Are Johnny Hart's views on religion as prehistoric as his comic-strip characters? And should the cartoonist introduce religious themes into his work? These are some looming questions based on the questionable taste of last Sunday's installment of "B.C.," Hart's daily caveman gag strip, which has kicked up a furor as hairy as the feature's beloved Cro-Magnon character Grog.
In the days leading up to its publication, the Easter Sunday strip, which featured quotations from the New Testament juxtaposed against images of a burning, seven-branched menorah that transforms into a crucifix, became the object of concern among Jewish watchdog agencies. The 71-year-old Hart has written and drawn "B.C." since 1958, which appears in roughly 1,300 newspapers, reaching millions of families around the world. Hart, a devout Christian, has increasingly presented strips with explicit religious overtones.
Rick Newcombe is president of the Century City-based Creators Syndicate, which distributes both "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id," which Hart writes with artist Brant Parker. According to an article in Connection Magazine, an Ohio-based Christian publication, Newcombe, an old friend of Hart's, led the cartoonist down his religious path. In a written statement, Newcombe said, "Some have interpreted the strip to be anti-Jewish. This is ridiculous. Far from being anti-Jewish, the strip is simply a celebration of Passover, which starts the week before, and Easter, which begins the day the strip is run."
Hart himself released a statement: "The true purpose of Christmas and Easter is to honor a man ... Jesus. They are not designated holidays to honor red-suited Santas or egg-laden bunnies. Yet, whenever I try to honor this man of men for whom these days are set aside, hackles go up. The God of Judaism and the God of Christianity is the same, and the people of Israel are his chosen people, and Jesus is one of them. Jesus ... never missed a Sabbath, a Holy Day or a feast. He was more than a good Jew; he was a rabbi, teaching in the synagogue, and a healer of multitudes. This is a holy week for both Christians and Jews, and my intent was to pay tribute to both."
David Lehrer, director of Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Western Region, found both Hart and Newcombe's statements "tortured interpretations of the strip."
"It's problematic in terms of interreligious relations," Lehrer told The Journal. "It's hard to interpret any other way."
Until April 8, "B.C." ran every day in the Los Angeles Times. According to Times spokeswoman Martha Goldstein, the replacement of "B.C." with Joe Martin's "Mr. Boffo" was part of a "broader editorial decision to open up space for a new comic strip."
This is not the first time "B.C." has been pulled from the pages of the Times, or other periodicals, for that matter. Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times dropped the strip because "B.C." offended Jewish readers. The Washington Post has also omitted "B.C." from its pages. In early 1996, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped "B.C." entirely. That year, the Times yanked Hart's Easter Sunday strip and, in response to reader protest, set up "B.C." on a rotating schedule with Hart's other strip, "The Wizard of Id," over a three-day period.
Regarding this cycle, Hart told a reporter in 1999, "Just by coincidence, it's always 'The Wizard''s turn to run on holy days." He chuckled, "Last year I stacked the week [between Palm Sunday and Easter] with a Christian strip every day."
Hart said in a 1996 statement, "If there is any anti-Semitism in the fact that I have turned my life over to the greatest Jew who ever lived, I stand guilty as accused."
Last week, Creators Syndicate accompanied its press statements with an article in which former Forward contributing editor Binyamin Jolkovsky defended Hart and his strip.
"If Hart were blaming Jewry for having killed his savior, as anti-Semites have done, and some still do, I would be troubled," explained Jolkovsky. "Nay, I would be outraged! But this 'B.C.' strip, like most of his other clever installments, is not appealing to emotion, but to intellect. Hart's message is exactly the opposite of what he is being accused of. 'Please,' his lamp beseeches, 'Forgive.' The message contained is one of love, not hate. I believe Hart is preaching that -- despite Christianity being the majority religion in this nation -- members of other faiths need not worry, as they must in other lands. Love thy neighbor."
Irv Rubin of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) doesn't buy Jolkovsky's argument.
"The menorah is destroyed, and the cross takes its place, and the strip ends with the quotation 'Do this in remembrance of me.' There's only one way to interpret this," said Rubin, who believes that the strip blatantly conveys what he terms "replacement theology" -- a growing, if not mainstream, Christian concept that maintains Christians will replace Jews as the chosen people in God's eyes because Jews do not recognize Christ as the messiah.
Deciding that the strip was offensive, Rubin held a press conference at the Los Angeles Times to bring attention to the strip. The Pasadena Star News ran the offending episode on Sunday, despite the fact that editors there were, in Rubin's words, "aghast" over the strip.
"I recognize that there's a controversy here," said Jim Lawitz, managing editor of the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group, which includes the Pasadena Star News. "We felt that the most appropriate way to present the issue is to present all sides of it and let the readers decide."
Lawitz told The Journal that the Pasadena Star News would balance the "B.C." strip with the Jolkovsky piece and a commentary by Rubin.
"I think that we don't cover enough religion in mainstream media," said Lawitz. "We are the fourth estate, and religion is a critical element of our daily lives. Just because there's a separation of church and state, as far as government is concerned, that doesn't mean we shouldn't get into a discussion of religion."