published Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Family gathering in East Ridge to celebrate ties to B.C. comic strip

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  • photo
    In this undated photo released by the Hart family, Cartoonist Johnny Hart is seen. Hart's award-winning "B.C." comic strip appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers worldwide.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Occupying panels of the comic strip "B.C.," Wiley sports unkempt ink-drawn lines of hair, colored-in black trousers, tiny ink blots of scruff on his face, and a peg leg.

The Caveman never seems to leave the shade of a singular tree, where he chisels away poetry on a slab.

But outside of these panels, in a world much more visually astute than a comic strip can convey, is the real Wiley -- Wiley Baxter, a 90-year-old World War II veteran, father and loving husband of 70 years.

A current resident at Southern Heritage Assisted Living in East Ridge, Baxter, his wife Fran Baxter, and family from as far as New York City traveled to celebrate the almost-unheard-of 70 years of matrimony at The Chattanoogan today at noon.

The lineage of "B.C." can be traced -- no pun intended -- to when Johnny Hart, Baxter's brother-in-law by marriage, got his start in graphic design at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga. In 1958, he created a gang of nine cavemen and cavewomen, and a wolf, chronicling the earliest days of man.

"B.C." was picked up by the syndicate company creators. It would go on to be one of the most widely read comic strips in the world, finding its way into 800 newspapers in North America as well as 19 different countries and translated into five different languages. Though the Chattanooga Times Free Press still carries his strip "The Wizard of Id," "B.C." ended its publication in the paper when Hart died in April 2007.

"All the characters, my dad patterned after family and close friends," said his daughter Patti Hart on the drive from her home in upstate New York. "B.C. is supposed to be my dad."

Characters range from Cute Chick, a sex object; a scowling, heavy-set, club-wielding woman named Fat Broad; and Grog, a man that seems to be lacking a torso but sports a hefty face-engulfing beard and large bulbous nose.

"We think Fat Broad is loosely based on his mother-in-law," Hart said. "She wasn't fat, though, but she could kill a snake with a broom, which explains the club. I think Cute Chick is supposed to be my mom [Bobby Hart]."

Then there's Wiley. In a statement, Johnny Hart once called the real-life Wiley, "an immaculate person, incredibly organized and very neat and clean, which isn't all that funny, so I did a reverse of him. I made my Wiley character hate water and turned him into a poetic slob."

The fact that Wiley Hart lost his leg during Battle of the Bulge found its way into the peg-legged comic character. But whatever it was that made Hart include Baxter as an entire character is unknown.

"I don't know why he put me in the strip, but it felt good," Baxter said. "I thought it was a funny strip, and he was a funny guy."

Graphic designing is "a family thing" that apparently skipped Patti Hart, she said. After Johnny Hart died in 2007, there were talks of ending "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id." That's when grandsons Mason Mastroianni, an Emmy-winning 3-D animator and compositor out of Minneapolis, Minn., and Mick Mastroianni, a comedy writer, stepped up and carried on "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id," respectfully.

"It was a huge undertaking," said Mason Mastroianni, who picked up "B.C." in 2007 when he was 29 years old. "I did my best to mimic his style. He and I were close. We had similar senses of humor. We joked that we saw things the same way."

Though the Baxters' anniversary is not officially until June 28, the family will be celebrating today. At 90 years old, Baxter struggled to find the words about what it means to be married for seven decades.

But the bond is still there.

"We've turned it into one big celebration," Patti Hart said.

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