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Can We Learn Anything From Jack Chick?

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

Technically, Jack Chick—who passed away last October—was one of the most successful comic creators in the entire world. Chick Publications has sold over 750 million of his tracts (small comic books printed on inexpensive paper), and they have been translated into over 100 different languages.

Moreover, Chick wrote and cartooned in a style and manner of narrative that has seemed to literally change the lives (and beliefs) of many of his readers.

Technically, Jack Chick was an important figure in the history of comic books, someone with the drive, focus, and passion to not only see his vision to print but to get it read by the masses.

However, Chick is not considered by the mainstream comics community to be a successful or an important person at all. His controversial, and some might say extreme, evangelical fundamentalist Christian beliefs have essentially rendered him as a purveyor of “hate literature.” Chick’s tracts have attacked not only people of faiths other than Christian, but many groups within Christianity itself (most notably, Catholics). In fact, the door to Heaven, according to Chick’s interpretation, is very narrow indeed—there are very little people he has not offended.

And so his work exists in this weird sort of limbo as being “cast out” by Comics—pretty much to the point where they are not considered to be “truly” comic book material, though they most certainly are—though at the same time being extremely successful with a completely different segment of the population.

But is there anything we can learn from the phenomenon of Chick Publications? Are Chick tracts “underground?” Are they “countercultural?” Are they some of the most “dangerous” comic book material on the planet? And where does Chick’s work fit in an industry and fan culture where the defense of free speech and potentially offensive material is placed in such high regard?

The weird and entertaining 2008 documentary God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade Of Jack Chick explores some of these questions, as well as giving some insight into the life of the notoriously private Chick. Comics historians, artists, religious types, Chick’s associates, and even the Rev. Ivan Stang from the Church of the SubGenius (!) are interviewed, interspersed with trippy animated segments featuring Chick’s own work.

It should be noted that Chick’s work enjoys a cult status among some independent comic creators and collectors; their fascination with his tracts being a sort of combination between reveling in the “shock” value of the content (as one might do with a low-budget exploitation film) and some genuine awe at the sort of “outsider artist” genius of Chick himself. For Chick was the comic book making equivalent of the “End is Near” fanatic…but a fanatic who was extremely good at getting his point across in the most effective way possible.

There is a reason why the Chick Publications tagline is “Chick Tracts Get Read!” While they are sold (for a nominal price) to distributors and the public, the goal is to have them given away for free. And so the tracts are discovered in laundromats, bus stations…shoved between the tomes at public libraries…and (at least where I live) found lying on the pavement. They are easy and cheap to print and reprint. Plus, they are translated into many many languages; as the documentary points out, sometimes they got read simply because the person was happy to find a comic publication in their own language.

So add that level of accessibility to straightforward narration and streamlined, powerful imagery…you get a very successful comic book. The “problem” is the nature of the content itself, which is offensive to many other people. What do you do about that?

Well, Canada has classified Chick tracts as “hate literature.” Should the United States do that? According to God’s Cartoonist, Catholic organizations successfully campaigned to get the tracts out Christian bookstores in the 1980s. Should there be a wider “net” cast to force Chick Publications out of print and off the Internet?

And if all of the above happens, will the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund step in as they have done for comics that have presented extreme gore and sex?

Are Chick tracts “underground” works? Are they part of the “counterculture?” Or are the terms “underground” and “counterculture” only applied to things that are, for lack of a better term, “cool?” The underground artist is classically pictured as a person working against a repressive society. Did Chick feel that he too was working against a repressive society? Is this all, in part, a matter of perspective? Or is this unhelpful “cultural relativism” on my part?

We currently live in a society where certain works, websites, content, and even cartoon memes are considered to be truly dangerous and worthy of censorship; this is made even more pertinent an issue because of the tumultuous and quite frankly wee bit insane political climate.

I have probably about 15 titles on just the first two shelves of my bookcase alone that would get me permanently banished (well, unless I proclaimed my devotion to the King James version of Jesus at the very last second) from Jack Chick’s version of the Afterlife. And yet, I feel our tolerance for comic material like Chick’s is as important as that of, say, hentai manga porn.

I think Chick was an important underground artist, with one of the most over-the-top, phantasmagorically fanatical, and voluptously paranoid viewpoints ever set down in ink and print. Further, I feel that the erasure of him from general overviews of comics history is misguided.

Because if you truly want to counteract political and religious movements that you feel hurt other people, wouldn’t you like to do it in a manner that is effective in reaching masses of people? What is going to better get your message out to the world’s billions—a pricy and slick graphic novel, or millions of free pamphlets scattered all over the place?

Last year, I was contacted by a political entity to spitball ideas for “viral” comic book material targeted against another political entity (no need to name-drop here; and it’s all moot at this point anyhow). I responded that the content needed to be highly accessible to the masses and address their concerns and issues in a straightforward manner with highly impactful illustrations. In the back of my mind, of course, I pictured a Chick tract…a progressive version of a Chick tract.

Instead, this political entity decided to seize upon a cartoon meme—taken from an actual independent comic—and “elevate” it to the level of “Dangerous Things That Must Be Banned.” This approach, in my opinion, horrifically backfired & ended up giving much more power and, frankly, “countercultural cachet” to the said meme.

You may not like Jack Chick—but you might learn a lot from him.

 

God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade Of Jack Chick is available now on DVD

 

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