CSotD: Profile – Johnny Hart

I’m off getting a magical new hip that will allow me to leap tall buildings in a single bound. While I’m recuperating in a place of dubious connection, here’s an interview I did in 2003 for the Post-Star of Glens Falls, NY. The cartoons were added in 2010 when I replayed the interview for Comic Strip of the Day.

Today’s tip: You never know when your path will take an interesting turn.

For instance, a high school art contest in Endicott (Broome County) doesn’t sound like the highway to success, but that’s where Johnny Hart hooked up with one of the most successful careers in cartooning.

“Brant Parker was my mentor,” Hart says. “He was the one who got me into all this, and I ended up hiring him, or at least, recruiting him to work with me.”

Parker had just left the Navy and was visiting a girl from Endicott when he spotted a display of entries from a local art contest.

He liked Hart’s work enough to get in touch, and the two, the naval veteran and the high school senior, met for pizza, then went to Hart’s home to continue their discussion.

“My mother had baked a lemon pie and we sat up and talked and ate the entire pie,” he recalls.

They had discovered a mutual idol, the cartoonist Virgil Partch (VIP), whose off-kilter sense of humor and Picasso-like characters made him a hot artist in the ’50s and early ’60s. VIP and Parker had both worked for Disney, a connection that fascinated Hart nearly as much as the quick, sweeping sketches Parker began to do, showing how VIP’s knowledge of anatomy shone through his skewed style.

“He got me all excited, he got me going,” Hart says. In short order, the pupil surpassed the teacher, at least in commercial success, as Hart began selling cartoons to magazines.

“I said to him, ‘I’m selling cartoons, why aren’t you?’ and he said, ‘I can’t write.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll write and you draw.”

That was the seed of a partnership.

In the meantime, however, Hart had to get himself started. He created “B.C.” and began to shop it around. It was turned down by several syndicates, but good timing and good sense got him in the door at the Herald­Tribune in New York.

Hearing that the syndicate had just hired a new person to spark up their comics selection, Hart sent him samples. “His first day of work, he came in and he had a blank desk with a telephone on one corner and an envelope from Johnny Hart.”

It was yet another time the path took an interesting turn: The syndicate was ready to pick up a promising young artist.

“They said, ‘We were one of the first syndicates to reject ‘Peanuts’ and we’re not going to do that again,'” Hart recalls.

That was 1958. In 1964, he found the vehicle for a partnership with Parker, and “The Wizard of Id” was launched.

The two strips have always enjoyed a thematic separation. “B.C.” focuses more on the oddities of people, while “Wizard of Id” comments to a greater extent on society, which gives Hart the ability to use a good joke in either one strip or the other.

Brant Parker has retired, following a series of small strokes that made it impossible for him to keep up with deadline pressures, and his son Jeff and daughter-in-law Nikki have taken over artistic duties on “Wizard of Id.”

Before Brant Parker’s retirement, however, there was another major change in Hart’s work, as well as in his life.

In the late 1970s, Johnny and his wife, Bobbie, moved from Endicott to the quiet isolation of Nineveh, a small town whose biblical name continues to tickle Hart’s sense of humor. At the time, however, he didn’t know what was to come, except that there was no cable television in the rural community.

These were the days of complicated 12-foot satellite dishes, and Hart ordered a pair for his house and studio. The father­-and-son team that installed them were born-again Christians, so the shows they had on as they ran wire, installed outlets and aligned equipment throughout the buildings were religious.

“Everywhere I went there were sermons,” Hart recalls. “But then, you know, when I would go shut myself up some place to get some work done, I’d crack the door.”

The resulting conversion experience has worked the ultimate anachronism: A comic strip named “B.C.” has become profoundly Christian, which infuriates some readers but delights others.

It may not be in keeping with the title of the strip, but it is in keeping with the division between the two comics: Despite frequent discussions between the king and the padre, “Wizard of Id” remains more oriented to society and hence more secular, while “B.C.” is true to its form in being personal.

For Johnny Hart, who uses his cartooning skills to teach high school juniors and seniors in what must be a very memorable Sunday school, there is no difference between the personal and the religious.

In any case, it’s just another of those odd, unpredictable turns in the path that have brought him to where he is today. It’s a place he very much enjoys.

3 thoughts on “CSotD: Profile – Johnny Hart

  1. I heard from Hart himself, when I met him, that Parker and Hart met in high school, when both were forced to wear corduroy pants by their respective mothers. They met by Hart’s locker, when he heard that ‘shook shook’ sound.

    Johnny Hart was a good storyteller. I was young and very easy to gull. He probably had a bit of fun with me. I doubt if a Navy veteran was studying in his high school.

  2. Hi Mike.
    If you are reading your daily input, all the best for a successful recovery.

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