Opus 204 (April 28, 2007). This time, we have mostly one topic—the nearly simultaneous deaths of Johnny Hart and of his long-time partner Brant Parker. Because of Hart’s religious faith and his practice of espousing its tenets in the comics, his departure creates the occasion for a quiet discussion about religion in a secular society, which we commit, while, in alternate paragraphs, remembering the cartooning genius of the man himself. We conclude on a much lighter note—with the Meaning of Life Itself.
Herewith, our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
JOHNNY HART TO APPEAR B.C.
Dying of a stroke on April 7, Johnny Hart, creator of the caveman comic strip B.C., could not have arranged a departure with more evocative symbolism. He died with his boots on, so to speak—at his drawingboard, like the dedicated brandisher of pencil and pen he was. But he wasn’t at his drawingboard because he was chained to it, like most of his brethren, by the perpetual deadlines of the syndicated cartoonist. He drew quickly, reported Joe Maxwell of Today’s Christian in 1997, producing “a week’s worth of strips in a mere matter of hours, deftly moving from a pencil sketch to a final, inked version.” No, Hart was in his studio by choice, not servitude. The studio’s atrium—30 feet high, the walls richly paneled—is filled with incidental amusements, two pool tables, a piano and set of drums, a bar and exercise equipment, but its most engaging feature is a panoramic picture window overlooking Hart’s 25-acre lake on his 250-acre estate. The view is quiet and restful and conducive to what many might call meditation, but Hart called “mental rambling,” a self-induced state of reverie. “I trained myself to make my mind wander,” he told Jud Hurd in Cartoonist PROfiles (No. 48, December 1980). “I know how I waste a lot of my time,” he said to Maxwell, tongue in cheek: “I just sit and think, who knows what, and it all gets logged up there, and I guess I draw on it. Sometimes I don’t go home until six or seven o’clock at night, and sometimes I don’t eat at all. That’s what’s wrong with me: my brain is plodding, and very often, it’s plogging, too.” But it’s productive work for a gagman, and that’s what Hart was, more than anything else, the writer of two highly successful comic strips, the other being Wizard of Id, drawn by Brant Parker, Hart’s longtime friend, mentor and, even, inspiration. Hart sat nearly every day in his lake-view studio, “snowballing,” he called it—a free-association method of conjuring up hilarities—guided by two hand-lettered signs on the walls: “simplicity” and “cartoony.”
April 7 was a Saturday, the day before Easter, and if Hart had to pick the day of his death, he might well have chosen that day in the Christian calendar. Holy Saturday, which he usually called “kick-butt Saturday,” is the day before the annual remembrance of the Resurrection, and Hart fully expected to be resurrected. A “re-committed” fundamentalist Christian who taught Sunday School every week in the little Presbyterian church in the nearby town of Ninevah, Hart frequently delivered sermons in his comic strip. Said Maxwell: “Hart believes the Lord put him into the cartooning world for a reason. Every prudent chance he gets, he takes advantage of it. On Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter—and many days between—Hart’s characters offer messages reflecting the cartoonist’s own firm belief in the gospel message. ‘I find myself trying to put the gospel into practically every strip I create without being obvious about it,’ he says.”
I suspect Hart enjoyed Easter more than other Christian holy days. In recent years, his B.C. strips for Good Friday and Easter Sunday were notorious for their Christian message content, more blatant and mystical than his Yuletide efforts. I think he, like many evangelicals, found greater inspiration and religious conviction in the image of death and resurrection. I’ve always preferred Christmas. Easter is the horror story of a person being attached to lumber with nails through his hands and feet—it makes you shudder with revulsion; but Christmas, with its newborn child, inspires hope and joy—you think about the infant growing up, a metaphorical vision of another chance we all might get at finding happiness and fulfillment as if we could live our lives over in the life of the newborn.
Hart’s Easter messages became increasingly mystical, it seems to me. The day after he died, the message was numbers. We overhear a conversation between a teacher and a student in an anthill school. The “correct answer” to the final math question—“How old was Jesus when he was crucified?—is, we learn, 33. “Johnny” has apparently misunderstood the exercise, handing in a language answer rather than a numerical one. He, however, is not as dim as his teacher presumes he is. His answer, he explains, is “a numerical dialogue between three persons—a thief, a king, and a soldier—which sums up the Truth of the Resurrection in four quotes, which add up to 33 words. That’s math!” It’s also the correct answer. “Wow!” says the teacher; “what can I say?” To which the young prodigy says: “Try amen plus.” The kid’s quotations are from the Bible and conclude with: “Assuredly I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” And: “It is finished.” And: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Probably persons of Hart’s religious persuasion attach great significance to numerical matters of this sort. But the message this time baffles me, doubtless because I’m not enthralled by numbers. Hart assuredly is.
Hart was 76 when he died, not 33, an annoying numerical circumstance, no doubt, but Hart, who had a keen and comedic sense of the incongruous, would appreciate the humor in the analogy. He would realize, I’m sure, that the Almighty insinuated that irreverent thought into my mind at exactly this moment, and he would rejoice in yet another of the many instances of God “orchestrating” his life.
Religion among the Funnies
Some of Hart’s Easter messages never reached his congregation. For several years, the Los Angeles Times refused to publish any of the B.C. strips that convey doctrinaire convictions. In March 1996, when the Times spiked his Palm Sunday strip, a national uproar ensued, reaching even the Washington, D.C., talk show circuit. The strip had Wiley—a brooding, poet-wannabe in Hart’s cast of characters—sitting against a tree, tablet in hand, writing a poem entitled "The Suffering Prince":
Picture yourself tied to a tree,
condemned of the sins of eternity.
Then picture a spear, parting the air,
seeking your heart to cut your despair.
Suddenly—a knight, in armor of white,
stands in the gap betwixt you and its flight,
And shedding his 'armor of God' for you—
bears the lance that runs him through.
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.
At the time, the Times’ spokeswoman, Gloria Lopez, said Hart's strip wasn't the only one that the newspaper ever pulled, and she cited Doonesbury and The Far Side, saying, “The bottom line is the editors reserve the right to edit." Hart, however, persisted in believing that such treatment is symptomatic of the battle for America's soul, and he liked the idea that his flaps with the Times "have gotten Christians up in arms. That's what they all need."
Hart sometimes thinks of himself as “the Pied Piper of the Woodwork Christians—they come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Way to go!’” he told Rick Marschall, who interviewed Hart in 1994 (Hogan’s Alley, No. 2; Summer 1995). Quoted in the Dallas Morning News in 1999, Hart said: “I get incredible response on the positive side. I don’t know if it’s the liberalization of this country or whatever that has taken prayer out of schools and pulled the Ten Commandments off the walls of courts, and we’ve become a nation of heathens. The Christians are still out there, but they’re hiding. They’re afraid because every time somebody tries to make a move, somebody steps on them and pushes them back or locks them out. So they think that I’m a hero, and I’m not. ... That’s probably the most pathetic thing of all, that they admire me and think that I’m courageous and brave to mention God’s name.”
Hart’s 2001 Easter strip went beyond a simple statement of belief: it riled many Jews, who saw anti-Semitism in it. A long but, alas, incomplete discussion of this episode can be found below (“Hart’s 2001 Easter Adventure”) in my column reprinted from the CAPS Newsletter magazine that spring. A more complete and thoroughly engaging examination of the issues can be found in the archives at the Washington Post website (in the Search box, type “archives,” then type “Drawing cartoons about Jesus,” and that should get you to the article by Gene Weingarten, but you’ll have pay to read it all—not much, though, and Weingarten, witty and thoughtful, is worth every penny). The chief problem was that the imagery—the burned-out candles of the menorah morphing into the Christian cross—suggested an obscure religious attitude called “Replacement Theory” which asserts that Christianity “replaced” Judaism, superseding it and, in effect, destroying the religion of Moses, Joshua, and the rest. Hart, caught in the riptide of Jewish outrage, issued a statement, calling Replacement Theory “an idiot theology.” Said he: “Replacement Theory is the stuff of lunatics and self-deluded fools. There is no foundation for it in scripture and there is no room for it in responsible society.” And in the orchestrated expressions of outrage, he saw a Jewish plot.
Both he and his syndicate’s president and founder, Creators’ Richard Newcombe, took note of the volume of reader response and that it began the week before the strip appeared. Sunday comic strips are printed at a handful of printing plants around the country and shipped in bulk to client newspapers a week or more in advance of publication, so Hart’s menorah strip had been seen by newspaper employees well before Easter Sunday. Someone, thinking the strip espoused an anti-Semitic attitude, alerted the Jewish Defense League, which got hold of a copy of the cartoon and posted it on its website a full week before Easter, urging viewers to contact their local newspapers and demand that the strip be pulled from the comics line-up that day. E-mails poured into newspaper offices across the land in one of the earliest manifestations of how the Internet can create mass protest.
It was “fundamentally unfair,” Newcombe said, “to Johnny Hart. Because of the Internet, one side of the story, or one interpretation of a complex cartoon, flooded the media day after day before any readers had an opportunity to see the comic strip in a newspaper and make up their own minds about what it meant. ... Never in history,” he continued, “has there been an organized smear campaign of a strip in advance of publication. ... I can guarantee it won’t be the last [time such a campaign will be mounted through the Internet].” He also wryly observed: “I wondered if anyone else saw the irony in the JDL’s position, saying that the comic strip was so offensive that no one else should see it—unless they went to the JDL website! If all newspapers had taken their advice and refused to run B.C., then the only way newspaper readers could make up their own minds would have been through the JDL.”
