I’ve recommended Christmas-themed books, animated specials, and DVDs to Interim readers in the past. This year, my focus will be on a talented cartoonist with strong Christian principles, Johnny Hart.
Hart’s work was published in the Saturday Evening Post, Stars and Stripes, and Collier’s Weekly, among other places. He created two influential comic strips, B.C. and The Wizard of Id (with Brant Parker). He won the National Cartoonists Society’s highest honour, the Reuben Award, in 1968.
Yet, it was his Christianity that truly defined his art and values. The personal journey to these guiding principles was a slow-moving process, however.
In the July-August 1997 issue of The Plain Truth, Hart said his “mom and dad were C&E Christians,” but they “made sure I went to Sunday school.” As a young child, he was “fascinated by the stories in the Bible, without actually having read them. But I always believed in Jesus – that he died and was resurrected, and that he is in heaven.
“But whenever I was around church people,” he continued, “I would be really nervous, because I felt like they suspected I was a hypocrite. I didn’t want them to find me out, so I would exude goodness when I was around them.”
Hart found the Lord in 1984, thanks to a father-son duo of born-again Christians. They lived with his family for a spell, and watched religious programs like PTL. Hart would eventually join them, and never looked back.
He mentioned in the March/April 1997 edition of Christian Reader, “probably the biggest realization — and it came to me very subtly — was that the Bible is the Word of God. I didn’t have an ‘experience.’ Everything in my dealings with God has always been very gradual. I attribute that to my own spirit muddling things: personal resistance; me interfering.”
This helps explain B.C.’s intriguing development into a mainstream religious comic strip. Launched in 1958, it’s about a group of cavemen (B.C., Peter, Thor, Wiley, Clumsy Carp, Curls, Grog, The Guru) and two cavewomen (The Cute Chick, The Fat Broad). There’s also a supporting cast of animals, insects, talking clams, and even a dinosaur.
Religion barely played a role in the older strips. Hart mostly relied on daily gags and puns. There were also off-the-cuff definitions in Wiley’s Dictionary: Mutant was defined as “An ant that does mime,” for instance, while Devil was “Evil with a Capital D.”
Hart’s religious awakening changed B.C. Some readers were puzzled by his decision, and frustrated with his motives. Yet, he told the Christian Reader that his battles with newspapers “have gotten Christians up in arms. That’s what they all need.” Hence, it was part of Hart’s master plan to be a great cartoonist and spread the Word of God as he saw fit.
A superb anthology, I Did It His Way: A Collection of B.C. Religious Comic Strips (Thomas Nelson, 2009), highlighted Hart’s ability to use Christian symbols and principles in everything from important holidays to daily activities. The messages were sometimes subtle and light-hearted, and occasionally profound and thought-provoking. Hart had the ability (and gravitas) to pull at heart-strings like no other cartoonist of his generation.
Here are several examples:
An ant is seen carrying a cross, and says, “No burden is too heavy when you have the right purchase.”
B.C. stands on a pedestal with the word TRVTH, and proclaims, “Lust for money is the downfall of mankind!” The sky grows dark, and God tells him, “I’ll buy that!”
Wiley is sitting next to a tree, and writes on a stone slab, “Do it for God, and it works for good. Do it for good, and it works for God.”
Sometimes, Hart’s strong positions would get him into trouble. The most infamous example was his April 15, 2001 Sunday comic strip. Published during a week when Easter and Passover were both being celebrated, readers witnessed the morphing of a menorah into a cross while reprinting the seven last “words” of Jesus. The American Jewish Committee was furious, noting in a statement that “Supercessionism, the belief that Christianity can and will replace Judaism, has been strongly repudiated by many leading Catholic and Protestant theologians.” Several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, refused to run it.
Yet, this episode turned out to be much ado about nothing. Hart’s explanation, reprinted in I Did It His Way, shed light on the strip’s true meaning. “I noticed one day that the center section of the menorah bore the shape of a cross,” he wrote. “I wanted everyone to see the cross in the menorah. It was a revelation to me, one that tied God’s chosen people to their spiritual next of kin – the disciples of the risen Christ. This was a holy week for both Christians and Jews alike, and my intent, as always, was to pay homage to both.”
All things considered, it’s not terribly surprising that Hart’s strip and religious views were often misinterpreted until his death in 2007. His grandson, Mason Mastroianni, took over the artistic duties. Today’s B.C. still has moments of religious flair, but it’s much more tempered and far less controversial.
Where should one start in building a B.C. collection? I Did It His Way is an absolute must for any bookshelf. There are various reprint editions, from Hey! B.C. (1959) to B.C. (1990), and a great hardcover collection, Johnny Hart’s Growing Old with B.C.: A 50 Year Celebration (2007). There are also two animated specials, B.C.: The First Thanksgiving (1973) and B.C.: A Special Christmas (1981), which are difficult to find on VHS (let alone DVD), but can be viewed on YouTube.
For A.D. 2016, let’s go back in time (sort of) and enjoy Johnny Hart’s B.C. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, is a former Stephen Harper speechwriter.