The Johnny Hart Interview
Note: This interview was originally published in Hogan's Alley #2, 1995.
Johnny Hart is the most self-effacing of geniuses. He is the quiet center of a powerhouse of talented writers and artists; he has directed the fortunes of precious creative properties; he juggles activities that include one of the country’s major charity golf events; unknown to his millions of fans he serves and ministers to others as he immerses himself in spiritual study and growth. And since he created B.C. in 1958 (and since 1964 in the case of The Wizard of Id) he continues to write some of the funniest material in the comics. Modest about his many triumphs, he is as quick with a laugh as with a laugh-line.
Laughs are a large part of what Johnny Hart is about; he is very serious about being funny. He is very serious about serving others, to which his weekly program of teaching Sunday school attests. But he also has a funny way of being serious. During a conversation he’ll stop, cock his head, and speak a Greek-chorus type of line about the dialogue. He lapses into voices—his own alter ego; John Wayne; W.C. Fields. Almost every sentence is punctuated with a chuckle.
He is also serious in funny ways about his interests. A little movie theater and a professional motion-picture editing studio now have some gathered dust on dozens and dozens of 16-mm reels of vintage films—an interest that for John has waned. A drum set is in one corner of his two-story studio’s living room, and a piano in another; during a break in our conversation, I returned from a phone call to find Johnny playing some Broadway show tunes on the ivories. Most interesting of all is his library—totally stocked, these days, with Bibles, Bible studies, commentaries, and Johnny’s voluminous notebooks on subjects from ancient scriptures to yesterday’s headlines. In these notebooks are clippings, Biblical passages, quotations from books and articles, and Johnny’s thoughtful notes. It is a room worthy of a seminarian—or even a seminary professor.
This interview was conducted at Johnny’s studio in Nineveh, New York. (I felt like Jonah, being sent there!) We laughed and talked all day, until time came to go to the airport—and we weren’t anywhere near finished. Johnny thought a moment, called a limousine service, and arranged for a driver to take me home—about four hours!—so we could first finish laughing and talking.
The interview tapes were transcribed by Nancy Marschall and edited by me and Johnny. Perri Hart, Johnny’s daughter, assisted in gathering documentation and illustrations. Thanks too to Jim Whiting and David Folkman for providing vintage artwork and memorabilia.—REM
Rick Marschall: One of your very earliest gags had B.C. making a sand sculpture of the cute chick and then clubbing it to smithereens. Later on the Fat Broad would use a club to smash the snake. You don’t show that stuff anymore. You show the aftermath and let the reader fill in.
Johnny Hart: Yeah, I used to have her up in the air with her club always beating. And then after a while I figured probably by now everybody knew! Now I substitute a panel that says, Wham, wham, wham, wham! I probably don’t use that gimmick as often as I should. (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Marschall: Sound effects?
Hart: Yeah, a lot of times we draw more than we need to draw. It’s always really classy to let the reader in on it, let him do most of the work [laughs]. That’s why radio is so much better than television in my estimation. You can imagine the hero. If you needed a hero, you’d get an actor with a really nice deep, beautiful voice; and the girl had a real sweet voice; you could visualize what you want them to look like.
Marschall:S o you couldn’t see William Conrad break the back of a horse on Gunsmoke.
Hart: [laughs] See, you have a knack for saying things a little easier than I do. But, yes, those horses were safe.
Marschall: But that’s what it comes down to in comic strips, isn’t it? The imagination of the reader? You putting things, what would you say, on a silver platter just enough to meet them half-way?
Hart: You have to be really clever to work that out. It all depends on each individual gag, of course. And there’s something masterful about being able to initiate what part to let the reader imagine, how much to show...This is good, I’m re-educating myself now! These are things I probably don’t think about when I’m doing them, and may miss them a lot of times. (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Marschall: Well, a lot of it’s instinct, isn’t it?
Hart: Well, you fall into a pattern of doing: “OK, this is the dialogue so we do a couple of people talking, a couple of people arguing, and draw a couple of characters and three balloons, and whatever”...and there are probably a lot of things that could be eliminated or alluded to.
Marschall: When you do that—when you show sound effects instead of B.C. bashing the sand sculpture—has that been a streamlining process, have you gotten reactions from readers, have you looked back at your old stuff and figured this would have been funnier if you had done it this way, have you run out of visual schticks and you experimented . . .?
Hart: I’m not sure. What do you mean by “streamlining”?
Marschall: Well, you described a panel showing “Wham, wham, wham, wham” sound effects. You didn’t do it as often during the early years of the strip. What was the evolution of that?
Hart: I was tired of drawing her beating up on the snake! I’m not going to say that the violence police came to my door—there is no violence in comic strips [laughs] . . .
Marschall: They get up in the next panel, anyway.
Hart: Sure; they’re malleable.
Marschall: You used to have a postmark on your own postage meter that read, “Think Funny.” Do you still have that?
Hart: Sure! (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Marschall: You gave me a tour of the studio and I don’t see a plaque that says “Think Funny” but obviously you do Think Funny all the time, distilling things to their funniest aspects.
Hart: I try to.
Marschall: About your type of funny: When B.C. started in the 1950s, it was hip and sarcastic and clever as its hallmarks. You’ve done commentary and you’ve even done puns, but the laugh is the bottom line. I don’t know anyone who analyzes humor like you. I remember when I was your editor [at Field Newspaper Syndicate]—not that you needed an editor—you used to talk about agonizing, maybe not agonizing, but spending a lot of time on what word to bounce in a balloon because it’s in details like that where the real humor is.
Hart: Yes. By bouncing a word, visually, you’re putting in an inflection, you know, the way a sentence should be if somebody heard it spoken. And I think a lot of humor depends on inflection, how a person says something. Certain things you could say as a question, and as a statement.
Marschall: There was a kind of humor that was big in the ’50s, not so much anymore. I don’t know if it was called black humor that early, but it was in the college papers and beat comedy. Were you seen that way, as part of that movement, or did you get tarred and maybe not want to be classified that way?
Hart: Black humor, did you say? What is that; give me a definition.
Marschall: Well, a little sarcastic, a little sardonic, certainly…
Hart: Yeah, I think I was. If you really look at humor, that’s what most of it is anyway. Somebody wisecracking at somebody else. Putting them down. If you look at all the sitcoms, that’s all sitcoms are today. Things never change. Sardonic, sarcastic humor is always prevalent. It’s hard to do something funny without being that way. It’s classier if you didn’t have to resort to it, I think.
Marschall: Do you see it as something you have to resort to? (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Hart: No, I just see it as something that everybody does. I probably didn’t even think about it. It’s not something that I calculated at all. You just set up your characters for somebody to put them down. It’s always done, all the time. Most humor relies on that, unless it’s visual slapstick, some guy falling down a flight of stairs, mechanical gags . . .
Marschall: Chaplin talked about feelings of superiority in humor; he analyzed slapstick, and always returned to guys getting kicked in the butt. Al Capp supposedly said one time that all humor is based on cruelty, meaning to him that the little guy gets socked in the face; to which Walt Kelly is supposed to have said that that revealed more about Capp than it did about humor.
Hart: [laughs] That’s great!
Marschall: But do you see that kind of thing—as a Them versus Us kind of thing? Actually, all of your characters get it, everyone puts down each other...
Hart: Yeah, I don’t have any favorites! What’s interesting, though, is that you’re making me think about this thing and it’s something that I never really think about. Some of my characters, like Curls—he’s a sarcastic wit, you know, he’s noted for that, being the Master of Sarcastic Wit—and so when we have really surly gags I just usually bring him in and let him deliver it. You know, who’s going to say this? It’s not the kind of thing that B.C. would say; he’s not really sarcastic—he’s usually the patsy, as a matter of fact. So we bring Curls in to say it. It’s a funny thing: I don’t organize or calculate or put humor together like that. I can’t really describe what I do...it’s funny. One of the things that I always sort of pride myself on—although we’re not supposed to have pride; “Pride goeth before the fall”!—as an attribute of mine is that my sense of humor, if anything, was well-rounded and you know how I discovered that? It’s because everything funny that ever happened to me, or everything that happened to me, made me laugh. If I fell down the stairs I’d lay there and laugh.
Marschall: And you just reflect that attitude in the strip?
Marschall: Is your method of gag writing to come up with a gag first and then figure who’s going to play the role that day or do the characters write the gags from their personalities?
Hart: The characters a lot of times suggest it; sometimes the characters sort of write the gags for you. [Pauses andlaughs] I don’t know what the process is, I can’t explain it to you, but somehow I know what they’re going to say. One’s going to be domineering, another one is going to be surly, the other one is going to be naive . . .
Marschall: Will you do something like that, if perhaps you’re dry . . .
Hart: I won’t do mechanical things like that. I remember years ago when we first started gag writing, we used to try to come up with games, all types of games, for magazine gags, you know. We’d make a list of types of people, and we’d put a garbage man, a maid, a shoe salesman, a whole list of people like that on one side and then a whole list of places, and situations, and so forth on the other side, and then we’d number them and roll dice. We’d do all kinds of stuff: We’d come up with a garbage man in a china shop, and try to figure out a gag. Those things were fun for a few minutes, you know, but I don’t think anybody ever used them. It was more fun coming up with that idea! It took the meditative element out of the creative process.
Marschall: Tell me if this is fair about your characters: When you started the strip, the characters had really, really defined personalities, and quirks, and it seems that they still have their traits now but they’re not as strong. It seems that you don’t build as many gags around their personalities, traits, strong character types as you used to.(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Hart: It’s true. I think that somewhere along the line the Laugh became more important to me. Right or wrong, that’s what happened. When I look back, I see it becoming like one-liners—Henny Youngman with cavemen! Any kind of a joke or gag about anything that we think of, we manipulate it and put it into a prehistoric situation. But the bottom line is the laugh, to really make somebody laugh. So I wound up with my characters being like stand-up comics, but I think that somehow that the character traits do still show through; a lot of people still see that business. Their personalities show through because we think of them that way—you don’t have to carry signs around saying what they are, but one of the things we did when we first started out was that Wiley had a fear of water. I don’t know if that was all that funny in the first place [laughs]—if you mentioned the word water, he would scream. A couple of times that was pretty good. But, what’s so funny about that? But some people do like the fact that, they read the little blurbs up front [in the reprint books], that says this guy had an enormous fear of water, and if somebody would come up and say, “What’re you doing today?” he’d say “Ahhhhhhh!” We did that once and got a laugh out of it, but there are not all that many gags you can make out of it. Grog—you know that he can’t talk—so we did a gag the other day where he said something! Is somebody going to write me a letter and say, “How come you’ve got him talking?” I wanted him to talk, I wanted him to say that. So he did!
Marschall: What did he say?
Hart: I don’t remember, I think it was just one word. That’s another thing—I never remember any gags I do!
Marschall: Keeps you fresh?
Hart: No, it’s just that I’ve got a lousy memory [laughter]. Maybe none of them are that important to me. I remember a few of them, you know, a few that I think were actually really quite good.
Marschall: If that’s the case, do you ever find yourself repeating gags inadvertently? Has a reader ever sent in a clip saying how you did such and such 12 years ago, or something?
Hart: I don’t ever remember a reader doing that, but they probably have. I know that we’ve caught ourselves doing that. We did a really funny thing one time—talk about a lapse. We did the same [Wizard of Id] gag within a two-month period.
Marschall: Two months?!
