Obituary: Johnny Hart / Cartoonist sparked religious controversies

Feb. 18, 1931-April 7, 2007

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Johnny Hart, whose comic strips "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id" used wisecracking cave men and henpecked sorcerers to comment on modern life, and who attracted controversy when he introduced Christianity into his work, died Saturday at his home in Nineveh, N.Y., near Binghamton. He was 76.

Mr. Hart recently completed treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and died at his drawing table after a stroke, said his wife of 55 years, Bobby Hatcher Hart.

Johnny Hart became one of the most popular cartoonists of his era, with a readership estimated at 100 million since starting "B.C." in 1958 and "The Wizard of Id" in 1964 (with artist Brant Parker). Creators Syndicate distributed both strips, each of which appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carries "The Wizard of Id."

"B.C." refers to the age "Before Christ" and also is the name of Mr. Hart's naive cave-dwelling protagonist, but for years there was little overt religious plotting in the strip.

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.

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."

John Lewis Hart, a firefighter's son, was born Feb. 18, 1931, in Endicott, N.Y.

After high school, he served in the Air Force in Korea and produced cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes.

Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and True magazines later published his free-lance cartoon submissions while Mr. Hart worked in the art department at General Electric in Johnson City, N.Y. While at GE, he created "B.C." and based many of the characters and their quirks on his friends and family.



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