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.


Kali Fontecchio said...

I love Johnny Hart. They are fun to read, but I think I like the character designs in Wizard of Id better than BC.

Niki said...

Surprisingly, those morons on "Family Butt" seem to hate it. I read all the "Wizard of Id" comics here! Their hilarious!

Payo said...

Yeah, he threw a lot of religious stuff into the later B.C. strips too. It kind of bummed me out, but no more than a Bible citation on an In-n-Out cup does.

David said...

I have a little book of the Wizard of Id too! I always liked it, thanks to you I know why!

If you are ever gonna animate it, I would be happy to help you out. They would be nice as short internetclips or clips inbetween commercials.

I'm thinking about turning an existing comic strip into an animated series too!

Christer said...

Those comics were the only reason to pick up a Beetle Bailey comic book here in Norway. Thanks for calling my attention back to these.

Also, I've finally gotten around to make a real effort with the Preston Blair stuff (look here!) and I'd like to thank you for pointing that stuff out as well.

A.M.Bush said...

Never got into B.C., but the Wizard of Id images were very nostalgic to me. They probably influenced me without really thinking about it.

Ric said...

I only remember the game based on BC I knew it was based on a comic but I've never seen the actual strips. Looks like I would have enjoyed them though, I hate all the pc crap we have to put up with these days.

Anonymous said...

That reminds me of something Norm MacDonald said in an interview. He said Sam Kinison told him that the secret to doing good comedy is to talk about what ever you want, about what interests you. That's it. So if losing your luggage at the airport and doing laundry interest you, then go ahead, do routines on airport security.

So Norm says the number one thing he's interested in is death and disease, and the number two thing is the dirty dirty sex. So that's what he talks about.

That seems to be what Johnny Hart is doing.

Kelseigh said...

Man, pocket books. Between my brother and I, we had complete collections of BC and Wizard of Id, but also a couple of the books for Crock, which Parker did with Rechin and Wilder, and wasn't too far off the spirit of the other two. We also had a fair amount of Tom Ryan's Tumbleweeds, which could be pretty cynical and bizarre in its own right, although a lot more firm in design.

I checked out Hart's strips much later, a few years before he died, and was very disappointed to see just how much of his old magic had fled. Drawings didn't have the same life, and the gags seemed like he was phoning them in. Props to him for dying in the manner of a true, lifelong cartoonist, though.

mike f. said...

I thought Thor, Peter and B.C. were all the same character when I was a kid. (Despite that character description chart, I still can't tell the difference between them. They're pretty much interchangeable.)

Clumsy Carp looks like Eddie, doesn't he? Grog was always my favorite. Pure id, as was the sordid, Peyton Place world of the ants.

The Wizard of Id had more visual variety for me. Hart came up with the original idea for the strip by flipping through a deck of cards. As in B.C., the animals in Id are hilarious - like that cool dragon. The horses got even weirder as time went on. They usually appeared with the two sardonic stablehands. (Hart and Parker would cut to them whenever they had a "shit" joke, which was pretty often.)

The lawyer - Larson E. Pettifogger, was based on W.C. Fields' radio and movie character, Larson E. Whipsnade. Hart always had the best doctor and lawyer jokes. The doctor's name, I just found out after flipping through Strike the Sot!, was Dr. Puckerstein.

The whole strip is screaming to be animated. What a shame they chose to animate garbage like Dilbert instead. (Brant Parker had an alternate strip called Goosemeyer in the early '80s, a satire of office workers and government bureaucracy. It was short-lived, but it was a whole lot better than Dilbert.)

Bung could only have been voiced by the great Foster Brooks, no one else could have done it justice.

I have a couple of original Id strips from the sixties. In one, the Spook is shaved to look like a French poodle. In another, the King inspects Rodney's hapless troops, and asks how the white flags are holding out. Parker had a style that translated perfectly to print. His original drawings are actually looser, they tighten up when they're reduced.

Eventually, both strips got too dry for their own good. The best years were the early ones, right before the (ugh!) seventies - when American popular culture began to go south...

Peggy said...