Hart: And nobody caught it! [laughs] Well, see, it wasn’t like we wrote out the gag and then did it and forgot to throw it away, and then did it again—it wasn’t that at all. We rethought it up again, you know, and sent it to Brant [Parker] and Brant did it both times!
Marschall: He didn’t notice it either?
Hart: He usually does; that’s what’s interesting about it. If you send him anything, he’ll say, “Hey, we did that about five years ago, I know we did that, I remember doing that,” and we’ll look for it and usually we’ll find it. But, this one we did twice...maybe it wasn’t Brant; maybe it was me; I think it was me; I don’t think it was him; he’s taller. Yeah, it was me [laughs]. Because it was a short span of time, it was almost word for word.
Marschall: Dik Browne told me once that he did the same thing once with a Hagar gag, not a couple months apart, it was 10 years; and he got awakened in Sarasota, Florida, pretty early one morning, by some reporter for a newspaper in the Midwest, who got ahold of his number and called him at some ungodly hour—ostensibly trying to pin him down on why he had reused this gag but probably really trying to pat himself of the back for having caught this guy! The gag was the same germ; Dik had just reworked it. And Dik gave the classic answer to that. He said, “As you go through life, you’ll find that three things repeat themselves: history, bad sauerkraut and old cartoonists.”
Hart: [Laughs] Bad sauerkraut!
Marschall: Not only when you grew up, but today, who were your favorite funnymen? Whose gag construction do you like? Who makes you laugh? Or maybe shaped your sense of funny? Not necessarily cartoonists; radio comedians, stand-up comics . . .
Hart: Jack Benny, of course, comes immediately to mind. Laurel and Hardy; and I loved Edgar Bergen, I thought he was great. Jimmy Durante, of course everybody loved Jimmy Durante. Cartoonists Dick Cavalli and Johnny Gallagher and Shirvanian I liked. Virgil Partch, of course, and Tom Henderson. They’re all the big-nose, big-foot guys.
Marschall: Clyde Lamb, maybe?
Hart: Yeah, Clyde Lamb and Chon Day—more sophisticated.
Marschall:A lot of these people are ones that you mentioned in the feature in Hogan’s Alley #1, your Favorite Gags. What hits you best—drawing style, gag delivery, composition?
Hart: A combination. Dick Cavalli always comes back to mind. It was something that he did—people with straight spines, they always stood there, with their eyes half closed, they weren’t haughty or anything, and their mouths were open and they had a kind of squinted look… how would you describe that sort of expression? A little noncaring . . .
Marschall: Insouciant? A little bit detached?
Hart: Yes! That is what it was. And then they just announced these captions. That was always a look that I really loved.
Marschall: I always wondered who was the first to do that. Was it Cavalli? Or Zeis? When I was growing up everyone who drew magazine gags seemed to draw expressions like that…(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Hart: There was one guy who used to draw characters with their mouths open like they were always screaming. Remember? That used to infuriate me. The guy is just saying something, but...is that a bowling ball or a mouth? I don’t remember that cartoonist, or if he’s still around, but I’ve got a suggestion for him.
Marschall: Close the mouth, open the eyes . . .
Hart: Leave the eyes closed, if you want. The mouth should do it.
Marschall: How about newspaper strips when you were growing up? Did you read the Sunday funnies? Was it more gag cartoonists that turned you on than newspaper strip artists or comic book artists?
Hart: My favorite comic strip was Dick Tracy, because of all the bizarre characters. Dick Tracy was really a good strip, you know? I don’t think it was well-drawn, and I knew that when I was a kid! But there was just some kind of magic about Dick Tracy. It kept you in it, you know? And it just moved you around and you followed all this good stuff it had bizarre things… the same way that Herriman invented backgrounds, Gould invented unbelievable characters!
Actually, my favorite character, I think, was Fearless Fosdick! [laughs] You know Al Capp’s Fearless Fosdick? That was one of my favorite things I ever saw in the comics; it was such a great parody. I always remember this one where Fearless Fosdick runs down the alley, and these gangsters are after him. He jumps in a garbage can. And this big, black limo comes by with machine guns firing, and in the end the garbage can, it’s just like a sieve with 5,000 holes. The lid lifts off, you know, and Fosdick steps out unscathed. He says, “Had to do some mighty fancy dodging there.”
Marschall: Or when he got shot full of holes, he’d go back to the station house and they’d dock his pay for ruining his uniform. He wouldn’t get paid for three weeks until he paid for the hat. So, you did read all the Sunday funnies?
Hart: I liked Skippy, and Napoleon, the dog strip. And Smokey Stover. Who couldn’t like Smokey Stover? I don’t think that I liked the gags in it so much; I didn’t think that they were really that funny. But just the way everything was done and all those labels...the stuff in the backgrounds
Marschall: OK. we’re back in your childhood, so let me ask you about your background. You’ve always lived in this part of the country, right?
Marschall: Born when and where?
Hart: Born in Endicott, New York, in 1931.
Marschall: This was like a factory town, a big shoe center, I believe?
Hart: The town was put together by the Endicott Johnson Shoe Company. One day—Once Upon A Time—George F. Johnson came over here and he founded this shoe company. He built most of the homes in the town; he provided most of the jobs...it was rather, I don’t know if it was true socialism or not, but they had their own medical plan, and built all of the homes, and although my father didn’t work—yes, he did too, he worked for Endicott Johnson at one time, and we lived in one of the homes: EJ Houses, we called them. And so did assistant Jack Caprio; he lived in one.
Marschall: Did your father move to this area? Or did your grandparents . . .
Hart: Yeah, my dad’s father moved here from Pennsylvania. My mom came from Wilkes-Barre or somewhere down there. My grandmother worked at Endicott Johnson. She worked at their cafeteria.
Marschall: What’s your family’s background?
Hart: I think it’s Irish and German—Pennsylvania Dutch.
Marschall: As far as you know, was anyone going back a writer or artist? Is that anywhere in your lineage?
Marschall: So, you’re the white sheep of the family? You said that your father worked for Johnson for a while...
Hart: I think he worked at that cafeteria, too, and during the Depression, he was laid off, or got fired—he probably did something wrong [laughs]. I don’t remember those days, I didn’t even know what he did, I didn’t even know it when he was laid off. He was out looking for work, and I thought he was going to work every day! I wasn’t paying attention. We weren’t that well-off, but my family never let me know that, that’s the kind of people they were. I know that he worked as a volunteer fireman for a while and then he finally got a job with the fire department. He wound up becoming captain of the fire department, which was his last rank before he died.
Marschall: I read about a fire in your studio once...he came in and he injured himself, didn’t he?
Hart: Yes. Sometimes I stayed there overnight, you know, if I were working late, sometimes I’d sack out there and wouldn’t go home; I’d go home in the morning for breakfast. It was about a mile away from home. Anyway, he didn’t know whether I was in there or not, he thought I might be up there sleeping. And he couldn’t get the door open, he couldn’t figure out why it was locked, so he put his fist through the window, and he cut himself. I went up there the next day and there was blood all over the walls and going up the stairs, you know, and we almost lost him in that thing because it was so full of smoke. He went in back and was feeling around the room where the couch was—it opened to be a bed—and he was yelling for me and all that, and he was almost overcome by smoke. He got lost and then couldn’t find his way out. It was sort of a labyrinth; there was a room and a hallway and then another room and a big open room. Anyway, he finally got out and he was OK.
It was really wonderful to me because, you know, like all kids, you wonder whether your father really loves you all that much, because he’s always slapping you in the head. My dad’s favorite expression to me was, “Why, you dumb bastard!” Another thing he used to do was he’d lift his arm over the back of his head like he was going to hit me, and of course I’d duck all over the place. Or he’d say, “Why you . . .” and then as I’d go walking by—slinking by—he’d cuff me in the back of the head, Bink! That’s why my hair stands up there. (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Marschall: You weren’t there in the fire, so you don’t know whether he was calling “Johnny, Johnny” or “You dumb bastard, you dumb bastard.”
Hart: I slept through the whole thing.
Marschall:You were there?
Hart: No, I’m just kidding. I was home. Another great thing that he did—he knew the room that all of my originals were in. It was a little, small room, 8 by 10. And I built shelves in there to keep all the originals, and he knew what room it was and told the firemen not to put any hoses in that room because there wasn’t any smoke coming out, and it was mostly fire coming from another part of the building, the front where I slept! So he saved all those originals; a lot of damage would have been done. Because usually what they do is just fill all the rooms with a lot of water. So the originals today would be strange looking… but probably worth a lot more!
Marschall: Probably so.
Hart: Hmmm...I’m going to put water all over them. Now change the transcript, and I’ll go upstairs… But it’s a funny thing; we had them stacked and where the stacks were offset there were brown stains around the edges. I still find originals like that, with smelly stains.
Marschall: You can still smell it now? Like a sausage?
Hart: If you walk into the room where those originals are, you could still smell the smoke.
Marschall: How early did you want to draw? Did your dad encourage that?
Hart: Yeah, he always encouraged that. His way of doing that was to not mess with it. I found out at one point that everything I wanted to do just involved drawing. He was always saying, “When are you going to get a job?” I was working at this job at what we called a pig stand. Now you could say that to anybody in this town and they’d say “Yes . . .” There was a place here called Grover’s Pig Stand and they made the greatest pork barbecue, they had a special recipe for it and it was all shredded, soaked in a special secret sauce. It wasn’t exactly a chain but there was one in each city—Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City, they call them the Triple Cities—anyway, that’s where I used to work: I used to wrap pigs. I used to take the pigs out and put them in the buns and wrap them up and stick a toothpick through them. It was a drive-in type of place. We’d go out to the cars and slap a tray on the cars; one of those places. I was working there when I got out of high school from 5:00 every night till 2:00 in the morning. And I was making $20 a week. Which was cool, because I was working—“See, Dad, I’ve got a job.” “My son? Yeah, he’s got a job, he wraps pigs.” I didn’t really like that job much, so I got this bright idea. There was a guy in town, Tom Lawless, who did sign painting and window-dressing displays. And I thought, I’m going to ask him for a job even if I have to offer to work for him for nothing. So I could learn. This guy was fantastic. I figured my dad would go along with me, even working for nothing, if I was learning art.
It’s funny how God works...I never was the sign painter that he was. He was offered a job by Lord & Taylor, he had a great style for sign painting. He was really class. And window displays: he just knew how to drape everything, use colors, you know; he was a genius. Anyway, I wanted to see him and I asked how do you get up to this place? I was told, There’s a door and some back stairs and you go up into the hallway. So I went up the back stairs and I come into this little office and there’s this guy sitting there...and it’s Brant Parker.
Marschall: Is that right?
Hart: Brant said he was leaving there, but anyway the guy I was looking for was Tom Lawless. I said I’d be willing to work for nothing, if he could teach me sign painting and all the stuff. And he said, “Well, I could use somebody like that.” He took me on and he started me out at $45 a week—a nice little jump from $20! But before that—and that’s what I was leading up to—before that I knew that everything was cool with my dad, because I went to him personally and said, “Dad, I see an opportunity to get into the art field.” I really wanted to get out of the pig stand. Somewhere in between there, maybe it was before that, I used to hawk popcorn at a drive-in theater.
Marschall: A barker?