In the cascading furor on the Internet, at the JDL website and elsewhere, opinions ran the gamut, some seeing anti-Semitism in the strip; others, seeing precisely the opposite. (This might be the opportune moment to skip down and read my reprinted CAPS column; then return here.) The cartoon was cerebral as well as religious, and its complexity, lending itself to diametrically opposed interpretations, effectively refuted the charge of anti-Semitism. Hart insisted he intended his cartoon to pay tribute to both Jewish and Christian religions. In 2001, Passover transpired the week before Easter, and Hart found the conjunction inspirational. An artist, he discovered the source of an idea to express that coincidence in simple visual imagery. “I noticed one day that the center section of the menorah—the sacred symbol of Judaism—bore the shape of the cross,” he wrote. “I wanted everyone to see the cross in the menorah. It was a revelation to me that tied God’s chosen people to their spiritual next of kin—the disciples of the Risen Christ.” For Hart, Christianity grew out of Judaism; it didn’t replace it. In a statement circulated three days before the publication of the cartoon, Hart wrote: “True Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah; I am one of them. ... The first Christians were all Jews. The olive tree is the symbol of Israel, and by God’s grace and the work of the Apostle Paul, all non-Jewish people who believe as I do are grafted into the olive tree. Therefore, I, too, am a Jew. One who believes that the Jewish Messiah is King of kings, Lord of lords and the savior of all mankind.”
Reacting to all the fuss, the Los Angeles Times dropped B.C. permanently from its comics line-up. The strip had been running in the paper for 33 years. But, as I said, the mystique of numbers evades me.
The Slur on Islam
Then in 2003 during the holy week of Ramadan, Hart managed to offend the one billion practicing Muslims in the U.S. (Well, some of the one billion anyhow.) The first inkling of trouble appeared in a Washington Post Internet chat shortly after the publication of the strip for November 10 (which is reproduced with the 2001 Easter strip above). It makes no sense, the reader opined, except metaphorically. As a metaphor, it slammed Islam. The caveman goes into a house marked with the Islam crescent and then says it (the House of Islam) “stinks.” It’s just an ordinary outhouse? Maybe, but as a finishing twist of deciphering, someone noted that the lettering in the space between the first and second panels— SLAM—appears vertically, in the shape of an “I,” which, presto, turns “SLAM” into “ISLAM.
Hart professed to be dumbfounded by this interpretation of a gag he described as “a silly bathroom joke.” Said he: “This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam—subliminal or otherwise. It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people’s beliefs.” Newcombe averred that giving any religious interpretation to the strip was “reading too much into it.” Maybe. But given Hart’s record as an outspoken and therefore somewhat arrogant-seeming Born Again possessor of the Religious Truth, I tend, this time, to veer off in the direction of the metaphorical meaning of the strip. If not intended as a sly sort of slur, why all the crescents in the pictures? Why did Hart pick nighttime if not to enable him to put crescent moons into the sky as well as on the outhouse door? A clever use of symbols and sequence, just the sort of thing that would appeal to a Born Again cartooner who regards anyone not of his conviction as somewhat misguided—certainly all those towel-head Muslims out there, not to mention any of a half-dozen other world-class religions. This time, Hart’s story doesn’t wash. This time, he was too cute for his own good.
Interviewed online by Washington Post comics editor Suzanne Tobin, Berke Breathed gives Hart’s slam a creditable value. “The good news about Hart’s Islam-is-poo strip,” Breathed said, “Is that at least you know a real human has shown up for work with his strip. The paper is littered with cartoonists too—well, deceased—to actually participate in their own strip. It’s a pity because there’s a rather agitated bunch of very alive cartoonists that are waiting for their space to show us what a little passionate cartooning can be. The other side of the Affaire Hart is his disowning of his gag. This is the part where he insults his audience, which he might want to avoid. I’m all for bigotry in the public square [but] for people to respond accordingly, they need to own it. Either Johnny is fibbing or he needs to get back in touch with his inner Id. I’m surprised that Garry Trudeau urged everyone to leave him alone. We’re in the business of not being left alone. It’s a fascinating bit of insight into the artist behind the feature, and, by God, let’s get into it. It’s the very bit of life that the comic page is needing as it gets consumed by the Jim Davises of the world and their writing staffs.” (At the time, Breathed was crusading for the launch of his rejuvenated penguin in the Sunday only strip, Opus, insisting that papers run the strip at half-page size, larger than most other strips. By way of getting editors to create the necessary space for his strip, Breathed urged them to drop all “legacy” strips, strips being produced by the descendants or staffs of the originators. In commenting on Hart’s latest B.C. imbroglio, he did not neglect the opportunity it afforded him to beat the drum of his argument again.)
Every time B.C. was dropped by newspaper editors hesitant of offending one religion or another, the issue of freedom of expression was conjured up again. If Garry Trudeau is permitted to exercise his religion—“the secular religion of politics” as one wag put it—why can’t Hart do the same with his religion? By way of edging up to an answer, the Washington Post’s Weingarten took some B.C. strips around for Trudeau to look at. Trudeau looked at them and laughed.
“Please tell me this is not controversial,” he said. “What’s the problem—that, God forbid, Hart still believes in God? These are good,” he continued. “What’s important is that he still honors his first obligation, which is to entertain. If he wants to stimulate people into thinking about the nature of faith, more power to him.” Agreeing with the wag quoted above, Trudeau concluded: “Hart is writing about his values as much as I am writing about mine.”
But the problem is not in the expression of opinion; it’s in the expression of a religious certainty. And the problem is not in the strips. Hart’s statements about his faith in his strip are always simply assertions of his belief; he does no proselytizing in these episodes. So the annoyance expressed by offended readers has its roots outside the strip. As I say in “Hart’s 2001 Easter Adventure” below, the rhetoric of some fundamentalist religious attitudes assumes a posture of moral superiority that rubs persons of less aggressive convictions the wrong way. A dedicated evangelical fundamentalist often radiates an aura of smug arrogance. They say they are “Christians” in a way that implies that Catholics are not Christians; neither are Episcopalians or Lutherans or devotees of any of the other denominations of Christianity. In conversation, Hart displays the same attitudes.
“I know it sounds like I know all the answers,” he told Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post during their interview (April 4, 1999). “I do. This is the truth. What purpose would I serve if I had the answer to the mystery of life only I did not tell it for the sake of what other people believe?” Unbelievers, like Abraham Foxman’s daughter, need his message.
Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, was troubled by another of B.C.’s Easter Sunday sermons. In this one, Hart depicts a cavewoman washing clothes in a stream, and the clothes turn pristine white. She looks around and realizes that the stream is a river of blood running down from a hillside on top of which are three crosses. Foxman recognized that Hart was giving voice to genuine religious convictions and supported the cartoonist’s right to express them. But he still wondered about the appropriateness of that expression on the funnies page, and to make his point, he imagined a hypothetical scene in which a little Jewish girl, reading her favorite caveman strip that Easter morning, sees that the cavemen are telling her that Jesus Christ is Lord, redeemer of souls, the only road to Truth—and since that’s not what her parents have taught her, it suggests their beliefs are wrong. The problem, as Foxman saw it, is the exclusionary nature of the message.
“It is not a subtle exclusionary message,” he said, “it is a very clear exclusionary message if you are not of that faith.” And its presence on the comics page makes it insidious. “It is almost stealthlike,” he concluded. “The only way you can decide not to read it is after you have read it.”
Newcombe questioned the “exclusionary” nature of Hart’s message. “By that logic,” he wrote, “then the holidays themselves are exclusionary. The origin of Christmas is the birth of Christ, and we celebrate Christmas as a national holiday. This was a decision made many years before Johnny Hart was born.”
Foxman does not believe in stifling free speech, but he confesses to uncertainty about the appropriateness of advertising religious doctrine in the funnies..
Hart, however, feels no uncertainty. About Foxman’s little Jewish girl, he said: “If I drew a cartoon that said, Okay, you worship your God, and you can go to Heaven, too, then I am lying to her. I am sending her to Hell.”
Among Hart’s other convictions, he told Weingarten, are the certain knowledge that Jews and Muslims who don’t accept Jesus will burn in Hell, that homosexuality is the handiwork of Satan, and that the end of the world is approaching, maybe by the year 2010.
Hart’s certitude is disturbing. Certainty in any arena of human affairs is a dubious attribute. Certainty breeds intolerance, for one thing. If you possess the answer, then no one else does unless they share your view. And if they are ignorant and don’t share your view, they are not worthy of consideration—only pity, and maybe not even that. What consideration do infidels deserve? And in matters of religion, as we all now too readily realize, it can be dangerous to be point of apocalyptic. How might September 11, 2001, have turned out if one of the hijackers on one of those airliner missiles had experienced a moment of doubt? None of them did, that we know of; and their certainty was their Truth and the death knell of 3,000 fellow human beings. To devout Muslims of a particular perverse persuasion, all of those dead deserved their fate because they were infidels. They were unbelievers who needed the message.
I’m not suggesting that we should eschew all conviction in formulating our personal views and opinions. We all have our certainties, and that’s as it should be. I know the Truth, too—but it’s My Truth. It suits me at the moment, maybe not forever. But for the nonce, it gives me a workable context for living. However, I wouldn’t dream of imposing it upon others. I’m just not that sure of it, of its universal application, for all people in all places for all time. Politics, on the other hand—Trudeau’s “religion”—is another matter: political issues are not personal; they’re societal. As members of the same society—and an ostensibly democratic one at that—we are obliged to debate issues affecting the public weal. But religious faith has been, ever since the Reformation, a largely personal matter. In most Western cultures, such personal matters are kept out of the public square. Hart wants to bring them into it. And in our tradition, there’s something a little creepy about that. Baring one’s soul in public seems to invite an invasion of privacy, of personhood, that is vaguely threatening. It requires courage to bare one’s soul, but to what end? Do we really need to know each other that intimately in order to function well in communities? I’m not sure.
