Johnny Hart: A Look at the Controversial B.C. Cartoonist

Johnny Hart was the creator and illustrator of the well-known cartoon strip, B.C. He also co-created and wrote The Wizard of ID with fellow cartoonist Brant Parker. The legendary cartoonist skirted with controversy in his older years when he targeted religion in his B.C. strip.

Hart won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year on two occasions. As such, he is one of only eight cartoonists who have achieved this feat twice. Hart is also part of an elite trio, with Dik Browne and Jeff MacNelly, who have won the prestigious award with two different cartoon strips.

Early Years

John Lewis Hart was born in Endicott, New York in 1931. Raised with Christian beliefs, young Johnny held a fascination with the Bible, an interest he carried into adulthood. This fascination certainly contributed to the controversy he created with the release of certain cartoon strips later in life. Hart’s formal education ended after he graduated high school at Union-Endicott High. In 1950 he befriended Brant Parker, a fellow cartoonist with whom he collaborated throughout his career.

Hart joined the US Air Force soon thereafter, and served in the Korean War. During his service, he produced his first published works: cartoons for the daily American military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes. While in the service, Hart met his wife Bobby in Georgia, and they married in 1952. The couple parented two daughters, Patti and Perri.

After the war, Hart returned to Endicott and worked in a restaurant and as a sign painter. His drawing career blossomed, with his work published in Collier’s Weekly, True (New York), and the Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia).

The BC Breakthrough

In 1957 Johnny Hart created B.C., the cartoon strip that made him famous. The strip was set in prehistoric caveman times and featured an assortment of characters. The title character, B.C., is an ingenious yokel with an after-dark alter ego. Peter is founder of “The Prehistoric Pessimist Society” and the discoverer of oil. Grog is an archetypal caveman with immense strength and hardly any vocabulary. The Guru is a wise and sarcastic old man who lives like a hermit on top of a mountain.

Hart created animal characters too. The Anteater is a hybrid ant-eating aardvark with a sticky, elongated and elastic tongue. John the Turtle and Dookey Bird are great friends, with Dookey Bird travelling on the turtle’s back as they trek South for Winter.

B.C. was an almost instant success, launching in the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate on 17 February 1958, the day before Hart’s 31st birthday. The cartoon is one of the longest-running strips written and drawn by its original creator. Hart was still at the helm when he died in April 2007, over 49 years after its original publication.

Stepping Into the Middle Ages

After B.C.‘s successful breakthrough, Johnny Hart decided it was time to create a cartoon strip set in the Middle Ages. He approached Brant Parker to collaborate on the project and, in the early 1960s, the pair conceptualised The Wizard of Id. They decided that Hart would write the strip and Parker would illustrate it. The strip revolved around a mythical mediaeval kingdom called Id, governed by a short, oppressive monarch called The King. Intentional anachronisms were plentiful, with American societal parodies also often evident.

On 17 November 2014, The Wizard of Id turned 50. Other well-known comics, including B.C. itself, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace and Garfield, ran celebratory 50th anniversary commemorative strips.

Spiritual Reawakening

For years, Johnny Hart poured almost everything into his work and the creative side of both comic strips. In 1984 a father and son satellite dish installation team reawakened his spirituality and he rediscovered the religious aspect of his life. Johnny and Bobby began attending services at the Presbyterian Church in Nineveh, New York.

Hart adopted conservative theological and political views as his religious convictions deepened. He began to include religious themes in the content of certain B.C. comic strips, with some controversial results.

B.C. Changes

From 1984 Hart’s B.C. comic strips began to change, with newspapers receiving complaints from Jewish, Muslim and secular readers. During the 90s Hart decided to include only religious strips on Easter Sundays.

Some publications decided that enough was enough, with the Washington Post dropping Sunday B.C. strips altogether. The Chicago Sun-Times went a step further, discontinuing B.C. entirely while the Denver Post and the L.A. Times decided that they would only publish on a strip-by-strip basis.