Hart: Amongst the cars. I got to see some really good stuff hawking popcorn. “Knock, knock! Popcorn!” “Get out of here, you . . .!” One night, there was a Marilyn Monroe movie, she just had a bit part in it. There was this one part where she comes in a door and she’s standing in this door blowing smoke. I had this thing timed and I figured the whole thing out—the distance between the projection room and how many steps and all; I had it all rehearsed. And this one night, I was out there hawking popcorn and I waited until the time when she was about to come in the door, and she leans there—“Hiiiiii,” you know, and I went over and I got set, looking all around, over my shoulder like I’m going to pull off a bank job. I crouched down under the projection shaft of light, and then walked out to my position. Marilyn Monroe walks through the door and she’s standing there in the doorway and I raise up and I reach up with both hands, these two hands on the screen, one on each breast, and I’m going like this, you know? Manipulating my fingers… and then I ran like a scalded dog, you know, and I used to be really fast! My dad got a call about that . . .
Marschall: Did he have a sense of humor about things like that? What kind of a sense of humor did he have?
Hart: He was, I guess, not emotional, he never said much. A pretty plain dude. He had a good sense of humor, in his own way. He loved to do practical jokes on his firehouse cronies. It was always a kind of surly sense of humor; that’s where I get that from. And my mom was a person who laughed at everything. Everything was funny. She was just a happy, silly broad, you know. Mom and I were really close and she laughed at everything I did and we really had a lot of fun together.
Marschall: Were you a class clown?
Hart: A little bit. Like anybody, I liked to be recognized and laughed at, or say something funny. I didn’t like to be laughed at, unless I wanted them to laugh at me. Yeah, I used to do silly things, funny things. Probably a lot of it physical. One day my mother said to me—they had a lot of friends over to the house that night and the next morning from down at the bottom of the stairs she yells up to me, “Guess what your dad did last night?” I said, “What?” And she said, “Did you hear Dad come through your bedroom last night?” I said, “No,” because I slept in a room where the attic stairway went up through my room. And I said, “Why?” And she said, “He sneaked up through your room, went up to the attic and got all of your drawings and brought them down here and showed them around to everybody.” I said, “Really?” That really touched me.
Marschall: Yeah, he was bragging about you.
Hart: There had been no sign of anything like that. He was one of those John Wayne/Wallace Beery types—“Ahh, hell, that don’t mean nothing to me”—one of those kind: a soft-hearted guy who doesn’t want anybody to know it. That’s the kind of guy my dad was. Another time the same thing happened. I threw a fit, one time, over something. Dad gave me some money to go to the movie, and I asked for money to get some popcorn, too. And he says “No, you don’t need any damn popcorn.” And I said, “OK,” you know, but the next day I wanted some money to do something, to go buy some candy or something, and the same thing.
Now, this was the time when times were tough. But he never let on, and I got mad and I went storming up to my room and I hear my mother’s voice—she was always talking to me from the foot of the stairs; it was her platform!—and she says, “John, do you remember yesterday when you wanted money to go to the movie?” And I said, “Yeah.” She says, “And you wanted extra money for popcorn and your dad wouldn’t give it to you?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s just like him.” And she said, “Do you know why he didn’t give it to you?” And I said, “No, why?” “Because that was the last dime that he had until next payday.” It only cost a dime to go to the movies then. And I just started sobbing in my pillow.
Marschall: Gee. You had laughter in your household and I’m wondering: do you ever think that the stuff you do or the type of humor you have would make your dad laugh or make your mom laugh? Do you ever have that desire to please them, maybe subconsciously? Do you ever think about that?
Hart: Once in a while. I know on occasion I’ve even said so. I always called my mother “Muddy.” I think it came from Red Skelton, his baby-talk stuff. Instead of Mother I’d call her Muddy. Then everybody called her that. I say, “I wish Muddy was still around; this would bust her up.” You know, all that stuff is inside of you.
I’m not a person that thinks a whole lot about things like that...whatever happens to me in my mind and comes out on a piece of paper is just an accumulation of all those things that brought me to this place for that moment. I never have been totally conscious of how.
Marschall: Let me get back to meeting Brant Parker.
Hart: Yeah; I don’t want to get the chronology screwed up. . . Let’s see—I met Brant when I was in high school. Brant was another working of God, as you know how these things work; I’ve got to tell you this? Like you didn’t know? Brant was from California and he was in the Navy and he met his wife, who was from Endicott. He met her out there; she was standing on a dock when he got off a ship, and she said [Whistle] “Sailor!” [laughs] No, no...I don’t know how he met her but anyway they met, fell in love and when he got out of the Navy he came back here to live with her. That brought Brant to town.
He went to work for the Binghamton Press up here as an artist, cartoonist, photo retoucher, you know, all those things. And somebody asked him to judge a high-school art contest. So he went to judge the art contest and saw my work. There were no cartoons or anything. You didn’t do cartoons in those days, that wasn’t considered art. There was no such thing as cartooning in high school!
Marschall: Still life or something like that?
Hart: Well, I did a drawing of the cemetery at night in charcoal—a couple of charcoal things; I used to love to work in it. Anyway he saw my work and was impressed. I don’t think he should have been, but he was. That’s the way God worked; he called me up and he said I just thought I’d like to meet you, I really like your artwork. I told him about a place in town, a spaghetti place, a place where a lot of other people hung out. Well, Brant came over there and we had a pizza and beer. And we had this wonderful night, talking art, and Brant came home with me. When I got home, there was a note on the table that Muddy left there, that said, “Lemon pie in the refrigerator.” That was my favorite pie at the time; she made the greatest lemon pie. It wasn’t creamy, it was clear lemon, yellow but it didn’t have that mushy, creamy taste. So I put the pie out and Brant and I ate the pie. And that night he asked me who my favorite cartoonist was and all. And I said Virgil Partch [VIP], of course. At that time Virgil Partch was the newest thing in the cartoon world. I just loved Partch’s work and he started on me about Partch. That was his wedge—he got his foot in the door there!
Marschall: He admired his stuff?
Hart: Yeah, he said, “Y’know, I used to work with him out at Disney,” because Brant had worked at the Studio. And I said, “Really?”—they were out there at the same time but I don’t think they ever met—I said, “You knew him?” So he starts telling me Virgil Partch stories. Then he says, “You notice the line he has . . .” and he starts getting out some paper, and he’s drawing things and he’s just pulling me in, drawing me in and he’s talking about the genius of VIP’s art and he says, “You notice when you draw a right angle line like a guy’s elbow, on the inside of the arm there’s a curved line, to complement the right-angle line” and so on. Yeah! That’s Right! Wow! And then we’re going through all this stuff and he’s taking Partch’s work apart, line by line, and showing me the genius in every line. Then he gets into the humor part of it and I am totally hooked.
When Brant went home that night, I was going to be a cartoonist. And he knew it, that’s all he was trying to do. So he sucked me in, he’s the guy, he’s the culprit, the one who’s responsible for all this. But I got even with him. I pulled him in, I created a comic strip just to make him work on it every day of his life.
Now I believe Brant left the paper and I guess he worked for Tommy, and that must have been when I saw him there. I believe he was getting ready to go back into the Navy because he was having difficulty landing anything and he figured he’d go back into the Navy and serve another hitch. And every time he came home on leave, we’d get together. Eventually, I’d gone to Korea, gotten married and come back. I was selling to the magazines by then and when he came back and I kept prodding him, because he was lazy [laughs], trying to get him to sell to the magazines. Because I said, “You got me into this, and if I can sell you should be selling, too.” And he said, “I can’t do gags.” And I said, “Of course you can do gags! Anybody can do gags.” And he said, “I can’t. I hate doing gags.” So I said, “OK, you’re right, you can’t do gags. If you won’t do gags, you can’t do gags.” I said, “I’ll do the gags for you and you draw them.” And he said, “Would ya?” And I said “Sure, and you send them in.” So he did and he would send all this stuff in. Marion Nichols of the Saturday Evening Post loved his work. I wrote a letter to Marion and sent some of Brant’s stuff: “This is my mentor, my cohort.” She said she’d love to see some of his work. We sent some of his work—and she bought two of them the first time! I said, “Hey!”
She sends him money and sends all my cartoons back [laughs]. So I went down to New York. I only went [to the cartoon-buying magazines] two or three times because it usually was all through the mail; also [agent] Don Ulsh would take them around for me. This one time I went down and went in to see Marion and she says “Hi, Johnny! How are you doing? How’s Brant?” She says, “I love his work! I just love it! I’ve got one of his originals. I’ve got it framed and it’s hanging on my living room wall.” I said, “Good!”
Marschall: Oh, man!
Hart: I kept saying to Brant, “See, I knew you could do it. Send her a hundred of these!”
Marschall: It was probably your gag?
Hart: That’s right! No wonder she loved his work.
Marschall: How much older is Brant than you?
Hart: I’m 63 and he’s 72...I think that’s right.
Marschall: Did he have a drawing style that you liked? Did you pattern your own after his when you were starting out?
Hart: Brant’s? No, that’s a really funny story; we had some of the greatest times together. I don’t know what it is about Brant and me. It’s a good thing he lives in Virginia—no, it’s not! Because when we get together it’s just Wacko Time.
Brant probably makes me feel better than any other human being that I’m ever with because...I just can’t explain it. He brings the wacky side of me out. When I’m with him I’m like a stand-up comic. Like a Don Rickles. Laying out one-liners and he just laughs and laughs. And it’s just something, our chemistry there, and he’ll just make an aside or something, and that just gets me off on something else. The result is that we just laugh and laugh. Poor Brant, he almost expires sometimes. It’s like he thinks I’m the funniest thing that exists. And he just brings it out of me. It’s doesn’t come out of me unless he’s around.
All you have to do, if you want Brant in a great mood, is remind him of this early time when we went to New York. We took cartoons down and I was doing these really grotesque characters with big noses and big bug eyes. See, I figured I was going to be different than anybody else, not knowing that the way to sell is to conform, to look like everybody else. So I wanted to be really unique like Partch was, and I devised these characters that—when I think about it, it kills me—had like these big noses with big nostrils on them, and protruding lips and no chin and just to put a trademark on it I put the eyebrows on sticks! [laughs] Really grotesque. And Brant, he was kind. Brant was rather professional, he had gone to Disney and everything. He had really decent-looking cartoons.
We didn’t stop at that. We got, we both did this, we got pieces of posterboard and cut out mats for our cartoons to frame them. Because we had no idea what we were supposed to do. And we put all these things in a big portfolio and we took them and went to see Gurney Williams [cartoon editor of Collier’s]. We were sitting in the lobby and the Berenstains were really hot in Collier’s and they had one of their originals laying there. And Brant and I were looking at it and saying, “Oh, Wow! Look at that!” We were studying it and it came our time to go in and they called Brant’s name and the secretary said to me, “Are you with him?” And I said, “Yeah.” I told her my name, and she says, “I’ll look at you both.” I said, “Well, we wanted to show them to Gurney”—Gurney’s sitting right there five feet away with his feet up on the desk, looking out the window—and she says, “He can’t look at your work now, he’s busy.”
So I pull out this stuff and she lays it out in front of her and she’s looking at it. She doesn’t say anything about the frames and all. I can remember it had burgundy-colored posterboard cut out and framed around the cartoons. I’d even drawn a little line around them; I remember one time—by now Brant would be on the floor, gasping for breath, just hearing me talk about this—on one of them I drew a little line around the frame with a couple of little triangles. It looked like those clocks you see that run vertically on old-fashioned silk socks.