The place of religion in a mostly secular society has been argued frequently before, and with the ascendency of the Religious Right in American politics, the argument has been renewed of late. Unhappily, the discussion these days is often clouded by simple ignorance. The knowledge that people have about religion—other religions but even their own professed faith—is abysmal, says Stephen Prothero, head of the department of religion at Boston University (U.S. News & World Report, April 9). Americans were once more knowledgeable, he says, but it began to deteriorate when schools stopped teaching the Bible. But schools didn’t stop because atheists demanded it. “Bible courses and the teaching of religion started to go away in themid-19th century as a result of the debate over which Bible to read,” Prothero said, “—and that was instigated by religious people, not secularists.” And then in the churches, “they started focusing on loving Jesus rather than on listening to him.” With a certain disastrous consequence for the accumulation of knowledge about religion. “Evangelicalism became the dominant religious impulse in the early 19th century, replacing Puritanism. Puritans understood God through a combination of the head and the heart. They were keen on religious learning and reason. [But] evangelicals were suspicious of the mind. Focusing on experience and emotion, they slowly turned Americans away from religious learning.” And the less we know about religion, the more upset we seem to get when we encounter someone’s profession of it.
Although Hart’s fundamentalist convictions underpin his expressions of faith in his strip, they do not appear overtly. In fact, his religious-themed strips express beliefs that most Christians, regardless of denomination, share. As I said, the strips themselves are not the cause of the outcry they inspire among newspaper readers: it’s the knowledge that Hart is a fundamentalist believer, and hence likely something of an unfettered zealot, that inspires the protestation. Hart represents a breach of decorum, not a religious menace.
Hart’s salvation—although he probably wouldn’t use that term for what I’m going to explore next—was his sense of humor. As a cartoonist, his melding of word and picture for comedic effect is masterful. And the Islam strip displays that mastery with consummate ingenuity. Every element of verbal-visual communication is orchestrated with precision to achieve a particular result. Hart is clearly taking a swipe at Islam, but his message is not as important as his manner. His zeal as a missionary is subservient to his instinct as an entertainer: he seeks to make us laugh, not to convert the heathen in us. And we do laugh. We chuckle not so much at the slap at Islam as at the ingenuity of Hart’s contrivance. My criticism of Hart here is the same as Breathed’s: confronted by irrate readers, Hart sniveled. He backed off. He disowned his own ingenuity. Why, if he is so committed a Christian, does he then deny it when confronted, like Peter at the crowing of the cock. Perhaps he backed away because he is, after all, an entertainer first. Despite his evangelical impulse, Hart’s core mission is to entertain, to make people laugh. He loved to make people laugh. Always had. And the comedian in Hart unfailingly subsumed the evangelical in him, thereby rescuing his strip, preventing it from being simply another proselytizing tract.
Born to Be A Cartoonist
Hart’s sense of humor infected every aspect of his life. Marschall reported on his subject’s manner as an interviewee: “During a conversation, he’ll stop, cock his head, and speak a Greek-chorus type of line about the dialogue. He lapses into voices—his own alter-ego; John Wayne, W.C. Fields. Almost every sentence is punctuated with a chuckle.” After Hart’s funeral, reported Eric Reinagel in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, friends gathered to tell stories about him. One time at a picnic with a bunch of kids, the cartoonist accidentally spilled a little Kool-Aid on his shirt, and when he noticed it, he picked up the pitcher and emptied its contents on his head. He sat there, soaked in Kool-Aid, a lone ice cube perched on his head, while the kids all laughed. A friend recalled the time he’d told Hart he liked the Yankees jacket he was wearing, so Hart took it off and gave it to him. Another friend after church one Sunday complimented Hart on his necktie; Hart took off the tie and gave it to him. Hart took to buying ties to wear to church expressly in order to have one to give to his friend when he complimented him on his choice of neckwear. “I should have said I like your car,” the friend joked.
When Hart was in the Air Force during the Korean War, he drew cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, but he also toured Korea with band, Hart doing soft shoe and stand-up comedy and writing the comic songs. He briefly considered comedy and music as a career: after one performance, a member of the audience came up and, saying he had a nightclub in New York, gave Hart his card and insisted that Hart get in touch the instant he got out of the service. But Hart lost the card—and the entree to show business—and wound up at the drawingboard instead. “I often think that God certainly routed me in this direction and seated me at a drawingboard ... so I was just destined somehow.” Whatever the Almighty’s role, Hart’s destiny was implemented by Brant Parker.
Born February 18, 1931 in Endicott, New York, John Lewis Hart had no thought of becoming a cartoonist as he grew up although he often displayed a penchant for practical joking, inherited, perhaps, from his father, a fireman. But it was his mother, laughing at everything young Johnny did, who unconsciously encouraged her son to pursue a career in comedy. That career took shape one day when the staff cartoonist on the nearby Binghamton Press came to Union-Endicott High School to judge an art contest. Brant Parker, ten years older than Hart, was a Californian who had married an Endicott girl he’d met while in the Navy; when her mother became ill, they returned to her hometown, and he got a job on the local newspaper. Hart hadn’t drawn cartoons for his art class, but something in his work attracted Parker’s eye, and he later met with Hart, and they talked about art. And about cartooning—VIP, Virgil Partch, in particular. Hart loved Partch’s cartoons, and Parker knew the Vipper: he had come to know Partch when he, Parker, was working after the War at Partch’s alma mater, Disney Studios. Parker showed Hart how Partch achieved humor in his drawings, and Hart was hooked. Parker gave Hart two watchwords that evening, telling him, “Whenever you draw anything, make it cartoony.” He also told the younger man to keep it “simple.” Simple and funny. By the time they parted that night, Hart had resolved to become a cartoonist.
“He sucked me in,” Hart told Marschall. “He’s the guy. He’s the culprit, the one who’s responsible for all this. But I got even with him. I pulled him in. I created a comic strip just to make him work on it every day of his life.”
Parker’s role in Hart’s life prompted the Christian in the cartoonist to engage in the usual speculations about the machinations of the Almighty. Talking to Jud Hurd, Hart said: “Why did Brant come to Endicott, why did he pick me out, why did he sit me down for a single evening, turn my whole life around, and make me want to become a magazine cartoonist?” Clearly, God had a plan for Hart, and Parker was his instrument.
“It’s funny how God works,” Hart marvels. The relationship between the two cartoonists was “inexplicably magic,” he said. “Brant probably makes me feel better than any other human being I’m ever with. For whatever reason, Brant thinks that everything I say is funny—and I know it’s not that funny because I say the same things to a lot of other people without their breaking up, but he has the kind of laugh that turns me on, and I actually start saying funny things. I become like a standup comic and do this to him all the time on the phone. I spend one minute on the phone saying something and four minutes waiting for him to stop laughing. I remember one night when we were down at the studio when I started doing ‘bits,’ and he started laughing, and suddenly I was spouting all this crazy stuff. I didn’t even realize how funny it was when I was saying it. Brant got to laughing so hard that he lost his breath and started whimpering and making funny little sounds. He was sitting on a set of steps that led down to a little landing by the back door, and he got laughing so hard that he slid all the way down the steps and was lying on his back on the landing in complete hysterics. This is the kind of rapport we’ve always had. It’s like he thinks I’m the funniest thing that exists. And he just brings it out of me. It doesn’t come out of me unless he’s around.”
After Hart graduated from high school in 1949, he enlisted in the Air Force, served in the Korean theater, met Bobby Hatcher and married her in 1952, and started freelancing magazine cartoons through the mail while stationed in Georgia. He sold his first cartoon (to the Saturday Evening Post) in 1953; it was published in 1954, the year Hart was discharged from the Air Force. Hart returned to Endicott briefly and then, once he started selling regularly to Collier’s and True and other markets, he moved to New York City. His cartooning income was still not enough to support himself and his wife, so he took a job in the art department at General Electric.
Present at the Prehistoric Creation
Hart continued freelancing magazine cartoons in his spare time, and he also wrote gags for Brant Parker, who was in New York at the time. Caveman gags were among Hart’s favorite subjects. Hart had not been a particularly good student in high school (and he always felt intellectually inferior because he lacked a college education), but he was fascinated by how aspects of human society originated, and he enjoyed speculating about such historic beginnings in the anachronistic setting of prehistoric man. But he never sold any caveman cartoons. About this time, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strip began running in the local newspaper, and Hart was smitten by the realization that “his stuff was like magazine cartoons in comic strip form.” Schulz, who did magazine cartoons before inventing his famous strip, had imported to the newspaper funnies the drawing mannerisms of the magazine cartoonist. And he also imported the more mature, sophisticated comedy of magazine cartoons. Said Hart: “I’d never realized you could do things that funny in comic strip form.” He told Marschall: “Something [I saw in Peanuts] made me realize that my sense of humor was marketable in comic strip form, as well as the one-panel. Four panels meant timing, meter, freedom.”
One night as he left the GE office, Hart jestingly announced to his co-workers: “You guys can stay if you want, but I’m going home and creating a nationally famous comic strip tonight.” And one of his cohorts retorted, “Why don’t you do one about cavemen? You can’t sell them anywhere else.”
And so he did.
“I went home, had supper, sat down at the drawingboard and created this little triangular character,” he told Jud Hurd—the stylistic distinction of the B.C. characters being their flat bottomed anatomy. Hart spent the evening “having fun drawing them and giving them names.” His first gag had to do with an egg, he remembered, “and since I didn’t know what to call the strip, I first gave it the title Suck Egg. How’s that for a scoop!” He didn’t think of B.C. as a title right away—“that may have been Bobby’s suggestion”—but within a month, he had a batch of samples. He’d had difficulty creating character traits, personalities, until his wife suggested that he pattern his characters after his friends, and so he did. Clumsy Carp, for instance, embodied certain aspects of his highschool chum Jack Carpio, who would eventually become Hart’s full-time office manager and writing partner, sometimes even inking Hart’s pencils.
“Jack and I met in the school hallway in seventh grade,” Hart recalled for Marschall. It was a long, wide hallway, and they were the only persons in it, approaching each other from opposite ends. “We were both wearing corduroys, and each of us was ‘wiff-wiff-ing’ his way down the hall. As we approached each other, we both stopped, looked at each other and started laughing.” They shook hands and exchanged names and have been laughing together ever since.
