate because they were infidels. They were unbelievers who needed the message.
I’m not suggesting that we should eschew all conviction in formulating our personal views and opinions. We all have our certainties, and that’s as it should be. I know the Truth, too—but it’s My Truth. It suits me at the moment, maybe not forever. But for the nonce, it gives me a workable context for living. However, I wouldn’t dream of imposing it upon others. I’m just not that sure of it, of its universal application, for all people in all places for all time.
Politics, on the other hand—Trudeau’s “religion”—is another matter: political issues are not personal; they’re societal. As members of the same society—and an ostensibly democratic one at that—we are obliged to debate issues affecting the public weal. But religious faith has been, ever since the Reformation, a largely personal matter. In most Western cultures, such personal matters are kept out of the public square. Hart wants to bring them into it. And in our tradition—at least for some of us—there’s something a little creepy about that. Baring one’s soul in public seems to invite an invasion of privacy, of personhood, that is vaguely threatening. It requires courage to bare one’s soul, but to what end? Do we really need to know each other that intimately in order to function well in communities? I’m not sure. And I realize that others of different persuasions have different convictions on the question.
The place of religion in a mostly secular society has been argued frequently before, and with the ascendency of the Religious Right in American politics, the argument has been renewed of late. Unhappily, the discussion these days is often clouded by simple ignorance. The knowledge that people have about religion—other religions but even their own professed faith—is abysmal, says Stephen Prothero, head of the department of religion at Boston University (U.S. News & World Report, April 9, 2007).
Americans were once more knowledgeable, he says, but it began to deteriorate when schools stopped teaching the Bible. But schools didn’t stop because atheists demanded it. “Bible courses and the teaching of religion started to go away in the mid-19th century as a result of the debate over which Bible to read,” Prothero said, “—and that was instigated by religious people, not secularists.” And then in the churches, “they started focusing on loving Jesus rather than on listening to him.” With a certain disastrous consequence for the accumulation of knowledge about religion. “Evangelicalism became the dominant religious impulse in the early 19th century, replacing Puritanism. Puritans understood God through a combination of the head and the heart. They were keen on religious learning and reason. [But] evangelicals were suspicious of the mind. Focusing on experience and emotion, they slowly turned Americans away from religious learning.”
And the less we know about religion, the more upset we seem to get when we encounter someone’s profession of it.
With respect to Hart's own evangelical bent, people seemed to lie in wait for his next foray into public—and then leap on him with fervent delight, I think, whenever he made a public statement of his belief. For some people, the American tradition separating church from state has been internalized and personalized to the degree that religion is separated from all aspects of daily life except the innermost parts of it. Religion, in other words, is a private, personal, matter. And any public display of religious fervor is therefore suspect.
For a long time, Hart’s reputation preceded his comic strip into the public arena. On so-called moral issues, he espoused attitudes common to many religions but usually more antagonistically expressed in fundamental faiths. Given this reputation, anytime he expressed his faith in his comic strip, Hart was asking for some sort of reaction or response. The beliefs with which Hart associated himself often belittle other beliefs. Even if another faith is not overtly attacked, evangelicalism seems holier than thou, self-righteous with a smug smile of superiority, a rhetoric implying, strenuously, a moral superiority that rubs persons of less aggressive faiths the wrong way. No one likes to have their religion trashed or its validity impugned.
That Hart’s particular faith made his expression of it offensive to many may be assumed from the absence of objection surrounding other comic strips in which, from time to time, matters of religious faith or aspects of religion are the subject.
In Doug Marlette’s Kudzu, for instance, the good Rev’rend Will B. Dunn virtually took over the strip. If ever a religious figure was subjected to merciless ridicule, it was surely Will B. Dunn. Although his faith seems to be sincere, it has a self-serving bias towards material gain and personal comfort. He’s forever contriving new ways to make money through his tv program, and when caricatures of well-known televangelists appeared as guests on the show, they’re invariably portrayed as greedy and grasping. Marlette hesitated not a whit before making fun of them. Rev’rend Dunn is pretty obviously a variety of fundamentalist southern preacher. So how come Marlette didn’t get lashed in the public arena?
Maybe precisely because it’s fundamentalist religion that he appeared to be ridiculing. Or perhaps it’s the extremism of televangelism that drew his fire.
