Lessons From the Hart

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By Tom Neven

Johnny Hart, creator of the B.C. comic strip, wants the world to know about his savior—and to have a chuckle at the same time.

The pencil strokes are quick and deft, the drawing simple. A caveman. A cave. In front of the cave, a stone rolled away. The caveman looks in, finds the cave empty.

In the past panel, he walks away with a triumphant gesture: “Yes!” Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Humor is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” Although Niebuhr no doubt did not have a comic strip about bumbling cavemen in mind, he would probably appreciate the way cartoonist Johnny Hart has taken this sentiment to heart. The creator of two nationally syndicated comic strips, B.C. and The Wizard of Id, Johnny displays an open and enthusiastic faith that expresses itself with a sense of wonder and sly fun.

A God-given opportunity

Johnny’s faith finds its way into his comic strips on a regular basis, some days more explicitly than others. But on special days such as Good Friday, Easter and Christmas, he presents the truth of the gospel in as straightforward a manner as you’ll ever find in a secular newspaper. “God has given me a platform,” Johnny says—a far-reaching one. B.C. today is syndicated in more than 1,300 newspapers worldwide. When you factor in his second strip, which he co-produces with longtime friend Brant Parker, Johnny is the most widely syndicated cartoonist in the world.

Rick Newcombe is a longtime friend who credits Johnny with helping lead him to faith and is president of Creators Syndicate, which syndicates the two strips. He stresses that Johnny is careful not to abuse his access to so many readers.

“Johnny wants to be funny, and he has something important to say,” Newcombe says. “If he can do it with a scalpel, he’s happy. If he does it with a bulldozer, it won’t work.”

Still, despite Johnny’s care to present the gospel with grace and even a bit of humor, some seem to find offense. For example, The Angeles Times pulled B.C. for four years running when Johnny drew strips with an explicit Christian message.

The paper’s explanation was that its editors reserve the right to edit. While that principle cannot be questioned, it still begs the question as to why they felt the need to “edit” Johnny’s strips on only certain days. In 1996 the Times pulled Johnny’s Easter Sunday strip but ran on its editorial page a cartoon showing presidential candidate Bob Dole nailed to a cross wearing “Christian Coalition.”

In response to reader protest, the Times has now set up B.C. on a rotating schedule with The Wizard of Id, alternating the strips over a three-day period. And Johnny says, “Just by coincidence it’s always The Wizard’s turn to run on Holy Days.” But, he adds with a characteristic chuckle, “Last year I stacked the week (between Palm Sunday and Easter) with a Christian strip every day.”

In January 1996 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped B.C. Altogether, and just last year The Chicago Sun-Times also killed the strip. Newcombe says the Sun-Times justified its decision because B.C. allegedly “offended Jewish readers.”

To charges of anti-Semitism, Johnny responded tartly in writing: “If there is any anti-Semitism in the fact that I have turned my life over to the greatest Jew who ever lived, I stand guilty as accused.”

He had other defenders, too. Daniel Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern University, wrote a supportive note to Johnny as charges of anti-Semitism flew:

“You cannot imagine the discomfort your religious views seem to cause in some of the more politically correct parts of our culture. (‘How DARE he do that?!) But one Jewish law professor’s opinion is that you have done more for our country’s freedom of expression than it is usually given to any one man to do. My colleagues usually think of Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler magazine) and Hugh Hefner (publisher of Playboy) as the heroes, but you’re the genuine article. Keep’em coming!”

Being politically correct is the last thing one can accuse the 69-year-old self-described “gag man” of, what with two of his cartoon characters named Fat Broad and Cute Chick. And in a discussion of the difficulties men and women sometimes have communicating, Johnny sighs, “Women—you can’t live with ‘em . . . and you can’t shoot ‘em!”

Being “administratively inclined” is also a tag that would be hard to assign to him. He relies on his daughter Perri to help keep him organized, devoting an entire room in his 5,000-square-foot studio for her to keep his files in order. He’s always jotting notes to himself and filing them away in a multitude of colored folders. Those folders, with headings written in neat cartoon script, carry titles such as “Reader Unrest” (letters of complaint), “Anti-Happy File” (things he wishes he could do over again) and “Omnifarious Doings” (anything that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the approximately 30 other categories).

