Jack T. Chick didn’t want to be famous; he wanted to save our souls. And, oh, did they need saving.
Women, witches, gays and lesbians, teachers, Dungeons and Dragons players, atheists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and worst-of-all, Catholics (just to name a few): for Chick, the 92-year-old fundamentalist Christian who created the world’s best-selling comics and died in his California home this week, the Devil was literally everywhere.
Chick wasn’t a preacher in the traditional sense. A recluse who refused photos and interviews until the day he died, Chick proselytized with comics—crudely-drawn, unintentionally hilarious pamphlets that follow a recipe: ham-handed Christian themes and recurring resolutions of salvation or damnation peppered with its own language (Characters laugh with a HAW HAW; die with a YAAAAA!). Millions of the ultra-religious consider these comics—known as Chick tracts—to be a subversive weapon in the battle to win souls for Jesus Christ. But for the majority of nonbelievers and the moderately religious, Chick’s life’s work is viewed as a combination of a kind of folk art, hate literature, and “hardcore Protestant pornography.” The designation depends on in whose hands the 3-by-5-inch booklets rest.
Since 1961, Chick wrote over 260 comics (which have been translated into over 100 languages) and sold over 900 million copies to churches, missionaries, and in more recent years, collectors who recognized the highly offensive tracts as outsider art.
In my childhood church—a small Southern Baptist fellowship whose devotion to the King James Version of the Bible and rebuke of sins like homosexuality very much aligned with Chick’s views—the comics were tucked into every pew, beside the hymn books and the offering envelopes. As my preacher waved his Bible from the pulpit, warning us about hell (a literal lake of fire where the unrepentant would thirst and wail and burn forever), I would rest on my father’s shoulder and devour the pulpy volumes. While our church rebuked worldly temptations like television and Christian Rock music and trousers on women, the taboo subjects and illustrations in Chick tracts were trumpeted as “first bait in fishing for souls.”
In Chick’s world, girls were always in trouble.
Baby Talk’s Ashley was a hairsbreadth away from getting an abortion when her boyfriend—following a doctor’s counsel that abortion was murder—saved her from herself. “I love you and I want to marry you. And I don’t want you to kill our baby!” he exclaimed before it was too late.
In That Crazy Guy! Suzie learns sex in the backseat of a car has left her with burning genitalia and an HIV diagnosis. After explaining that condoms don’t protect against HIV (Ed note: they do), the doctor offers his condolences—“I’m sorry, Susan, you’re dying and there’s no cure”—but also a path to salvation. “Thank you for saving me,” a downcast, yet grateful, Suzie says on the final page. “I'm looking forward to being in heaven with you real soon.”
And sex and violence was always on the menu.
After throwing a man off a balcony to his death and threatening to murder guards and their families, prison shot-caller The Bull finds a Chick tract (the tear-jerking Somebody Loves Me) in solitary confinement and proclaims, "As of right now, all killing stops! There will be no more raping, because I just found out that God hates sodomy!"
There is the Halloween-themed Boo! in which the pumpkin-headed Devil himself goes on a murderous rampage, disrupting a cat sacrifice with his own bloody chainsaw massacre. “Witchcraft is exploding among teens today,” it warns, stoking the Satanic panic of the 1980’s.
Likewise, “innocent” games of Dungeons and Dragons led to real witches’ covens and suicide in Dark Dungeons, which for obvious reasons has become the most celebrated tract in secular circles for its absurdity.
Chick tackles homosexuality in several tracts. Both The Gay Blade and Doom Town use a strategy perfected by Westboro Baptist Church of conflating pedophlia and sexual abuse with gayness and retell the story of Sodom and Gommorah—a town that God burned to the ground for its wicked ways—with lurid illustrations that betray Chick’s own concupiscence.