Although Hart’s fundamentalist convictions underpinned his expressions of faith in his strip, they did not appear overtly. In fact, his religious-themed strips express beliefs that most Christians, regardless of denomination, share. As I said, the strips themselves were not the cause of the outcry they inspired among newspaper readers: it’s the knowledge that Hart is a fundamentalist believer, and hence likely something of an unfettered zealot, that inspired the protestation. Hart represented a breach of decorum, not a religious menace.
But Hart’s ordeal makes it pretty clear why the Easter Bunny reigns at Easter and Santa Claus at Christmas. As Hart demonstrated, if cartoonists made very extensive use of any of the actual religious symbols associated with these holidays, they’d get into trouble with readers. We’re a strange nation, kimo sabe. Hart tried to make a genuinely religious statement on a religious holiday and got beat up for it. But those of us who make Santa Claus a religious icon run no risks at all. I remember seeing a few years ago in a knickknacks shop that little figurine of Santa, cap in hand, kneeling at the side of a cradle in which there was a (presumably) new-born babe. Talk about mixing the profane and the sacred.
This much seems certain: if Hart’s purpose in that 2001 Easter strip was ecumenical, his message wasn’t clear enough. Which remind us of the ambiguity of visual symbols. They are more subject to misinterpretation than just about anything except “harmless” flirtation. A purely visual mode is not the most precise way of conveying meaning.
Hart’s salvation—although he probably wouldn’t have used that term for what I’m going to assert next—was his sense of humor. As a cartoonist, his melding of word and picture for comedic effect was masterful. And the Islam strip displays that mastery with consummate ingenuity. Every element of verbal-visual communication is orchestrated with precision to achieve a particular result.
Hart is clearly taking a swipe at Islam, but his message is not as important as his manner. His zeal as a missionary is subservient to his instinct as an entertainer: he seeks to make us laugh, not to convert the heathen in us. And we do laugh. We chuckle not so much at the slap at Islam as at the ingenuity of Hart’s contrivance.
My criticism of Hart here is the same as Breathed’s: confronted by irrate readers, Hart sniveled. He backed off. He disowned his own ingenuity. Why, if he is so committed a Christian, does he then deny it when confronted, like Peter at the crowing of the cock? Perhaps he backed away because he was, after all, an entertainer first. Despite his evangelical impulse, Hart’s core mission was to entertain, to make people laugh. He loved to make people laugh. Always had. And the comedian in Hart unfailingly subsumed the evangelical in him, thereby rescuing his strip, preventing it from being simply another proselytizing tract.
Born to Be A Cartoonist
Hart’s sense of humor infected every aspect of his life. Marschall reported on his subject’s manner as an interviewee: “During a conversation, he’ll stop, cock his head, and speak a Greek-chorus type of line about the dialogue. He lapses into voices—his own alter-ego; John Wayne, W.C. Fields. Almost every sentence is punctuated with a chuckle.”
After Hart’s funeral, reported Eric Reinagel in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, friends gathered to tell stories about him. One time at a picnic with a bunch of kids, the cartoonist accidentally spilled a little Kool-Aid on his shirt, and when he noticed it, he picked up the pitcher and emptied its contents on his head. He sat there, soaked in Kool-Aid, a lone ice cube perched on his head, while the kids all laughed.
A friend recalled the time he’d told Hart he liked the Yankees jacket he was wearing, so Hart took it off and gave it to him. Another friend after church one Sunday complimented Hart on his necktie; Hart took off the tie and gave it to him. Hart took to buying ties to wear to church expressly in order to have one to give to his friend when he complimented him on his choice of neckwear. “I should have said I like your car,” the friend joked.
When Hart was in the Air Force during the Korean War, he drew cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, but he also toured Korea with band, Hart doing soft shoe and stand-up comedy and writing the comic songs. He briefly considered comedy and music as a career: after one performance, a member of the audience came up and, saying he had a nightclub in New York, gave Hart his card and insisted that Hart get in touch the instant he got out of the service. But Hart lost the card—and the entree to show business—and wound up at the drawingboard instead. “I often think that God certainly routed me in this direction and seated me at a drawingboard ... so I was just destined somehow.” Whatever the Almighty’s role, Hart’s destiny was implemented by Brant Parker.
