Cartoonist Johnny Hart, who created the popular Stone Age comic strip "B.C." and generated controversy in recent years with overtly religious themes reflecting his evangelical Christian beliefs, died Saturday, the day before Easter. He was 76.
Hart, who also collaborated with Brant Parker on the medieval comic strip "The Wizard of Id," died of a stroke while working at his home studio in Nineveh, N.Y., his wife, Bobby, told the Associated Press.
"B.C.," a sparely drawn cartoon featuring prehistoric men, women and animals, has been syndicated since 1958. It is distributed to more than 1,300 newspapers worldwide, according to Creators Syndicate Inc., and has an audience of more than 100 million. The Times ran "B.C." from 1968 until 2001.
Hart began imparting Christian messages, especially at Christmas and Easter, in the 1980s, after experiencing a religious conversion. Some Jewish, Muslim and secular readers complained to newspapers and to the syndicate, saying his views were offensive or inappropriate for the comics page and better suited for the op-ed pages.
But many Christian readers gave overwhelmingly positive reaction to his unapologetic statements, and free speech advocates spoke up for his right to express himself.
He did not hesitate to express his religious views in other forums, telling the Washington Post in a 1999 interview, "Jews and Muslims who don't accept Jesus will burn in hell," and "Homosexuality is the handiwork of Satan," and "The end of the world is approaching, maybe by the year 2010."
Several newspapers refused to publish individual cartoons on a case-by-case basis, but others stopped publishing "B.C." altogether after his Easter 2001 cartoon drew substantial protests. The panel depicted a menorah changing gradually into a cross, and the text included some of Jesus' last words during the Crucifixion.
The Times discontinued the strip one week before that cartoon appeared.
Critics called the cartoon divisive and outrageous. Hart issued a statement apologizing for offending readers and added, "I sincerely hope that this cartoon will generate increased interest in religious awareness."
This year's Easter cartoon also focused on Jesus' crucifixion.
"B.C." isn't the only cartoon to address religion. "Peanuts," "The Family Circus" and "Dennis the Menace" have sometimes featured biblical passages or church activities around major Christian holidays, but usually with a gently sentimental tone.
And many cartoons that aim for social or political commentary draw the ire of critics, most notably "Doonesbury."
"Comics have always been a vehicle for personal expression," Lucy Shelton Caswell, a professor and curator of Ohio State University's cartoon research library, told The Times in 2001. "And they've always ticked people off."
Less controversial was "The Wizard of Id" and its cast of characters set in a medieval castle. Hart provided the text and Parker draws the pictures for the cartoon, which was launched in 1964 and appears in more than 1,000 newspapers worldwide.
The two artists met in 1950, when Parker was working for the Binghamton Press in upstate New York and Hart was a high school student.
John Lewis Hart was born Feb. 18, 1931, in Endicott, N.Y. After graduating from Union-Endicott High School in 1949, Hart joined the Air Force and drew cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. He met his wife in Georgia while he was still in the service, and they married in 1952.
He left the Air Force in 1953 and sold his first freelance cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post.
While working in the art department at General Electric, he continued to sell cartoons to such magazines as Colliers and True before hitting it big with "B.C." in 1958.
The strip's episodes have been compiled in several books, and the cartoon was used for years to promote the B.C. Open professional golf tournament in upstate New York, which raises tens of thousands of dollars for local charities.
In addition to his wife, Hart is survived by two daughters.
Richard Newcombe, founder of Creators Syndicate, said Sunday that "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id" will continue, with the aid of Hart's family and computer archives of his drawings.