Johnny Hart 1931-2007

I’m conflicted by the death of Johnny Hart. When I was a kid, B.C. was my favorite strip in the world for a long, long time. I collected the books, read them over and over, compared one to another, mentally charted the development of ideas and themes, thought about how the characters differed and how they acted toward one another, learned to draw all of them. It was a big part of my life for what seems like years.

I had not read the strip in decades when I learned that he had decided to go out of his way to inject his strict fundamentalist Christian views into his work. Strips like this, this, this and this seem unasked for at best and hateful at worst. To start with only the most obvious, how do you explain a bunch of cavemen discussing evolution? Or Jesus? In a strip titled, ahem, B.C.? It’s one thing to write according to your beliefs, but why use an art form (on the funnies page, no less) as a tool to bludgeon Jews, Muslims and, essentially, anyone who isn’t also a fundamentalist Christian? Charles Schulz was a devout Christian and wrote of his beliefs with elegance, charm and great warmth. Not every cartoonist can be a Schulz, and my early life was greatly enriched by Hart’s work, but he ended his career on a decidedly sour note of intolerance.

hit counter html code UPDATE: An eloquent appraisal of Hart’s talents can be found here.


50 Responses to “Johnny Hart 1931-2007”
  1. dougo says:

    Is that first one about Israel?

    In high school I had a geometry textbook that had a bunch of B.C. strips. They were all pretty clever and funny. The one I remember is where Peter tries to prove that parallel lines never meet by dragging a forked stick through the sand and walking around the Earth, but by the time he gets back to where he started the stick has worn down to a single point.

    • Todd says:

      Hart denies it, but the first strip has been widely interpreted as a “slam” against Islam, with the crescent moon being reiterated so many times in the strip. At best it’s incoherent, at worst it’s hate speech.

      I remember the Peter strip you mention. That was a good one.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Been following the comments on comics blogs on Hart’s passing. He also had some maverick sides, in terms of rights of ownership and such, which helped on some level to combat the dominance of strip-industry exploitation – so a kind of independent actually. B.C. suffers in comparison to Peanuts, perhaps due to their author’s avowed Christianity. All the underlying compassion or sense of ethics, virtues and all the supposedly integral stuff to Christian values, just feels lacking in B.C. It’s Sunday School all week, and not by the most exciting teacher either.

    Peanuts had an existential quality, children as adults with angst even, but managed spiritual sides as well. B.C. was a one-note really. Odd stone-age parallel world logic? True So was a beagle on a doghouse thinking they fight the red baron during vietnam era. But…

    At any rate, also “odd” that B.C. doesn’t have to go to the newspaper’s editorial section, while Doonesbury et al had to.

    Here another one from comics curmodgeon:

    • Todd says:

      I read the Comics Curmudgeon daily, but his take on Hart’s death is a good one, and a good deal more generous than mine.

      Maybe I just can’t get over the fact that Mr. Christ died on Holy Saturday.

  3. thunder24 says:

    I feel exactly the same way, except he slowly degraded into irrelevance for me. But his early stuff was very good.

  4. curt_holman says:

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

    “To start with only the most obvious, how do you explain a bunch of cavemen discussing evolution? Or Jesus? In a strip titled, ahem, B.C.?”

    Yeah, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to use the Christian stuff in ‘The Wizard of Id?’ (Or was the ‘Wizard of Id?’ discontinued before Hart went off the rails?)

  5. moroccomole says:

    Funny, Hart’s just like Michael Medved in a way — during my childhood, he created cool shit that I really dug. And then he found Jesus and became a total pill about it. I read in Hart’s obit in the LA Times today that he said homosexuality was the work of the devil. So yeah, officially, he can bite me.

  6. vaklam says:

    Well put. I’m having similar problems with Orson Scott Card (who is still alive) in that his vitriolic intolerance has made the cool stuff he wrote less cool to me.

    • Anonymous says:

      The Dave Sim Effect

      I’ve heard this described as the “Dave Sim Effect”, after the misogynist/cartoonist of the same name. There was a thread at Daily Kos that went into great detail on the subject, but I can’t find it at the moment. The gist of “the Effect” is the tendency of some artists, whose work you would otherwise enjoy, to suddenly espouse crazy or hateful opinions. The classic example is Orson Scott Card, the Bush-loving homophobe. Johnny Hart appears to be another example.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m younger, but I’ve always hated that strip. I think of it as one of the “old man” strips, like Ziggy, Gasoline Alley, Prince Valiant, and the last incoherent decade of Peanuts, among others. The newspapers retain these things out of inertia and a vague sense of respect. I wish the comics business was more ruthless, so that old unfunny coots would be regularly replaced by stuff that’s actually funny.