Born February 18, 1931 in Endicott, New York, John Lewis Hart had no thought of becoming a cartoonist as he grew up although he often displayed a penchant for practical joking, inherited, perhaps, from his father, a fireman. But it was his mother, laughing at everything young Johnny did, who unconsciously encouraged her son to pursue a career in comedy. That career took shape one day when the staff cartoonist on the nearby Binghamton Press came to Union-Endicott High School to judge an art contest. Brant Parker, ten years older than Hart, was a Californian who had married an Endicott girl he’d met while in the Navy; when her mother became ill, they returned to her hometown, and he got a job on the local newspaper.
Hart hadn’t drawn cartoons for his art class, but something in his work attracted Parker’s eye, and he later met with Hart, and they talked about art. And about cartooning—VIP, Virgil Partch, in particular. Hart loved Partch’s cartoons, and Parker knew the Vipper: he had come to know Partch when he, Parker, was working after the War at Partch’s alma mater, Disney Studios. Parker showed Hart how Partch achieved humor in his drawings, and Hart was hooked. Parker gave Hart two watchwords that evening, telling him, “Whenever you draw anything, make it cartoony.” He also told the younger man to keep it “simple.” Simple and funny. By the time they parted that night, Hart had resolved to become a cartoonist.
“He sucked me in,” Hart told Marschall. “He’s the guy. He’s the culprit, the one who’s responsible for all this. But I got even with him. I pulled him in. I created another comic strip just to make him work on it every day of his life.”
Parker’s role in Hart’s life prompted the Christian in the cartoonist to engage in the usual speculations about the machinations of the Almighty. Talking to Jud Hurd, Hart said: “Why did Brant come to Endicott, why did he pick me out, why did he sit me down for a single evening, turn my whole life around, and make me want to become a magazine cartoonist?” Clearly, God had a plan for Hart, and Parker was his instrument.
After Hart graduated from high school in 1949, he enlisted in the Air Force, served in the Korean theater, met Bobby Hatcher and married her in 1952, and started freelancing magazine cartoons through the mail while stationed in Georgia. He sold his first cartoon (to the Saturday Evening Post) in 1953; it was published in 1954, the year Hart was discharged from the Air Force. Hart returned to Endicott briefly and then, once he started selling regularly to Collier’s and True and other markets, he moved to New York City. His cartooning income was still not enough to support himself and his wife, so he took a job in the art department at General Electric.
Present at the Prehistoric Creation
Hart continued freelancing magazine cartoons in his spare time, and he also wrote gags for Brant Parker, who was in New York at the time. Caveman gags were among Hart’s favorite subjects. Hart had not been a particularly good student in high school (and he always felt intellectually inferior because he lacked a college education), but he was fascinated by how aspects of human society originated, and he enjoyed speculating about such historic beginnings in the anachronistic setting of prehistoric man. But he never sold any caveman cartoons.
About this time, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts began running in the local newspaper, and Hart was smitten by the realization that “his stuff was like magazine cartoons in comic strip form.”
Schulz, who did magazine cartoons before inventing his famous strip, had imported to the newspaper funnies the drawing mannerisms of the magazine cartoonist. And he also imported the more mature, sophisticated comedy of magazine cartoons. Said Hart: “I’d never realized you could do things that funny in comic strip form.”
He told Marschall: “Something [I saw in Peanuts] made me realize that my sense of humor was marketable in comic strip form, as well as the one-panel. Four panels meant timing, meter, freedom.”
One night as he left the GE office, Hart jestingly announced to his co-workers: “You guys can stay if you want, but I’m going home and creating a nationally famous comic strip tonight.” And one of his cohorts retorted, “Why don’t you do one about cavemen? You can’t sell them anywhere else.”
And so he did.
“I went home, had supper, sat down at the drawingboard and created this little triangular character,” he told Jud Hurd—the stylistic distinction of the B.C. characters being their flat bottomed anatomy. Hart spent the evening “having fun drawing them and giving them names.” His first gag had to do with an egg, he remembered, “and since I didn’t know what to call the strip, I first gave it the title Suck Egg. How’s that for a scoop!”
He didn’t think of B.C. as a title right away—“that may have been Bobby’s suggestion”—but within a month, he had a batch of samples. He’d had difficulty creating character traits, personalities, until his wife suggested that he pattern his characters after his friends, and so he did. Clumsy Carp, for instance, embodied certain aspects of his highschool chum Jack Carpio, who would eventually become Hart’s full-time office manager and writing partner, sometimes even inking Hart’s pencils.