Hart continued listing the models for his cast for Marschall: Peter the self-styled genius and Thor the ladies man and inventor were based upon two fellow workers at GE—Peter Reuter, “a great painter and a concert pianist,” and Thornton Kinney. Wiley, a peg-leg poet with a hatred for water in all its forms, was Hart’s brother-in-law who had lost a leg in World War II, and since he was an immaculate fellow, Hart gave his cartoon namesake an aversion to water. The sarcastic wit, Curls, like Caprio, was a childhood friend, Dick Boland, who, like Caprio, became a gagwriter with Hart. Others in the cast include a lovelorn dinosaur named Gronk, a clam, an anteater and the requisite fleet of ants plus the Cute Chick and the Fat Broad, “names that were anatomically, if not politically, correct,” as Adam Bernstein observed in the Washington Post obituary. (Hart, according to Caprio, was the first cartoonist to use “broad” in a comic strip.) The characters, as Hart put it, took on lives of their own and became stand-up comics, and their idiosyncratic personalities virtually wrote the punchlines.
Hart took his brain child around to several syndicates before the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate bought it. But he almost threw it all away. He submitted his samples to the Associated Press, but the AP editor declined B.C. in very discouraging terms, showing Hart another strip, saying, “Now if you want to see a funny strip”—implying that Hart’s wasn’t. But, the editor continued, “we don’t buy comic strips; we buy panels.”
Deeply discouraged, Hart left the AP office and was on the point of giving up his quest—“I saw this trash basket with a sign saying ‘Keep New York Clean,’ and I pulled the samples out from under my arm and I slammed them on the edge of the basket and was just about to shove them into the basket when this voice in my ear said, ‘We don’t buycomic strips.’ That’s what saved me. ‘He doesn’t buy comic strips! How does he know what’s a good strip or a bad one? He deals with panels!’” More orchestrations of the Almighty, no doubt. In any case, Hart, spirits revived, went on to other syndicates, finally selling B.C. to the Herald Tribune, which had just hired a new cartoon editor whose assignment was to improve the syndicate’s comics line-up. B.C. debuted February 17, 1958.
The strip was “an instant sensation,” Weingarten wrote. “For the fuddy-duddy fifties, B.C. was edgy. The squat little troglodytes pondered existential questions. They revealed themselves to be thickheaded, fearful, lustful, prideful, stubborn, duplicitous—in short, thoroughly human. B.C. was your basic cartoon about men, women and animals but with an irresistible twist: Hart had reinvented the wheel.” Or, more exactly, Thor did.
Hart apparently didn’t realize it, but the thing he probably saw in Peanuts that rang a sympathetic bell in his belfry was what I call “non sequitur comedy”: from the pictures of little kids in Peanuts, it doesn’t follow that the verbal content will be so adult. And that kind of humor is what distinguished the early B.C. From the pictures of cavemen, it doesn’t follow that we’ll hear dialogue that reflects contemporary, 20th century preoccupations. Non sequitur humor was in the air in the 1950s: the "sick jokes" and "elephant jokes" of the day turned on a similar comic device. As in Schulz’s strip, the comedy in Hart’s is original, inventive, and highly individual, and the reader finds again the devices and techniques made familiar to him in Peanuts—artwork deceptively simple, personality traits sharpened nearly to the point of eccentricity, repetition of set prices, the running gag, animals with human aspirations. At first, the humor sprang from our recognition of a discrepancy between the visual and the verbal, between the setting of the strip and the concerns of its characters. The setting is prehistoric; the concerns, the preoccupations, are ours of the twentieth century. Hence, even in this unlikely setting, we were delightfully surprised to discover—ourselves. But with a difference. Man, as always, is the inventor, the discoverer. And there is a childlike (and therefore entirely human) delight in discovery, invention, novelty. But an invention lands in the world of B.C. full-blown, without having evolved from a need. Like children, the prehistoric characters in B.C. fasten on some new device without fully understanding its function or the principles upon which its operation rests. The result is that newly discovered devices are not put to their proper use: they remain novelties, oddities, things that fit into our world, but not quite into theirs. Thor's invention of the wheel is a prize specimen. The wheel he is so proud of isn't attached to a vehicle: it's just a circular stone that Thor rides by straddling as if it were a horse.
Other discoveries followed. The character named B.C. promptly discovers women in the shape of the Cute Chick. The Fat Broad arrives soon thereafter. Thor invents lightning bolts (just what you’d expect from a guy named Thor), the calendar (including Friday and thirteenth), the pedestal (so women can stand around on it), and the telephone—but only one, so they can’t call anyone.
“I’m hung up with observing human nature in its simplest form,” Hart told Hurd. “I guess when I look at anything that happens, I take it down to the basic form, and I wonder what primitive instinct motivated this event in the first place—what caused someone to do or say a given thing.” Prehistoric humanity was the perfect place to ponder such imponderables.
Almost at once, the peculiar magic of comic strip cartooning began shaping the strip. “When a cartoonist draws a character,” Hart said, “he believes that the character actually lives and exists. When I draw B.C., I don’t see him as a bunch of lines: I see him as a many-dimensional character in my own mind. All successful cartoonists know this and believe this. Their funny little lines on a piece of paper are actual people and they actually exist. The reader looks at it, and he believes it because you believe it. I found over the years that I don’t actually put the words in a character’s mouth: he puts the words in his mouth. It’s almost like I know where I’m going with a character, and that character talks to me. I may say, ‘Naw—that’s not a good enough line—this is a better line.’ If you just put down any old line, or a joke, you know the character wouldn’t say that. And when a character says something, I give him an expression that makes him look like he’s saying those particular lines. These words come out of him because that’s the kind of person he is—and he has a personality as far as I’m concerned. He’s an actual, living little being.”
The personalities of the characters soon drove the strip. Just as the character Pigpen was what first excited general interest in Peanuts, so was the anteater in B.C. probably the cause of the first ripples of excitement about the strip. For a time, the creature threatened to take over the strip: day after day, we were treated to successively ingenious displays of the anteater’s tongue’s dexterity and all-around usefulness. Through the years, B.C. evolved into something else, and its humor eventually depended less and less upon anachronism and the quirks of the characters’ personalities. “Somewhere along the line,” Hart said to Marschall, “the Laugh became more important to me. Right or wrong, that’s what happened. ... Any kind of joke or gag about anything that we think of, we manipulate it and put it into a prehistoric situation. But the bottom line is the Laugh, to really make somebody laugh.”
When he was starting out, Hart wrote all of his own gags, using a process he calls “snowballing.” He decided that it was not productive to belabor a particular notion until a joke materialized. “If nothing is working for you,” he said, “then go on to something else—let it snowball in different directions. You might start off thinking of a guy on a desert island, and you wind up with somebody trying to make a broad in a penthouse. The mental process just drifts from one thing to another—a bottle floats up on the shore of this desert island—nothing seems to come to your mind with that—there’s a note in the bottle from an extortionist—or the bottle becomes a bottle in somebody’s penthouse with this guy trying to make out with a broad—and so on.”
Eventually, Hart turned to his friends, starting with Caprio, to help him come up with gags. Caprio and Boland may work separately and send in gags on 3x5-inch cards. Or Hart and Caprio may have a gag-writing session together, snowballing along. Sometimes they worked with a starting premise—an occupation, book publishing, say, or advertising—and wrote down all the words they could think of that pertain to the premise, looking for those that have more than one meaning or that can be turned into puns. Sometimes the gag-generating device was what they called “straight-lining”: beginning with a simple statement of no particular hilarity at all, they then tried to invent a tagline as the next logical (or illogical) progression.
“Just for a change of pace,” Hart told Hurd, “several of us who work on ideas for the strips used to hole up occasionally in a local hotel for a day-long gag session. I’d rent a suite for Jack, Brant, Dick and myself and have hors d’oeuvres and a bunch of drinks sent up. The suite at the Sheraton in Binghamton had about six rooms in it—with a livingroom as big as my boat house. We’d wander around, pace back and forth, and we’d turn out something like a month’s work during our day-long stay! Jack and I might be doing ideas, and Brant, who doesn’t write gags himself ... but felt the flow of ideas ... and could picture the drawings that would be called for, he would suggest things to us, and we’d say, ‘That’s it!’ If he’d been in the movie business, he would have been one of the greatest directors. He has an uncanny knack of being able to do this. These sessions were absolutely beautiful, no matter where we held them. The ideas seemed to be better, come quicker, and they’re much more positive under the conditions I’ve just described.”
Hart is often credited with popularizing in newspaper strips a simpler style of cartooning, and it’s clear that several cartoonists were influenced by his style and, a little later, Parker’s. But the simpler magazine cartoon manner had been introduced several years earlier by Charles Schulz in Peanuts and by Mort Walker in Beetle Bailey. What the success of B.C. and The Wizard did was to explore a more sophisticated kind humor that originated in the very concept of B.C.: anachronistic humor is not possible without a keen sense of irony.
Conjuring Up the Wizard
A few years into syndication, Hart sensed a void in his comedic firmament. “I felt I couldn’t get satirical enough as there’s no society to work with in B.C.,” he once explained. “It deals with the basics, man’s foibles and follies.” But there was no outlet for comic commentary on man as a social animal. For man in society, Hart moved to medieval times and devised The Wizard of Id. Originally, Hart was going to draw it from gags devised by Caprio. But Hart got distracted and four years went by before he took up the project again. This time, he bethought himself of Brant Parker, then living in Virginia, and he phoned his one-time mentor: “If I write this thing,” Hart proposed, “will you draw it?” Parker quickly agreed, and the two decided to hammer out samples together by spending a few days together in a New York hotel. The result is the stuff of legend.
“We met in this sleazy, fleabag hotel about a block away from the Herald-Tribune offices and around the corner from it,” Hart recalled for Marschall. “We holed up for several days, and we did 24 Wizards. He penciled some, and I penciled some, and I’d ink some of his, and he’d ink some of mine. We just went back and forth doing all this stuff, and as we did them, we taped them up on the walls of the hotel room. At some point, we painted the toilet to look like a character. The lid was a big nose, with India ink around the edge of it, and big eyes on the back of the tank. It has a mustache and a bow tie, and I think Brant even drew out a part of the body coming out across the tiles on the floor.”
