Johnny Harts long search
By James R. Adair
As he left work one evening in 1958 in Johnson City, N.Y., Johnny Hart
bade the guys in the General Electric Art Department team goodnight,
adding with tongue-in-cheek, "I think I shall repair to my domicile
this evening and create a nationally famous comic strip." His fellow
artists looked up. One added, "Why dont you do one on cavemen?
You cant sell em anywhere else!" This brought a laugh.
Johnny had been on a long quest for success trying to sell single-panel
caveman cartoons to magazines, but had struck out. No interest. Johnny
was married and in his late 20s, and working on his art with no buyers
in sight was hurting the family finances. His father, a fire captain,
had at times asked him, "When are you going to get a real job?" Finally,
Johnny had stepped out of his dream world into the real world to "put
bread on the table," he says with a chuckle.
Making funny drawings had intrigued Johnny as a child. He found he
could entertain people. "In school, my drawings got me in or out of
trouble," he remembers. His entry in a high school art contest in Endicott,
N.Y., caught the eye of a judge, Brant Parker, a former Disney artist.
Parker encouraged Johnny to keep working to improve his style. Johnny
heeded the advice, carefully studying art that he admired.
"Virgil I. Partch, creator of the Big George cartoon strip and
a contributor of gag cartoons to magazines, was my favorite, the Picasso
of cartoonists, who signed his art VIP, " Johnny recalls.
"His art showed me certain techniques. He would draw eyes on one side
of a head. He would draw a straight line and oppose it with a curved
line. I was totally entranced by his work."
While in the Air Force in the early 50s, Johnny contributed cartoons
to his base newspaper before being assigned to Korea; there he did cartoons
for the Pacific Stars and Stripes daily. After returning to civilian
life, he sold cartoons to magazines, including the Saturday Evening
Post in its heyday.
By this time gainfully employed, Johnny still had not given up his
goal to be a successful print media cartoonist. The work of Charles
Schulz and his Peanuts cartoons caught his attention. He liked
Schulzs humor and outlook on life. Why couldnt he take a
So that night in 1958 when Johnny Hart returned home from work, he
sat down and knocked out a couple of strips. His wife, Bobby, who had
come into his life during his Air Force days in Georgia, looked over
his shoulder. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"I think Im onto something," he said. "Im working up some
strips using my little caveman characters. Now I need characters with
"Thats easy," Bobby said. "Base them on people you know."
"Thats exactly what I did," Johnny recalls. "I even named them
after some of the guys I worked with. My friend Thorton Kenny became
Thor. Pete Reuter became Peter. And Clumsy
Carp had been a lifelong friend since seventh grade. I named my
peg-leg character Wiley after my brother-in-law Wiley, who
lost a leg in World War II."
Next, Bobby suggested a name for the strip: "Why dont you call
it B.C. for the era?"
Johnny liked the idea. In the next days, he drew up about two dozen
strips and sent them out in a spiral binder. Five major syndicates rejected
the idea. Then came a note from the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate.
"Were interested," the note said in so many words. "Come see us."
"I went to see them, and got a contract," Hart recalls. "They advised
me to take it home and read it. Dont sign it till you are
satisfied with it. Get a lawyer to look at it. I didnt have
a lawyer, so I asked my dad to look at it. He did and said, Looks
good to me. "
Soon B.C. was entertaining readers of about 50 newspapers. Today
millions smile at the adventures of the little caveman characters in
more than 1,200 papers.
In addition to his pursuit relating to cartooning, Johnny Hart also
had another long-term quest going, this one spiritual in nature. "Until
I was 48, I was desperately searching for answers to lifes difficult
questions, wondering why I was put on this earth," he recounts. "When
the answers didnt come, I found myself partying and drinking to
numb my disappointment."
It all came to a head when his mother died of cancer. He had prayed
feebly that she would be healed. When she wasnt, he blamed God.
The night she died, he drank himself into a stupor. Although he remembers
little that occurred, he did something hell never forget. Driving
aimlessly in the country, he stopped his car and staggered into the
middle of a field. Looking into the sky, he shook his fist and cursed
viciously at God. "Its Your fault! You took her away!"