By the seventies, both "B.C." and "Id" seemed to have had all their fire gone. Maybe it got squeezed out by the shrinking comics pages; maybe Hart mellowed out. I've seen the early "B.C." strips but I'd never seen the early "Id"; I'm really surprised to find it had bite because it was always 'that lame strip about the king' to me.

And when Hart got religion and turned "B.C." into his pulpit, it just went straight to mawkish preachyness.

Chris_Garrison said...

I want to hear the funny stories about Hart and his crew.

Mike Caracappa said...

This was a great post. I have always been interested in doing a webcomic of my own. I work in the shipping department of a film lab, and one of my hobbies there is drawing comic strips for my coworkers. They are pretty cynical, but I've found the more I've actually gone out on a limb to push the cynicisim farther, the funnier the comics turn out to be. Again, it's just comics about my workplace, but I've been trying to make up stories and show my own point of view.
I also never really read Wizard of ID till you posted this. They're great! I'll have to find my own copies now.

Simon W-H said...

Yes, I'd like to hear the funny stories too. These strips would be in certain British news papers...that's how I found them.

Trevor Thompson said...

My friends and I used to eat special brownies and read them.

I knew it!

- trevor.

Ted said...

That's the funniest Family Circus I've ever seen...

Brubaker said...

Ah, I love those early BC/Wizard strips. I still have a ton of book collections with those strips.

The two strips were animated before, as matter of fact. "BC: The First Thanksgiving", directed by Abe Levitow and animated by some of Chuck Jones' former crew, came out in the seventies. Hart wrote it along with his assistant Jack Caprio.

Art-wise it was very faithful to the visuals in the strip. And it had very little dialogue, a rarity for a cartoon made in the seventies.

There was also a Christmas special made 10 years later by a different studio, but I've never seen it.

And supposidly there were Wizard of Id animated segments made for Chuck Jones' "Curiosity Shop". Never seen them, though.

And this is for Mike F. who brought up "Goosemyer". I uploaded a bunch of old Goose Sunday strips a while back on my blog. If anyone's curious, here you go:

Elana Pritchard said...

I'll admit I find the "rat pack world" concept charming, but when taken too far it's also alienating. There's nothing wrong with kitchy fun, and I like a guy in a suit as much as the next girl, but it's seriously frustrating in real life when you feel put in a box because of your gender. I wouldn't bring it up if it wasn't a reality I have to deal with all of the time.

Sigh... I guess I'll always be the viewpoint from the other side of the teeter-totter on this subject because it's not in my nature to keep quiet and not say anything when something bugs me.

Elana Pritchard said...

p.s. There is a special place in hell for the creator of Family Circus

Brubaker said...


In fairness, Keane does get a thumbs up from me for linking to other comics that makes fun of "Family Circus" on his website.

And I know he's friends with Stephan Pastis, who once did a "Pearls Before Swine" storyline that featured Osama Bin Laden living with the Family Circus family and they didn't notice because they were so stuck in the past that they didn't know 9/11 happened

Pearls is probably the most cynical strip ever, since they show absolutely NOTHING positive about the world.

Chip Butty said...

Waitaminnit, that Family Circus has a daddy-drinks joke! Family Circus used to DO that?!? Gosh, even the world's lamest comic strip used to be better...

Thanks for enlightening us on Johnny Hart, I always assumed BC and Wizard of Id had always been lame. The strip with the ants watching the whale and dinosaur fight is a perfect political cartoon - a subtle point with well rendered cartoon violence.

On the topic of newspaper strips, what did you think of Bloom County?

Isaac said...

It's seriously frustrating in real life when you feel put in a box because of your gender

I think it's important not to alienate women. It's easy too; just portray things the way they really are.

Larry Levine said...

Does anyone here remember Chuck Jones' strip "Crawford"? Easily the best strip of the 1970s.

Jack Ruttan said...

One idea like "rat pack" doesn't really explain the whole era. I'd look at Jules Feiffer, the Beats, and Lenny Bruce. Also UPA cartoons, Peanuts, and what they were doing in advertising at the time.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

What I found funny when I went through those early years of B.C. is the fact that Johnny Hrt never 'found' relegion, but that it was always there. I have many more early B.C. Sundays and it's amazing how many feature the idea or sometimes even presence of God. He just was a lot funnier about it in the early days.

