Johnny Hart, Creator of B.C. and Wizard of Id

10 August 2001

   The comic strip B.C. features Wiley's Dictionary. It's a hefty book, drawn on top of a rock. The book is laid open to a page that perhaps Thor, Wiley or another character has chosen. The definitions include:

"Ginger snaps: The reason why nobody pets Ginger anymore,"

"Political Prisoners: Everybody that didn't vote for the guy that won."

    With those entries, it seems that cavemen were more advanced than we give them credit for. This pre-historic community has a newspaper, (The Daily Mud), a golf course with tournaments, baseball teams, and an abundance of art and culture with cavemen and women exploring the new world.

    Johnny Hart, the creator of B.C., was born on February 18, 1931 in Endicott, NY. During his teen years, he worked at Grover's Pig stand, an eatery. He stuffed "pigs" into buns for $20 a week. Hart yearned for something more creative, something in the art field. He found a job at a sign painter/window dressing designer shop. It paid considerably more - $45 a week, and was the place he met his future co-creator, Brant Parker.

    In 1950, Johnny joined the US Airforce, spending part of his duty in Korea. Of course, he drew cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes. He met Bobbi Jane when stationed in Georgia, and they married in 1952.

    After discharge from the military, Johnny concentrated his efforts on cartooning, but with minor success. His first sale was to The Saturday Evening Post in 1954, and the Harts moved to New York in hopes of more. He had occasional sales to Bluebook, Colliers and more to the Post, but not enough to support a growing family. (The Harts now had two girls - Patti born in 1955 and Perri in 1957.) Johnny took a position with Western Electric in the art department, drawing charts and graphs, and some cartoons.

    Hart was inspired by the cartoon work of Charles Schulz. He was doing magazine gags and hadn't really considered syndication until he saw the style and simple lines of "Peanuts". "Schulz and I don't exactly work alike and don't have the same sense of humour, but I saw that I could easily fit into that kind of thing," noted Hart in a 1997 interview. It was a long and frustrating journey from conception to syndication.

    Cavemen gags just did not sell to magazines. On the joking suggestion of a co-worker, Hart decided to try them as a strip. When he had trouble coming up with personality traits, he used his wife's idea of patterning the characters after his friends. Wiley, in particular, is crafted after Hart's brother-in-law who lost a leg in WWII. Except for a big difference: the philosophical and poetic character Wiley hates water, whereas his brother-in-law is very particular about hygiene!

    Johnny sent his comic strip around to the syndicates and received the usual form rejections. He found no reply from Associated Press, and so paid a visit to their New York office. The editor rummaged through his desk searching for Johnny's work and located it at the bottom of a drawer. He told the hopeful cartoonist that they didn't do comic strips, only panels.

    The comic strip almost landed in a trash can on the street. Johnny was upset and disappointed. Then he re-thought. "He doesn't buy strips. How does he know what's a good strip or a bad one? He deals with panels!"

    He found much later that the editor had lied, that Associated Press did buy strips, but that the fellow just didn't like Johnny's strip.

    Hart persisted, sending B.C. to The New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate. At last, he was offered a contract. The cartoon appeared in 30 newspapers on the eve of his 27th birthday, February 17 1958. B.C. has grown to 1300 newspapers. Hart and his characters have books in five languages and a variety of merchandise including greeting cards. The prehistoric crew has appeared in television specials and advertising campaigns. The cave dwellers even illustrated sports events for the Olympics in 1972.

    The comic strip has received many awards:
  • 1967 - Best Humour Strip in America from the NCS
  • 1968 - The Reuben for Cartoonist of the Year from the NCS
  • 1970 - The Yellow Kid Award from the International Congress of Comics
  • 1972 - NASA Public Service Award for outstanding contributions
  • 1975 - Adamson Award from the Swedish Museum of Comic Art
  • 1981 - The Elzie Segar Award from King Features

    Johnny Hart created the Wizard of Id, a comic strip set in the middle ages, in 1960. He left the idea for several years, then enlisted his friend Brant Parker to join him as artist for the Wizard.

    The men sequestered themselves in an old hotel, creating Wizard of Id cartoons day and night, and came up with 24 strips to show the syndicate. The Wizard of Id debuted in 1964 through Publishers Hall Syndicate, the group who took over both strips after the Herald-Tribune Syndicate closed. Religion plays a starring role in Johnny Hart's life and appears regularly in B.C. The characters discuss religion and occasionally hear a voice from above. Hart believes that God routed him in that direction and seated him at the drawing board for a reason. His solid views have made editors nervous enough to refuse to publish certain dailies in the comics pages and once in a while to drop the cartoon altogether.

    The latest upset came on Easter 2001, in a Sunday strip which showed a menorah transforming into a cross. Unintentionally, Hart inflamed Jewish, Protestant and Catholic groups with his depiction. The groups insist it is demeaning to Jews by showing an extinguishing menorah being replaced by a Christian cross. Johnny Hart replied that he was sorry the strip was misunderstood. He meant to show "victory over death" and that he was paying tribute to both Jewish and Christian religions.

    The Harts live in rural Ninevah, NY, on a beautiful wooded lot with a lake. Johnny's studio is a short walk past the lake and up a hill from home.

Cartooning Update:

John Lewis Hart died after suffering a stroke on April 7, 2007 at age 76.
A great fan site with a picture-listing of many B.C. books: http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/7158/bc.htm
The Plain Truth magazine interview: http://ptm.org/JulHartofBC.htm
Another indepth interview: http://www.christianitytoday.com/cr/7r2/7r2018.html

© Susanna McLeod 2001
TheCartoonists.ca  

(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)