“Jack and I met in the school hallway in seventh grade,” Hart recalled for Marschall. It was a long, wide hallway, and they were the only persons in it, approaching each other from opposite ends. “We were both wearing corduroys, and each of us was ‘wiff-wiff-ing’ his way down the hall. As we approached each other, we both stopped, looked at each other and started laughing.” They shook hands and exchanged names and have been laughing together ever since.
Hart took his brain child around to several syndicates before it was taken by the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate, which had just hired a new cartoon editor whose assignment was to improve the syndicate’s comics line-up. B.C. debuted February 17, 1958.
The strip was “an instant sensation,” Weingarten wrote. “For the fuddy-duddy fifties, B.C. was edgy. The squat little troglodytes pondered existential questions. They revealed themselves to be thickheaded, fearful, lustful, prideful, stubborn, duplicitous—in short, thoroughly human. B.C. was your basic cartoon about men, women and animals but with an irresistible twist: Hart had reinvented the wheel.” Or, more exactly, Thor did.
Hart apparently didn’t realize it, but the thing he probably saw in Peanuts that rang a sympathetic bell in his belfry was what I call “non sequitur comedy”: from the pictures of little kids in Peanuts, it doesn’t follow that the verbal content will be so adult. And that kind of humor is what distinguished the early B.C. From the pictures of cavemen, it doesn’t follow that we’ll hear dialogue that reflects contemporary, 20th century preoccupations. Non sequitur humor was in the air in the 1950s: the "sick jokes" and "elephant jokes" of the day turned on a similar comedic device.
As in Schulz’s strip, the comedy in Hart’s was original, inventive, and highly individual, and the reader finds again the devices and techniques made familiar to him in Peanuts—artwork deceptively simple, personality traits sharpened nearly to the point of eccentricity, repetition of set prices, the running gag, animals with human aspirations. At first, the humor sprang from our recognition of a discrepancy between the visual and the verbal, between the setting of the strip and the concerns of its characters. The setting is prehistoric; the concerns, the preoccupations, are ours of the twentieth century. Hence, even in this unlikely setting, we were delightfully surprised to discover—ourselves. But with a difference.
Man, as always, is the inventor, the discoverer. And there is a childlike (and therefore entirely human) delight in discovery, invention, novelty. But an invention lands in the world of B.C. full-blown, without having evolved from a need. Like children, the prehistoric characters in B.C. fasten on some new device without fully understanding its function or the principles upon which its operation rests. The result is that newly discovered devices are not put to their proper use: they remain novelties, oddities, things that fit into our world, but not quite into theirs. Thor's invention of the wheel is a prize specimen. The wheel he is so proud of isn't attached to a vehicle: it's just a circular stone that Thor rides by straddling as if it were a horse.
Other discoveries followed. The character named B.C. promptly discovered women in the shape of the Cute Chick. The Fat Broad arrived soon thereafter. Thor invented lightning bolts (just what you’d expect from a guy named Thor), the calendar (including Friday and thirteenth), the pedestal (so women can stand around on it), and the telephone—but only one, so they couldn’t call anyone.
“I’m hung up with observing human nature in its simplest form,” Hart told Hurd. “I guess when I look at anything that happens, I take it down to the basic form, and I wonder what primitive instinct motivated this event in the first place—what caused someone to do or say a given thing.” Prehistoric humanity was the perfect place to ponder such imponderables.
Almost at once, the peculiar magic of comic strip cartooning began shaping the strip. “When a cartoonist draws a character,” Hart said, “he believes that the character actually lives and exists. When I draw B.C., I don’t see him as a bunch of lines: I see him as a many-dimensional character in my own mind. All successful cartoonists know this and believe this. Their funny little lines on a piece of paper are actual people and they actually exist. The reader looks at it, and he believes it because you believe it. I found over the years that I don’t actually put the words in a character’s mouth: he puts the words in his mouth. It’s almost like I know where I’m going with a character, and that character talks to me. I may say, ‘Naw—that’s not a good enough line—this is a better line.’ If you just put down any old line, or a joke, you know the character wouldn’t say that. And when a character says something, I give him an expression that makes him look like he’s saying those particular lines. These words come out of him because that’s the kind of person he is—and he has a personality as far as I’m concerned. He’s an actual, living little being.”