I particulary like B.C. for it's pantimime humor or often dialogue-less timing. There seems to be an animation connection there. But I don;t know how it would be fun to animate. Because most of the time the characters just stand around and barely act or react.

To Elana I say that she should have a look at Keane's much funnier Channel Chuckles (on his own website) which makes his bowing down to the general taste of the public even more tragic.

And to Peggy I say, that not having lived with these strips daily in the seventies, I found it a real surprise that it was often just as good in the seventies as it was in the sixties. Especially on the Sundays.

Anonymous said...


Any theories on the change from decade to decade of comic strips, similar to your theories about cartoons in the same period?

Obviously, newspaper cartoonists weren't evolving a technique based on collaboratively developed principles as animated cartoonists were, but I'd be interested to read your observations on general trends.

Niki said...

John, I have a problem.

I really need help on this bear, I only posted the first three I did but now all the next ones have been horrendous I'm in need. I think it's my eyes.

Preston's bear

Kelseigh said...

I see a lot of people hating on Family Circus for it's lameness, and rightfully so. But how many of you remember Henry? By the time I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, it was sure pretty bad. About on par with Bazooka Joe.

lastangelman said...

Now you got me digging out all my yellowed flaking BC and Wizard of Id paperbacks. I used to eat that stuff up like it was ice cream. I could ignore the Jesus thing for a while but then both strips got less funny and then after Sept 11th, he went to unfunny, religious and prejudiced. He became a character from his own strip.

I would cut out and collect Family Circus's, use my Mom's correction fluid to erase the script and write my own Family Bezerkus panels, then show 'em to classmates.

Without a doubt, I loved cowardly Rodney and Bung the drunken jester and the poor unfortunate Spook. The most useless character was The Duke. He looked funny and haughty with the big chin, but he was nothing but a straight man, nothing to like about him.

There was a few animated BC and Wizard of Id animated cartoons in the 70s that were done by Chuck Jones or Abe Levitow I think, that appeared on the Saturday mornibg kid's program, The Olde Curiosity Shoppe, mainly a live action show with puppets. Mercifully, they didn't have any of Chuck's feminine soft style that he had drifted into by that time.

Christine Gerardi said...

John, what do you think about Calvin and Hobbes?

Rick Roberts said...

Hey John,

I wanted to apologize about what I said to you. I took it personally because I was very depressed that day. Can you forgive me ?

JohnK said...

It's one of the best comics of the last 25 years.

Rick Roberts said...

I am really tired of polite Comics, they think that real humor is a bad pun. You know, I think the people who write award shows get there material from these comics.

Niki said...

>>It's one of the best comics of the last 25 years.

Totally called it! My teacher was talking about Calvin and Hobbes one day, I answered just about all his questions! In the back of my head I was think, "John would love this!"

Hans Flagon said...

I think it was a Fantagraphics Comics Journal interveiw with Brant Parker that revealed the beginnings of BC. Hart started playing with the idea with some caveman single panel gags he was selling.

When BC and or Id was sold as a strip, Apparently he and Parker locked themselves in an apartment with heavy supplies of liquor, knocked out a few weeks of the strip, and tricked a syndicate guy into coming up to look at the stuff.

The religion might have always have been there somewhat, via Wileys poetry and philosophy, Clumsy Carp, et al, but it did not become heavy handed where all cynicism and humor had been removed until later in the career. There is a definate switch where you see the strip simply stop being funny, stop playing off the foibles of the characters.

I think that there may have been some money troubles pushing it. He had one of the most successful strips around, but the syndicate was playing hard ball, and he started his own Creators Syndicate. Newspapers were really not giving a flying leap through a rolling donut about strips anymore anyway. Mass Market Collections stopped being made as larger trade paperbacks that could sell for a higher price became the norm, and his work became way preachy, and not funny at all.

Brad said...

