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Unfunny Sunday Funnies

As I've argued before, monocultural thinking is woven into our social fabric. Bias pervades everything from the lofty Shakespearean play to the lowly comic strip. It's so commonplace we overlook it, taking what we think is "normal" for granted.

Johnny Hart's B.C. is a good example of this cultural bias. The strip has always had a pro-Christian bent. But a recent Sunday strip made B.C.'s assumptions painfully obvious.

Hart's Easter strip presented a Jewish menorah lit with seven flames. Each panel showed one of Christ's last utterances followed by a flame going out. As the last flame disappeared, accompanied by the words "It is finished," the menorah became a cross. The final panel showed a cross on a hill behind an open cave, with the epitaph, "Do this in remembrance of me."

Jews quickly denounced this strip, calling it an example of "replacement theology": the notion that Christianity has supplanted Judaism because it's a "better" religion. Hart, a born-again Christian, denied this and claimed he was honoring both religions. Richard Newcombe, president of the syndicate that distributes B.C., said charges of anti-Semitism were "ridiculous."

To invoke another comic strip, what a crock. Hart is either a colossal liar or in deep denial about his motivations.

A Google search of the Web didn't turn up any official statement of Hart's saying he wanted to honor both religions. It did turn up a statement in which he complains about being persecuted. Hart cherishes his right of free speech, but protests when others exercise the same right against his comic strip.

According to his statement, Hart's motivation for the Easter strip was as follows: "I wanted everyone to see the cross in the Menorah. It was a revelation to me, that tied God's chosen people to their spiritual next of kin—the disciples of the Risen Christ."

Well, there you go. The statement says nothing about honoring or recognizing Judaism. In fact, "spiritual next of kin" implies what Hart's critics said—that he thinks Judaism is dying and being replaced by Christianity. The phrase "next of kin" is used only in the context of someone's—or something's—death.

How exactly does a menorah being snuffed out with the words "It is finished" honor Judaism? If Hart wanted to acknowledge both religions, why not put a menorah and cross side by side in the final panel with a message both Jews and Christians could embrace? If Hart's goal was to show Christianity's roots, how about juxtaposing a "big brother" menorah and a "little brother" cross? Wouldn't that represent the relationship between the two living religions better than an extinguished menorah?

Several newspapers withheld this blatantly prejudiced Sunday strip. Claiming it was just a coincidence, the Los Angeles Times canceled B.C. To which I can only add, good riddance.

I've reported on B.C.'s bias against Native Americans before (ICI #15). Consider B.C.'s setup as a whole. The main protagonists are Peter and Thor—two buff, blond males with strong Anglo-Saxon names. Their negative counterpart is Clumsy, a four-eyed geek. The only two women characters don't merit first names; they're called the Cute Chick and the Fat Broad.

The strip presumably takes place in the prehistoric Old World, but its contrivances include baseball, vehicles (wheels), and a Greek "Truth" column. There are no Neanderthals, no minorities, no practitioners of "primitive" religion—not even any children or elders. The recently-introduced native character, Conahonty, is the first exception to this homogenized cave world, and he's a Tonto-talking stereotype sequestered across the sea.

B.C. is hardly the only offender in this regard. Minorities are almost invisible in the funnies. Except for The Boondocks and Jump Start, no major strip stars a minority character. You have to search with a bloodhound to find minorities at all. Kim and Honey in Doonesbury, Asok in Dilbert, Hector in Zits...and that's about it. Other minor ethnic characters, such as Franklin in Peanuts, are mere tokens.

And except for The Boondocks again, all the minority characters are upbeat, upwardly-mobile members of the middle class. Lacking culturual beliefs or characteristics, they might as well be Anglos. They're Oreos, coconuts, or bananas—colored on the outside, white on the inside.

Like comic books, comic strips show us ourselves in a fun-house mirror. This Easter strip is just the latest example. Media problems like this will persist unless we stand up and protest them.

Herman's natives
The 4/29/01 Herman strip showed an Indian seated at a desk as Christopher Columbus arrived. Columbus tried to say hello and the Indian interrupted him with bureaucratic questions. The Indian finally sent Columbus to the end of a long line of newcomers.

I guess this was meant to be a commentary on the Europeans' illegal immigration. As humor, it would've made a good editorial cartoon. But one detail was worth noting. The "civilized" Native had a human skull atop a pole and another In front of his desk.

The implication is that Indians were savage headhunters. In reality, the Taino Indians who met Columbus were friendly and guileless—so much so that Columbus likened them to children. It was Columbus and his son Ferdinand who began killing Natives savagely, not the other way around.

Thankfully, ethnic humor has almost disappeared from view. You won't see many jokes about blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, or foreigners in the funny pages, but jokes about Indians pop up occasionally. We've learned not to insult other minorities, but Indians are still considered fair game—perhaps because people wrongly think they're "history." Between sports mascots and old Westerns, Indian stereotypes are legion.

Some will say we should ignore stereotypes like B.C.'s and Herman's because "they're just cartoons." I have to disagree. Cartoon characters from Mickey Mouse to Pokémon are famed around the world. According to surveys, more children know Joe Camel and the Budweiser lizards than the president of the United States. The Apollo 10 command and lunar modules were named after Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

These facts suggest how influential the media is. In particular, how influential cartoons and cartoon-like characters are. Most people couldn't tell you a thing about Greek, mediaeval, or colonial history, but almost everyone can identify Hercules, Robin Hood, or Washington chopping down a cherry tree. As the cliché says, an image is worth a thousand words.

A couple of lame cartoons won't ruin anyone's mind, but they're symptomatic of the problems we face. They reflect what we believe as a society. To address sicknesses such as racism and violence, we must first understand our cultural biases.

Toon fest
Going by the theory that it takes a 'toon to fight a 'toon, I've added or linked to several online cartoons. These include Rob Davis's political cartoons, Latuff's anti-violence cartoons, and new PEACE PARTY political cartoons. Check 'em out.

Readers respond
"I gave up reading over a year ago due to his constant foisting of religion on his readers."
"I found the offending strip at the library and decided to change my vote from Hart-in-Denial to Hart-Colossal-Liar."

Related links
Native comic strips vs. comic books

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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