Soon after his mothers death, Johnny and his brother-in-law Wiley,
on an impulse, bought a Ouija board. Johnny believed he had a means
of getting some answers.
For a time Johnny thought he was back in touch with his mother. She
would give strange answers. One time she would be in heaven, another
time in hell. He became dissatisfied because he wasnt getting
any real answers to his questions. Finally, after the Harts teenage
daughter Patti got headaches when she used the Ouija board, the Harts
questioned what they were doing and put the board aside. In later years,
Johnny stomped the board to pieces. Its demonic connection was distracting
him from finding the real truth, he says now.
God had a surprising way of giving Johnny satisfying answers. In 1977
the Harts moved out of Endicott to a tiny, rural New York town called
Nineveh. "In a sense," he says with a chuckle, "everyone who runs away
from Gods purpose for them, like Jonah, gets deposited in Nineveh
sooner or later!"
When he discovered that he could not get good TV reception, Johnny
ordered a satellite dish. A father-son team came out to install it,
and "seemed to take forever literally months," he recalls. "And
Gods surprise was that these guys were Christians. They had a
relationship with Jesus Christ and were using a Christian network as
a test pattern!"
Every time Johnny walked into the living room, someone was preaching
at him. Soon it got on his nerves. "Dont you guys have any other
channels?" he asked sharply.
"Oh, were sorry. Well change it if you want."
"Nah, thats OK," Johnny said, backing down because the worker
was so apologetic.
After a while he began listening to what the preachers were saying
things he had never heard before. "Bobby and I were challenged
to start reading the Bible again," he recounts. "As a young boy, I had
made a loose commitment to Christ but never lived it out. To my astonishment,
the Bible not only had all the answers Id been looking for, it
was the answer. Understanding who Jesus is and accepting Him as Lord
and Savior was the truth that finally gave my life purpose and meaning.
One Scripture that spoke to me is John 14:6: I am the way, the
truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me
(NKJV). Im so glad Thomas asked the question How can we
know the way for Jesus to answer."
Soon the Harts were in church every Sunday, joined the congregation,
and got involved.
For many years Johnny Hart has put a spiritual message into the B.C.
strip, usually subtle, sometimes obviously biblical. His Good Friday
1996 strip titled "The Suffering Prince" caused a stir of protest among
his fans when the Los Angeles Times withheld it, though 1,999
other papers did carry it. In the strip Wiley, a regular B.C.
character, sat with his back to a tree, writing a poem about Christs
crucifixion. In part, Wileys poem read: "His heart has been pierced
that yours may beat, and the blood of His corpse washes your feet. Picture
yourself in raiment white, cleansed by the blood of the lifeless knight.
Never to mourn the Prince who was downed. For He is not lost! It is
you who are found."
Some readers, according to Hart, seem to believe that hes getting
away with something, sort of breaking a law. "Were so proud of
you!" "Youre so brave!" they write.
"Im so naive to think what Im doing is OK," Hart says with
However, injecting biblical messages into the strip has the blessing
of the syndicate, he says. "Other cartoon strips have their messages
why not one with a distinct Christian message? I stand on spiritually
firmer ground than, say, G.B. Trudeaus Doonsbury, " the
B.C. cartoonist continues.
"History has systemically stripped us of our heritage. Textbooks leave
out God and a lot else," he points out. "I teach a Sunday school class
of high school kids. Once I asked, What did your textbooks say
about Thanksgiving? They replied that it was to thank the Indians
for helping them with the harvest."
Among the many appreciative letters he has received, one stands out
in his memory: A young Texas woman testified she was saved from suicide
through reading Wizard of Id, a strip he does in collaboration
with Brant Parker, the artist who encouraged him in high school. "I
couldnt believe it, especially when I saw the strip," says Hart.
"It had no real mind-jarring message, but God managed to use it to reach
that precious soul."
Of his relatively late-life encounter with Christ, Johnny Hart relates,
"My search for answers ended through a visit from a couple of novice
satellite-dish installers. It would make a good cartoon! Ah, but the
Great Cartoonist thought of it first!"
James R. Adair lives in Wheaton, Ill.