Johnny Hart died on Saturday, April 7, while working at his storyboard at his home in Nineveh, New York. Hart, who was 76, suffered a stroke. Hart was best known as the cartoonist behind the popular comic strip B.C.; he was also the co-creator of The Wizard of Id.
I am a fan of B.C. The humor in the strip has always struck me as clever. It slipped into silliness sometimes, but we can all use a little silly now and then. Besides, what’s not to like about caveman baseball, ants that go to school, a peg-legged prehistoric poet/theologian, and walking and talking clams? Now, that’s comedy!
Hart’s cartoons were not without controversy, though. The controversial aspects of his work were associated with his use of religious themes in his comic strips. An evangelical Christian, Hart would sometimes, usually on a Christian holy day, employ a Christian theme in B.C. A good example of the way in which Hart would offer Christian themes can be seen in the strip that appeared on Easter Sunday, the day after Hart died (view it here). In that strip, the ant teacher has asked this “math” question: “How old was Jesus when he was crucified?” Apparently prehistoric ants were more biblically literate than modern Americans, since every student except one gave the answer for which she was looking: thirty-three. The teacher accused little Johnny ant of turning in an English assignment rather than answering the math question, but he pointed out that he had produced a “numerical dialogue” in which the words in four statements made by Jesus, the thief, and the soldier added up to thirty-three words that illuminated the meaning of the resurrection. When the teacher said that she didn’t know what to say, Johnny said, “How about amen plus?”
Some people would say that the appearance of religion in a comic strip that appears in a secular newspaper has no place. There are some questions that could be raised about such a practice. First, given that the primary purpose of a comic strip is to entertain, might not the use of religion, which is a very personal and thus often divisive matter, detract from the entertainment value of a strip? Second, given that a strip like B.C. appears in secular newspapers, might not the presentation of Christian themes alienate people of other religions or of no religion? Third, does not the proper treatment of religious themes require more nuance and subtlety than can be produced in the few frames of a comic strip?
I would answer those questions in the following ways. To the first, I would say that religion is a prevalent theme in entertainment today, especially in comedy. There are aspects in all religions and there are certainly things about religious people that invite comic jabs. Hart’s agenda, though, was not so much to poke fun at religion as to promote his particular brand of religious faith. Still, I think that one could do that and still be entertaining.
To the second question I would say that modern comic strips often present ideas and themes that might alienate, displease, and even anger folks who hold positions different from those promulgated in the strip; I’m thinking of Doonesbury and Boondocks, for example. Not every strip is for every reader. As far as I’m concerned, Hart had the right to put his religious convictions in his strips and the papers that carried them had the right to do that and those that chose to drop B.C. or to move it to the Religion page had the right to do that. I hope, though, that we Christians would be willing to defend the right of a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist cartoonist to market her strip and of papers to do with it what they will. Besides, nobody forces me to read any strip. Out of the strips that my local daily carries, I voluntarily skip about half every day.
To the third question I would answer “Yes.” The adequate handling of religious themes indeed requires much more nuance than can be produced in a comic strip. For that matter, the adequate handling of religious themes requires more nuance than one of my twenty-five minute sermons can bear. Furthermore, I’ve read 500 page tomes on Christian theology that somehow managed to miss some very important sides of some very important issues. Nevertheless, distillation has its place in apologetics. If a comic strip writer can boil Christian theology down to its essentials without cooking away all of its nutrients in a way that might help someone somewhere get it, then more power to him. I don’t do that too well with my words most of the time. Sure, I’m opposed to “bumper sticker theology,” but I’ve quoted “Let go and let God” in more than one sermon.
So, to paraphrase a well-worn saying, even if I didn’t agree with Hart’s theology, which more often than not I did, I’d defend with my life his right to express it and anybody else’s right to accept it or reject it.
More problematic were Hart’s strips that some interpreted as presenting negative takes on other religions. Some saw one strip as offensive to Muslims while some believed that another was offensive to Jews. Both strips can be viewed here. Hart himself said that the first strip was just outhouse humor that had nothing to do with Muslims and he claimed to be shocked that anyone read it as being anti-Islam. He also said that the second strip was meant to be a tribute to both Judaism and Christianity and not a statement that Christianity had superseded Judaism. I do think that a cartoonist or an essayist or a preacher or a blogger or anyone else whose words have a public life should be very careful not to cross the line between the positive presentation of his or her faith’s message and a negative portrayal of other faiths.
And therein lies the issue for all Christians and for all people of faith: we want to spread the word of our faith but we should bear witness in a way that builds up without tearing down. From what I’ve read about Johnny Hart, he was a good-hearted and kind man so I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. There are others out there, though, who are clearly mean-spirited and triumphalistic when it comes to their religious convictions, and whose words do much damage not only to those that they attack but also to the faith that they claim to defend.
Bearing witness in a public forum is more of an art than a skill and it is best done by artists who know how to work well in shades of gray.