Comic Artist Johnny Hart Dies; WashPost Obit Plays Up His Religious Offenses
Johnny Hart, the wildly successful comic-strip artist of "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id" has died at his drawing board at 76. (We should add the tiny footnote that Hart was a three-time judge of the MRC’s "Best of Notable Quotables" in the mid-1990s.) In his Monday obituary in the Washington Post, Adam Bernstein noted Hart’s success, but focused like a laser beam on how Hart’s religion-themed strips were sometimes censored by the Post and other newspapers with "insensitive and at times offensive themes."
The Post story did not note that often liberal editors perceived the mere expression of Hart's Christianity as offensive, that somehow religion didn't belong in cartoons, even as liberal newspapers used Christian themes against Christians. In 1996, we noted how Hart's strips were pulled for "religious overtones," and how that compared to other images of Christianity in those papers:
During this year's Lenten season, when Christians examine their faith and commitment to God, the Los Angeles Times decided to show its own hostility to religion. In the March 28 issue the paper ran an editorial cartoon with the image of Bob Dole crucified. The crown of thorns on his forehead read "Christian Coalition."
Three days later, the paper spiked Johnny Hart's Palm Sunday B.C. comic strip, featuring the character Wiley writing a poem honoring Christ's death for man's sins. Los Angeles Times spokeswoman Ariel Remler told The Washington Times that "lately he's [Hart] been running cartoons with religious overtones." Then in an April 2 statement quoted in The Washington Times, Remler announced that the paper would spike the strip on all three days of the Easter weekend. After receiving hundreds of protest calls, the paper reversed itself, announcing it would run the Friday and Saturday strips.
Two years ago, the Times played a similar game, spiking Hart's "inappropriate" Easter Sunday strip with a resurrection theme, but then ran in June a series of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strips featuring John Boswell's controversial claim that the Catholic Church sanctioned same-sex marriages in the middle ages.
Bernstein's obituary was not harsh, but it did dwell on Hart's most controversial comic strips. The primary question for the Post and their obituary editors would be: why be tougher on a comic-strip artist than you were on an American communist leader/supposed "civil rights activist"? Or a "charming and avuncular" East German communist spymaster? Or the communist spy who was allegedly "the best reporter in the Vietnamese press corps"?
Here's the Bernstein run-down of Hart's alleged religious offenses:
For a strip whose tone was lighthearted, "B.C" suddenly became controversial in the 1990s when Mr. Hart included themes influenced by his fundamental Christianity and literal interpretation of the Bible. He did so sparingly, often around holy days, but its inclusion was perceived by many readers as making him far more frank about Christianity than any of his mainstream contemporaries.
Some newspapers canceled the strip. Others, including The Post, pulled it selectively.
Other work by Mr. Hart brought criticism from Jewish and Muslim groups for what they called insensitive and at times offensive themes.
One Easter "B.C." strip showed a menorah's candles being extinguished as the candelabra morphs into a cross; the final frame included the words, "It is finished." To his critics, this symbolized a triumph of Christianity over Judaism, but Mr. Hart said it was meant to "pay tribute to both" religions.
Muslims were enraged by another "B.C." strip that ran during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It featured an outhouse with multiple crescents -- a symbol associated with Islam -- and showed a cave man saying from inside the makeshift bathroom, "Is it just me, or does it stink in here?"
Mr. Hart told The Post he intended the cartoon to be a "silly" bathroom joke, adding, "It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people's beliefs."
It might be fair to try and read anti-Muslim sentiment into that cartoon considering Hart's Christianity, but then again, in how many cartooons has the outhouse routinely had a crescent moon? We should try and find Post obituaries of Muslims and see how often their statements about Christianity are parsed for insensitivity. But Bernstein was kind enough to end the obituary with Hart's own words about the state of Christianity in today's culture:
"I get incredible response on the positive side," Mr. Hart told the Dallas Morning News in 1999. "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," he said. "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."