They didn’t leave the room. They had meals sent up. And beer. The room soon looked like a dump, with empty beer bottles lying all around. “We were having the time of our lives,” Hart said. When they taped the last strip up on the wall, Hart called his syndicate and asked if they’d like to see a new strip. Sure, they said—bring it over. Can’t, Hart explained: it’s taped all over the room.
“Twenty minutes later, they came over. Brant and I were running around, kicking beer bottles under the beds, and I’m in there shaving, and Brant is in his shorts—he’s not even dressed—and here are these three syndicate guys in their black suits, white shirts, black ties, looking like the Mafia, and they come into the room, shaking hands, and I come out in my shorts with lather all over my face. I go over and kick another beer bottle under the bed. It’s called Wizard of Id, I say. And we tell them about the lead characters. And they start walking around the walls like they’re in a museum, with their hands behind their backs, in this fleabag with masking tape all over the walls. ... When they were all done, two of them turned around, and the other one sat down on the bed with us and said, ‘Well, we think you guys are disgusting, but the strip is great.’ So we all shook hands and he said, ‘We’ll take it.’ And that was the whole trick.”
As initially conceived, the strip revolved around the Wizard, envisioned as a bumbling mage whose potions and portents invariably backfired on him. But the Wizard’s diminutive monarch soon elbowed his way into the spotlight. From the first, Hart saw the King looking like a playing card, and when his distinctive appearance was coupled to an overweening ego (a compensation, no doubt, for his minute physical dimension), the despotic ruler ruled the strip. Fairly early in the run, a recurring gag involved a mysterious midnight marauder sneaking around the kingdom and scrawling graffiti that proclaimed, “The King is a fink.” The device incited a seething rage in his miniature majesty, which effectively displayed his flawed personality in all its facets, each deserving the prodding poke of ridicule. The King was logically accompanied by a court Jester, who, in Hart’s conception, was an unabashed drunk, named Bung. For the knighthood of the age to flower, the strip was also inhabited by a knight and a damsel who might be in distress. The knight, however, turned out to be a rank coward, which increased the damsel’s distress; she, in any event, soon disappeared. Finally, Parker’s contribution, the Spook, the resident prisoner in the dungeon deep. From the cast—an ineffectual technician, an egotistic tyrant, a town drunk, a cowardly military, and a perpetual prisoner of the times—we might well wonder what sort of society Hart thought he was going to satirize in the strip he concocted for the purpose. And then, having pondered the matter, we realize at once that the society is pretty exactly ours. But social satire soon receded into the background as the personalities of the characters took over and drove the strip in their own quirky directions.
The Wizard of Id started November 9, 1964. From that time forward, Parker drew it from ideas written by Hart and Caprio and Boland, and within a short time, Wizard was in about as many newspapers as B.C. and things went along swimmingly for more than a decade. Then, as Weingarten put it, Hart ran out of things for his cavemen to discover, so he discovered Christ and put him into the strip. “It was the ultimate anachronism: Christ in a cartoon whose title means ‘Before Christ.’”
The Second Coming
Hart experienced no enlightening moment: he’s always been a Christian, he said, but he “got mad at God” when his mother died of cancer at the young age of 52. Hart was drinking more and more, but in 1977, he bought a 150-acre (or 250-acre, sources differ) estate near Ninevah, New York, and fled the saloons of the big city. When cable arrived in about 1984, it couldn’t reach across Hart’s lake, so he arranged for a satellite dish to be installed, and the installers were born-again Christians who kept the tvs turned to religious channels as they worked.
Hart found himself attending to the video preachers and enjoying what he heard. “Bit by bit,” Weingarten wrote, “Hart decided this was The Truth.” His rebirth in the faith was gradual, not dramatic. No parting of the seas or blinding light. “That’s my problem,” Hart told Marschall. “It’s really a problem. Why don’t I get any of those feelings that I can put my finger on? All I’m aware of are subtle realizations where I can say, now I know what that was, or how I came out of that, but there was no dramatic lighting out of something. I look back at things like, why did I get the measles when I was 47 for no reason, when my liver was about gone and the only thing that could possibly rejuvenate a liver is a disease like that in which the liver has to totally reconstruct itself, and it did.”
Hart saw “the thumbprint of God” in the cascade of events accompanying his move to the country, Weingarten continued, coincidences he cannot explain, “not the least of which is the name of the town to which he had moved—Ninevah.” That is the name of the town Jonah goes to after God rescued him from the whale. There, “he delivers a terrifying sermon on the need to repent, the townspeople heed his message, confess their sins, and wear sackcloth and are spared.”
Hart began studying the Bible, stocking his home with Bibles, Bible studies, and commentaries, and he filled notebooks with clippings and notes and Biblical quotations. “Whenever I have time to read, I read the Bible,” Hart said. “Or I read books about the Bible, books explaining the Bible. There isn’t anything more interesting. Seeing the unbelievable things God is doing behind them. Moving and orchestrating and manipulating and fulfilling—it’s all just fascinating and exciting.”
Soon after his satellite dish was installed, Hart started teaching Sunday school at the little church in Ninevah. And he then expanded his classroom to include the readers of the 1,200 newspapers in which B.C. appears.
Weingarten delights in pointing out that Hart’s revived faith created a tantalizing incongruity: “Cavemen have been very good to Johnny Hart,” he writes, “even though they never existed.”
For Hart, the Bible is literally the word of God, “not metaphors, not parables, but the literal truth.” And like-minded fundamentalist Biblical scholars have determined that the Creation occurred roughly at 4004 B.C. “Which means,” Weingarten observes, “the Pleistocene Era never occurred. No Stone Age.”
How does Hart explain all those cave wall paintings and stone tools littering the archeological landscape? His theory, he told Weingarten, is that these artifacts are remnants of the period after the collapse of the Tower of Babel, when God banished disobedient people to the planet’s four corners, at one or more of which the erstwhile advanced civilization regressed somewhat. As for neanderthal man—didn’t exist. Man has always been man: no forebears. “No species ever evolved into another species,” Hart said. “Darwin is a lie.”
Dinosaurs, on the other hand, were around. “The Bible calls them leviathans or behemoths.” They all drowned in the Great Flood because they were left off Noah’s ark, which, Hart noted, had limited deck space: no room for dinosaurs.
In 1987, when Rick Newcombe formed Creators Syndicate with the object of giving cartoonists and columnists ownership of their creations, Hart was among the first to climb aboard, with both B.C. and Wizard. Other early arrivals included editorial cartoonist Herblock and columnist Ann Landers, but Newcombe attributes the success of the syndicate to Hart. Not long before Hart died, Newcombe called him about it. “I said that his goal at the time was for us to make waves for the tall ships, and now we have become one of the tallest ships at sea, due in no small part to his tremendous courage early on. He was modest, as always, and tried to shift the credit back tome, but I told him that because of his commitment, syndicates no longer insist on ownership when they sign new cartoonists. He had revolutionized an entire industry and empowered cartoonists to take control of their work and demand the freedoms they enjoy in their contracts today.”
Hart has been honored often for his cartooning. The National Cartoonists Society named B.C. the best humor strip twice; Wizard, 5 times; and gave Hart the Reuben trophy as Cartoonist of the Year in 1986. France named Hart best cartoonist of the year, and he earned Sweden’s Sam Adamson Award for graphic artistry and the International Congress of Comics Yellow Kid Award for Best Cartoonist. In 1972, NASA gave him a public service award for his promotional drawings supporting the space program.
In 2001, Hart was inducted into the Guinness World Records as “the most syndicated living cartoonist” because the combined circulation of his strips hit 2,600, allegedly more than any other. I suspect Jim Davis over at PAWS (Garfield headquarters) could contest the claim (but probably won’t). And, considering the size of Hart’s staff on the two strips, Mort Walker and his team could claim a similar distinction for the combined circulation of the strips they produce—Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey, and, probably, Hagar the Horrible, not to mention Sam and Silo, or, until a few years ago, Boner’s Ark.
In the weeks after Hart’s death, Creators Syndicate posted tributes to Hart from other cartoonists and associates. Over and over, we find these words: kind, decent, good, sweet, generous, and funny. Hart would doubtless value that last attribute best. He liked to quote John F. Kennedy, who once said: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.” To which Hart added: “My name is Johnny Hart. I do what I can with the third.” And he did it very well for a long time.
B.C. and Wizard will survive their creator’s departure, according to Editor & Publisher. Said Newcombe: “After Schulz died in 2000, Johnny told me that he wanted B.C. and The Wizard of Id to continue after his death, and he spoke on that occasion, and subsequently, about how proud he was of his two daughters and two grandsons, all of whom have been involved with both comic strips over the years.”
Creators’ vice president and editorial director Kathy Kei added: “I think many people would say, and we think Johnny would agree, that after a creator has passed away, memorable cartoon characters take on a life of their own—like Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, like Charles Schulz’s Snoopy, and like Johnny’s characters. This is why we intend to keep the Johnny Hart byline.”
Hart’s many fans will surely rejoice, but, as E&P’s David Astor pointed out, in a marketplace awash in legacy strips, the news of the strips’ continuance was not created with universal applause. My quick count shows that almost two dozen of the nation’s top strips—at least ten percent of the industry offerings—are being produced by the relatives or staffs of the creator or, like Peanuts and Tiger, are reruns, all effectively reducing the chances for new strips to find outlets on the nation’s crowded comics pages.
Astor quoted Comics Curmudgeon.com blogger Joshua Fruhlinger: “Say what you will for good or for ill about Hart’s work, but it has always struck me (despite help from family members) as being indisputably his work. The best way to honor that would be for it to stand on its own, not to be continued by assistants cutting and pasting new dialogue into scans of old strips. ... Letting his strip continue in other hands denies [a] chance to others and diminishes what went before.”
