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Johnny Hart’s 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 don’t you do one on cavemen? You can’t 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 Schulz’s humor and outlook on life. Why couldn’t he take a similar approach?

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 I’m onto something," he said. "I’m working up some strips using my little caveman characters. Now I need characters with different personalities."

"That’s easy," Bobby said. "Base them on people you know."

"That’s 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 don’t 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. "We’re 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. ‘Don’t sign it till you are satisfied with it. Get a lawyer to look at it.’ I didn’t 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 life’s difficult questions, wondering why I was put on this earth," he recounts. "When the answers didn’t 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 wasn’t, he blamed God. The night she died, he drank himself into a stupor. Although he remembers little that occurred, he did something he’ll 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. "It’s Your fault! You took her away!"

Soon after his mother’s 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 wasn’t 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 God’s 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 God’s 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. "Don’t you guys have any other channels?" he asked sharply.

"Oh, we’re sorry. We’ll change it if you want."

"Nah, that’s 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 I’d 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). I’m 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 Christ’s crucifixion. In part, Wiley’s 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 he’s getting away with something, sort of breaking a law. "We’re so proud of you!" "You’re so brave!" they write.

"I’m so naive to think what I’m doing is OK," Hart says with a chuckle.

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. Trudeau’s 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 couldn’t 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.

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