The personalities of the characters soon drove the strip. Just as the character Pigpen was what first excited general interest in Peanuts, so was the anteater in B.C. probably the cause of the first ripples of excitement about the strip. For a time, the creature threatened to take over the strip: day after day, we were treated to successively ingenious displays of the anteater’s tongue’s dexterity and all-around usefulness.
Through the years, B.C. evolved into something else, and its humor eventually depended less and less upon anachronism and the quirks of the characters’ personalities. “Somewhere along the line,” Hart said to Marschall, “the Laugh became more important to me. Right or wrong, that’s what happened. ... Any kind of joke or gag about anything that we think of, we manipulate it and put it into a prehistoric situation. But the bottom line is the Laugh, to really make somebody laugh.”
When he was starting out, Hart wrote all of his own gags, using a process he calls “snowballing.” He decided that it was not productive to belabor a particular notion until a joke materialized. “If nothing is working for you,” he said, “then go on to something else—let it snowball in different directions. You might start off thinking of a guy on a desert island, and you wind up with somebody trying to make a broad in a penthouse. The mental process just drifts from one thing to another—a bottle floats up on the shore of this desert island—nothing seems to come to your mind with that—there’s a note in the bottle from an extortionist—or the bottle becomes a bottle in somebody’s penthouse with this guy trying to make out with a broad—and so on.”
Eventually, Hart turned to his friends, starting with Caprio, to help him come up with gags. Caprio and another childhood friend, Dick Boland, sometimes worked separately and sent in gags on 3x5-inch cards. Or Hart and Caprio had a gag-writing session together, snowballing along. Sometimes they worked with a starting premise—an occupation, book publishing, say, or advertising—and wrote down all the words they could think of that pertain to the premise, looking for those that have more than one meaning or that can be turned into puns. Sometimes the gag-generating device was what they called “straight-lining”: beginning with a simple statement of no particular hilarity at all, they then tried to invent a tagline as the next logical (or illogical) progression.
Hart is often credited with popularizing in newspaper strips a simpler style of cartooning, and it’s clear that several cartoonists were influenced by his style and, a little later, Parker’s. But the simpler magazine cartoon manner had been introduced several years earlier by Charles Schulz in Peanuts and by Mort Walker in Beetle Bailey. What the success of B.C. and The Wizard of Id did was to explore a more sophisticated kind humor that originated in the very concept of B.C.: anachronistic humor is not possible without a keen sense of irony.
The Wizard of Id started November 9, 1964. From that time forward, Parker drew it from ideas written by Hart and Caprio and Boland, and within a short time, Wizard was in about as many newspapers as B.C. and things went along swimmingly for more than a decade. Then, as Weingarten put it, Hart ran out of things for his cavemen to discover, so he discovered Christ and put him into the strip. “It was the ultimate anachronism: Christ in a cartoon whose title means ‘Before Christ.’”
The Second Coming
Hart experienced no enlightening moment: he’s always been a Christian, he said, but he “got mad at God” when his mother died of cancer at the young age of 52. Hart was drinking more and more, but in 1977, he bought a 150-acre (or 250-acre, sources differ) estate near Ninevah, New York, and fled the saloons of the big city. When cable arrived in about 1984, it couldn’t reach across Hart’s lake, so he arranged for a satellite dish to be installed, and the installers were born-again Christians who kept the tvs turned to religious channels as they worked.
Hart found himself attending to the video preachers and enjoying what he heard. “Bit by bit,” Weingarten wrote, “Hart decided this was The Truth.”
His rebirth in the faith was gradual, not dramatic. No parting of the seas or blinding light. “That’s my problem,” Hart told Marschall. “It’s really a problem. Why don’t I get any of those feelings that I can put my finger on? All I’m aware of are subtle realizations where I can say, now I know what that was, or how I came out of that, but there was no dramatic lighting out of something. I look back at things like, why did I get the measles when I was 47 for no reason, when my liver was about gone and the only thing that could possibly rejuvenate a liver is a disease like that in which the liver has to totally reconstruct itself, and it did.”