Marschall: Argyle? This is what the pros did, of course.
Hart: I had no idea, but I was trying to make it look good for the presentation. It was tackiest, the most awful-looking things you’ve ever seen—mine! Brant had one of my most favorite cartoons that he ever did—a guy standing with two lumberjacks, one’s like the foreman, and behind him is a grove of trees, going up over a hill, but all the trees have been cut down; they’re just stumps. The trees are just laying there. And the whole ground is covered with oranges. He did this with great simplicity! And in the foreground is this guy, the head lumber person, and he’s got an orange and he’s holding it up against the other guy’s nose, and he’s saying, “From here on, Fathead, we’ll pluck them one by one.” I thought that’s the funniest cartoon I’ve ever seen in my life. Anyway, she’s looking at his work and she’s looking at my work, and she turns around and she looks at me and says, “Did you do these?” “Yes,” I said, very proudly. I’m figuring, boy, am I making strides here—I didn’t realize until years later that she was really saying, “Did you actually do this? Is this a joke?”
When Brant and I think back on that day we get to laughing till our noses start to run. I bring it up to him sometimes on the phone and I’ll start hashing through it all about what those people must have thought of us. And sometimes I’ll hear these funny wheezy noises that he’ll make because he can’t get his breath.
Marschall: If your style was inspired by VIP—taking it to the nth degree—was he an early inspiration?
Hart: Oh, yeah, Partch was. This is the reason that I tell kids, young kids that are coming up, to copy the works of the people they like. What I was trying to do there was figure out a way to be different from all these other guys. I had to do something totally different—“I didn’t want to draw noses like any of these guys draw. That’s why the eyebrows are on sticks. Nobody’s done this before”—you know? When I was 15 I sent...I’ve still got this cartoon, I probably ought to let somebody publish it just to show that I’ve got great humility. When I was 15 I drew a cartoon and I sent it in to Collier’s. It was so bad. Like there are kids in third grade now that do better cartooning than I did...probably than I do now, come to think of it. But I can’t remember if a rejection slip came back with it; I can’t remember that part of it. But anyway, it was just such an embarrassment to show that to anybody and let them know that I was that bad. But my wife, Bobby, is always threatening me, kidding me about bringing that out and showing it to people. It’s like, “Oh, no, I’ll do anything, don’t show them that cartoon.”
Marschall: What’s the gag?
Hart: It was a several-panel cartoon. The gag was, the mayor of this town closes his office, and is coming down the road. He’s leaving the town past all the city limits signs and he goes into another town, puts on a pair of noseglasses and he’s standing in line in front of a movie theater and on the marquee it says Stromboli. At that time the movie Stromboli was supposed to be a hot, sexy movie, making great inroads into debauchery, one of those movies. Like the Deep Throat of those times, something like that. In the news at that time a mayor had banned the movie from being shown in his city. And so the mayor was disguising himself and going out of town to see this movie.
That was the gag. And it came back. I couldn’t understand it—it didn’t sell? I thought it was pretty good.
Marschall: At 15?
Hart: I had a whole attic full of cartoons and when my sister moved into my mother’s house, she just threw that stuff out. I wish I still had that now, it was thrown out with all the rest of the stuff. It’s not that my sister doesn’t like me—she loves me very much, it’s just that she was cleaning out the attic of all that old stuff—I did a comic book, you know how a kid will sit down and draw his own comic book?
Marschall: Yeah, mine was an updated Happy Hooligan.
Hart: I was doing a comic book about Dopey Duck. At that time when I was really young, one of my favorite characters was Donald Duck, so I created a duck with a pointed beak, if you can figure that one out. (It had to be different from Donald.) See, I was already trying to figure out how to be different, it had to be me, it had to be mine. I finally wised up later in life and said, like I say to all kids coming up, “You cannot, really, actually copy anybody. But set up and copy the best parts of all the guys you like. If you like a Gallagher nose, and you like Tom Henderson feet, and the way that VIP draws ears, or something like that, look at all the guys you admire and copy the parts you like. Copy them the best you can copy them if you want, but ultimately it will evolve into your own style.”
Marschall: It’s the germ of the style, isn’t it? Because if you like the Cavalli spine, there’s something that’s appealing to you in that...You once told me a story about VIP that there was a cartoon pasted to your coal-bin door, or the refrigerator or something like that. And later you saw the original when you visited Partch; when you and Brant visited Partch? It was a Navy gag.
Hart: Yeah, I wish I could see that sometime. I don’t know where I’d ever find it.
Marschall: We’ll find it sometime. It’s got to be around. [Hart recreated it in the feature “My Favorite Gags” in Hogan’s Alley #1.]
Hart: I’d just like to see it to see how accurately I remember it. You know how time changes your memory. Like that game where you whisper something to somebody—“telephone”?—it was in Partch’s studio, on the wall; Brant and I were visiting, and I was standing near the door and Virg was sitting there drawing. I was talking to him and I looked up on the wall beside me and there it was—the cartoon that had been on my dad’s coal bin door! I was stunned. It was like being hit in the back of the head with a coal shovel. Even when I was 19, when I idolized this man, I didn’t connect VIP with that cartoon in our cellar. I couldn’t believe it. I never noticed how it was signed or anything. I never paid attention to any of that. But I always remembered the cartoon, because my mother had cut it out and framed it. It was probably in the cellar ’cause it had the word “damn” on it. A big no-no in those days.
Marschall: And of all the tens of thousands he probably did in between, that was on his wall.
Hart: I looked at it and I thought, “Lord, this man, my hero drew that cartoon” and I didn’t even know it. I’m standing there looking at it and he had three versions of it, as I recall. And the drawing was changed in these three takes. It was like just he was working it up. My brain was oscillating in this time warp.
Marschall: It must have been like Rosebud in Citizen Kane. (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Hart: Yeah. [laughs] But this was bizarre; I can’t remember what I told him. I think I told him about it, but I never had the presence of mind to even ask him if I could have a photocopy or anything. Or even ask him if I could have one of the drawings. It just didn’t occur to me to do that. It was too spooky.
Marschall: I want to ask you about the other cartoonists in this part of the country. Jim Whiting has told me about the group that used to get together...Were a lot of guys you knew aspiring to get into the business?
Hart: Jim Whiting; Reg Hider from Rochester—he was one of the magazine cartoonists that was selling at the time—Brad Anderson, I met Brad later. Anyway, there was Brant Parker and myself. And Jim Whiting and Joe Daley . . .
Marschall: I know that Orlando Busino came from Binghamton.
Hart: That’s right, he did. Reg and Brad and Orlando were guys that rarely showed up at our little get-togethers. There was a guy named John Goetchius who lived in Watkins Glen with Jim. And a friend I worked with at General Electric, Joe Bohanicki. These two were gag writers.
Marschall: So these would be occasional get-togethers . . .
Hart: It was once a month. We met at a hotel bar and grille. And that’s what it was, a back-slapping group we called the UCLA, Upstate Cartoonists League of America. And we’d bring some of the more recent work we’d done and show it around. And everybody would look at each other’s work and make suggestions, you know, cheer each other on.
Marschall: What years would this be? Mid-’50s, maybe, when you started to sell?
Hart: Yeah, I was selling then. So it was about 1954 and I had already been selling; 1954 through 1957.
Marschall: The Saturday Evening Post was the top market. How did you crack the Post? And then hit your stride with the other magazines?
Hart: I used to get this magazine called New York Cartoon News, a sort of mimeographed sheet, put out by Don Ulsh. And in it he offered a thing where he’d critique your work for $5. So I sent him a bunch of my gags and he sent me a note back and said that he liked my work and wondered if it would be OK to show it around to some of the other editors. And I said, “Certainly not! I don’t want my work seen by anybody!” NO!—I said “Yes.” And he took it around and on the first shot he sold one to the Saturday Evening Post—it was a spread, a 6-panel cartoon. So I began sending my work to him to agent this stuff for me.
Marschall: That was your first sale to the Post?
Hart: Yeah, and then I followed it up with another one the following week. So I thought I was a hot shot—“Oh, boy, they’re coming fast and furious!” So I told Bobby, “Let’s move up to New York”—we were living in Georgia then—I was fresh out of the service and didn’t know how to do anything except shoot Commies. I’d just got back from Korea. And there weren’t any Commies in Georgia so I said, “I’ve got to get a job doing something. Since I know nothing about anything, but I do know how to draw, I think maybe I’d better take a legitimate stab at this profession.” So I decided to take—I don’t know how long I gave myself, four months or something like that—determined to work night and day, just draw and draw, develop the style that I want. And the sense of humor that I need, to sell. If I haven’t sold at the end of four months, I hit the pavement for a job. (To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
I remember the first week, it took an entire week to think of one gag that was acceptable, that looked like any gag I’d seen in a magazine. That was really hard. And then the next week, I got two or three. By the third week, I was getting two or three a day, and the process was going. So I began to draw, and I drew and drew and drew. And I literally drew all day, every day and into the night and we were just living down on the farm, flopping around drawing. Bobby and I had amassed this incredible amount of money, about $500 that we had saved up from my entire Air Force career. Which, of course, her mother wouldn’t allow us to do anything with, anyway. Near the end of that fourth month, Don Ulsh sold me to the Saturday Evening Post.
OK, when I started selling I figured I was on my way! I don’t know why I did this, but I told Bobby, “Let’s move up to my mother’s house”—you know, from her mother’s house to my mother’s house: equal time. So we did that and I began to sell pretty well. Now we’re living off my mother and I’m confident with the cartoon sales and I figure they’re just going to get more and more and more and I’ll just make a living off it. That wasn’t exactly happening, especially when the summer rolled around; nobody buys any cartoons then, anyway. So, you have zero money for three months! And I said, “Wait a minute! This isn’t working out. I may have to go get me a real job!” So I started out scouting around looking for some jobs. I got a couple of funny, little jobs and then I wound up working for General Electric, which is right down the road here.
Marschall: Doing what?
Hart: A little of everything. I was in their art department. They had some call for cartooning, and since I was around, they began to use cartooning. And I had national reputation; they liked that. I did all kinds of drawing; graphs, charts, whatever the work called for. But I was a pretty good artist by then because I had learned by learning [laughs].
Marschall: In 1958 B.C. made its debut. Were you always trying, when you were drawing for the magazines, to also do a syndicated strip? Did you get tired of gags?
Hart: No, I didn’t. I think my heart was with magazine gags. Around 1956, something like that, this local newspaper picked up Peanuts and I was intrigued by it because there was something in Peanuts that I saw in myself. Schulz and I don’t exactly work alike and don’t have the same sense of humor, but I saw that I could very easily fit into—that kind of thing. Something that made me realize that my sense of humor was marketable in comic strip form, as well as the one-panel. Four panels meant timing, meter, freedom.
Marschall: Little stories . . .
Hart: The timing that’s involved in it, like that. The other part that goes with the story is corny—I didn’t do a lot of caveman gags, but caveman gags were my favorite thing. What caveman gags I ever did, and sent to magazines, I never sold. To this date, I’ve never sold a caveman gag. So, one night I’m swaggering out of the art department at General Electric, the guys are going to work late, and I’m telling them, “You guys can stay here if you want, but I’m going home and create a nationally famous comic strip tonight.” I’m starting out the door and I think it was Bohanicky who says, “Why don’t you do one about cavemen? You can’t sell them anywhere else!” With those words Bohanicky became a minor prophet. My usual routine was to go home, eat supper, and then when the table was cleared, I’d sit at the table and draw magazine gags—draw my batch, to send them in for the week. And I had my little radio there, listening to a Yankee game, and I had a bottle of Kaier’s beer, real cheap, the kind they would deliver to your house.