    The standard response is that many people read the comics to “check in on old familiar friends”. Well, all I want is some funny fucking drawings. I don’t care who draws them.

    • Todd says:

      The comics page in general is a depressing nightmare. I have no idea who gets laughter, wisdom or understanding from any of the strips that run these days.

      • Opus ain’t half bad. Intelligent cartoonists have simply found better places to go. Aaron McGruder is doing animation now too, so Berke Breathed is the last quality cartoonist left.

    • greyaenigma says:

      My local newspaper had a poll a few years back where people were asked to picked out their favorite and least favorite comics. Not too surprisingly, the “old man strips” won out in the least favorite category. Somewhat surprisingly, almost none of them were yanked. Partly, I think because their “favorite” ratings were also very high.

      I believe it was shortly afterwards that I realized I had only been buying the newspaper for the comics, and not even enjoying those.

  8. I had pretty much the same reaction as you to Hart’s death — great memories of his work from when I was growing up mixed with extreme distaste at where it had wound up. Sad.

    As far as Schulz’s “devoutness,” I was surprised to read some of the later interviews with him included in the Collected Peanuts books that are coming out (as well as other places) and find that his faith had pretty well ebbed away over the years. By the end of his life, he was apparently – at best – an agnostic (he called himself a secular humanist, as when he explained his beliefs to a friend, she said that’s what he was; he never investigated it himself, he was too busy making his strip single-handedly).

    I think you can see the difference reflected in their work – Schulz spending much of his life angst-ridden, doubtful, and struggling with spirituality in his life and work – wanting to believe, loving the idea of the Divine, but in the end unsure – as opposed to late-life Evangelical convert Hart, who found Christ as a way of curing being a mean drunk, adopting a smug dogmatic club and suit of armor as protection against The Bad Things, and winding up becoming a mean godbag.

    • Todd says:

      I didn’t know that Schulz became disillusioned with his Christianity, although it makes sense, since he became disillusioned with every other goddamned thing in his life by the time he died. Still, one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, on a par with Disney, Presley and Warhol.

  9. toku666 says:

    “Ditto.” 😉

    On an interesting note, Gary Trudeau defended Hart over the uproar after his “SLAM!” outhouse gag was published. Trudeau may have had his tongue firmly in cheek (although I doubt it, since he didn’t say anything funny) but the essence was that he thought people were reading too much into a lame old poop joke.

    • Pfft. I really doubt it was just a poop joke. If it is so, then the integral joke aspect is missing, and the ‘Slam’ feels out of place, sound effects tend to be in the sidelines, to be noticed subliminally, or at least *with* the picture. So yesh, hardly a coincidence, but he did forget to put in the star.

    • Todd says:

      Reading the “SLAM!” strip in the context of his other (equally unfunny) religious intolerance strips, it all seems very much of a piece. There’s no “point” to many of them, just a harsh metaphor used to make other religions look bad.

      • Anonymous says:

        “Old man” comics, well, yeah, it might have been of interest to have a poll taken at the time, how many people (young readers as well) comprehended that a shed with a moon cut into the door is an outhouse, let alone what the sign for Islam may be, or miss in that particular door. Just sloppy comics essentially.

        As for the picture of C. Shulz, what a haircut, I think he had that forever, or I recall him like that.

    • urbaniak says:

      On an interesting note, Gary Trudeau defended Hart over the uproar after his “SLAM!” outhouse gag was published. Trudeau may have had his tongue firmly in cheek (although I doubt it, since he didn’t say anything funny) but the essence was that he thought people were reading too much into a lame old poop joke.

      Trudeau was really reaching with that defense since the strip in question contains not a single joke. Ah well, once-brilliant-cartoonists-turned-out-of-it-curmudgeons have to stick together.

  10. ghostgecko says:

    It’s like the Flintstones Christmas special, probably something you can’t think about to hard without burning out a mental bearing.

    The “it is finished” one with the menorah turning into the cross is particularly vile, especially his attempts to convince people that’s not what he “really meant”.

  11. gdh says:

    BC is one of many reasons why I haven’t read newspaper comics in years. Your average newspaper comics page today is creatively comatose and staggeringly unfunny. Any of these ancient cartoonists dying is good news for the medium. Unless their work has already been farmed out to ersatz artists, making it a zombie strip that cannot die.

    • Anonymous says:

      And that’s exactly what happens. These shitty strips become franchises. Just look at Blondie, Hagar, Shoe, and Dennis the Good Christian. Not to mention Garfield, the final word in cartoon hackery. Between these “legacy strips” and the soap opera strips nobody reads, you’re left with maybe three strips that seek to provide humor on a regular basis.

