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Article Draft About Johnny Hart
posted January 1, 2002
 

If it's Easter, it must be time for another Johnny Hart controversy on the comics page.

If you haven't heard of cartoonist Johnny Hart, you may be familiar with one of his creations. The upstate New York resident launched the popular caveman cartoon strip B.C. in 1958, and with Brant Parker the equally successful satirical medieval strip The Wizard of Id in 1964. Like contemporaries Charles Schulz and Mort Walker, Hart mastered a simple but appealing style of drawing borrowed from the magazine gag cartoon, and married that minimalist approach to a sardonic style of writing straight from the 1950s college humor organizations and Mad Magazine. Although most comics fans may have heard of Johnny Hart, even those intimately familiar with his creations sometimes overlook the magnitude of his success. According to the Guiness Book of World Records Johnny Hart is the most widely-read cartoonist on the planet, the combination of his two highly-circulated strips outpacing single-artist blockbusters like Garfield and Dilbert.

When people hear about Johnny Hart these days, it's due to notoreity that starts, but does not end, with his successful public platform. Becoming a born-again Christian after buying a PTL Network-carrying satellite dish in the late 1970s, Hart started to work religious themes into B.C. some ten years later. Today Hart does approximately five strips a year, mostly clustered around the holidays. Creators Syndicate President Richard Newcombe, whose company distributes Hart's strip to newspapers worldwide, describes a friendly agreement with the cartoonist: "We have a sort of deal that on Christian holidays, like Easter and Christmas, he'll do strips that focus on that aspect of the holiday -- just like on Father's Day he might do a strip about fatherhood, or on Independence Day he might do something about patriotism."

Those message-heavy holiday strips, and the occasional foray into political commentary about issues like Middle Eastern settlement, have made Hart a slightly more complicated client for Creators and a semi-occasional target of heated protest. In early 1996, the L.A. Times pulled strips for "exclusionary and insensitive" content. The Washington Post has also pulled more controversial episodes, citing a policy not to "promote individual religions". In continuing to support their cartoonist, Creators eventually instituted a policy through which alternatives for certain strips would be available to newspapers if they asked, but according to Hart's wishes not promoted as such in advance. According to comic strip historian R.C. Harvey, Hart may stand alone as a cartoonist who has alternative offerings due to religious content. Although past masters Walt Kelly (Pogo) and Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) had to offer alternatives to stridently political plotlines, "in the 'olden times,'" says Harvey, "no syndicated cartoonist was thinking about 'expressing himself'. They were just trying to make as much money as they could from their passion for cartooning."

As a result of his newly-found maverick status, Hart began to enjoy the support of conservative Christian pundits like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who cast his decision to engage such issues in terms of the artist exercising his freedom of speech. And despite the caution of his forebears, expressing himself in this manner four or five times a year certainly didn't affect Hart's popularity: a Time Magazine profile in 1999 declared that perhaps a single paper had dropped B.C. altogether because of the religious strips, while Creators President Newcombe told the Statesman that to his understanding the religious strips neither gained nor lost Hart any of his newspapers clients, although individual reaction from readers, mostly positive, has flourished.

This year's Easter strips may be the biggest controversy of Hart's career -- it certainly began earlier than most. During the week of April 2, the 400 largest newspapers top newspaper received e-mail from a unknown warning them about the strong religious message in the Easter weekend strips. This sent many newspaper editors scrambling to look at the already-received material, particularly in that some newspapers print their Sunday comic sections well in advance and had already put the material to bed. Three cartoons caught their attention. The strips to run on Good Friday and the Monday following Easter were as strongly religious, with as blunt a message as any Hart had produced -- including a character brandishing a crucifix in the Friday episode.

The Sunday was a different creature altogether. Leaving the B.C. cast of characters out entirely, the color strip depicted a highly symbolic, slightly obtuse and infinitely arguable message mixing Jewish and Christian iconography. Suddenly, Hart and his syndicate found themselves with a controversy about material yet to be published, purchased by newspaper editor clients some of whom might now wish the Sunday strip had not already been printed, that could perhaps be interpreted by Jewish readers as not merely exclusive but outright aggressive towards their faith and traditions. The call to action on the Jewish Defense League web site put one set of potential objections as bluntly as possible. "We find nothing funny about Johnny Hart's text and artwork. In fact, we find it highly crude, insulting and an example of outright Jew-hatred."

Creators has responded on several levels, first personally supporting their star cartoonist. "[Hart] doesn't have an anti-Semitic bone in his body," Richard Newcombe, who originally okayed the strip for distrbution, told the Statesman, "He's a wonderful man full of love for everyone." Creators' policy of substition applies to the Easter weekend strip for any editor who asks -- how many newspaper accept the substitutes won't be known until approximately two weeks after Easter. Creators has also distributed a column in support of Hart's strips from their client Binyamin L. Jolkovsky, the editor in chief of Jewishworldreview.com, a prominent Jewish web site that features a slew of politically conservative columnists. Creators is allowing all newspapers running B.C. to use Jolkovsky's column as a companion to the controversial strips, a move Newcombe says was endorsed by several prominent newspaper clients with whom his company touched base on the issue. On Tuesday, Creators also released the first formal statement from Hart.

Like many religous and cultural dialogues, comparing the statements by Hart and Jolkovsky to current and past criticisms of Hart's strip sees each side not clashing on issues, or even disputing the identity of individual drawings as much as trying to define the nature of the controversy in their favor. Both Jolkovsky and Hart assert the strip recognizes the commonality of Jewish and Christian traditions; the Jewish Defense League calls the cross that replaces the candelabraum an example of "Replacement Theology," in which Christianity replaces Judaism in God's favor due to its recognition of Jesus. Jolkovsky sees the blood from cross to cave in Sunday's final panel as a promise of protection to non-believers; critics see the candle-snuffing as a potential threat. Jolkovsky and Hart appeal to Hart's right to free speech where opinions may differe; the JDL appeals to the newspaper's role as an inclusive voice of the community. The only thing certain? -- Jolkovsky's statement that the Sunday installment is "open to interpretation."

But is that to its credit? Hart's press statement speaks to his general desire to make a strong statement in order to increase "religious awareness", but little about his specific intentions regarding the Sunday strip's message. Contacting Hart's studio in Nineveh, New York, the Statesman was told that Hart had no further comment on the matter at this time. Many questions remain: Is the candleabraum in which various metaphorical flames are extinguished Hart's version of a seven-candle menorah or convenient visual shorthand? What is the nature of the fire going out? Does he believe in the theology claimed for the cartoon by the Jewish Defense League? Past statements to the press, including a long interview with Washington Post in 1998, have shown Hart to hold fairly conventionally conservative Christian views as to the role of Jesus in deciding who goes to heaven and who doesn't, with some equivocation on a potential special dispensation for Jews. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this year's Johnny Hart controversy is that a cartoonist admired by his peers for his attention to the smallest detail of a single word in a single panel of one day's comic strip can take the issues closest to his heart and produce work that confuses as many as it potentially enlightens.

Eventually appeared in The Austin-American Statesman in a much-altered form that was actually professional and readable, all thanks to the editor and staffspersons involved.