Marschall: Uh, deliver to your house?
Hart: It was actually good beer. Incredible, good-tasting beer. It was one of these deals. Every week you’d call them up and the guy would come around with a case of beer and put it on your doorstep. Like milk. Anyway, I used to always love to have a beer, listen to the ballgame and draw. That was my modus operandus. I’m sitting there working on the strip and that little voice rang in my ear, “Why don’t you do it about cavemen?” So I thought, “This is great!” This warm, mischievous feeling came over me and I said, “What a good idea! A comic strip about cavemen!”
One of the things that Brant Parker always taught me was that simplicity should be a byword. So I used my famous lettering technique—my sign-painting technique—I lettered the word Simplicity out like a “Think” sign and I put it up on the wall by my drawing board, and in everything thing I did, Simplicity was my byword. And it just fell right into place. What could be simpler than the beginning of man? The total simplicity. And then everything began to really mellow out and I sat there and began to sketch these funny little guys. Eyebrows on sticks...no! [laughs]
Marschall: They hadn’t invented the sticks yet.
Hart: I drew these little guys and I’m having fun drawing them and I’m giving them names and trying to think up a name for the strip—I didn’t think of B.C. right away; that might have been Bobby’s suggestion. I never knew where I got the characters’ triangular shapes, but I started fooling around with that. Anyway, I was having trouble—the cast of characters is no easy thing to do, to have a well-rounded cast of characters that you can play all kinds of situations off—so I didn’t know how to create character traits, form personalities, and then Bobby came in and she said, “What are you trying to do?” And I told her and she said, “Why don’t you just pattern them after your friends? They already have established personalities.” What a great idea! I don’t have to think any up!
So that’s what I did—I patterned the characters after my friends and even named them after them. Like Jack [Caprio]: Clumsy Carp—that was a name we called him when we hung out together as kids. Peter was a guy I worked with at GE and Thor was another guy I worked with at GE whose name was Thornton Kinney. Peter was Pete Reuter, who was a great painter and a concert pianist; a really talented guy.
Wiley was patterned after my brother-in-law—Bobby’s sister’s husband—he lost his leg in the Second World War, so I gave him the peg leg. Wiley’s a really immaculate kind of person, very clean, and always spotless, taking showers all the time—maybe not twice a day, but just a particular man—which isn’t all that funny for a peglegian. So I did the reverse on him—I made Wiley the character hate water, and I turned him into a slob. And then I thought it would be funny to assign a poetic nature to him. My brother-in-law’s whole life is interesting: a man who lost his leg when he was, I guess, 16 or 17 years old, he was very athletic and active. He’s only got like an eight-inch stump, but sports is his whole life! Television sports—baseball, football, he lives for it. So of course I assigned him to be coach of the prehistoric sports teams!
Curls is another childhood friend, Dick Boland, who’s a gagwriter for the Wizard—now he’s a gagwriter for both strips. He’s a very funny guy, he’s a master of great sarcastic retorts. In the strip he’s a Master of Sarcastic Wit; that’s his title. The three of us—me, Jack and him—used to hang out together as kids. What I did was take Jack and Curls, who both have great senses of humor, and I channeled it into gagwriting; I have them write gags for me. They’re both good gagwriters in their own right. They didn’t know anything about it at first; I used to say, “Just get the ideas down on paper, and I’ll take care of the rest of it.” I’d put it into the format and arrange who says what, and pace it.
Interestingly, this very week, Creators Syndicate is kicking off his column, a conservative political-humor column. One of my favorite magazines is the Conservative Chronicle that comes out every week. I sent Curls a gift subscription to this magazine—guess who Curls’s first client is? Rick [Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate] took it over there, showed them just one column, and they said they’d take it! If it were me, that would be the one I’d be shooting for… and he made it his first!
Marschall: You were turned down by a number of syndicates before the Herald-Tribune picked up B.C. Do remember by whom, or anything about the rejections?
Hart: They were just form rejects.
Marschall: The usual gang—King Features, United, Chicago Tribune maybe?
Hart: I went through about five. One of them was the Associated Press . . .
Marschall:Yeah, they still had a syndicate. I think it ended in 1962.
Hart: They didn’t have strips, just panels.
Marschall: No, they had strips. They had Oaky Doaks, that was still running. And Scorchy Smith . . .
Hart: Hmmm...The guy lied to me! [laughs] I went down to the Associated Press, down to New York to do a Wednesday route [make the rounds of the magazine markets]; I hadn’t seen the guys in a long time. So I went down there to see the cartoonists and go out to eat and do all that stuff.
This reminds me of a general thing: the first time that I ever went down there to take my gags around, I went to lunch with all these guys. These guys are all my heroes—guys who I had been copying all these years.
Hart: Gallagher, Cavalli and Mort Walker?—he wasn’t taking gags around—Frank Ridgeway, and a whole gang of guys like that. Jerry Marcus, Cavalli and whoever you could name. There was this whole, big round table. Does the [Algonquin] Round Table have a big table?
Marschall: Just at knight.
Hart: That may have been where we went for lunch. Anyway, we all went there for lunch. This was the first time that I had ever met any of these guys, but they all knew me because I had been selling. And the subject of the conversation at the table was whether signing “Johnny” with a little heart after it—like I did in those days—was stupid. They were divided in half. Half thought it was the stupidest thing they ever saw. I’m sitting there sinking into my seat; the other guys are saying it was a touch of genius. All I could think to myself was that I’m sitting here with all of my heroes and that they are all arguing over whether I am an idiot or a genius, so signing my name like that couldn’t have been a really, terribly stupid thing to do—suddenly everybody knew me because I signed my name that funny, little way. So anyway, they’re all saying, “No, look, we like you, John,” and I’m thinking, “This is working out great.” They’re arguing over the way I signed my cartoons—which keeps them from critiquing the actual work! So far. So good!
Meanwhile, back to New York City, I went down to do another round with the guys and while I was there I thought I’d run over to AP. I’d sent B.C. to them and they hadn’t returned it like in three months. So I went up to where their office was and—I think the editor’s name was Ed Fleming—I said, “Is this Ed Fleming’s office?” The secretary said it was, I said “Thank you,” and I just walked past her and she said, “Wait a minute, sir! You can’t go in there!” But I walked in and there’s Ed. He had an office with a three-foot square pillar in the middle of the office, and he was standing on a chair putting up a girlie calendar on this pillar! And I walked in and said, “Are you Mr. Fleming?” “Yes?” “I’m Johnny Hart.” “Yes?” “Cartoonist.” “Yes?” I said, “I sent you a comic strip called B.C.” “Yes?” “It’s about cavemen.” “Cavemen, cavemen, ah yes! Cavemen!” And he walks over to this little wooden desk and he starts going through drawers. I couldn’t believe this—he doesn’t just go leaf through a drawer; the drawers are all full, and what he does is he opens one drawer, takes everything out of it and fwump! He slams it all on top of the desk and starts peeling through this stuff. He went through every drawer in that desk and gets to the final drawer, the last drawer, bottom left. He reaches down into it up to his elbows and takes everything out of it and B.C. was on the very bottom! He pulls it out and says, “Ah yes, here it is. I looked at this. No one’s going to buy caveman strips.” So I said, “Why not?” “Because there’s already one out there. There’s Alley Oop.” And I thought about Blondie and all the other family strips—how nobody could ever sell another family strip because there was already one out there? Anyway, right on top of my samples was this other strip, and he says, “Now if you want to see a funny strip...”—instead of saying my strip is lousy—“if you want to see a funny strip, here’s one right here.” This is one that is right on top of the bottom one in his bottom drawer! Bottom drawer! But this one is funny! So I look at it and it’s a John Gallagher strip.
Hart: And it really was terrific. It was about a tramp and a little robotic kind of guy that he made out of tin cans at the dump and he’s got this little guy following him around. I agreed with him and said, “This is a funny strip.” Then—the one thing that got lost there in the conversation was that he said, “Besides, we don’t buy comic strips anyway, we do panels.” He tells me that they don’t buy comic strips and I’ll tell you why this is so important. Because you tell me that they had comic strips and the whole story hinges on that line—that’s the reason that B.C. is around today. Because of that line.
I was in a funk, a deep state of depression, when I left that office. At that time we looked up to editors. When a cartoon editor said something to you, that meant that’s the way it was. So he said that nobody would buy cavemen; I went out of there, and obviously the strip wasn’t funny because the one on top of mine was Gallagher’s. The top one in the first drawer must have been a real winner! It should be on the bottom by now though. There’s probably one like it, that’s out there.
When I went out of there and my attitude was To Heck With It because I was going to go over and meet the guys for dinner. I went downstairs and walked out in front of Rockefeller Center, and I walked down to the street corner and waited for the street light to change. I had B.C. in this little long thin folder and I was just standing there feeling really, really depressed and I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw this trash basket that says Keep New York Clean. And I stood there and I pulled the thing out from under my arm and I slammed it on the edge of the basket and was just about to shove it into the basket when this voice in my ear—the playback, you know?—said, “Besides, we don’t buy comic strips anyway.” That’s what saved me. I picked the thing back up and slid it under my arm and said, “He doesn’t buy comic strips. How does he know what’s a good strip or a bad one? He deals with panels!
So I put it back under my arm and went into the lobby of the RCA building and went into a telephone booth and looked up syndicates and found the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate. It was nearby, so I went over there and went up into the office and asked to see the cartoon editor and the receptionist said, “We don’t have one right now, we just hired one and he comes in next Monday. I looked over and there’s this empty desk with nothing on it but a telephone. So I said, “Do you have a syndicate directory?” She looks like she could have been the prototype for the Fat Broad, and asks, “So what do you want that for?” I told her that I just wanted to look something up. “Could I use that phone over there?” So I took the syndicate directory and looked up...I can’t remember, McNaught Syndicate or something, it was practically across the street, and thought I would run over there with this thing. I thanked her—I can imagine what she’s thinking—I come in there, sit down at the new editor’s desk, use the phone, call another syndicate, and leave!
So I went over to McNaught and asked to see the cartoon editor and laid B.C. on his desk, told him who I was. He knew me, knew my work, was very congenial and said, “Thank you.” I said, “You’re not going to look at it now?” “No, I’ll look at it later and get back to you.” I said, “I don’t think so,” and picked it up. I was in my rude mode. I think I’d had enough of Ed Fleming and the bottom drawer, and my almost throwing it in the waste basket and all that stuff. I don’t do any of that rude stuff, but I did it then for expediency. I wanted to find another syndicate now and go over there. So I just walked out. I left him sitting there just looking at me; this guy had one of the most intimidating kinds of office; you had to walk 80 yards to leave. So I did my John Wayne [impression] going out of there, swaggered on out, left the door open so he’d have to...no, I didn’t do that.