A childhood dream

Johnny has never wanted to be anything but a cartoonist. As a child he drew whenever he got the chance, even hoping to copy Walt Disney’s success by producing his own cartoon. Dopey Duck, which he painstakingly drew on typewriter paper.

“I always loved to draw,” he says, although he’s never studied art. “I’ve had no formal training for anything in my life,” he adds.

While serving in the Air Force in the early 1950s, he drew cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Strips newspaper. An Air Force posting to Georgia led to Johnny meeting his wife, Bobby, and they were married April 26, 1952.

Living on a small farm in rural Georgia after his discharge, Johnny sold his first cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post in 1954. Still, freelance cartooning didn’t pay the bills, so he took a position in the art department at General Electric in Johnson City, N.Y., while he continued to sell cartoons to magazines such as Colliers, True and Look.

At GE, a fellow illustrator named Thornton Kinney inspired Johnny to try his hand at a syndicated strip. “Cavemen gags, for reasons I still cannot explain, were an obsession in those days,” Johnny says. The strip, he says, is “the product of a simple mind,” and he is attracted by the simplicity of being able to communicate human foibles through the antics of clueless cavemen.

After being rejected by five syndicates, B.C. was picked up by the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate, and on Feb. 17, 1958, the first B.C. strip was published in 30 newspapers.

Oh, by the way, the character Thor, the guy on the stone wheel, is named after his friend Thornton. Most of the other characters are based on friends, including peg-legged Wiley, named after Johnny’s brother-in-law, who lost a leg in World War II. Clumsy Carp is Jack Caprio, Johnny’s boyhood friend and present business partner. Johnny says he models the character B.C. after himself, a “native slob.” He insists with a twinkle in his eye that Fat Broad, Cute Chick and Grog, the nearly subhuman hairball with a big nose, are not modeled on anyone in particular.

Since achieving his dream of becoming a syndicated cartoonist, Johnny has been richly honored by his colleagues. B.C. has been awarded numerous honors, including:

• Best Humor Strip in America, National Cartoonist Society (six times)

• The Reuben, Cartoonist of the Year, National Cartoonist Society, 1968

• The Yellow Kid Award, International Congress of Comics 1970

• Sam Adamson Award, Swedish Museum of Comic Art (twice)

• Elsie Segar Award, King Features Syndicate, 1981

 

Go to Nineveh

Johnny says his journey to faith culminated with “a sudden dawning.” His family were “C&E” Christians—they went to church on Christmas and Easter.

“I came from one of those ‘good’ families,” he says. Despite periodically attending church and Sunday school as a child, “I don’t remember really learning anything at all,” he says. “Religion was always a good part of life, but I always felt awkward. I wasn’t all that sure what was going on.”

As an adult, Johnny moved away from any semblance of faith. He developed a drinking problem, getting “swacked” to help “improve” his work. “I lived for parties on the weekend,” he says.

He also got heavily involved in the occult, relying on a Ouija board for advice and exploring astrology, seances and what he calls mystical things. “Reincarnation was really attractive to me. I was formulating my own ideas of God, who I wanted Him to be.”

But God called him to Nineveh (New York, that is)—not to preach God’s Word but to find it. His studio, on 150 acres outside the small upstate town, got poor TV reception. He bought a satellite dish, and the father-son team he hired to install it turned it in to religious broadcasting as they fine-tuned the signal.

For several days Johnny was exposed to a virtually nonstop Christian message. “It drew me in,” he says. “I slowly became convinced that the Bible is the Word of God. I’d always known about Jesus, but now I knew the truth of why he went to the cross.”

He began praying for Bobby, and within a short time she asked him if he wanted to go to church with her the next Sunday. That was in 1987, and Johnny says his faith now colors everything he does.

Newcombe of Creators Syndicate says Johnny’s faith was a “big influence” in leading him to the Lord, and despite Johnny’s self-deprecating humor, Newcombe sees him as a genius. “We had long talks,” Newcombe says. “Johnny’s personality changed. He and Bobby were so happy. I said, ‘I want that.’”

And so, apparently, do a lot of B.C. readers. Johnny has no intention of quitting cartooning, and he intends, he says, “to do more with the message end of things” with the strip. What form that will take he won’t say, but based on the past, it’s sure to be a fun ride.

Focus on the Family, April, 1999, published by Focus on the Family. Copyright 1999. Focus on the Family. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by Permission.