The most disturbing tract in Chick’s library is undoubtedly Lisa, a no-longer published tale of Henry, a father whose family doctor confronts him with the knowledge that he has been molesting his own daughter. Instead of reporting the abuse to authorities, the doctor preaches to Henry, and after a quick prayer, Henry repents and that’s apparently that.
To be sure, not all of Chick’s tracts were salacious or upsetting. No review of his work would be complete without a mention of the nexus of his contempt: false religions, most notably, the Catholic Church. In The Death Cookie (a favorite of the guilty pleasure fans), the Devil invents the Eucharist and controls a dirty, craven bumbler, who turns out to be the Pope.
These tracts sat in a bowl by the front door of my church and we were encouraged to “witness” with them. We weren’t alone.
Millions of Christians around the country were also leaving the tracts in laundromats and at truck stops, in bowling alleys and on park benches. Chick’s quarterly newsletter, Battle Cry, contained tips on all the places they could go: in tips to waitresses and pizza delivery boys, in mailboxes, on sunroofs. The more creative tipsters suggested leaving them in the outstretched hands of store mannequins, and burying them along with some change in a bag to surprise metal-detecting beachcombers.
While the fundamentalist faithful have ensured his work is known far and wide, shockingly little is known about Jack Chick himself aside from what he has chosen to tell. Daniel Raeburn explores Chick’s “creation myth” in The Imp, calling it “swaddled in conflicting half-truths of authenticity and rebellion.”
As the story goes, Jack was saved, and became a full-time believer in the spiritual warfare brand of Christianity shortly after marrying his first wife, Lola Lynn and listening to Charles E. Fuller's “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” radio show at the behest of his new Canadian mother-in-law. Soon, even his own church wasn’t fired-up enough for him, and in response, he wrote and self-published his first book Why No Revival?
“I got the cold shoulder because I drew some people who looked like the ones in the choir, and they recognized themselves,” Chick explained.
That zeal created a rift between Chick and his own parents. And according to Chick’s telling in Battle Cry, his mother told him, “I didn’t want you when I was pregnant, and tried every way under the sun to abort you.” (He also says his daughter’s husband demanded she have an abortion. ”I didn’t find out until months later that my grandchild had been murdered,” he wrote.)
Chick wasn’t deterred. He continued to draw, emboldened by the obstacles that he saw as Satan’s direct intervention in his Godly enterprise. When Chick couldn’t find a printer, when his first book got “creamed by the Lutherans,” when his car caught on fire, the cartoonist told himself they were all salvos from the devil.
There were angels in his corner, too. Chick’s rich boss became a benefactor in 1960, paying for the publication and distribution of This Was Your Life, a rare inoffensive tract—the cautionary tale of a man whose good works alone could not gain him entrance to the kingdom of heaven.
But in the 90’s Chick suffered a stroke after the completion of a particularly offensive tract titled, Where is Rabbi Waxman? (Spoiler: He’s in hell.) As recounted by Raeburn, Chick said: “I laughed to myself all the way to the hospital, and told Satan, ‘You lost this battle, Satan. Waxman has already been drawn. This hand will be normal again and serve the Lord.”
Over the years, Chick churned out tracts (in 2003, Los Angeles Magazine reported Chick Publications made $3 million in sales) and hired more than 30 employees, including another illustrator, Fred Carter, a minister with a great deal more artistic talent than Chick possessed.
Chick’s wife Lola Lynn died in 1998 and his only daughter, Carol, died three years after, the causes of which are unclear. He soon married his second wife, Susie Chick, a Chinese woman described in LA Magazine as “pretty and young.”
More than sales or growth, Chick seemed to gauge his success by his detractors. “I routinely ask my secretary if we are getting any hate mail. If she says no, I get upset because I think I’m doing something wrong,” Chick said, according to Raeburn.
By that metric, Chick was an undeniable success.