Our newspaper has B.C. and Wizard of Id in it, don't know if that's a rarity, or if they're anything like they used to be, but I've always liked those two strips.

Peter Bernard said...

He didn't just "find Jesus" he became a full-on asshole rightwing Born Again jerkoff. Which is what he was clearly leading toward with all his backward caveman attitudes which you so lovingly admire here. It was no surprise to me seeing Jesus crap in his strips, he had always been such an Al Crapp-type in my mind. Terrible comics-- comic strips died when guys like this started making tons of money for scribbles.

Kyle Baker said...

Johnny Hart was one of the first artists I used to swipe as a kid.I still use those proportions today, the fat nose and big belly over long skinny legs ending in flat feet. Tex Avery's Raid bugs and Sergio Aragones' cartoons also have those proportions. Great contrasts of big round shapes next to skinny angular shapes. Everybody looks like chess pieces!

Hans Flagon said...

There is usually a time after a strip has built up its cast of characters where the creator simply doesn't seem to be able to work with them anymore.

For BC, the turning point may have been Grog, which was a more primiitive caveman type amongst the crew, then a focus on the ant and anteater strips, possibly because they were easier to draw. Grog had a preexisting analog in Id.

For Peanuts, I think the beginning of the end was when Snoopy stopped walking on all fours, and started having thought balloons. Which unfortunately coincided with Schulz starting to make handover fist money from the franchise. The nails in the coffin were probably when Peppermint Patty took over the strip for a couple of decades.

In the need to stay fresh, a lot of lovely characters get neglected forever.

mike f. said...

He didn't just "find Jesus" he became a full-on asshole rightwing Born Again jerkoff... It was no surprise to me seeing Jesus crap in his strips, he had always been such an Al Crapp-type in my mind.

What mind? Ignorant bigots like Mr. Bernard, spitting stupidity and hatred. If you're too stupid to understand comics, Peter, then what else is there?

mike f. said...

By the way - Capp was Jewish, idiot.

John A said...

It's too bad they never did animate the Wizard of Id, I always thought the variety of characters lent themselves better to the half hour format like the Flintstones or the Jetsons at H-B.

While I prefer B.C. as a comic strip, it was really just a gag strip with little room for character development (B.C. has also appeared animated for a couple of commercials for the ACTION corp. back in the late seventies)

There was some talk, back around the time the Popeye movie was made,that a studio was considering a live action Wizard of Id movie. I've always hated these things, as I've never been able to figure out why a studio would want to throw out the most appealing part of a comic strip (the graphics!)It's like buying the rights to a song and throwing out the words and lyrics and just keeping the title.

Brubaker said...

John A, as others (including myself) have pointed out, the Wizard WAS the Chuck Jones crew.

I just remembered that Jim Henson made a pilot for the Wizard of Id using puppets. It was short, only few minutes long. It was pretty funny from my understanding. Anyone have a copy?

Anyone also have a copy of the Jones-produced Wizard and BC sequences? (Dennis the Menace, Miss Peach and other strips were also animated for "Curiosity Shop")

If you do, contact me at cbrubaker at gmail dot com, will ya?

John A said...

What I meant was that it(the Wizard of Id) was never animated for more than just a few snippets when it's obvious that the setting and the personalities of the individual characters would work in a longer(weekly half-hour TV show) format.

B.C. was animated for a Thanksgiving special with some success, but I doubt if anyone could adapt its largely panel gag-based comedy for 13 episodes or more.

John A said...

What I meant was that it(the Wizard of Id) was never animated for more than just a few snippets when it's obvious that the setting and the personalities of the individual characters would work in a longer(weekly half-hour TV show) format.

B.C. was animated for a Thanksgiving special with some success, but I doubt if anyone could adapt its largely panel gag-based comedy for 13 episodes or more.

Hierarchist said...

There was one Id strip that I remember. One of the characters was in the hospital, and the nurse was using the first-person plural, as an insipid caretaker's nicety: "We look like we've had a good night's sleep." "Yeah." And we haven't had any fever or coughing?" "No." "Are you ready for your enema?" "What happened to that old team spirit?"