The Comic Strip Doctor: B.C.

in 500 years anthropologists are going to think this is what we thought of prehistoric times

Our examinations of The Wizard of Id and Crock lead naturally to Johnny Hart’s prehistoric masterwork, B.C. Amazingly, 2004 marks the forty-sixth year of the caveman-themed strip. Johnny Hart, co-creator of Id, has for the last twenty years been devoted to the zealous ideal of bringing the occasional vague Christian symbol to the comics page. In the following strip, originally published on 11/10/03, he has created the medium’s most ridiculous excuse for social commentary:

this took three panels
(Click the image to zoom in.)

In the first panel, a character (presumably the titular caveman B.C.) climbs a hill towards an outhouse precariously perched at the summit. It is night, and a crescent moon in the sky matches the moon cut-out on the outhouse door.

B.C. enters the outhouse, and decides to violently slam the door behind him: the word SLAM appears vertically between the first and second panel. In the second panel, the outhouse sits still beneath the moon as B.C. presumably struggles with his digestive efforts. In the third panel, B.C.’s voice rises from the outhouse: “Is it just me, or does it stink in here?”

At first glance, this strip seems to make little to no sense as a work of humor. This is the first indication that it may, instead, be intended as a work of social commentary; after all, political cartoons are rarely humorous.

This strip has elicited a fair amount of controversy, which I’ll touch on later. First, let’s try and figure out the joke. Hart doesn’t give us a lot of choices. The outhouse stinks; that much is clear. Does it stink because B.C. dropped a monster load, and therefore it’s funny (ironic) that he’s complaining about it? Or does it just stink in general, like outhouses do, and B.C. should have known that — why is he surprised, in other words?

Although Hart is not as lazy an artist as Mell Lazarus or the wizards behind Id and Crock, his idea of humor typically means setup-punchline, often in two panels, with little action and usually a fourth-wall expression at the end that implies a rimshot somewhere offstage.  There’s certainly precedent to argue that this strip is simply stupid. But the strip-as-bad-joke explanation leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Why is it night? Why does B.C. slam the door? Why do cavemen need outhouses?

The third of these concerns is the most easily addressed. B.C. is an anachronous strip. (For the last several weeks, the characters have been playing golf.) Although I have personally never seen an outhouse in a strip before, the characters do share a universe with archaic versions of telephones, dictionaries, unicycles and crucifixes, as well as references to power tools, white-out and X-rated movies (not all in the same strip). The presence of the outhouse is no more bizarre than a joke-dispensing rock with a foot-pedal.

The crescent moon, of course, is a common outhouse symbol — originally, apparently, a star was used for the male privy and a crescent for the ladies (back when not everyone was necessarily literate). The crescent and star are also symbols of Islam, dating to the 1453 conquering of Constantinople by the Turks, who adopted the ancient Sumerian symbols of night as their religious icons. It is this second interpretation of the crescent moon symbol that has thrust this rather stupid strip into a fierce debate.

Islamic groups accused the above strip of harboring an anti-Muslim message, claiming that the use of the crescent moon, coupled with the vertical (or “I”-shaped) arrangement of the word “SLAM”, indicated that Hart was referring to Islam as something that “stinks”. According to their interpretation, character B.C. was claiming that “something stinks” in the religion of Islam.

Since the 1980s, Hart has used his internationally syndicated comic strip as a vehicle to share his political and ideological viewpoint with the masses, as is his right, and as have many other comic artists before and since. Hart is particularly known in the fundamentalist Christian community as a standard-bearer, filling his Sunday strips in particular with Christian verse, iconography and thematic material.

Given that some fundamentalist Christian organizations have a history of thinking poorly of Islam, the “offensive” interpretation seems like it might hold water. It certainly explains the nighttime setting (which, requiring the application of halftones, takes more time to draw than daytime, so there must have been a reason) and the odd way that B.C. slammed the outhouse door.

In a Slate interview, Hart commented on one of his frequent gags, the character of Fat Broad beating a snake with a club:

I used to have her up in the air with her club always beating. And then after a while I figured probably by now everybody knew! Now I substitute a panel that says, Wham, wham, wham, wham! … A lot of times we draw more than we need to draw. It’s always really classy to let the reader in on it, let him do most of the work.

Hart explains here the concept of using sound effects instead of showing an action — this is a common device that he uses. He likes to show very little, and let the reader interpret the action (in the interview he likens it to using your imagination while listening to a radio show). While I understand and appreciate the technique, drawing the word “SLAM” or “WHAM” as a part of a joke seems lazy. As Hart says later in the interview, “I was tired of drawing her beating up on the snake!”

So it’s certainly possible that the “SLAM” in the above strip is not a slam on Islam, but rather sloppy storytelling. However. Hart has drawn a syndicated comic strip for nearly fifty years. He’s sold millions of books and presides over an empire. He’s gotten away with saying whatever he wants (and getting very, very celebrated by Christian groups who call him all sorts of nice things for being so brave) for a very long time, and even weathered the Los Angeles Times pulling him entirely after a controversial Easter strip featuring a menorah burning down into a crucifix. He still says whatever he wants in his strip, as is his right to do, even when it doesn’t jibe with what is generally acceptable in our culture. (Editors nationwide pulled a strip on January 19 that featured two cavemen discussing unseen Asian brothers who fail in their attempt to build a working airplane. The punchline: “Two Wongs don’t make a Wright.”) He is celebrated for taking a conservative, fundamentalist view of the world.  It has become his bread and butter — Christian audiences will defend him because of his message, not because of the quality of his product.

I think remembering not to fall asleep in his oatmeal is higher on Hart’s list of things to do than being subversive:

Talk about a lapse. We did the same [Wizard of Id] gag within a two-month period.  And nobody caught it! Well, see, it wasn’t like we wrote out the gag and then did it and forgot to throw it away, and then did it again—it wasn’t that at all. We rethought it up again, you know, and sent it to Brant [Parker] and Brant did it both times! … Because it was a short span of time, it was almost word for word.

But I think he drew up the above strip not thinking that there was anything wrong with it. After all, Muslim terrorists attacked our country a few years ago! Clearly, any reasonable person must agree that something stinks in Islam, right? We’re a solid, Christian nation, and my readers know that Islam is bad.

Asked about the outhouse strip this week, Hart denied that it was about Islam at all. He said that interpretation stunned him.

“My goodness. That’s incredible. That’s unbelievable!”

…According to Hart, the joke was about the ambiguous authorship of a bad smell. The SLAM, Hart said, was simply there to show that the caveman had walked into the outhouse. The crescent moons were there to indicate it was nighttime, and because outhouses have crescent moons.

“This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam — subliminal or otherwise,” he said. “It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people’s beliefs. If you should have any further silly notions about malicious intent from this quarter, you can save yourself a phone call.”

Notice the subtle way he wove the mention of his Christianity in there? Isn’t it enough that it be against one’s ethics to insult other people’s beliefs? Mentioning Christianity certainly doesn’t clarify the issue — it muddles it, given fundamentalist Christianity’s uneven track record in respecting Islam.

But we’re here to talk about comic strips, not religion. Let’s fix this strip, shall we?

Panel 1: B.C. walks into outhouse. SLAM!
Panel 2: Silence in the outhouse.
Panel 3: B.C.: “Next time, unzip AFTER slamming the door.”

Until next time… I’ll see you in the funny papers.

– May, 2004

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