The nation's most widely read cartoonist is once again challenging a popular belief in the separation between church and the funny pages.
Johnny Hart's Stone Age comic "B.C." usually spoofs the human condition, but this Sunday's solemn panels are devoted to the last words of Jesus Christ during crucifixion. The comic strip depicts the candles of a menorah being extinguished one by one until the Judaic symbol is finally transformed into a cross.
The strip, which can be seen on the Internet, already has disappointed and angered some readers, religious leaders and newspapers, many of which are writing about the controversy and soliciting reader feedback. Critics argue Hart's message is that Christianity replaced Judaism as a viable religion 2,000 years ago, in much the same way as Judaism supplanted paganism in the ancient world.
The strip "is a canard against the Jewish people and will promote hatred rather than tolerance and diversity," said Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The center called on newspapers to pull the Easter Sunday strip or, at the least, to condemn it editorially.
Irv Rubin, head of the Jewish Defense League, was even harsher in his criticism. "It encourages Christians to be more Christian by burning up a sacred Jewish symbol," he said. "It's an outrage." His L.A.-based organization has the strip posted on its Web site, http://www.jdl.org.
But the evangelical Christian cartoonist, who was not available for comment, issued a statement explaining his purpose was merely to honor both Easter and Passover.
"I sincerely apologize if I have offended any readers," wrote Hart, whose strip appears in 1,300 publications. "I also sincerely hope that this cartoon will generate increased interest in religious awareness."
The 70-year-old Hart, who works from a studio in Endicott, N.Y., began introducing overtly Christian themes into his work in the early 1980s when he experienced a religious conversion.
Since that time, Hart hasn't been shy about promoting his beliefs, no matter how harsh or controversial. Hart told the Washington Post in 1999: "Jews and Muslims who don't accept Jesus will burn in hell," "Homosexuality is the handiwork of Satan," and, "The end of the world is approaching, maybe by the year 2010."
It's too early to tell whether Hart's latest foray into religious commentary will boost or deflate his already considerable popularity. Officials with L.A.-based Creators Syndicate, which distributes "B.C.," said they won't know for another week how many, if any, publications have declined to print Hart's Easter strip.
"There's bound to be cancellations," said Richard S. Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate, who defended Hart in more than 20 interviews this week with newspapers, magazines and television stations. "Some have mistakenly interpreted the strip to be anti-Jewish," he added. "That's ridiculous. What he's saying is that Christianity is rooted in Judaism."
This Sunday isn't the first time newspapers have balked at running Hart's strips with powerful Christian themes. In recent years, major newspapers in Denver, Chicago and Washington have either pulled individual strips or dropped the comic altogether because of its religious overtones.
The Los Angeles Times, which also has withheld some of Hart's past Christian-themed strips, discontinued "B.C.," effective this past Sunday. The Times, however, will continue to run "The Wizard of Id," on which Hart collaborates with another cartoonist.
A Times official said there was no connection between the Easter strip and the decision to drop the cartoon, which it had been running since 1968. "We made this decision a few weeks ago," said Martha Goldstein, a Times spokeswoman. "It was a broad decision based on a lot of factors."
At press time, no major newspapers were pulling the Easter strip, in large part because the Sunday comics had already been printed. However, some papers, such as the Houston Chronicle and the Tampa Tribune, will acknowledge the controversy in news stories or in notes on the comics page. Some papers, including the Arizona Republic and the Boston Herald, will also be asking for reader feedback on the strip.
Cancellations within the world of comic strips are common, according to Lucy Shelton Caswell, professor and curator of Ohio State University's cartoon research library. Removals, however, are usually prompted by strips with pointed social or political commentary such as "Boondocks" and "Doonesbury." Frequently, if there are enough reader complaints about the removals, the comic strips are reinstated, she added.
"Comics have always been a vehicle for personal expression," said Caswell, who oversees a collection of 250,000 original cartoons and 2.5 million clippings. "And they've always ticked people off."
Religion and comic strips have mixed before Hart's recent efforts. Charles Schulz, the late creator of "Peanuts," occasionally employed Christian text in strips. One showed Linus losing his sandcastle to a rainstorm and then, paraphrasing the gospel of Matthew, stating: "It rains on the just and the unjust, Charlie Brown."
Other strips, such as "The Family Circus" and "Dennis the Menace," have adopted religious messages as well. Usually such themes coincided with major Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter. Still, these other comic strips rarely generate the same heated discussion because they were not drawn with Hart's unapologetic, evangelical tone.
Some Jewish leaders agree that Hart's Easter panel should give Jews little cause for concern. "I really don't find it offensive," said Steven Teitelbaum, a Los Angeles-based regional president of the American Jewish Congress. "I think it shows a very conservative literal interpretation of the origins of Christianity."