Saturday, January 24, 2009

Johnny Hart and Brant Parker

There was a school of cartooning started by Johnny Hart in the late 50s that I think of as "Rat Pack" cartoons. They have the sensibility of jaded hard-drinking street-raised misogynists - the way men used to be when left to our genetic makeup - before hippies came along and taught us to pretend to be sensitive. Like Sinatra and his pals, Johnny Hart's characters innocently refer to the girls as "broads". Is that still allowed?

Here's a Sunday page featuring "The Fat Broad". That's actually her name!

I can't figure out how these cartoons ever made it into the funny papers. They are so anti-family safe. They're cynical, somewhat clever (compared to most daily comics that talk down to you) and they strip away the phony veneer of polite behavior to reveal our true ugly stuffed-with-guts interiors.
There are a million things I could say about B.C., The Wizard of Id and Crock, but need more visual material. I have almost all the pocketbooks (anyone know what pocket books are? Do they still exist?)

I have been trying to find nice color Sunday pages to show you and thanks to Ger Apeldoorn there are a small handful. Does anyone else have any they could share with the world?

So anyway, these are the complete antithesis of say - Hi and Lois, Family Circus, Fred Basset, Beetle Bailey and most mild-mannered 60s comics strips.
I liked the drawings in Hi and Lois, but felt that the artist didn't really believe the message. I could be wrong, but it seems like it was purely filling a market, rather than reflecting someones's personal outlook on life.

Family Circus' unique characteristic was to never have a joke or point to it. That way it was sure to never offend anyone. Everyone loved it. I would read it every day, and always go "Huh?" My friends and I used to eat special brownies and read them. They'd make us alternate with laughter and rage. Kids used to know how to have fun.

Fred Basset probably was the strip that made me the most mad. It also never had a joke or a point to it. I never imagined that this would become the standard for comic strips by the 1980s. Now every strip makes you go "Huh?" after the last panel.

I read almost all those polite comics but believed that many of them were written not so much from the actual heart and beliefs of the artists, but rather to please editors and the simple white bread tastes of Christian Moms and Dads. My folks used to tell me how brilliant Hi and Lois was because it was "just like real life". And that was its purpose - to make my folks think they were normal and to make me roll my eyes and swallow my own puke.

Johnny Hart's drawing style is curious too. It's crude on the surface - like Peanuts - but has some creative aspects that were new to comics and maybe cartoons in general. He could portray extreme human emotions - like pain, hate, greed, lust, ecstasy, fear, dread, revulsion better than anyone. And he did it with just a few scribbly lines as if he felt the drawing, rather than figured it out. I found this (and still do) truly impressive. I think it influenced the way I draw storyboards - fast, scribbly and all feeling.

Most comics rely on a handful of mild generic expressions that barely hint at the simplest of human emotions - happy, sad, mad, sometimes shock. Why, there was a time when comic strip artists wouldn't even draw open mouths when the characters talked! That's unbelievable to me, yet it was the general practice for decades. Did they just never think of it? It never dawned on any cartoonist that , "Hey, my character is talking, maybe I should open his mouth." I guess it took animated cartoons to cause the open mouth revolution.

But back to the uglier, less generic, more entertaining expressions of human feeling.
No one else drew distasteful ugly human emotions in comics. (maybe once in a while, on a milder level, Charles Schultz did) How the heck did Hart ever sell the first strip??

Cast Ensemble

Another thing that really influenced me in Hart's work was the characterizations and their chemistry with each other.The characters in B.C. are almost all the same character design, but they have individual personalities (except B.C. himself, who is the prototype middle of the road caveman that all the others are variations of).I like Hart's B.C. for many reasons, but I also like his second strip, "The Wizard Of Id" (that he co-produced with Brant Parker), for some of the same reasons, and for some different ones.

The B.C. characters are all the same design; the Wiz characters have more variety and are more cartoony.

The Wizard Of Id
Like B.C., "Id" is a comic that is about man's uglier sides. Unlike B.C. there isn't a single positive or admirable character in the whole strip. What we like about each character are his or her horrible flaws.

The whole strip glorifies the worst aspects of humanity.

Despite the title of the strip the main character is the King, not the Wizard. He's awful - and the hero of the strip. This King is a torturer, a warmonger, a liar and an oppressor who taxes his poverty stricken peasants mercilessly and he has a Napoleonic complex.

Rodney is a cowardly knight.He's also a great character design. I used to draw him all the time when I was a little punk.

Bung is a drunken jester.
Pettifogger is not only a drunk, but a sleazy lawyer.
Girls are either young and beautiful or old fat and ugly. (Repeating B.C. world-view) Gwen is the cute one; Blanche is the fat ugly nag - the only 2 types of women in a rat-pack world.
The Wizard is a bumbling sorcerer and henpecked husband who sometimes uses his magic to try to eliminate his nagging fattie of a wife.

The Spook is a dirty starved and beaten wretch, imprisoned and constantly tortured for merely calling the King a Fink.
These strips influenced me a lot; maybe not so obviously in the drawing style, but definitely in their fresh and honest way of portraying humanity. It made me realize that you could draw cartoons that reflect the way you see the world, rather than drawing cartoon characters that look and act the way you think cartoons are supposed to be. - It's the difference between being observant of the world, or merely observant of cartoons you like. This is something most of our business needs to learn today. We need to open our eyes and stop creating by rote.

I always wanted to animate The Wizard Of Id. I think it has a lot of the qualities that Segar's Popeye did. The characters are all fun designs; they have strong personalities and wouldn't need much monkeying with to adapt them to movement.

I talked to Johnny hart and Brant Parker's manager once, when I was making the first web cartoons. I wanted to start an online cartoon network and animate not only my own characters, but some classic comic strips too. She told me funny stories about how Hart and his crew worked.
Something really odd happened to Johnny Hart in his later years. The world's most cynical cartoonist (who used to make fun of religion in his comics) found Jesus. It's the last person you would ever imagine this happening to. But there you go. Life is crazy.