Hart saw “the thumbprint of God” in the cascade of events accompanying his move to the country, Weingarten continued, coincidences he cannot explain, “not the least of which is the name of the town to which he had moved—Ninevah.” That is the name of the town Jonah goes to after God rescued him from the whale. There, “he delivers a terrifying sermon on the need to repent, the townspeople heed his message, confess their sins, and wear sackcloth and are spared.”
Hart began studying the Bible, stocking his home with Bibles, Bible studies, and commentaries, and he filled notebooks with clippings and notes and Biblical quotations. “Whenever I have time to read, I read the Bible,” Hart said. “Or I read books about the Bible, books explaining the Bible. There isn’t anything more interesting. Seeing the unbelievable things God is doing behind them. Moving and orchestrating and manipulating and fulfilling—it’s all just fascinating and exciting.”
Soon after his satellite dish was installed, Hart started teaching Sunday school at the little church in Ninevah. And he then expanded his classroom to include the readers of the 1,200 newspapers in which B.C. appears.
Weingarten delights in pointing out that Hart’s revived faith created a tantalizing incongruity: “Cavemen have been very good to Johnny Hart,” he writes, “even though they never existed.”
For Hart, the Bible is literally the word of God, “not metaphors, not parables, but the literal truth.” And like-minded fundamentalist Biblical scholars have determined that the Creation occurred roughly at 4004 B.C. “Which means,” Weingarten observes, “the Pleistocene Era never occurred. No Stone Age.” No cavemen.
How does Hart explain all those cave wall paintings and stone tools littering the archeological landscape? His theory, he told Weingarten, is that these artifacts are remnants of the period after the collapse of the Tower of Babel, when God banished disobedient people to the planet’s four corners, at one or more of which the erstwhile advanced civilization regressed somewhat. As for neanderthal man—didn’t exist. Man has always been man: no forebears. “No species ever evolved into another species,” Hart said. “Darwin is a lie.”
Dinosaurs, on the other hand, were around. “The Bible calls them leviathans or behemoths.” They all drowned in the Great Flood because they were left off Noah’s ark, which, Hart noted, had limited deck space: no room for dinosaurs.
In 2009, two years after the cartoonist’s death, his religious themed strips were compiled in I Did It His Way: A Collection of Classic B.C. Religious Comic Strips.
In 1987, when Rick Newcombe formed Creators Syndicate with the object of giving cartoonists and columnists ownership of their creations, Hart was among the first to climb aboard, with both B.C. and Wizard. Other early arrivals included editorial cartoonist Herblock and columnist Ann Landers, but Newcombe attributes the success of the syndicate to Hart.
Not long before Hart died, Newcombe called him about it. “I said that his goal at the time was for us to make waves for the tall ships, and now we have become one of the tallest ships at sea, due in no small part to his tremendous courage early on. He was modest, as always, and tried to shift the credit back to me, but I told him that because of his commitment, syndicates no longer insist on ownership when they sign new cartoonists. He had revolutionized an entire industry and empowered cartoonists to take control of their work and demand the freedoms they enjoy in their contracts today.”
Hart has been honored often for his cartooning. The National Cartoonists Society named B.C. the best humor strip twice; Wizard, 5 times; and gave Hart the Reuben trophy as Cartoonist of the Year in 1986. France named Hart best cartoonist of the year, and he earned Sweden’s Sam Adamson Award for graphic artistry and the International Congress of Comics Yellow Kid Award for Best Cartoonist. In 1972, NASA gave him a public service award for his promotional drawings supporting the space program.
In 2001, Hart was inducted into the Guinness World Records as “the most syndicated living cartoonist” because the combined circulation of his strips hit 2,600, allegedly more than any other. I suspect Jim Davis over at PAWS (Garfield headquarters) could contest the claim (but probably won’t). And, considering the size of Hart’s staff on the two strips, Mort Walker and his team could claim a similar distinction for the combined circulation of the strips they produce—Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey, and, probably, Hagar the Horrible, not to mention Sam and Silo, or, until a few years ago, Boner’s Ark.
In the weeks after Hart’s death, Creators Syndicate posted tributes to Hart from other cartoonists and associates. Over and over, we find these words: kind, decent, good, sweet, generous, and funny. Hart would doubtless value that last attribute best. He liked to quote John F. Kennedy, who once said: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.” To which Hart added: “My name is Johnny Hart. I do what I can with the third.” And he did it very well for a long time.