The last daily B.C. strips produced under Hart’s personal supervision ran through April 28; the last Sunday, May 27 or June 1. As a tribute to Hart, his family will select six weeks of their favorite B.C. strips to run daily from April 30 to June 9; Sunday, until July 1.
BRANT PARKER REUNITES WITH HIS PARTNER
With the fearful symmetry of celestial design, Brant Parker died just eight days after his more celebrated protege. Parker, who inspired Johnny Hart to become a cartoonist and who later partnered with him on The Wizard of Id, drawing the gags that Hart concocted for the make-believe medieval milieu, died at 86 on April 15, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease and a stroke suffered last year. Parker’s health had been failing; he had relinquished the drawing on the strip to his son, Jeff, in 1997, and he had been in a nursing home at Lynchburg, Virginia, for some time.
The New York Times reported that on Monday, April 16, on the Creators Syndicate website, Jeff Parker posted a drawing that showed the King and the Wizard peering at the heavens through a telescope. “Hey!” says the Wizard, “—there’s cartoons up there!”
Parker, Hart told Jud Hurd (in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 48, December 1980), was “the absolute master” of funny drawing. “You need only to look at anything Brant Parker draws to realize what ‘cartoony’ means. I don’t think anybody tops him—and I’m not saying this because he and I are friends. I think that all young cartoonists who want to learn how to draw should look to The Wizard as an example of how to do it. I give him incredible things to draw—such as a blacksmith in his shop—and he groans since drawing blacksmiths is one of his pet peeves—but there isn’t another cartoonist in the world who, with just a few little items, can get across the idea of such a shop better than Brant does. He gets tremendous mood in the drawing—you know just what kind of place it is—and he’s accomplished it with great simplicity.”
To Rick Marschall in Hogan’s Alley (No. 2, Summer 1995), Hart added: “Brant has idiosyncracies about placement of things in the panels—like the king’s throne always has to be facing left.” He also had a pet theory of his own about the number of visual components, which he called “elements,” that could be in a panel. “You can’t have more than three elements in a panel,” he told Hart. But, as it turned out, not all visual components were actually “elements.” Hart never quite figured out how Parker determined which visual components were elements, but he decided, eventually, that Parker was usually right.
Brant Julius Parker was born in Los Angeles, August 26, 1920, into what he called “an art atmosphere.” His mother was a fashion designer and worked out of their Beverly Hills home. After graduating from high school, young Parker continued his art education at Otis Art Institute for 22 months before the government required his services during World War II. While in the Navy towards the end of the War, Parker applied for a position at the Disney Studios, taking and passing the entrance test, and when he left the service, he entered the Mouse House, where he worked, moving from in-betweening to breakdowns on his way to becoming an animator. As training and education, Parker said, “it was a marvelous experience.” Among the features he worked on was “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”
Parker met his wife in California, and when in the late 1940s her mother became ill in their hometown of Endicott, New York, the couple moved there, and Parker took a job as cartoonist on the Binghamton Press, meeting Johnny Hart while judging a high school art students show.
“I was impressed by the work he had submitted,” Parker told Jud Hurd in Cartoonist PROfiles (No. 9, February 1971). “It was straight illustration, no cartooning, and it was very good. A little later, I met him again, and I learned that he was very much interested in getting into cartooning but didn’t know how to go about it.” Parker gave Hart a copy of a newsletter published for freelance cartoonists; it listed magazine markets and supplied drawing and marketing hints. The editor, Don Ulsh, also acted as an agent, and he eventually represented both Hart and Parker.
While Hart was in the Air Force during the Korean conflict, Parker was recalled to the Navy. When he got out again, he took a technical art job at the IBM offices in Endicott, and then, at Hart’s urging, started freelancing cartoons to magazines, using ideas furnished by Hart. Then in 1964, as recounted above, Hart phoned Parker and convinced him to draw a new strip Hart was inventing about an inept Wizard.
Parker didn’t devise gags for the strip outright, but he sometimes contributed insights that refined an idea and improved it. And sometimes, not. According to Hart: “Every so often, Brant has to meddle,” he told Marschall. “I know what he’s doing. He has periods when he feels out of the creative loop so he starts toying with punch lines or dialogue. And he’ll throw it at me, and we’ll snowball on the phone, and we’ll have fun. Probably nine times out of ten when he calls up for something like that, it really wasn’t thought out as well as it should have been. When we get done, we usually turn it into a classic because we’ll spend 20 to 30 minutes on it. Suddenly, we’re both laughing like hell, and the gag is nothing like before: it’s a totally different gag, and we’ve had a great time doing it.”As Parker put it: “It’s John’s editing that is the ‘genius touch.’” But when it came to visualizing the panels, Hart said, Parker’s suggestions always made the gag better.
Parker invented one of the strip’s cast—Spook, the perpetual occupant of the dungeon who is always trying to escape. Or to endure. Spook, understandably, is Parker’s favorite character. “I think it’s because of the pathos in his situation,” Parker once said. “He’s stuck in there for life, and he keeps trying to get out. I love pathos humor.”
“Humor,” he said in a 1986 Los Angeles Times interview, “is a very important part of our survival and existence now. I see it as a balance—a kind of escape valve for a lot of our readers. There’s nothing that eases tension like a good laugh. It can just about solve all the problems if it is used right.”
In 1975, Parker created another strip called Crock—“The Wizard of Id in the French Foreign Legion,” as Ron Goulart dubbed it (in his history, The Funnies): “The title character’s full name is Vermin P. Crock, and he commands a ragtag group of Legionnaires.” Parker recruited Don Wilder to write the strip and Bill Rechin to draw it in a Parkeresque manner; some years later, Parker sold the strip to his cohorts. Parker also invented Goosemeyer in 1980; he drew it, Wilder wrote it, and it lasted three or four years.
The Wizard of Id was named Best Humor Strip five times (1971, 1976, 1980, and back-to-back 1982 and 1983) by the National Cartoonists Society, and Parker received the NCS Reuben as Cartoonist of the Year in 1984. Parker apprenticed his son Jeff in 1987, and Jeff took over the strip ten years later. Parker retired “officially” (according to his entry in the 2005 NCS Album) in 2001.
About his father, Jeff Parker wrote: “Growing up with Brant Parker as my father and working with him for many years was an adventure. I was six years old when The Wizard of Id began. My mother, brothers, sisters and I rarely saw him without a pen in his hand and something to doodle on. His advice tome and to any aspiring cartoonist was ‘Draw! Draw! Draw!’ He was always studying and learning from other cartoonists, young and old. He was a great observer of all that was absurd in the world (including himself). I like to think he is still out there, giving lectures to anyone who will listen on the art of cartooning and, of course, drawing away. I was fortunate to have this adventure with him, and I look forward to continuing working on The Wizard of Id. He will be dearly missed.”
Parker’s onetime employer, Hart’s hometown newspaper, the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, reported that Bobby Hart, Johnny’s widow, commented: “They’re probably up in heaven, the two of them, having a good laugh thinking that we have to meet the deadlines, and they don’t.”
Probably Parker made the trip because Hart, who valued Parker’s laughter above all else, missed him.
HART’S 2001 EASTER ADVENTURE
Hart Lays an Easter Egg
Johnny Hart’s Easter Sunday B.C. offering ruffled feathers throughout the Judeo-Christian community. And the controversy hit the Net days before Easter: Sunday comic sections are produced in just a few locations around the country and are shipped in bulk to their host papers, so the content of Hart’s Easter release was known to many newspaper people well in advance of the release date. And when the Jewish Defense League saw an advance copy of the strip, it opened fire at once on their website, calling it an outrage—”crude and insulting.”
Hart, who experienced a religious conversion in the early 1980s, has inserted a Christian message into his strip many times over the years, usually around one or another of the religious holidays. Almost every time he does it, he raises a few eyebrows. While the strips are usually not of the outright proselytizing sort, they generally espouse a fundamentalist view of the Christian tradition in unmistakable, overtly religious, terms. And if the reader is not versed in Christian theology, the strip on such occasions is probably not very funny. This year, Hart banged the drum again on Good Friday, and it’s a pretty good example of the sort of thing he usually does.
Both the Good Friday strip and the Easter Sunday strip are reproduced in the foregoing obituary of Hart, but I’m going to repeat them again here so you have handy access: much of what I say in the next few feet won’t make sense unless you’ve seen at least the Sunday strip, so I’ll pause here long enough to let you read it. (You can bypass the Islamming strip, which, being attentive, you’ve seen before, and I’m not talking about it here.)
Done? Then, onward:
Much of the outcry that materialized on the JDL website condemned Hart’s message for espousing “replacement theology, the theory that Christianity has replaced Judaism as the ‘chosen’ religion” in spite of which, Jews do not accept Jesus as the messiah. The implication of the strip, then, is that Christianity, having replaced Judaism as a viable religion, is superior to it.
Some of those who wrote in were Christian; some were Jewish. Some (from both religions) supported the contention that the strip was offensive, and some (from both religions) did not. In other words, the strip was so susceptible to various interpretations that no clear-cut verdict about it was in the offing.
On the NCS chat board, one ’tooner opined that “while kids are smarter these days than I feel I was when I was young, I doubt the majority will make much sense of this cartoon.” Geez. I thought we had agreed long ago that the comics in newspapers are not created solely for juvenile consumption. Geez.
Otherwise, among the inky-fingered fraternity, opinions swung wildly from one extreme (Hart is doing no more in a religious context than Garry Trudeau does in a political one, so what’s the fuss?) to another (if Hart wants to write religious tracts, he should seek another forum), with a goodly number falling into a fairly permissive posture: It’s his strip, and if he wants to risk it by venturing into arenas most of us steer clear of, more power to him.
