Sunday, April 8, 2007

Johnny Hart R.I.P.

Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strip B.C. and co-creator of The Wizard of Id, died yesterday at the age of 76 from a stroke. He died at his storyboard.

Johnny Hart was born February 18, 1931 in Endicott, New York, where he spent most of his life. He attended Union-Endicott High School there. It was shortly after his graduation that he met fellow cartoonist Brant Parker, with whom he would later create the comic strip The Wizard of Id. It was while he was in the Air Force that his first work was published, in the pages of Stars and Stripes. After leaving the Air Force he sold work to such magazines as Colliers Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. In the meantime, he worked at General Electric.

It was in 1957 that he created the comic strip B.C.. It first appeared on February 17, 1958. The inspiration for the comic strip came about when one of his co-workers at G.E. suggested that he draw cavemen. It was his wife who came up with the name, B.C.. B.C. focused on a group of cavemen, among them the title character who was often the fall guy for the others. Among the other characters were Thor, the inventor (who invented the wheel, among other things), the sarcastic Curls, the poet Peter, and the subhuman Grog. Various animal characters were also featured, among them a snake, birds, a turtle, various dinosaurs, an apteryx (the ancestor of the bird), and clams. The strip often made use of anachronisms intentionally, such as references to the United States, Santa Claus, and references to current day events. It was also marked by dry humour, word play, and sometimes shameless puns. B.C. would prove very successful. It would be published in 1300 newspapers, with collections of reprinted strips being published regularly. The characters would appear in TV commercials, print ads, and two TV specials B.C.: The First Thanksgiving in 1973 and B.C.: A Special Christmas in 1981. There were also video games, BC's Quest for Tires and B.C. 2: Grog's Revenge.

In 1964 Hart collaborated with his old friend Brant Parker in creating the comic strip The Wizard of Id. It debuted on November 9, 1964. Hart had come up with the idea of the strip from considering that if one based in the Stone Age might be success, then so might one set in the Middle Ages. The strip is set in the kingdom of Id, a place sometimes described as "the land of milk and honey." Its central characters are The King, who is despicable, greedy, and generally self centred; The Wizard, his good natured and fun loving, but henpecked advisor; Sir Rodney, The King's chief knight who was roundly incompetent; Blanch, the Wizard's shrew of a wife; and several other characters. Like B.C., The Wizard of Id makes use of intentional anachronisms. Though the characters remain constant in the strip, their surroundings can change to suit the circumstances. The Wizard of Id proved very successful, with many collections of reprints being published.

When Creators Syndicate, a distributor which allows creators to keep creative control of their material, was founded in 1987, Johnny Hart was the first cartoonist to sign with them. Hart was among the first cartoonists, following Walt Kelly's Pogo and Charles Schulz's Peanuts, to explore intellectual questions in the confines of a comic strip. While the characters in B.C. may have been cavemen, their sensibilities were very modern (well, maybe except for Grog...).

While Hart was a success with both B.C. and The Wizard of Id, he could be controversial. In 1977 he converted to evangelical Presbyterianism. Afterwards both B.C. and The Wizard of Id often featured Christian themes. At times B.C. was pulled from comics pages because editors thought the religious message in it was too strong. An example of this was the Los Angeles Times, which would place the more overtly Christian themed strips in their religious pages. A 2001 strip, in which a menorah transformed into a cross, caused outrage among Jewish groups.

Regardless of the controversy Johnny Hart sometimes generated, I have always loved both B.C. and The Wizard of Id. Hart was a master at dry humour, word play, and puns. And his intentional use of anachronisms could be absolutely hilarious. When it came to cartoonists of the Sixties and Seventies, Hart was among the best. It is sad that his already long career was cut short.


Sheila West said...

I always loved those two strips. And I think there was a third called "Crock" about the French Foriegn Legion.

When I was a kid, there was a corner pharamcy in my neighborhood called "Peter's Drug Store" and sometimes I would walk in and find they had taped-up at the cash register a BC strip which featured the character named Peter standing behind a rock labeled "Peter's Drug Store."

I also recall one of my theology professor frequently taped a few Wizard of Id strips outside his faculty office door. One that stands out was a Sunday strip where the King is walking with the Wizard and the Wizard calls out to a monk: "How goes the scripture translations, brother?" Then the monk whispered for several panels in a row into the avid ears of the Wizard, keeping the King in the dark about what they were discussing. After the monk left, the King demanded to know what the big secret was all about. The answer to his question, which the Wizard gave him as the punchline in the final panel of that Sunday strip, was: "He's with the KJV." I laughed right away when I read that strip because I knew what the joke was. And I wondered if it was lost on anyone who had little or no exposure to American Christian culture.

I heard about many of the controversies he caused by injecting his religious beliefs into his strip. But the menorah transforming into a cross is one I hadn't heard about. That one strikes me as a little over-the-top and I don't think I agree with Mr. Hart for pulling that one. Freedom of Speech is fine. But to what end? Oh well. God bless America, and the US Constitution, right?

d. chedwick bryant said...

did he really die while drawing a storyboard?
I always liked the ant characters best.

Jeremy Barker said...

It's always sad when anyone passes and he clearly loved his work, but I can't say I did. It was such genteel and soft humour that while it occasionally made me smile it never made me laugh.

That being said it was truly his creation and I think it is horribly disrespectful that the syndicate and his family is going to continue the strip.

Mercurie said...

d., all of the news reports I read said that he died at his storyboard, so I guess it's true.