  12. mcbrennan says:

    I loved B.C. when I was growing up in the 70s. There was a cleverness to the writing that I envied a lot, and the strips stood up to repeated readings. I learned a lot from him back then, had a lot of those “wow” moments as a kid where I realized the gags often meant something far more than I had originally caught. And I was horrified and angry when he turned into…whatever that was. This happens a lot (Dennis Miller, anyone?) and I’m fascinated (and mystified) by the process that turns an open-minded, intelligent, funny person into a reactionary jackass. From a writer’s perspective I’m interested in these bizarre behavioral changes. Surely these traits must have been there all along, right? The thing that lurks in the back of your head that you don’t dare say, until you finally have sufficient money and power that you don’t feel inhibited anymore? The Mel Gibson moment, for lack of a better word. Or do you think these are sudden personality changes brought on by illness of trauma/crisis?

    In faith as in most other things, Schulz is an object lesson in how to do it right. I think he understood doubt down to his bones. Charlie Brown lived whole in the dark night of the soul, and I think the Christian ideas Schulz presented were tempered by that. And he still managed to present those ideas in a graceful, gentle, non-proselytizing way, which made them attractive to me even though I’m not a person of conventionally religious faith. The “Peanuts” characters struggled with faith, trying to understand why life is the way it is. It was appropriate for the setting. Cavemen, as we all know, should really stick to selling car insurance.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Where can I find some of these old strips?

    For my entire life, B.C. has been a piece of shit. I’m fascinated by the idea that it was once funny. Can any of these early strips be found on the Internet?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Where can I find some of these old strips?

      I wanted to find some early strips to illustrate this post, and I couldn’t find any.

    • noskilz says:

      Re: Where can I find some of these old strips?

      This probably isn’t terribly helpful, but I’d suggest hitting places like Goodwill – that’s where I’ve often found old cartoon collections.

      It may be hard to believe, but even Ziggy was edgy once.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Maybe they’ll replace him with Mallard Fillmore

    Some examples of Hart’s humor:

    B.C. in a nutshell:

  15. As cute as his older comics are, these bigoted ones feel very sick and absolutely inexcusable. One can argue the Islam one, but the menorah one seems pretty blatant in his opinion on Jews. Its a form of the lowest kind of bigotry, the smug kind. Speaking of smug… the Darwin one was a little sick too. The Isreal one just feels like lazy commentary. Ah well. He did have his good series of caveman gags… so shah.

    When I was little I used to think Jim Davis was America’s premiere artistic mind, on par with Osamu Tezuka or Chuck Jones. He now has a staff writing Garfield. How opinions change.

  16. laminator_x says:

    I have an old yellow paperback B.C. collection that I imagine was printed before I could read, and it’s outstanding.

    That a clever and incisive wit can so fail saddens, baffles, and frightens me.

    Here, I’ll script a funny B.C. about Darwin’s theological training with a pro-God spin:

    —Panel 1—
    B.C: (Looking in the Big Book) Huh.
    Peter: What is it?
    —Panel 2—
    B.C: Says here that Charles Darwin once studied to enter the clergy.
    Peter: Wow.
    —Panel 3—
    Peter: You know, I see God’s hand in this.
    B.C: How’s that?
    —Panel 4—
    Peter: Because nothing that ironic could possibly be a coincidence.

    Instead, latter-day Hart gives us that cheap spiteful doggerel from Wiley, but (even worse) you know that after he wrote that crap he was like “Man did I hit a home run with that one or what? In your face, Satan!” He couldn’t come up with a better use for an ironic hook then a bunch of insipid slams dressed up in rhyme? He took 10 panels to say little more than “Darwin sucks.”

  17. clintiskeen says:

    Most comics that have run a very long time have gone insane.

    Syndicated comics are mostly jokes so bad no sane person would steal, stolen from each other and recycled over and over.

    Comics that need to be burned:

    WIzard of Id
    Haggar the Horrible
    Broom Hilda

    and those are just the old institutions I CAN REMEMBER. What about the horrible jumble of crap that are the comics they weave inbetween those comics?

    In a time when there are so many imensely talented cartoonists doing comics for free on the web why not hire some of them to breathe new life into syndicated comics. I see that the guy who does Perry Bible is getting paid by Maxim now. Why not grab up some of the less questionable comics and put some of these out of touch cartoonists into retirement?

    • Todd says:

      In the defense of the Horrible, it’s Hagar, not Haggar. He conquered the known world, he’s not a pair of slacks.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hagar is a pitiful excuse for a Viking. We never see him kill anyone and he seems to live a sanitized, Judaeo-Christian lifestyle. He attacks castles, for Odin’s sake. Why not an Irish monastery once in a while? Where are the nuns cutting their noses off?

      • rennameeks says:

        He’s also not the half-giant from the Harry Potter series.