Not all Jewish writers apparently thought the strip offensive. Binyamni L. Jolkovsky, editor of a website called Jewish World Review, wrote that he thought Hart was “being crucified by no doubt well-meaning but thoroughly clueless comic strip aficionados for—Heaven help us!—an Easter-themed cartoon that actually focuses on the spirituality of Easter and ignores chocolate eggs and big purple bunnies.
“As a Sabbath-observant Jew, rabbinical school alumnus and publisher of the most-accessed Jewish website,” he continued, “I see absolutely nothing wrong with Hart’s message,” which he described as “one of love, not hate.”
Warned that his strip would anger many, Hart himself issued a statement days in advance of the release date: “The true purpose of Christmas and Easter is to honor a man. The same man, Jesus. They are not designated holidays to honor red-suited Santas or egg-laden bunnies. Yet, whenever I try to honor this man of men, hackles go up. The God of Judaism and the God of Christianity is the same, and the people of Israel are his chosen people and Jesus is one of them. This is a holy week for both Christians and Jews, and my intent was to pay tribute to both. I sincerely apologize if I have offended any readers, and I also sincerely hope that this cartoon will generate increased interest in religious awareness.”
Richard Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate that distributes B.C., also issued a statement: “The B.C. comic strip for ... Easter Sunday is simply a calendar recognition of two important religious holidays: Passover, which occurred the week before, as indicated by the menorah [the candelabra], and Easter Sunday, which begins the day the strip is run, as represented by the cross. Some have mistakenly interpreted the strip to be anti-Jewish. This is ridiculous. Far from being anti-Jewish, the strip is simply a celebration of Passover (the week before) and Easter, which begins the day the strip is run.”
Looking at the strip itself (as you, being dutiful to a fault, have done), it’s fairly easy to see how some readers might be offended. And as more than one cartoonist (writing on NCS’s chat board) pointed out, a key element in Hart’s message is contained mostly in the opening panels, the “throw-away” panels (logo and the other two on the first tier) that many newspapers don’t publish because, for them, B.C. is a quarter page strip, not a third page.
Dropping those panels does serious damage to Hart’s Easter sermon. In those panels, Hart sets up the strip’s metaphor by drawing attention to similarities. And penultimate panel, in which the Christian cross seems to have emerged from the Jewish menorah, is another of those similarities: the menorah “contains” the shape of the cross. The “similarities” connection, then, was destroyed (in fact, nearly obliterated) by leaving out the opening sequence. What remained, then, was a conspicuous Jewish symbol—the menorah. Right away, that's a red flag, drawing attention to itself and demanding some kind of “interpretation.”
Without the “similarities” setup, an interpretation must focus on the extinguishing of the candles one by one, and the interpreter might well conclude that Hart is saying Judaism was extinguished by Christianity, replaced by Christianity. Or, perhaps, one could conclude that the last picture in the sequence means that Christianity is but a charred remnant of the religion in which it originated.
I read it that Christianity emerged from Judaism—but I was persuaded by actual history, of course, more than by Hart's symbolism.
And when the menorah appears to be saying “It is finished,” I assumed that meant Jesus’ role as a Jewish teacher was over. It was over because he had emerged as a symbol for a new religion. And that symbol—this time, the cross—is put into the context of the new religion in the last panel, which has specific reference to the crucifixion and the last supper.
Moreover, “Do this in remembrance of me” can be interpreted to refer to both Christ's final passion and his teaching AND to his Jewish heritage—“this” referring to the whole chain of similarities and connections Hart has laid out, thus embracing and “honoring” both religions.
But I suspect many people didn't make any of this sort of sense of the strip for four reasons:  if their paper omitted the opening panels, then Hart's setup of similarities was missing and his intended meaning wholly obliterated;  Hart's over-all effort COULD be misinterpreted and if something can be, it usually is—at least by some people;  Hart's well-known born-again stance with its evangelical inclination makes him persona non grata to people who are put off by this kind of religious enthusiasm; and  this was the first time I can recall that Hart alluded specifically to another religion, and, given the self-righteousness many of those who have been born again, those of the other faith must, perforce, feel they are being picked on (whether they are or not). I suspect that my second and third reasons had the greatest weight in creating the furor, although the fourth reason is undoubtedly the cause of the Jewish Defense League getting in an uproar.
With respect to Hart's own evangelical bent, people seem to lie in wait for his next foray into public—and then leap on him with fervent delight, I think, whenever he makes a public statement of his belief. For some people, the American tradition separating church from state has been internalized and personalized to the degree that religion is separated from all aspects of daily life except the innermost parts of it. Religion, in other words, is a private, personal, matter. And any public display of religious fervor is therefore suspect.
And Hart’s reputation long ago began to precede his comic strip into the public arena. On so-called moral issues, he has espoused attitudes common to many religions but usually more antagonistically expressed in fundamental faiths. Hart told the Washington Post in 1999 that “Jews and Muslims who don’t accept Jesus will burn in hell.” And homosexuality, he said, “is the handiwork of Satan.” He later (see below) backed off the predestiny for Jews.
Given this reputation, anytime he expresses his faith in his comic strip, he is asking for some sort of reaction or response. The beliefs with which Hart has associated himself often belittle other beliefs. Even if another faith is not overtly attacked, evangelicalism is holier than thou, self-righteous with a smug smile of superiority, a rhetoric implying, strenuously, a moral superiority that rubs persons of less antagonistic faiths the wrong way. No one likes to have their religion trashed or its validity impugned.
That Hart’s particular faith makes his expression of it offensive to many may be assumed from the absence of objection surrounding other comic strips in which, from time to time, matters of religious faith or aspects of religion are the subject.
In Doug Marlette’s Kudzu, for instance, the good Rev’rend Will B. Dunn has virtually taken over the strip. If ever a religious figure was subjected to merciless ridicule, it is surely Will B. Dunn. Although his faith seems to be sincere, it has a self-serving bias towards material gain and personal comfort. He’s forever contriving new ways to make money through his tv program, and when caricatures of well-known televangelists appear as guests on the show, they’re invariably portrayed as greedy and grasping. Marlette hesitates not a whit before making fun of them. Rev’rend Dunn is pretty obviously a variety of fundamentalist southern preacher. So how come Marlette doesn't get lashed in the public arena?
Maybe precisely because it’s fundamentalist religion that he appears to be ridiculing. Or perhaps it’s the extremism of televangelism that is drawing his fire.
And then there are two other strips with expressly religious milieux: Wildwood and Potluck Parish. I haven’t seen many examples of the latter by Mark O’Neill; and, in fact, while it was once on the web at the United Media website, I don’t see it there anymore. But I followed for months (until it ceased, alas) Tom Spurgeon and Dan Wright’s strip about a congregation among anthropomorphic animals in the wildwood. Wright respects Hart but thinks he’s so blatant that he is, in effect, preaching to the converted. In Wildwood, Wright said, “I want to be an equally enjoyable strip to religious and non-religious.”
O’Neill, whose strip is set in a Catholic parish, agrees. “I don’t mind spreading the faith message,” he said, “but I also want to spread the humor message.”
His humor, like that of Wildwood, comes from the personalities of his characters in the contexts of their faith: they do not preach; they merely experience the comedy of human existence in a church instead of in, say, a business office.
And then we have generations who’ve encountered Linus reciting scripture in Peanuts and Dennis doing the same in Dennis the Menace. Anyone get exercised about that?
Hart’s ordeal makes it pretty clear why the Easter Bunny reigns at Easter and Santa Claus at Christmas. As Hart is now demonstrated, if we made very extensive use of any of the actual religious symbols associated with these holidays, we’d get into trouble with readers. We’re a strange nation, kimo sabe. Hart tries to make a genuinely religious statement on a religious holiday and gets beat up for it. But those of us who make Santa Claus a religious icon run no risks at all. I remember seeing a few years ago in a knickknacks shop that little figurine of Santa, cap in hand, kneeling at the side of a cradle in which there was a (presumably) new-born babe. Talk about mixing the profane and the sacred.
This much seems certain: if Hart’s purpose was ecumenical, his message wasn’t clear enough. Which remind us of the ambiguity of visual symbols. They are more subject to misinterpretation than just about anything except “harmless” flirtation. A purely visual mode is not the most precise way of conveying meaning.
Another pitfall into which Hart’s Easter strip stumbled is created by the manner in which the Sunday funnies are now published. No paper prints its own comics section on its premises anymore. Virtually all of the nation’s newspapers use specialty printers to produce their Sunday funnies and get the entire section shipped to them in bulk. So individual newspaper editors have no editorial choice when it comes to individual comic strips. They get the whole package tailored to their specific choice of strips, but on a given Sunday, they can’t pull a strip to which they might object—as they can with the daily strips. And that, as Jan Eliot of Stone Soup once explained to us all in a reprint volume of her strip, is why we can’t say “boobs” on Sunday. Nor should we hazard religious statements apparently.
Despite this difficulty, I heard that one newspaper (in New Jersey, I think it was) dumped the entire Easter Sunday comics section and printed it again without B.C. The cost, I’m told, was $30,000. Now there’s a statement of faith.
Preach It, Caveman! Like a lot of cartoonists, Johnny Hart, the creator of B.C., is Christian. But God forbid he put his beliefs in his strip.
From Time, 1999
For those of Johnny Hart's estimated 100 million readers who hadn't tuned in for a while, the Easter Sunday edition of his caveman cartoon B.C. may have come as a bit of a shock. The characters were familiar; but B.C. and the Cute Chick were watching the sun set behind a very large cross. As the sun dipped, the cross's shadow extended until it enveloped them. The shadow, Hart explains, was done in blood red to indicate Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The Chick and B.C. were now drawn in white because “His blood has ... made us white as snow.” In the strip's last balloon, B.C. says, “I stand corrected,” which is part of a conversation he has been having, but also a powerful pun: they have been “corrected” insofar as Jesus' blood has washed away their sin.
