ALBANY, N.Y. — For millions of comic strip readers, the prehistoric era was a hoot: Cavemen played baseball, ants went to school, birds rode on the back of turtles and snakes made quips.
All of it was thanks to cartoonist Johnny Hart, who died Saturday at age 76 while working at his home in the nearby hamlet of Nineveh. “He had a stroke,” his wife, Bobby, said Sunday. “He died at his storyboard.”
Hart’s “B.C.” strip was launched in 1958 and eventually appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers with an audience of 100 million, according to Creators Syndicate Inc., which distributes it.
“He was generally regarded as one of the best cartoonists we’ve ever had,” Hart’s friend Mell Lazarus, creator of the “Momma” and “Miss Peach” comic strips, said from his California home. “He was totally original. ’B.C’ broke ground and led the way for a number of imitators, none of which ever came close.”
Hart, who also co-created “The Wizard of Id,” won numerous awards for his work, including the National Cartoonist Society’s prestigious Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year and an award from the International Congress of Comics.
Richard Newcombe, founder and president of Creators Syndicate said “B.C.” and “Wizard of Id” would continue. Family members have been helping produce the strips for years, and they have an extensive computer archive of Hart’s drawings to work with, he said.
After his discharge from the military in 1954, Hart worked in the art department at General Electric while selling cartoons on the side. He began reading Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” and was inspired to start his own strip.
“Caveman gags, for reasons which I still cannot explain, were an obsession in those days,” Hart told Creators. “One day, a friend jokingly suggested I create a strip revolving around prehistoric times.”
Later in his career, some of Hart’s cartoons had religious themes, a reflection of his own Christian faith. That sometimes led to controversy.
A strip published on Easter in 2001 drew protests from Jewish groups and led several newspapers to drop the strip. The cartoon depicted a menorah transforming into a cross, with accompanying text quoting some of Jesus Christ’s dying words. Critics said it implied that Christianity supersedes Judaism.
Hart said he intended the strip as a tribute to both faiths. “He had such an emphasis on kindness, generosity, and patience,” Newcombe said.
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“B.C.” was filled with puns and sly digs at modern society. One recent strip showed an ant teacher asking her class, “Who can tell me what secondhand smoke is?” One pupil raised his hand with an answer: “A political speech made by a vice presidential candidate.”
After he graduated from Union-Endicott High School, Hart met Brant Parker, a young cartoonist who became a prime influence and eventual co-creator with Hart of “The Wizard of Id” in 1964.
Hart enlisted in the Air Force and began producing cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes. He sold his first freelance cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post after his discharge from the military in 1954.
Many of Hart’s characters were patterned after his friends. “He was a free spirit who loved everybody, and everything,” Jack Caprio, a childhood friend and model for “Clumsy Carp” in the “B.C.” strip, told the Press & Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton. “He was never embarrassed by doing silly things.”
Besides his wife, Hart is survived by two daughters, Patti and Perri. He was a native of Endicott, about 135 miles northwest of New York City, and drew his comic strip at a studio in his home there until the day he died.
A funeral will be held Friday.
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