Hart was not deterred. In a 1999 interview with The Washington Post, he fuelled fires even more with the following comments:-

  • Jews and Muslims who don’t accept Jesus will burn in Hell.
  • Homosexuality is the handiwork of Satan.
  • America was founded as a Christian nation, and should remain one. The country’s moral decline began the day that prayer in the public schools was outlawed.
  • Angels travel at the speed of thought. Some are the lackeys and stooges of the Devil, and they whisper temptations in our ears.
  • God probably engineered the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as punishment for trying to give away holy land in violation of biblical commands.
  • The end of the world is approaching, maybe by the year 2010.

The comments didn’t endear Hart to some sectors of his readership, but yet more controversy lay ahead.

Jewish Controversy

On Easter Sunday in 2001 Hart depicted a Jewish menorah with seven candles dying out to the words of Jesus Christ. This resulted in the menorah transforming into a Christian cross, causing an uproar among Jewish newspaper readers. A national Jewish group, the Anti-Defamation League, said that the strip was “insensitive and offensive” and the Jewish Defense League stated that B.C. stood for “Being Crude.” Rabbi David Booth of the Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton commented, “As soon as you start talking about burning and the burning of Jewish symbols, that’s way over the line.”

The print media also slammed Hart. Will Corbin, the vice president and editor of the Daily Press, said “If I could practically remove this from the paper, I would do so, but the Sunday comics are printed two to three weeks in advance of their actual date of publication.” Deseret News in Utah also issued an opinion: “Hart only helped perpetuate that hate toward the Jews that has been part of our society for centuries, and, as a human being, I am appalled and deeply mortified.”

Hart responded by issuing an apology. “I sincerely apologize if I have offended any readers, and I also sincerely hope that this cartoon will generate increased interest in religious awareness.” He also said that he’d meant the strip to be a tribute to both religions.

The B.C. controversies didn’t end there.

Muslim Controversy

In November 2003, over two years after the “menorah” strip, Johnny Hart released another controversial strip. This time he allegedly painted Islam in a negative light. The 3-frame strip began with a needy caveman beneath a crescent moon making a dash for the toilet, an outhouse with a crescent moon symbol on its door. A thin partition between the first and second frames of the strip contained the vertically-aligned letters “SLAM” before, in the third frame, the caveman remarks “Is it just me, or does it stink in here?”

The strip outraged the Muslim community, especially the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The council saw the use of a crescent moon coupled with the I-shaped partition and the letters “SLAM” as a direct reference to Islam. On this occasion Hart was non-apologetic. “My goodness. That’s incredible. That’s unbelievable.” he remarked when approached with the accusation.

The Death & Legacy of an Icon

Johnny Hart died of a stroke on 7 April 2007. According to his wife Bobby “he died at his storyboard.” Eight days later, his long time friend and collaborator Brant Parker also passed away.

After Hart and Parker’s deaths, Hart’s grandsons Mason and Mick Mastroianni took over the artist and writing duties on B.C. The first strip by ‘Mastroianni and Hart’ appeared in January 2010. Perri Hart, Johnny’s youngest daughter, now provides letters and colours for the cartoon and is also a contributing gag writer. Johnny’s oldest daughter Patti works behind the scenes on the cartoon.

Jeff Parker, Brant’s son, took over the illustration of “The Wizard of Id” strip from his father in 1997 and his mother Nicola joined him after her husband’s death in 2007. Mick Mastroianni assumed Hart’s writing duties for the strip after his death. Mick‘s brother Mason joined the team at the end of 2015, replacing Nicola as illustrator.

Both B.C. and The Wizard of Id maintain their presence today. Creators Syndicate took over distribution of the B.C. strip in 1987 and The Wizard of Id two years later. At their peak the strips were featuring in over 1000 newspapers each. They are still distributed to daily newspapers, websites, and other digital outlets.

The latest available figures (2022) show Johnny Hart’s estate as having a net worth of over $11 million.

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