We are a long way here from Thor developing the wheel or the Fat Broad braining the Snake. The story of B.C.'s periodic lurches into A.D. has been brewing in conservative Christian circles for a while, but got its mainstream outing in the Easter edition of the Washington Post. The piece recounted how Hart, whose combined work on B.C. and The Wizard of Id makes him the earth's most syndicated comics author, bought some satellite dishes. The installers were evangelical Christians, and soon Hart was too. Around 1989 he began doing about five religious strips a year, usually around Christmas and Easter.
Religion is not new to the funny papers: Charles Schulz addresses it in Peanuts, although he notes, “I've avoided preaching, because I am a reasonable Midwestern student of the Bible.” Bil Keane's The Family Circus portrays church and even heaven, but in a sentimental, child's-eye mode. Hart's religious strips are hard-core gospel. Last year Wiley's Dictionary, B.C.'s font of wacky definitions, featured “cross reference”: no words, just three rags nailed to a cross, bearing biblical citations for Christ's suffering. The effect, for someone expecting the usual caveman shtick, is like finding a Communion wafer floating in the bowl with one's morning Cocoa Puffs.
Is this really a problem? The Post says that it and other newspapers have spiked Hart's strongest Christian statements. They may have been a factor in one paper's dropping the strip entirely. Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. noted, “We don't promote individual religions anywhere in the paper.” In a subsequent interview he says he has run much of Hart's religious material, excluding rare strips that could be taken for direct attacks on other faiths or were “very strongly proselytizing, as though it were advertising rather than a comic strip.”
Meanwhile, the current issue of Focus on the Family, a publication of Christian conservative James Dobson, chides those “determined to find offense” with B.C.
Some of the usual suspects won't jump in. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League told the Post that the cartoons, though “exclusionary” of Jews, shouldn't be pulled. Barry Lynn, head of People for the Separation of Church and State, says, “If I don't like a cartoon, I ignore it. Personally, I would rather they get rid of Mark Trail.”
There is probably an issue here somewhere. It is not censorship, since American newspapers have the right to run what they want. Is this another example of religious expression as the only remaining taboo? Or is it that with Christians still the vast majority, the odds of a nationally syndicated strip extolling the Koran are low, and the playing field seems slanted?
Hart, from his studio in Nineveh, N.Y., says he would hate for people to think he's “a whacked-out religious-zealous fanatic”; he would also hate “for people to say I have an open mind,” when Jesus is the way and the truth. The Post paraphrased him, saying that Jews and Muslims who don't accept Jesus will go to hell, that homosexuality is Satan's handiwork and that the world may end by the year 2010. The assertions are “really harshly stated,” winces Hart, but he stands by them (except the bit about the Jews, who may get a scriptural dispensation). The odds are, they will never appear so baldly in his strip. “Being hurtful is not part of my nature,” he says. For years, B.C. has featured the Truth Pedestal, onto which people climb and make fools of themselves. “You know the saying, God wrote the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions?” Hart asks. “You could reverse it. I don't want to be thought of as standing on the Truth Pedestal shouting commandments.” He considers. “I'd rather be thought of as shouting...suggestions.”
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
As one wag memorably put it: Let’s get something straight right away: Don Imus is no one to make fun of anyone else’s hair-do. Would that it were that simple. Imus made his living as a shock jock, much heralded and acclaimed, and if a society champions outspoken obnoxiousness and general unfettered tastelessness, it must be prepared to encounter such shining examples of this behavior as his calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s.” That term, despicable as it may be to hear it on the national airwaves, is shock jockery personified. No surprise. And the other asshole, what’s his name? Oh, yes—Stern, Howard Stern. (That’s why I think “asshole”: it’s in his name.) He’s no better. The remedy is to take back the airwaves: get rid of the language of assholery that pervades some of the tv and radio shows. Or else become enured to tastelessness. We’re getting there.
The Imus instance brought forth into the spotlight once more the foul language of rap lyrics and raised anew the question of whether we should tolerate it or not. Ostensibly, rap is “theater.” It’s not real. The typical bravado that rappers affect broadcasts an illusion of masculinity and power that racism has otherwise denied them. But when rappers started telling their audiences to “stop snitchin’”—don’t bear witness against criminals you see committing crimes because that would be cooperating with the authorities you disdain for putting you down—then theater became real, and a menace to the ordered communal life.
A Few Salty Thoughts
“If women, continuing their present tendency to its logical goal, end by going stark naked, there will be no more poets and painters but only dermatologists and photographers.”—H.L. Mencken
Kurt Vonnegut wrote for young readers because, he once said, he wanted to get to them before they became presidents and generals and “poison their minds with humanity.”
“If Charles Schulz had quit after ten years on Peanuts, we wouldn’t know Peppermint Patty, Woodstock, Marcie—so it isn’t true that the strip had nothing new after the first ten years.” —Kevin Fagan
“They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”—Garrison Keillor
“One should never place one’s trust in the future. It doesn’t deserve it.” —Andre Chamson
AH, FAME, FLEETING AS IT IS
As someone recently reminded me, I may be a character in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And, well, yes, it’s a thrill to be mentioned in a Pulitzer-winning novel. At least, I was thrilled. At first. And then, as I pondered the matter, the thrill began to fade. Slowly, it dawned on me: Chabon has “expired” me. He didn’t actually celebrate my death, but he consigned me to a limbo between fact and fiction where I cease to exist in the normal way.
Take another look at page 547. My name appears in a sentence alleging that I compared Rosa’s comic book page layouts to the films of Douglas Sirk. Then comes the exceedingly complimentary footnote—“In his excellent The Art of the Comic Book.” It’s nice to be dubbed “excellent” by a Pulitzer Prize novelist, no question. But then the real world begins to assert itself.
Douglas Sirk is a real person, but Rosa is not. In my book, I do not, then, refer to the work of Rosa Saxon. Nor do I cite Douglas Sirk. Chabon is complimenting me for doing something I didn’t do. So the question might well arise in the mind of a semi-alert reader: Does this book exist? Is Harvey a real author or another of Chabon’s fictions?
And if you consider that of the 13 other footnotes in the book, 10 concern wholly fabricated circumstances, the validity of any assertion associated with a footnote in the book is brought into serious question. So while I may rejoice in being mentioned so favorably in a Pulitzer-winning novel, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most readers of the book regard me as just another character made up for the occasion—or, not much better, as a walk-on like Max Ernst (p. 245), dragooned into service for the patina of realism that his presence adds but under circumstances highly suspicious and probably manufactured.
So do I exist or not? Am I real or one of Chabon’s characters? Is my book another of his creations? We’ll never know for sure.
Several months after this appeared as the concluding paragraphs of my review of the book in The Comics Journal, Chabon ran across it, and he must’ve been reading it between flights while suffering from jet lag because he thought I was serious—that is, he assumed I was terribly put out by his mentioning me in his book. So he e-mailed me and apologized. Flabbergasted but flattered, I wrote back, as gently as possible, telling him not to worry—that I was merely committing what I called “a joke.” A bad joke perhaps, or poorly committed, but a joke nonetheless.
By way of perpetuating the frivolity, I went a step further. At the time, Chabon and Dark Horse were preparing to launch a series of comic books based upon his fictional comic book hero, the Escapist. So I ventured that since “I” had appeared in the novel, “I” would, surely—how could he avoid it?—appear in the comic books, too. Chabon, now tuned in (and completely recovered from jet lag), assured me that he planned to include me in the comic books, “wearing women’s lingerie.” Touche, and match point.
Thanques, Michael. But you were kidding, right? I’ve been looking in the comic books, and I don’t see any male characters in lingerie. Yet. So—you were kidding, right? Right?
THE MEANING OF LIFE ITSELF
One spring day at a college long ago when I’d taken on all the beer I was allowed, I went to visit Mike McLaughlin. Mike was a large fellow with a robust laugh and a booming voice who, later, made a living with it by working as a disc jockey in radio. But when I knew him back on campus, I barely knew him: he was often at parties I attended, and we knew the same people. Some of them came along on that spring day, and we luxuriated in Mike’s apartment, which, as I remember it at this distant remove, was spacious. It may even have been a whole house. It was somewhat on a hillside north of the campus, and at the back, on the southern side of the house was a livingroom with a bank of windows through which we could see the campus buildings in the distance. It was a warm and cheery day but not very noisy, and the sunlight through the windows bathed the room in a warm, yellow-amber glow, almost like a nostalgic scene in a movie. A couch in the middle of the room faced a fireplace; no fire. For a reason that now evades me entirely, I lay down on the couch in that room and fell asleep. In broad daylight. Unprecedented. During the short nap that ensued, I dreamt that I had written a sentence that contained the very meaning of life. Just one sentence. And a rather short one at that. The very meaning of life within it. When I awoke, I tried to remember the sentence, but, alas, I couldn’t. And so, ever since, the meaning of life as eluded me. Until just this week. This week I thumbed through Robert Stone’s Prime Green, a memoir of his adventures in the 1960s, and as the decade drew to a close, he told a story about William James, the noted philosopher? Psychologist? Brother of the novelist, Henry. William James had imbibed a potion that included nitrous oxide and had consequently fallen asleep. Some hours later, he awoke suddenly, in high elation because he had dreamt a sentence containing the very meaning of life. At last, I thought, reading this passage: now I’ll see that sentence I dreamt lo these many years ago. (There couldn’t be more than one sentence containing the very meaning of life, surely.) William James was luckier than I: he could remember the entire thing, and he promptly wrote it out. This is it:
Hoggamous, Higgamous, Man is Polygamous;
Higgamous, Hoggamous, Woman Is Monogamous.
There you have it. Now we all know the meaning of life, and I, after waiting, patient but distraught all these years for a recurrence of that instant of cosmic insight, can at least rest easy.
Mike McLaughlin went from Boulder, Colorado to Washington, D.C., which is where he found a gig doing radio. He had a perfect voice for the medium. He once described the nation’s capital, meaning our government, as a huge cruise ship. It comes into port once every other year to let some passengers off and to take on some new ones, and then it puts out to sea again. Most of the time, it’s completely at sea, barely conscious of the doings of the landlubbers left behind. Perfect.
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