The phrase “Chick tract” may not immediately conjure up an image for all of you, but I’m sure most of you know what they are — like much quintessential Americana, the sight of a Chick tract conjures up strong associations regardless of our prior knowledge. Chick tracts are short, punchy religious comics in a rectangular format, notable for their vitriol and hardline stance on the power of conversion. These little pamphlets are the physical embodiment of American evangelical movements, audaciously insisting the reader will burn in hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, presented with jittery, vividly literal cartoon imagery. Targets of the Chick tract’s scorn have ranged over the years from homosexuality to Catholics to climate change to Dungeons and Dragons, harsh invectives inconspicuously left on park benches and bus seats by believers.
Over the years, these comic tracts have attracted mockery and sarcastic disdain from the skeptical readers (i.e. most of us), so it’s understandable that the recent death of Jack T. Chick, the writer, frequent artist and publisher of the tracts, has generally not been treated as the loss of a great artist. Chick’s work is vulgar hate speech, albeit of an enterprising nature that could only come out of late capitalist America. Yet at the time of his passing, I think it’s a good moment to acknowledge Chick’s commendable qualities, a prolific, imaginative and remarkable pioneer in self-published comics.
Consider the anti-witchcraft tract “Happy Halloween,” not as iconic as “This Was Your Life” or “Somebody Goofed” (the latter being definitive proof that you should never trust a hipster) but a classic nonetheless. The strip opens with some all-american, sweater-clad, ethnically ambiguous kids straight outta the Magic Schoolbus wandering into a HAUNTED HOUSE, given a few good spooks — all in good fun, right? — until a cauldron stirring witch deposits them in hell (pictured above).
This scene of literal hell combines the gaudy humor of American pop culture circa-Boris Karloff with the real satanic panic such kitsch tends to mask, the vaguely incoherent scribble-shading suggesting unseen evils in the periphery. The kids flee, only for one to die by random car accident and burn in that hell for all eternity. We are told by a wise mother that this gruesome fate can only be avoided through acceptance of “God’s love gift — Jesus Christ.” In the world of Jack T. Chick, there is no mercy other than that of Jesus, none. Good, evil, it hardly matters. All there can be is sin and salvation, witches and good little boys.
Chick’s stories are brutal, not only in their punishments but in their clarity. Chick tracts communicate their message with the efficiency of a bullet train and the subtlety of a bomb threat, every square inch packed with information and terror. It’s the fervor of a man who found God in the chaos of the Second World War — Chick found Christ over the radio while touring New Guinea1 and Okinawa. It’s a vision of justice filtered through the eyes of one man convinced of his righteousness, Dante’s Inferno as written by the Burger King. It’s this maddening vigor, this absurdity which can’t quite be dismissed, that has made Chick a mainstay where other entrepreneurial zealots of literature have come and gone. For an artist so determined to save our souls, Chick has succeeded best in spreading an image of hell that has remained delightful and fascinating, especially to the skeptics.
Chick’s directness and willingness to tackle intense subject matter is especially commendable, his self-publishing empire evolving concurrently with the underground comics of the ’60s. That frank quality in Chick’s work is reflected in many great alternative comics — Justin Green’s seminal autobiography Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is blatantly indebted to Chick, and the original presentation of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus — a comic notable for rendering hard-to-process horrors in blunt clarity — was originally presented as a rather tract-like insert in the oversized art-comics mag RAW. But Chick may be the most successful artist of the comics code-eschewing bunch — undergrounds were contained in headshops, while you might find a tract on your doorstep.
Chick’s tracts are powerful, influential and hard to imitate — I have yet to read a parody of Chick that has been remotely as pleasurable as the genuine article. Chick’s mission to bring both comics and Christ to the people will continue, likely by Fred Carter, Chick’s frequent artistic collaborator who may well be the most widely read African American cartoonist. Nonetheless, the passing of Chick should be recognized as a turning point in the comics world. Jack T. Chick will be remembered as a hateful man, but also a passionate, true formal visionary whose work undoubtedly enriched comics.
1The critic Joe McCullough recently pointed out on Twitter that, over enemy lines, the great mangaka and youkai expert Shigeru Mizuki had a storied encounter with the spirit world on the same military frontier Chick was stationed on at around the same time. Such serendipity makes you wonder.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Next Panel will appear online at www.cornellsun.com Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.