When cartoonist Johnny Hart died more than two years ago, many feared that his strips of spiritually-probing prehistoric cavemen and talking animals would become extinct.
But this May, the Hart family bound his religion-themed “B.C.” comics into a new collection, bringing Johnny’s stone-age pals back to life.
And they’re still causing controversy.
The book, I Did it His Way, collects some of Hart’s best-known religious cartoons, tries to explains one of his most controversial and pays tribute to the man who was both loved and loathed by his 100 million readers. The book is packed with Christian crosses, theological debates, and Hart’s unique wit.
“He wanted people to know that God had a sense of humor,” said his daughter, Perri Hart, who produced the book with Johnny’s widow, Bobby.
“He really always felt that this was what he was called to do,” she said.
Throughout his 51-year career, Hart spread his gospel of God-inspired cavemen in more than 1,300 newspapers. These “holy” sketches were scattered among the secular gags throughout the year, but Hart was not always welcome on the funny pages.
Perri Hart purposefully did not include a cartoon that enraged Islamic groups in 2003, saying that the comic was not intended to be religious and certainly not meant to insult Muslims.
“A number of his cartoons seemed to poke what he would consider to be fun, but Muslims took offense,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “When it crosses the line into bigotry and intolerance that’s when we have to speak up.”
CAIR chastised Hart for drawing a crescent moon, an Islamic symbol, on an outhouse in a cartoon where a stone-age man said: “Is it just me, or does it stink in here?” The cartoon was published during the holy month of Ramadan.
“(My father) said, ‘I am not smart enough to think of that,”’ said his daughter, Patti Hart.
Michael Peters, creator of the popular comic strip “Mother Goose & Grimm,” and a close friend of the Harts, praised Johnny for preaching with his puns. “He stuck to his guns, God love him,” he said. “John was getting persecuted for printing in those papers.”
The Hart family did include what they called “one of the most controversial ‘B.C.’ strips that Johnny ever produced,” in the collection. The Easter Sunday cartoon from April, 2001, depicts a Jewish menorah transforming into a crucifix. The seven candles of the menorah are extinguished by the seven last utterances of Jesus Christ and fade into a cross and an empty tomb.
The book includes a disclaimer explaining that Hart intended to honor both faiths by showing that Christianity is rooted in Judaism.
Yet Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Hart family should have left out cartoons that offend Jews — especially those that might infer Christianity replaces Judaism.
“If you want to be sensitive, don’t repeat. Don’t give it further life,” he said. The book “makes it worse. It gives it permanence. Daily cartoons are a lot more fleeting — a book stays forever.”
Hart would animate the Three Wise Men on the blackboard of the local Sunday School class he taught. He even sent a simple tracing of his hand to Dik Browne, creator of “Hagar the Horrible,” when his fellow cartoonist was diagnosed with cancer. Hart told Brown to place his hand on the paper so that they could pray together.
His cartoons offer insight into the life he led and the life he urged his readers to follow, his family said.
For the past two years, Hart’s grandsons and daughters have taken over the production of “B.C.”
“It was strange seeing the first cartoon in the paper with my name on it and not his,” said Mason Mastroianni, Hart’s grandson who took over the drawing of B.C. “It was just kind of a quiet day.”
They adopted Johnny’s menagerie of insightful cavemen, turtles and ants with less controversy, but also with less religion.
Their most prominent religion-themed comic featured a cavemen “signing-up” for Jesus since he has “everlasting” health-care.