Hart, Johnny

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Hart, Johnny

Born John Lewis Hart, February 18, 1931, in Endicott, NY; died of a stroke, April 7, 2007, in Nineveh, NY. Cartoonist. With an audience of more than one hundred million readers over his nearly 50year career in comics, Johnny Hart created two of the best known syndicated comic strips in the United States. With fellow cartoonist Brant Parker, he created the medieval world of The Wizard of Id, and on his own, he wrote B.C., a comic featuring a hapless caveman bearing the titular name. B.C. began in 1958 and continued until his death; The Wizard of Id, which started in 1964, is being continued by the Parker and Hart families.

Hart was born in Endicott, New York, in 1931. He grew up doodling, often creating art to share with friends. He was quoted in the Washington Post as having described his early art as “funny pictures, which got me in or out of trouble depending on the circumstances.” As a teen, Hart met Parker when the latter was working for the Binghampton Press, and Parker began to serve as a mentor figure to the young cartoonist. After graduating from high school, Hart enlisted in the Air Force and served in Korea; along with his regular duties, he drew cartoons that were featured in the military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes. While in the service, he married Bobby Hatcher, and a year after their marriage, he left the Air Force.

Though he worked successfully as a freelance car-toonist, placing his work in such periodicals as the Saturday Evening Post, which ran his first freelance cartoon, and Collier’s, his sales did not bring in enough income. He accepted a job in General Electric’s art department and continued to draw cartoons in his spare time. He sought to design a very simple art style, using few words and little “clutter.” He was quoted in the Washington Post as having said, “The simpler you do things, the more genius is required to do it. I used to take ideas as far back as I could take them—back to their origin. So cave men became my favorite thing to do because they are a combination of simplicity and the origin of ideas.” These cavemen developed into the characters from his comic strip, B.C.

Hart was turned down by five syndicators before B.C. was picked up and began appearing in newspapers in 1958. The comic strip focused on basic issues of humanity as well as contemporary issues through the lens of prehistory. A love-struck dinosaur named Gronk, the peg-legged philosopher and sometimes baseball coach Wiley, and anthropomorphic animals joined B.C., the naive star of the strip, as comic regulars. The strip also featured two women who had labels rather than names: Cute Chick and Fat Broad. Hart “was totally original,” novelist and cartoonist Mel Lazarus was quoted as having said in the New York Times.B.C. broke ground and led the way for a number of imitators, none of which ever came close.”

In 1964, Hart and Parker created the comic strip The Wizard of Id, and Hart was able to move much of his commentary on life into the venue of social commentary. Along with the disgruntled and overworked wizard of the title, The Wizard of Id cast included a despotic tyrant and a melancholy and often-drunk court jester. Hart provided the text for the strips, which featured Parker’s cartoons.

After his mother’s death to cancer, Hart suffered a crisis of faith and delved into a number of possible religions, including a belief in reincarnation. Hart stumbled into his Christian faith as two born-again Christians, a father and son, were installing his cable television. They tuned in to a religious broadcast, which sparked Hart’s conversion. His faith began making regular appearances in B.C., typically around Christmas and Easter, and caused controversy from some Jewish, Muslim, and secular readers. When the strips got particularly controversial, such as the Easter strip in 2001, which showed a menorah transforming into a cross, papers began to judge the strips and publish them on a case-by-case basis. Some papers dropped the comic completely. Hart’s reaction from Christian readers, however, was strongly positive, and freedom of rights advocates took up his cause when some papers tried to move his strips to the op-ed pages rather than the comics section.

Hart was the first cartoonist to join the ranks of Creators Syndicate, formed in the late 1980s. Where most strips were owned by the syndicates, Creators Syndicate opened the door for creators to retain rights to all their own work. “It was Johnny’s commitment to this idea that made us a success,” founder and president Richard Newcombe was quoted as having said on CNN.com.

Rather than allowing his characters to be used on a large variety of merchandise, Hart chose to allow local organizations to use the images instead. His characters are featured on the public transit system in Broome County, New York, at his local library, and are used by two local hockey teams. The Broome County Open golf tournament was renamed the B.C. Open in 1972, and the event has collected more than seven million dollars for local charities.

Hart continued to work up until the moment of his death on April 7, 2007. “He died at his storyboard,” his wife told the New York Times, explaining that he had suffered a stroke in their home in Nineveh, New York. Hart was 76. Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 9, 2007, pp. 1-11; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/08/obit.hart.ap/index.html (April 8, 2007); Entertainment Weekly, April 20, 2007, p. 16; Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2007, p. B8; New York Times, April 9, 2007, p. A14; Times (London), April 23, 2007; Washington Post, April 9, 2007, p. B5.

—Alana Joli Abbott