Johnny Hart couldn't decide whether to become an entertainer or a cartoonist, "until God routed me in this direction and seated me at a drawing board."
Today, even after his sudden death a few days ago, the creator of the comic strips "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id" is the most widely syndicated cartoonist in the world. An estimated 100 million readers of 1,300 newspapers enjoy Hart's "humor with a message" because, he explains, "that's the way God worked."
I'm always fascinated by the "route" God takes to lead a person to Himself. Much of the time it's obvious the labyrinth of a godly life couldn't have developed by human effort alone. But in the life of Johnny Hart, I was surprised both by God's persistence and by the roundabout method He used in attracting his attention.
For example, besides his drawing board, visitors to Hart's studio would find a drum set in one corner and a piano in another. The instruments are a throwback to his Air Force days in Korea when, in addition to drawing cartoons for the Pacific Stars And Stripes, he was part of "a little troupe" that entertained GIs. One night a colonel, who also owned a nightclub, gave Johnny his card.
"The moment you get out of the service," he said, "I want you to look me up. You're already booked." But when that "moment" came, Johnny couldn't find the colonel's card. "So, I had to become a cartoonist. See how God worked?"
But where did all this "God stuff" come from? Did he have a church background? Not at all. His family rarely went to church.
Johnny grew up during the Depression when the only job his father could find was with the fire department. Years later, when Johnny's studio caught fire, his father raced to help his son. At the risk of his own life he broke into the building, determined Johnny wasn't there, and then kept the other firefighters from hosing down the room where Johnny kept all his original strips.
He didn't have to save his son's life, but he saved his life's work. It's doubtful any other firefighter would have been so careful. God had "routed" his father, too.
Johnny had always been captivated by Bible stories, if not with the God those stories reveal - until another experience he now adds to his "story of faith."
In 1977 Johnny and his wife built a house and studio on a 150-acre tract of land. Friends of one of the carpenters asked if they could use some of his property to test their new satellite systems. Johnny obliged.
"These guys were 'born-again' Christians," he said, "so while they were doing all that testing and setting up, they used a Christian TV station as a test pattern. With a set in every room, I couldn't go anywhere without someone preaching at me." At first he was annoyed, and then hooked.
"Suddenly, I'm having favorite preachers and whenever one of them came on I'd drop my pen and listen."
Johnny wondered what made those satellite men come to his place, and why they didn't test their work on another channel.
"Like I didn't know," he said. It "was orchestrated by God."
Today, Johnny Hart's library is stocked with Bibles, Bible commentaries and notebooks on what he's learned.
"It's a room worthy of a seminarian or even a seminary professor," says Rick Marschall, who interviewed Hart for the Atlanta-based cartoon magazine, Hogan's Alley.
"Whenever I have time to read," Johnny says, "I read the Bible."
It shows. Check the "B.C." comic strip, especially around a religious holiday, and you're apt to see the rays of a sunset form a cross.
Doesn't any of this "God stuff" bother an editor?
Occasionally, like the year the Los Angeles Times refused to run his Good Friday strip. But before his agent could call to complain, the paper hired a new comics editor who had no objection to the religious content.
"Funny how God works," he said.
Johnny Hart's comic strips are expected to continue, even though the real or symbolic "hart (deer) that pants after... God" (Psalm 42:1) has left us.
No doubt God has "routed" just the right person to take his place.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local, free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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