But I got on a train and came home. Those days when we had more trains...my favorite part always was riding the train. I holed up in the club car and came home. The next day I got up and said, “Where am I going to send this sucker now?” I put it back in an envelope, thought about how rude I was and thought I at least owed it to New York Herald-Tribune. What a rude bastard I had been. So I addressed it and sent it off and when Harry Welker came in that Monday morning to start his new job, there was this same empty desk with the telephone and one envelope—with B.C. in it. Being a diligent employee, he said, “Hmmm, this one looks pretty good!”—No, he said later he looked at it and he knew my work, he had seen it in magazines; because I was an established cartoonist, they weren’t worried about some fly-by-night kind of one-time thing. So they’ve got this young, very nice, personable guy named Sylvan Barnett, he’s real young as far as syndicate directors go. Harry goes in and says “What do you think?” So the guy writes me a note and says come on down and have lunch with us. I went to New York and had lunch with them and he hands me this ominous brown envelope. He says, “Take this home with you, get yourself a lawyer, read everything and make sure everything is as you like it. Call us or send it back.” Now, this isn’t the way things are done nowadays. I didn’t know a lawyer; I had a friend whose brother was a lawyer.
But I just showed it to my dad, the fireman. “So, what do you think, Dad? Think it will burn?” [laughs] No, I didn’t say that. Dad said, “Looks fine to me!” I said, “All right.” I did show it to this guy’s brother and he said it looked fine to him. It really was a good contract. Excellent. Everything was totally equitable down the line, no sneakiness, no shadiness, it was fair, except for ownership. I didn’t know that I could have that.
Marschall: Not many did in those days.
Hart: There were four or five musketeers there—myself and Mell Lazarus, Al Jaffee, Arnie Roth, and...David Gantz, did Don Q?
Marschall: Dudley D back then.
Hart: Dudley D, yeah, so that was their stable of guys.
Marschall: And some old-timers. You had Harry Haenigsen’s two strips, Penny and Our Bill. Mr. And Mrs. was still running, the old Clare Briggs strip; Kin Platt was drawing it when B.C. started. You overlapped. It was a very interesting section—these new, hip strips and these old, moldy leftovers, all in the same section. And Peanuts ran in the Trib.
Hart: That’s what I was remembering, because all of us were brand new, Arnie and all, we were just starting. Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth went down with their features, in my estimation, because of syndicate meddling. Al had a strip called Tall Tales. It’s a thing that syndicates do, and they may be right but they’ll never prove it by me, is when they say that you have to have an established, recognizable character with a name. Now Al’s was a pantomime strip that didn’t have established characters. They tried to make Al change and they did the same thing to Arnie with Poor Arnold’s Almanac. I thought Jaffee was great. You know, the hardest thing in the world is to do is a pantomime strip, sustain it, keep it up. Jaffee did it very well. Anyway, once they started meddling, they started losing papers.
Marschall: As you’re pointing out, you were all, maybe not avant garde, but you were all doing fresh stuff, probably more than any of the big syndicates’ strips at that time. Did Harry Welker or Sylvan Barnettt have their heads on right or was it that they knew their home paper was really dying, and they were just really desperate for new features, new blood?
Hart: That’s why Harry was hired, to beef up their comic pages. That’s what he told me. I think the whole paper [the Herald-Tribune] was on the ropes. I just knew that I was getting a chance at something that I had always wanted to do. I knew nothing about New York newspapers; having heard later, it was a home for alcoholics, the old New York Herald-Tribune. The first thing that we did when we got there was, we’d all go piling downstairs to Blake’s. Walt Kelly was always hanging around down there at the bar. Sometimes I’d join in with him, not every night, but after they’d been there all day they’d start singing harmony and I’d join in with him, and it would be a lot of fun.
Marschall: That used to come with the territory, didn’t it, drinking and cartooning in the old days?
Hart: We used to fall into it because everybody loved to do that. Sit around all afternoon, be one of the guys. Listen, it was cool with me. I was a young dude, this was all new with me, my big chance, hanging out with these guys, drinking booze, singing songs.
Marschall: What kind of a list did you have with the Trib? Did they sell it well?
Hart: They started with 30 newspapers. Pretty good ones. In those days that was pretty reputable. Because they called me up and said you’ve got 30 newspapers now, you can quit the day job. No, they started with the 30 and it was about six months later that they started the Sunday; they waited to see what would happen.
Marschall: Before we leave your pre-syndicate days, I’d like to ask about your Christian commitment. Did that start early?
Hart: My mom and dad didn’t go to church except on Christmas and Easter but they made sure that I went to Sunday School. At least they started me off in that direction, so I used to go to Sunday School when I was a kid—and didn’t learn anything there, either! [laughs] I don’t know where my mind has been all of my life. Someday I’m going to find it. And when I do, I know I’m going to be disappointed. Unquote, Jackie Leonard.
I was always totally intrigued and fascinated by Bible stories but never really got into them and never really totally understood what it was totally about, but my mother and father were good people and so was I. I tried to get serious about going to church, being a good Christian. But I never got into the Bible . . .
Marschall: What church was it? What denomination?
Hart: It was Methodist. Recently when we moved out here, see—everything comes back now—it was orchestrated by God. He moved us out here, to get us away from the kind of life that we were leading—because we were just going along with the happy times, you gotta party, can’t have any fun unless you drink, that kind of thing. And you were just miserable all your life and didn’t realize it. Trying to get rid of all that misery in the obvious ways that people do: “Hey, it’s the Super Bowl this weekend! Now we’re really going to have fun!” “What’s next week?” “I don’t know! What are we going to do?” “Shoot up!” It’s a weird life and people are missing it. But I thank God that He directed me in this direction. When we came out here to live where we are living, we lost communication with the world, sort of, television-wise.
Marschall: You moved from where to…?
Hart: We moved from Endicott and moved 30 miles up. Out in the country, in the middle of the woods.
Marschall: And when was this?
Hart: This was in 1977. Just shortly after that, a friend of mine—my carpenter who used to work for me in Endicott—came out here to work for me here. Some guys came by his home in Endicott and asked if they could set up a satellite dish in the vacant lot next door so they could set up a tent and have people come by and visit it so they could sell satellite systems, which were fairly new then. So he asked me if I would like to see one. Bobby and I went in and bought a system. So those guys came out here and looked at the 150 acres. We had to run a line like 1,500 feet from the house and bury it underground, all this complicated stuff, and these guys had never installed anything like this before. So they came out here and they began to live with us, staying at the studio at night; it was in the winter.
These guys were born-again Christians, this guy and his father. And they’re all over the studio and all over the house, we’ve got several sets in each place, and they’re in here setting up and testing out all these things, and they’re using PTL [a Christian television network] as a test pattern. And all day long it was preaching and preaching and all this stuff. I said, “What is this? Can’t you guys tune in some other station?” And they said, “Oh, we’re sorry!” I said, “Oh, that’s OK.” And then I began to see Kenneth Copeland come on and I’d drop my pen and start watching, and suddenly I’m having favorite preachers. So when those guys left, this was my favorite channel! I said, “I wonder what made them come in here and do that?” Like I didn’t know! This whole thing was orchestrated by God.
Marschall: Another Carpenter at work!
Hart: Yeah. Thank you for that one. I don’t know, but I kinda got hooked. Bobby was oblivious to all this, and I found myself, when she wasn’t around, I’d cut over to that other channel and watch somebody preach. I was really getting hooked on it and one day I asked Bobby, “Do you feel like going over to that little church over in town?” And she says, “No, not necessarily.” So I prayed that she would, that God would touch her with this, so it wouldn’t be me and not her. One Sunday morning she woke up early and said, “Want to go to church?” I said “Yeah!” We hopped out of bed and went over to this little church and when we went in there, these are all people that we’ve known, because we live around here. It was a real happy little church. We started going there and now we teach Sunday School and we’re members and do all that good stuff. We created a library in the church, our whole house had become a Christian book library, almost. That’s all we do is buy books and tapes and things for the children over there. It’s a fun life where we’re going.
Marschall: This is the Presbyterian church?
Hart: Yeah. “Why the Presbyterian church?” “It’s the only church in town.”
Marschall: Is it?
Hart: Yeah. There is actually, just down the road here, a Baptist church and a Methodist church, but we didn’t get that far. What we originally set out to do was go to a different church each week and listen to the preaching. I wish we had done that, but somehow we got over here with all these people, these lovely people . . .
Marschall: But that’s where God wants you. When did you start putting Christian or Bible-based spiritual themes in the strip?
Hart: It’s been quite a few years, I think, longer than I thought. Maybe 1985 or ’86 I can’t remember. We put the satellite dishes in in ’84. It started out like when Christmas would roll around—if a holiday comes up, I do something about the holiday. I’ve been doing that for the life of the strip. However when the religious holidays come up, some people really tick me off; like I did a Good Friday strip about Jesus. It’s Good Friday, so I do something about who the day is about and...well, the Los Angeles Times wouldn’t run it. I found out from somebody.
Marschall: They dropped it? Did they run an explanation? Run an old strip?
Hart: I don’t know how that worked. I think they did it this year again. I called up Rick [Newcombe] one day and said, “Take the strip away from them!”
But he was saved by the bell—there was a new managing editor or something who was just hired by the L. A. Times, and Rick wanted to see what was going on; he’d check it out and and give him a chance, or something.
Marschall: I’m interested in reactions from both ends. Have you gotten any other grief or complaints or letters or drops . . .
Hart: Not any drops that I know of. But I’m like the Pied Piper of the Woodwork-Christians. They’re coming out of the woodwork, and they’re saying, “Way to go!”
Marschall: So, you’re getting more positive reactions?
Hart: Oh, yeah! Probably 99 percent. A handful of crank people say, “I see what you’re doing. You’re trying to ruin the scientists with your evolution ideas”—and one of them said, “Keep your God out of my face.” These are the guys that have a lot of anger and hatred, who have turned away from God big time. [laughs]
There was always this one guy, a letter-writer, who I wanted to reach, to get him to realize what it’s all about. “Oh my gosh, this is it! That’s what it’s about!” This guy who was so angry and offended and irate about me putting my religious ideas in front of his face. And I’m working, working, and I have a little folder on the side and thinking that one of these days I’m going to get the right thing and I’m going to write back to him and surprise the hell out of him and hit him with this incontrovertible truth! So I pull out his folder one day...and he didn’t have any address on his letter! I’d been working on this for three years and I didn’t know where the guy is! I’ve got a lot of material for him if he surfaces. Maybe I’ll tick him off again.
Marschall: Maybe he’ll read this interview or maybe you’ll just pray it through and save a stamp in the process.
Hart: There you go. “God, just take this to that guy.”
Marschall: Not everyone who has had a conversion can name the moment; sometimes it’s gradual, it’s not all Saul on the road to Damascus. I take it that that wasn’t the way with you? It was a gradual conviction?
Hart: Yeah, yeah—too subtle.
Marschall: Also, many Christians have had crises or problems that have come to a head that have been solved by their conversion. Did that happen with you? Were you going through anything personal or creative that was solved by . . .
Hart: No, that’s my problem. It’s really a problem. Why don’t I get any of those feelings that I can put my finger on? All I’m aware of are subtle realizations where I can say, now I know what that was, or how I came out of that, but there was no dramatic lifting out of something. I look back at things like, why did I get the measles when I was 47 for no reason, when my liver was about gone and the only thing that could possibly rejuvenate a liver is a disease like that in which the liver has to totally reconstruct itself, and it did.
