By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007
Johnny Hart, 76, whose comic strips "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id" used wisecracking cave men and henpecked sorcerers to comment on modern life, and who attracted controversy when he introduced Christianity into his work, died April 7 at his home in Nineveh, N.Y., near Binghamton.
Mr. Hart recently completed treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and died at his drawing table after a stroke, said his wife of 55 years, Bobby Hatcher Hart.
Mr. Hart became one of the most popular cartoonists of his era, with a readership estimated at 100 million since starting "B.C." in 1958 and "The Wizard of Id" in 1964 (with artist Brant Parker). Creators Syndicate distributed both strips, each of which appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers, including The Washington Post.
"B.C." refers to the age "Before Christ" and also is the name of Mr. Hart's naive cave-dwelling protagonist, but for years there was little overt religious plotting in the strip.
Among the characters were the one-legged cave man poet, Wiley, and a menagerie of talking animals, including an ant, a clam and a lovelorn dinosaur named Gronk. The female characters were Cute Chick and Fat Broad, names that were anatomically, if not politically, correct.
For a strip whose tone was lighthearted, "B.C" suddenly became controversial in the 1990s when Mr. Hart included themes influenced by his fundamental Christianity and literal interpretation of the Bible. He did so sparingly, often around holy days, but its inclusion was perceived by many readers as making him far more frank about Christianity than any of his mainstream contemporaries.
Some newspapers canceled the strip. Others, including The Post, pulled it selectively.
On at least one occasion, the Los Angeles Times relocated it to the religion page. The Times initially canceled the strip -- scheduled to run on Palm Sunday 1996 -- showing Wiley drafting a poem about Jesus's suffering on the cross.
Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson told viewers of his "700 Club" show to protest, especially as political cartoons often criticized religion. The uproar that followed led the paper to run the "B.C." strip on the religion page.
Other work by Mr. Hart brought criticism from Jewish and Muslim groups for what they called insensitive and at times offensive themes.
One Easter "B.C." strip showed a menorah's candles being extinguished as the candelabra morphs into a cross; the final frame included the words, "It is finished." To his critics, this symbolized a triumph of Christianity over Judaism, but Mr. Hart said it was meant to "pay tribute to both" religions.
Muslims were enraged by another "B.C." strip that ran during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It featured an outhouse with multiple crescents -- a symbol associated with Islam -- and showed a cave man saying from inside the makeshift bathroom, "Is it just me, or does it stink in here?"
Mr. Hart told The Post he intended the cartoon to be a "silly" bathroom joke, adding, "It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people's beliefs."
John Lewis Hart, a firefighter's son, was born Feb. 18, 1931, in Endicott, N.Y. As a child, he said he drew "funny pictures, which got me in or out of trouble depending on the circumstances."
After high school, he served in the Air Force in Korea and produced cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes.
The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and True magazines later published his freelance cartoon submissions while Mr. Hart worked in the art department at General Electric in Johnson City, N.Y. While at GE, he created "B.C." and based many of the characters and their quirks on his friends and family.
"I tried to reduce my cartoons to the fewest words and the least clutter in the drawing," he said in 1997. "The simpler you do things, the more genius is required to do it. I used to take ideas as far back as I could take them -- back to their origin. So cave men became my favorite thing to do because they are a combination of simplicity and the origin of ideas."
He told an interviewer for a Milwaukee newspaper that he and Parker, an artist he had long known, started "Wizard of Id" because "I felt I couldn't get satirical enough as there's no society to work with in 'B.C.' It deals with the basics, man's foibles and follies. So it was an obvious transition for me from cave man to medieval times where there is a set society."
Among the recurring characters in "Wizard of Id" were a despotic king and a drunken court jester.
In a 1999 profile of Mr. Hart, The Post reported that the artist's own drinking "got out of hand" over the years before he found solace in religion.
Mr. Hart said he was not from a devout family and "got mad at God" after his mother died of cancer at 52. He said he struggled with varieties of faith, including a belief in reincarnation, all the while enjoying the material success of his strips. He settled on a 150-acre property with a big lake and a private road.
One day, a father and son team of workers came to install cable television. They were born-again Christians and kept the television tuned to religious broadcasts, which Mr. Hart said "hooked" him. "B.C." soon became a prominent outlet for his interpretations of faith.
"I get incredible response on the positive side," Mr. Hart told the Dallas Morning News in 1999. "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," he said. "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."
Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters; a brother; a sister; and two grandsons.