Like a lot of people, Jack Chick had a hard time drawing hands. It’s good that thing on the end of the professor’s sleeve has fingers, or we might not recognize it. But look at his pear-shaped body, his smiling overbite, his stooped mien. He is very much the natural man, trapped in a box—heck, let’s call it cage—made from the rigid lines of the chalkboard, the corner, the portrait, the podium, even the frame itself. Here is a person caught by a fixed idea, a simian out of place in the world of humans. Rembrandt it ain’t, but this work of comic art is at least as good as something you’d find in Mad magazine. And it’s all the vision of one person. The panel above is from a Chick tract, those little black-and-white pamphlets on evangelical themes you have probably found on the bus or at the fair. The man behind them, Jack Chick, died in his sleep Sunday night. I do not admire his beliefs, but I envy his life.
Chick was a fundamentalist Christian whose company, Chick Publications, claims to have sold 750 million of those little tracts. The bestseller is “This Was Your Life,” a comic that basically tells the story of Dennis the Menace’s dad going to hell. The protagonist dies while smoking a pipe in front of his Corvette, then joins an angel for a film review of the events of his life: telling a dirty joke, thinking about the ball game in church, lusting after a woman he sees on the street. Although he is a good man in the general, social sense of the term, God finds him wanting and sends him to hell. In the denouement, a better man accepts Jesus Christ as his personal savior and goes to heaven.
It’s a familiar story, and it sucks. But the art! There’s something sinister about its alternation between lush detail—just look at that Vette—and iconographic simplicity. Consider the difference in naturalism between the first panel and the one where the protagonist rises from his grave—or the eerie outline seated on the throne above the words of Revelation 20:12: And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life. Here is the art of dualism: the real vs. the ideal, life vs. death, temporal vs. eternal.
Churches buy these tracts in bulk and give them to their parishioners, who distribute them where they might be found. As a kid, I used to get them sometimes on Halloween, from people who failed to understand how much better they were than candy. One of the treasured Chick tracts of my youth was “Dark Dungeons,” in which Debbie’s Dungeons & Dragons group inducts her into a satanic cult.1 We liked this one because we played D&D, often after church, and it was funny. But we also liked it because it was a window on a world of strange, angry beliefs. There was a whole culture out there that believed nerd games led to ritual murder, and they were trying to contact us.
Chick’s theory that D&D was the work of satan turned out to be among his most normal beliefs. He was virulently anti-Catholic and blamed the Roman church for inventing Islam and Freemasonry, both of which were obviously evil. In “This Was Your Life,” looking at a woman is sin enough to send the protagonist to hell, since “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery in his heart.” Virtually everyone who appears in a Chick tract goes to hell. The fundamentalist morality they espouse is cruel to the point of immorality. To a kid who grew up with mainline Protestantism, this belief system was spooky and dark, fascinating and repulsive at the same time. In a word, it was grotesque.
Grotesquerie is the lifeblood of Chick’s style. Just check out the Adam’s apple on Ms. Frost when she tells Debbie she can’t stop playing D&D—like some protuberant monster trying to escape from her neck:
If the vengeful, supernatural force behind these stories were anything but God, they would be Tales From the Crypt. The genius behind the Chick tracts, from a secular perspective, is that they capture the darkness or biblical Christianity. A religion that sends the vast majority of people to hell might still be good, but it is good with sadistic glee. It is tempting to read Chick tracts as a window into this faith of obsessive punishment, this culture of hateful goodness, but they aren’t for people who believe. They are designed to be picked up and read by people who think the ideas inside are bullshit, on the chance they might shock those people into conversion.
They are also designed to provide one man2 with an artist’s living. That’s not easy. You can’t look at the panel above and tell me the man who drew it loved Jesus so much he took up art to spread the word. That is a man who loves art in itself. Chick was famously reclusive, and very little is known about his progression from regional cartoonist to international proselyte. But one suspects he channeled his artistic impulse through his increasingly straitened religious beliefs, and the pressure in that conduit sprayed his aesthetic across the world.
It’s a garbage theology. Chick the born-again Baptist quotes the verse in Revelation that holds people saved according to their works; he cites it to convince them faith alone redeems. He made a champion of the probable con man and definite bigot Alberto Rivera. He was not cool with gay people, or premarital sex, or even peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He was nuts. But he was an artist, and he made not just a living but a name for himself, doing on his own what no one would hire him to do.
Now he is dead. Perhaps he is in hell with dungeon masters and jazz musicians. Maybe he’s in heaven with the good Christians whose lives he depicted at a 1:5 ratio with sinners. Most likely he is nowhere, just dead. But his work lives on, and I knew it before I understood where it came from. For the artist, isn’t that the whole game?