Hart: Like the time I went to New York—one of those times I went down to the city, I stepped out through a crowd of people because I wondered why they were all standing on the sidewalk. They were at a bus stop. The intersection was crowded, I couldn’t get through, and I was in a hurry. I went down the line and all these people were still standing there. I said, “Why these huge crowds?” So I stepped out into the street but somebody grabbed me by the back of the neck and yanked me back onto the curb—pulled me out of my shoes, just about. And as I went back onto the curb and slammed into a couple of people standing there, I just saw these bus windows strobing by my face about a foot and a half from my face. I would have been smeared all the way down Times Square. And I turned around to thank the person...but there wasn’t anybody looking at me; everybody was just starting to move.
That has always puzzled me. Who’s the guy that did that? Why didn’t he say something? I turned to thank someone who had just saved my life. Now I look back and I know it was an angel. We know now about angels being here and doing these supernatural things. Face it, who in New York would care if I got all smeared down the streets of Times Square?
Marschall: It would be the opposite! Someone would have pushed you!
Hart: [laughs] And it was sure somebody strong because I had lurched forward to step out into the street, and if I had made it, I would have been pasted on the front of that bus. Those people stand there with their feet hanging over the edge so when that bus comes it practically brushes their clothes. Boy, that scared me! Now I can look back and say, “Ah, I know what that was!”
Marschall: Do you think you were saved in that, and maybe a lot of other instances, saved for something?
Hart: Well, I would assume. Otherwise, let me go. [laughs]
Marschall: When you think about things like that, do you see more of a purpose to your life, do you want to add more of an edge to some of the messages you can make?
Hart: Yeah, there is a purpose here. I do think that. I’m not very good at picking up on where God is leading me. But the purpose is the hot dog on the end of the stick. It’s there. For a human being to be oblivious to any purpose for his existence—is pathetic beyond reason.
Marschall: You yield yourself to Him.
Hart: Yeah, really.
Marschall: I think I’ve never seen you do this—have you ever done any message strips in Wizard? It’s not the vehicle for it, is it?
Hart: It could be. I’ve done a little, just touched on it.
Marschall: I’ve been asking you about letters you got, most of them are favorable to what I call message strips. What are your ideas about comics as a medium not just for humor? Are you happy with the strips that you’ve done in that way—can you see yourself doing comic books and maybe longer stories with religious messages? Do you think comics are a good medium for making those kinds of statements?
Hart: I think so. It reaches a good audience, the kids. You have the gimmick that attracts an audience and you can either… you’re talking about going for broke, putting out that message in comic books? Yeah, this is one of those ideas that I’ve been entertaining...like a comic book or even maybe a children’s book. B.C. is a comic character but he doesn’t have to be on a comic page or a comic book. He could be in a cute, little funny children’s book.
Marschall: Text and art rather than panels or balloons, you mean?
Hart: Text and art, and balloons, a combination of all three. We deal with format restrictions. Things like, “Hey! What is Larson doing there, anyway? He’s using a balloon and caption! You can’t do that, you’re breaking the format rules!” The Format Police would show up at the door...Anyway, we do that: we place all these restrictions on ourselves, we’re frozen into all these things, ways to do things, we’ve superimposed them on ourselves.
Even in little ways, like in cartooning, I’m always amazed. For a long time I always drew eyes a certain way. I said, “Well, what are my characters going to have? Round eyes or those little eyelid type eyes? Little slits, like Cavalli used to do.” But you can’t have both. I’m drawing the strip for about 30 years and I said “Why can’t we have both?” In this panel he can have his eyes half-closed and in this panel he can them open wide. People might say the character is losing his identity. It’s like drawing Barney Google with slit eyes. We have all these restrictive things that go through our minds, about life in general. “Hey, you can’t eat that with a fork!” Things like that. Rule paranoia. Give a man enough freedom and he’ll invent enough rules to choke himself. It’s in our genes. We even wear tight jeans (case in point).
Marschall: [laughs] Self-restricted. You’re not about to get an editor coming down on you...
Hart: No, but you feel like you’re violating some rule. So these are all things that cause you stress, a little bit of stress in your life, along with all the other stressful things. Then suddenly you say, “Wait a minute! I can do anything! I can be innovative!”
Marschall: When you have those little debates with yourself, is it from behind you, like a voice over your shoulder about tradition, or does it come from in front of you, on the drawing board? Are you wedded to the characters doing things a certain way because the characters are that way or because the business is that way?
Hart: It comes from both sources because the business is sort of that way. You never see Dagwood with his hair fluffed up. It’s like when you create a character for recognizability, it’s like a rubber-stamp thing, and the way you’ve created him, designed him, is the way he should always look. I notice that Dagwood does were shorts now, jeans, things like that. It looks a little weird, but it’s still Dagwood.
Marschall: I even saw him shopping for shirts that didn’t have that one big button in the middle. Now, you made a fairly distinctive change in B.C.’s appearance once, from being a tubby, bowling-pin character to being slimmer. That was conscious, wasn’t it? You felt restrictions on the way he moved, the way he looked?(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Hart: Yes. There was a time when I looked at him and said, “Wait a minute!” There were certain things that he couldn’t do because of this silly shape that I put on him. He was a huge triangle, with a huge bottom and little short legs. His legs wouldn’t bend; they didn’t have knees—and if they did bend, where would his body go? So I began to, probably gradually so I wouldn’t violate the format, began to elongate his legs and slim down his body a little bit and at one point he reached the state where he had real long legs and a thin body.
I think I used to see a great deal of humor in the posturing and poses of Daffy Duck. Bent over with the rear end, Groucho Marx look, with the head bent forward. I thought my characters should take on that kind of a look. Wile E. Coyote. I saw a lot more humor in the trimmer characters with the funny, little body. I began to work toward that. Then one thing I noticed, I don’t know how long I had been doing this, these guys hardly had any suits on any more. The suits had been reduced down to a longer body with this little black trim on the bottom. It’s like I’d never noticed it before—I’d been doing it gradually—the suits are getting smaller and smaller, and suddenly one day I said, “Wait! What is this?” Originally, I had created him a pretty, thick suit for the blacks, for the look of it, so you wouldn’t have all just lines on the paper—you would have spot blacks, and that added a nice look to the art because you had big, solid black shapes that you could offset with Bendays [mechanical toned shading].
Marschall: Could you always translate what you saw in your mind’s eye to paper?
Hart: In Georgia when I was first starting out I knew what I wanted to put down on paper in my mind, and I could see the look of it, but it still wouldn’t come out of the hand. There was still a gap there somewhere. I kept trying and trying, working and working, and it just wouldn’t happen. I was getting really, really frustrated this one night. I used to sit in this living room with a card table. I had a little bottle of ink and paper and I’m doing my stuff and I’m getting more and more frustrated. I made some kind of move and tipped the ink over and spilled it all over the drawings that I had done. And that did it. I sat there for a minute and then I just flipped the table and kicked the chair and Bobby comes running in, ink all over the floor and says, “What’s wrong?” And I was ranting and raving about something, swearing, I guess, and for some reason, I don’t know where it came from—a Word of Knowledge, maybe—I said, “You mark my words. Before I’m 27 I’m going to have a nationally syndicated comic strip.”
That came to pass, as they say. Later Bobby said, “You remember the night you threw that fit? Do you remember what you said?” “No.” This was on the eve of my 27th birthday and we were looking at B.C. in living black and white in the New York Herald-Tribune.
Marschall: It had just come out?
Hart: That was the first night, the first strip.
Marschall:I ts debut was on your birthday?
Hart: On the night before. So it came to pass before I was 27 years of age—talk about a deadline! I forget—I wrote it somewhere—to my knowledge that’s the last time I preempted a deadline [laughs].
I was oblivious to the words but Bobby didn’t forget because I think I scared her back in Georgia. Kicked things all over. This was back in 1952; we were just married.
Marschall: What were you, 21 or 22, something like that?
Hart: Maybe. I was born in 1931—yeah, I was 21. And why that came out, because I didn’t even know, I wasn’t sure I said the word “syndicate” because I didn’t think I knew what a syndicate was. But that’s what she told me I’d said. I just got goose pimples, and said “Really?” “That’s what you said.”
Marschall:Things are ordered. We haven’t talked much about Wizard of Id. When did you come up with that idea? Did you always have in mind to collaborate with Brant?
Hart: No, as a matter of fact I had Jack [Caprio] slated to do that, but for whatever reason he didn’t feel that he was up to it or didn’t want to do it.
Marschall: You had the idea earlier?
Hart: Well, let’s see, 1958 [B.C.’s debut] to ’64 [The Wizard’s debut]… I probably had the idea in 1960 because I shelved it for four years and I felt really unenthusiastic about it and suddenly the light bulb came on and I said, “Brant!” Actually, Brant had been around since the inception of the Wizard.
One night we were all down at my house and I laid it on these guys—Jack and Brant and Curls. And I said I have this idea and I have the drawings—the King is going to look like a playing card; that’s the way he started out. And the Jester is going to be a Jester and everybody is going to look like what they are. I laid it all out for them and we got like guys do when you’ve got something new—we had this nice session going, ideas were flying around, we were having fun, and then we began to pursue it. Somewhere I have a thick package full of preprinted title lines, Wizard by Hart and Caprio, laying around here.
Everything was ready to go and it just kind of fizzled. I just put in on the shelf and went about my business. Then about four years later I said, “I’ve really got to do this thing,” that’s when I thought about Brant. So I called him and said, “If I write this thing, would you draw it?” And he said, “I’d love to.” “OK—we’re on!” So we made this arrangement to meet in this hotel room—at that time Brant was in Virginia—a sleazy, fleabag hotel in New York City. I had all of the paper and the gags for about 24 strips and we had our bottles of ink. It was this terrible hotel room but it was about a block away from the Herald-Tribune, around the corner from it. We just holed up there for several days and we drew 24 Wizards. He penciled some and I penciled some and I’d ink some of his and he’d ink some of mine. We just went back and forth doing all this stuff and we put together the initial four weeks of the Wizard of Id, and as we did them we taped them up on the walls of the hotel room. The beds that we had were like these old bunks that they used to have in the barracks in World War II.
At some point we had painted the toilet to look like a character. The lid was a big nose, with India ink around the edge of it, and big eyes on the back of the tank. It had a mustache and a bow tie and I think Brant even drew out a part of a body coming out across the tiles on the floor. It was really strange. We had meals sent up. It was beginning to look like a dump up there. We’d get it cleaned up somewhat but we still had some beer bottles laying around on the floor...we were having the time of our lives. When we finally taped the last one up on the wall, I called over to the syndicate and asked them if they wanted to see a new comic strip. “Really? Sure! Bring it in.” “Can’t do that.” “Why not?” “Because they’re taped all over the walls.” Twenty minutes later they came over. Brant and I were running around kicking beer bottles under the beds, I’m in there shaving and Brant is in his shorts, he’s not even dressed, and here are these three syndicate guys in their black suits, white shirts, black ties—they looked like Mafia—and they come into the room shaking hands and I come out in my shorts with lather all over my face. I go over and kick another beer bottle under the bed. It’s called Wizard of Id; I say, we tell them about the lead characters. And they start walking around the walls like they’re in a museum, with their hands behind their backs, in this flea-bag with masking tape all over the walls. They’re going “hm, hm” like art connoisseurs.
Every so often they kick a bottle under the bed and Brant and I are just sitting there on the bunks and watching them go around the room—a few chuckles here and there, yeah. When they were all done, two of them turned around and the other one sat down on the bed and said, “Well, we think you guys are disgusting, but the strip is great.” So, we all shook hands and he said, “We’ll take it.” And that was the whole trick.
