If it's Before Christ, why is it all Jesusy?

I haven't really given "B.C." more than a cursory glance when I read a newspaper since I was about ten years old. In my memory, it's never been all that funny - though folks older than me say that it was pretty funny back in the '60s and '70s - and you always had at least a 50/50 shot of reading about Jesus, or thinly veiled swipes at Islam and Judaism. So Johnny Hart's recent death didn't affect me in the same way as Charles Schulz's.

His death has raised an interesting issue for some comics readers, though: should a strip end when its creator retires or dies? Many folks out there are saying that the strip needs to be retired once the last of Hart's comics runs, rather than have it taken over by Hart's family and former assistants. Mark Evanier, a comc strip fan and somebody who knows a thing or two about the comics biz, has some (okay, lots of) thoughts on the matter. He makes several valid points.

Newspaper comics are at least as much a business as an art. The comics in the newspaper are little more than useful commodities for the syndicates, little different than the daily sudoku, the horoscopes, the chess column, or any of the other content syndicates provide for newspapers. It's in the best interests of the syndicate, which far more often than not owns the comic strip in question lock, stock and barrel, to keep it running as long as enough papers carry it to keep it profitable. There are endless examples on any newspaper comics page of strips that are on their third, fourth or fifth generation of creators, and still have a broad audience.

Where I really can't agree with Evanier is this fairly lame analogy:

It's interesting that there is this recurring discussion about whether comic strips should end when their creators die...or even when they've been around for a certain, undetemined amount of time. I can't think of another art form where this kind of thing is even considered. No one is suggesting that now that Vonnegut's dead, we get all those copies of Slaughterhouse-Five off the bookstore shelves to make more display room for new authors. Or — and this may be a better analogy — that today's musical performers should not record old songs, thereby creating more opportunity for new songwriters. Should great movies not be remade so as to make it easier for today's screenwriters?

Now, that just doesn't make a lick of sense.

The thing is, "B.C." will continue under Johnny Hart's byline. "Dennis the Menace" still runs under Hank Ketcham's byline, even though Ketcham has been dead for six years. But there's not a house out there publishing Slaughterhouse-Six under Kurt Vonnegut's name. The publisher of Scarlett didn't publish it under Margaret Mitchell's name, but rather gave credit to the book's actual author. When Madonna made that limp cover of "American Pie" a few years back, she released it as Madonna, not as Don McLean. The Steven Soderbergh-directed Ocean's 11 was not billed as starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

It is unsavory at best that the syndicate will make its money by trading on the goodwill that Johnny Hart developed working on his comic strip for 40 years. It is unsavory that his assistants and his family, rather than hiring somebody else to continue drawing the strip, plans simply to produce "new" material by slapping new text onto images from the extensive computerized archive of Hart's work. To be fair, Hart grew increasingly lazy in his later years and reused his own art extensively. It was, however, his right to do as he pleased with something produced under his own byline. It does not seem right that Hart's name, like Ketcham's, will be attached to something that is not truly his own.

There's no particular reason to end "B.C." as long as readers want to read it and papers want to carry it. But continuing to put the byline of a dead artist on a strip is an insult to artist and reader.