Chick tracts were at one point banned in Canada. The Catholic Church—which Chick often referred to as “the Whore of Babylon”—struck back, denouncing his writings. Then Christianity Today discredited Alberto Rivera, a former Jesuit priest who had allegedly been ordered to “infiltrate and destroy” Protestant churches, and informed a series of tracts pushing Chick’s belief in a great Catholic conspiracy to take over the world. Christian booksellers began to refuse to sell the tracts because of the controversy and the racy illustrations. “There's a fine line between portraying evil and glorifying evil, and in some of Chick's tracts the line has been crossed,” one Christian artist explained.
In response to a boycott by Christian bookstores that stocked his tracts, Chick bought the website Chick.com.
“That [he beat pornographers to that domain] name goes to show just how early Chick started on the web,” said Kurt Kuersteiner, founder an online fan site, The Jack Chick Museum of Fine Art, and author of The Art Of Jack T. Chick. “That’s when Chick could start selling his tracts straight to customers and cut out the middleman. It allowed him to be a successful independent underground cartoonist and ensured there would be no way to shut up Jack Chick.”
With so many enemies, it makes sense that Chick would hide from the public. Chick’s last interview was in 1975, and for years, Chick denied reporters (including this one) when they asked to meet with him. He refused to be photographed. In fact, the only picture of Chick as an adult was a drawing by Jimmy Akin, a Catholic writer who happened upon Chick at an Ontario, California theater. Chick spoke for a spell, but refused a photo: he was “on too many hit lists.”
“Yes, we get death threats every week . . . from the Muslims,” Chick reportedly told him. (Chick published several comics depicting the Prophet Mohammed.)
But Dwayne Walker, a filmmaker and one of the few people to ever interview Chick, credited Chick’s desire to stay out of the public eye to a more Godly intent: “He could not take any praise; he wants God to have all the glory,” Walker said in The Imp.
Then Jack Chick died. And though Chick and his co-illustrator Carter may have chosen to stay out of the limelight for the glory of God, David Daniels, Chick’s apparent successor—an employee and “good friend” of Chick’s for the last 16 years, whose own creation story includes being saved by a Chick tract in 1972—feels no such compunction.
Daniels has been the face of Chick Publications for several years now, posting over 200 videos on the Chick YouTube page he maintains. The videos are mostly closeups of himself wearing a button-up shirt with a pocket full of pens and sharpies and Chick tracts (of course), reading testimonials about the saving power of Chick tracts, preaching small sermons, sometimes playing guitar.
When emailed for comment for this story, Daniels said he was swamped and couldn’t talk, but “be sure to watch the videos I am starting to put out on Jack.”
Daniels begins the first of an apparent series with a big reveal, nonchalantly holding a photo of himself flanked by Fred Carter and a white-haired Jack Chick, grinning from behind a pair of tinted wire-framed glasses.
It feels strange looking at Chick now. Chick scholar, Kurt Kuersteiner agrees. “It’s a little like the end of The Wizard of Oz. For the entire movie, you have a big bombastic magician of sorts who everybody knows, or thinks that they know, but in the end it turns out he’s just a guy.
“A humongous amount of Jack Chick’s fandom comes from Christians who were raised in fundamentalist churches then moved to New York or have gone to more progressive versions of Christianity or stopped believing altogether,” Kuersteiner added. “But they grew up with Jack. Jack Chick is like Grandpa. You love your grandpa. And Jack Chick would still adore you.”
And his followers adored him in turn. “This is a real man. A regular guy and a deeply devoted Christian,” intones Daniels in his video. A man who, according to Daniels, requested before his death, “I can’t toot my own horn, so you’re going to have to toot it for me after I’m gone.”
Seeming to oblige, Daniels muses that Chick was at this very moment likely being “mobbed” in heaven by grateful souls who had been saved through his tracts.
And as Chick finally receives the heavenly recognition he so expertly avoided on earth, Daniels assures commenters that his friend and employer’s death will have no effect on the mission.
“The tracts are continuing...Jack planned for all this years ago. We are just continuing the plan.”