Marschall: It came out in 1964?
Hart: Yeah, in November 1964.
Marschall: Which strip has the bigger list today?
Hart: I don’t know. They’re almost about the same, but I think the Wizard has more. It picked up several papers, probably because of Gary Larson quitting, maybe eight or 10 new papers.
Marschall: Was that the oddest contract you had, the Wizard sale?
Hart: Well, once, Dick Sherry [president of Field Newspaper Syndicate] went down to Fort Lauderdale—I was renting a house there to be close to Yankee spring training—and stayed and stayed, trying to get me to sign a contract extension. Finally he brought out two baseballs with lettering on them: “John Hart hereby agrees to extend the terms for five years…” or whatever.
Marschall: You signed the baseballs? Were they actual contracts?
Hart: Yep I signed them and he went home. I hold the distinction of being the only cartoonist in history, perhaps, who signed a baseball contract.
Marschall: How does the collaboration on Wizard work? You write it or you run the shop? Jack Caprio writes for you, Dick Boland still writes?
Hart: I be the head editor. That’s sort of the role I keep seeing myself in more than the creative. Essentially it’s this: I write and draw B.C. and I write the Wizard and Brant draws it. That’s what everybody sees, essentially. Al Capp told me once, “Nobody wants to know that you don’t do it all yourself.” I don’t necessarily agree. That may say more about Al Capp than it does about...is there an echo in here?
Now, behind the scenes, Jack writes for both strips; well, all three guys write for both strips. At one time Jack wrote for both strips, Curls wrote for just the Wizard, and recently I brought in Cavalli. Cavalli was writing for B.C. and I’m being the editing guy making all this stuff work. I just recently added the Wizard to Cavalli. So now all three write for both. I have lots of good material coming in now. I do pretty much all of the B.C. Sundays myself.
Marschall: Does Brant contribute to the ideas?
Marschall: Now it’s a geography thing, but when he lived closer was there anything like that?
Hart: No, he meddles. Every so often Brant has to meddle. I know what he’s doing. He has periods when he feels out of the creative loop so he starts toying with punch lines or dialogue. And he’ll throw it at me and we’ll snowball on the phone and we’ll have fun.
Probably nine times out of ten when he calls up for something like that, it really wasn’t thought out as well as it should have been. When we get done, we usually turn it into a classic because we’ll spend 20 to 30 minutes on it. Suddenly we’re both laughing like hell and the gag is nothing like before—it’s a totally different gag. And we have a great time doing it.
Brant does contribute in that way. When we put the characters together, Brant has great suggestions and he has this insight about how the characters should work on a page and he’ll say, “Well, what if you had them do this?” And it always leads down a better road. So Brant does contribute, but he won’t write gags or submit them or anything like that.
Marschall:What are the mechanics? Do you fax him scripts or roughs?
Hart: I just put our various gags on 3-by-5 cards and Cavalli writes them out on legal pads, prints them in cartoon printing. Then I pick out a week—two of Jack’s, two of Dick’s and two of Cavalli’s and just lay them out in the copy machine, in the sequence that I want them to appear. Then I date them and stick them in the fax machine and send them to Brant.
Marschall: The artwork is all his own?
Hart: All his own. Brant has idiosyncrasies about placement of things in panels—like the king’s throne always has to be facing left.
One time I confronted him and told him he’d affected the gag because of this. And he says, “Well, I just can’t bring myself to . . .” and he starts talking to me about elements. “What? Element?” And he says, “Well that panel already has four elements and you can’t have more than three elements in a panel.” I said, “What’s an element, Brant?” I started doing a Bob Newhart. And he says “It’s got two people and a balloon” “Is the balloon an element, too?” And he says, “Yeah, and the people are elements, too.” “Well, what else is in the panel?” And he says, “There’s a chair and a dog.” “Those aren’t elements?” And he says, “No, not really.” Anyway, it was something like that. We’re going through this conversation—“Let me get this straight. A dog is not an element but a balloon is?” We’re going through this and then it got hilarious.
Marschall: How about the date? Is the date of the strip an element?
Hart: [laughs] I said, “What are the elements for? Is it balance or what?” He says, “No, I think if you have too many elements . . .” I said, “Is this what they teach in art school? Where’d you get it from? Who uses that?” He says, “Nobody.” I said “You thought this up yourself, you know, it stands to reason...Brant, I think it’s a great idea.” Because if you find Brant doing something really stupid and you hang around him long enough, he’ll prove that he’s right. He did something one time, he changed the size of his strip so that his lines would look better. I said, “Nah, that can’t happen,” because he made it something like three-quarters of an inch smaller—less wide.
Marschall: That’s all?
Hart: Then I began to figure out ratios and went through all this stuff. I tried to reason with him: “You see, Brant, that doesn’t work. I’m giving him all this sure mathematic logic and all this stuff. Then we’re sitting around a day later and I’m thinking about it and if you did do that, it would make your lines thicker. I figured that he was right. And he was!
Marschall: Universal Press gives their cartoonists a vacation.
Hart: You mean “House of the Hiatus.” They ought to put that on their letterhead.
Marschall: What do you think of Bill Watterson’s work and the claims that he staked against licensing and merchandising characters? Evidently you don’t agree with that.
Hart: I do in a sense. I look at it in a couple of ways. First, I think you’re going for the bucks, “Let’s get all the bucks!” I admire his restraint, but I don’t understand it. If my strip was as popular as his, everyone was clamoring for it, couldn’t wait to pay money to get it, I would go ahead with the merchandising. I don’t do a lot of merchandising because people do a lot of dumb merchandising on my stuff and some of it doesn’t even look like my stuff, the shape of it, and I don’t want to get involved where I have to do all the work for them.
Marschall: Which you did in the past. What was the early campaign? Dr Pepper?
Hart: I created different characters for them.
Hart: Yeah, Harmon...it was from one of those characters that I got Grog. I created some really stupid mechanical character for Harmon. You’d throw bottles in his mouth and caps would fly out of his ears. I thought this character was pretty good so I created Grog from that.
Anyway, Watterson—I think Watterson should go for decent, class-type of merchandising, and keep his thumb on it. Don’t let them just put out trash.
Marschall: Because the readers like it.
Hart: It’s an excellent comic strip. He’s good, he’s very good at it, his ideas are great. If I were him, I would set down all the rules and make sure that it was good quality, class merchandise...and then take all the money and give it to God. If you don’t want all that money then give it to the poor. See, people out there go out and buy the Garfield stuff, trinkets and all, because they love it. They want it. Children love it, they wish they had one to take to bed at night and hug. Don’t deprive them of that. Let them spend their money. Make sure they do a class stuff with merchandising and take the money and give it to orphanages or good causes or something like that. That’s what we’re here to do, anyway. To throw away an opportunity like that seems kind of foolish.
Marschall: One of his points of view is that it’s a comic strip. This is something that bothered him about Pogo and Peanuts when he was growing up. He thinks that readers read it as a comic strip and they create their own world that’s beyond the four panels, they create the voices they hear in their heads, and anything that would change that is doing violence to the characters.
Hart: I don’t hold this art form to the high level you’re elevating it to; it’s not a deity; I don’t think we should be taking a comic strip and saying that this is so marvelous and magnificent and you must not risk doing bad things to it. Maybe they’re making it too sacred. It is, after all, another comic strip among many. And all the reverence in the world that he wants to pay to it, isn’t going to make it any holier than all the other ones. But he will receive great admiration for doing this. He takes a stand and says, This is my profession and I respect my profession and revere it and I don’t want people just taking my characters and cheapening them.
All I’m saying is don’t let them cheapen it—let them come out with class Hobbes things that cost $400 apiece. They’ll still buy them for their kids...no, he shouldn’t do that either because there are lots of little kids who would like to have a Hobbes and can’t because their parents couldn’t afford it. Let them put it out there and do a nice job, take the money—don’t even take the money, just reroute it.
Marschall: Do you see yourself as a comic-strip artist doing mostly comic strips and occasionally this or that—reprint books, calendars, mugs, things like that—or do you see yourself as an entertainer whose main platform is comic strips but can also, and do also, reach people in other ways?
Hart: Probably the second. I never thought about it like that. I probably do see myself as that rather than just a comic strip artist. “What are you?” “I am a comic strip artist, nothing less and nothing more. That’s all I will ever be because it’s the a noble profession.” I often think that God certainly routed me in this direction and seated me at a drawing board. There were times when I could make choices of what I wanted to do, but there was always the one thing, the only thing, at that particular time that I could do or knew how to do—draw cartoons. So it looks like I was just destined somehow. One time I considered entertainment, doing comedy and music. I was in entertainment when I was in Korea. We toured Korea and entertained the troops. I did soft shoe dances, songs, I wrote comedic tunes, and we did comedy routines. We just had a little troupe and we were hardly ever heard of. We traveled in these half tracks up the mountains of Korea and one night we entertained 3,000 Marines. What they were doing in Korea, I’ll never know. In a driving rainstorm and they’re sitting there on a mountainside watching us perform and it’s really raining. We’re all drowning and they’re cheering for encores; they’re so starved for entertainment. We had all these funny little bits and I played the snare drum. We had a drum, a bass and a piano and we sang all these songs. The interesting thing is one guy came from New York, where he had a nightclub. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and he gave me this little card and said, “The moment you get out of the service, I want you to come to me. And any act you want to do, anything, I’ll back you, I’ll give you the money. You’re booked.” After I got out of the service, somehow, conveniently, that card got lost and I had to become a cartoonist. I surely would have checked that out. I might have gotten into show business, and did all that. I entertained thoughts of going into show biz; I always wanted to write music, crazy things. I was always attracted to the entertainment field. And I do have talents in piano and drums, except that I never studied them nor spent time with them.
Marschall: So if you didn’t draw, or were unable to draw, you still would have been making funny.
Hart: I think so, yeah, or I would be writing—writing I love. I would have been in any number of professions like that.
Marschall: Do you have a third strip in you?
Hart: I don’t think so.
Marschall: You talked with Henny Youngman once about doing a strip together, didn’t you?
Hart: Henny wanted a format and I devised a really good format for him. I devised a format which was adaptable in many ways. You could take one of three drawings and do all these different things with it, which was all that he really needed. They wound up with someone drawing a little character called Henny and doing all his jokes. They actually wound up doing this thing and it lasted around 2 months. It didn’t go anywhere.
Marschall: With your format you would have drawn it and he would have done the gags? Or were you just starting it up…
Hart: I was just going to lay it on him. I was going to give it to him. “Here Henny, take these drawings and tap them into anything you want”.
Marschall: Is jazz is the music you like best?
Hart: Yeah, and old-fashioned popular, I don’t even know what it’s called. Show tunes and things. Melodic music. I like some country but have just fallen out of listening to a lot of it. I listen to old-time tunes that Gershwin and those kind of people used to write for movies and a lot of Broadway.
Marschall: I don’t know if you have a lot of spare time, but do you read fiction? Do you have favorite authors? Favorite movies? Are you a movie buff?
Hart: I used to be a total movie buff. I’m out of that now. Whenever I have time to read, I read the Bible. Or I read books about the Bible, books explaining the Bible. There isn’t anything more interesting. Seeing the unbelievable things God is doing behind them. Moving and orchestrating and manipulating and fulfilling—it’s all just fascinating and exciting.