Chick Magnet

Last night / this morning, I watched God’s Cartoonist, a documentary about Jack T. Chick. I’d seen his comic-book-style religious tracts since I was a kid. Tammy, our next-door neighbors’ mom, made it her Baptist mission to save our souls.

She’d leave general interest ones on us, but when I was a teen, Tammy made sure to give me Dark Dungeons, the tract about why Dungeons & Dragons will surely send your ass to hell. A few years ago, she put Love the Jewish People in my mailbox. I mean, I assume it was her and not some bizarre anti-Semitic joke by other neighbors.

I thought the stories were just fine, but was entranced with the different visual styles of the cartoonists. I marveled at the jaunty, comic style of some of the strips, and their contrast with the Neal Adams-esque realist style of others. Sure, I hated the use of typesetting instead of hand-lettering, but I thought it was awesome how just about everyone got consigned to the lake of fire after death.

(I was kinda fuzzy on the notion of the various sects of Christianity as a kid; I had no idea why one group of Christians would believe the leader of another group of Christians to be the Antichrist. I didn’t really pick up on interdenominational hatred till college, so I never got why the comics had it in for Catholics, Mormons, Christian Scientists, et al. I always thought everybody just hated Jews. Go figure.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the heck out of the documentary, with its combo of interviews, excerpts of Chick’s tracts, and pseudo-animations of same. I thought the movie did a great job of not belittling Chick, even while many of the interview subjects (esp. Dan Raeburn) unloaded on the hate-filled content of some of the comics. (I’d link to the trailer, but it actually focuses on all the “bad” parts and makes the movie look like more of a hit piece than it really is.)

I really dug the varying perspectives and the attempts at filling in the enigmatic history of Jack Chick and his publishing company, but the Rev. Ivan Stang stole the show. He was entrancing with his good-natured, not-quite-earnest take on Chick’s comics and how they helped him start the Church of the Subgenius. I just loved Stang’s Texas groove and his marvelously dancing eyebrows. I’d better get slack.

The commentators and the strips themselves do a great job of conveying how the tracts’ simplicity is the key to their enormous success. There’s a neat discussion of the art style of one of Chick’s cartoonists, and how he may have been part of the “muscular Filipino school” of comics drawing, but the movie doesn’t go too in-depth about the comics craft of the tracts.

In all, I was thrilled to learn about Chick’s life and the leaps into weirdness he made over the years, as influential figures led him to rail first against the Illuminati/Masons/Druids (?), then Catholics, then witches/Satanic possession. And every other group out there (although there’s no racial animus, just religious).

At the office this morning, I thought the documentary would make a fun topic of conversation. I mentioned it to one of my coworkers, a drunken racist who thrills for early- and mid-century Americana. Chick was from a later period (c.1970 to today), but surely he’d have an opinion on Chick’s work.

He had no idea what I was talking about.

I decided to check with a couple of other co-workers, each in their early-to-mid-50s. Not a one had heard of Chick or knew what the tracts were. When I showed them samples online, they were amused, but had no recollection of ever seeing one. “You never came across one of these on a park bench or a bus-stop?” I asked. Nope. “But there are like a billion of them in circulation!”

English - This Was Your Life.gifI started asking the younger staff, figuring perhaps they’d seen them growing up. Not a one. Eventually, I found one person who knew what I was talking about: our circulation manager, who’s a few years younger than me and a big comics fan. He didn’t remember any of them in particular, but he knew what I was talking about. I was hoping we could bond over This Was Your Life and its beyond-creepy rendition of a giant faceless God.

Still, this was even worse than the time I polled the office to see if anyone knew who Paul Weller is. Two people out of fifty knew of him, The Jam or Style Council. But this? Weren’t Chick tracts everywhere? How could they never have seen one? Now, my office is neither in WASP Central nor Rome. But somehow, ‘nary a person in it lived close enough to people who wanted to save their souls, Baptist-style.

I e-mailed Tammy’s son Todd about this (and the documentary today). In the evening, he wrote back, “That’s funny, because I was out running this morning and I found one of those tracts on the railing of the bridge. I figured I should leave it for some poor soul lost in sin — besides, I have the whole collection (ha-ha).”

When I told my wife I was watching the documentary last night, she told me, “Don’t erase it! I want to watch that!” When she was growing up, she said, they used to have tracts on a spinner rack at the Assemblies of God meeting place. Which is a church, but not her church. (I’m still a little unclear about all these denominations.)

So now I’ve gotta ask: you’ve seen Jack Chick tracts before, right?