catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Out of right field

Jack Chick wants to save your soul.

For years I've received Chick's evangelistic tracts as unwelcome "tips" at the myriad service industry jobs I've held. "What would Jesus do?” I would think. “Probably something more like tip me my 15%."  But the older I grew and the more tracts I received, the more I was lured in by these miniature, evangelical comics. They didn’t “save” me, but I did become a fan.

Now I hunt for these tracts rabidly because I've realized that—in a strange, fanatical way—they are kind of punk rock. Chick packs a complete worldview into a palm-sized comic book, combining the function of evangelical pamphlets with the aesthetics of handmade zines. But it is difficult to convince others of their value, outside of ironic glee. My love for Chick's artwork goes beyond tongue-in-cheek "appreciation." These tracts are more than kitsch relics, they are fascinating artifacts pried from a culture that strange and alien to me, the culture of Christian Evangelical Fundamentalists.

Even though the tracts originate in a mindset distant from my own, once I delved into the Chick mythos I found it hard not to adore the guy, or at least to admire his conviction. It's true that he comes across as kooky, and possibly even schizophrenic, but consider for a moment what it would be like to live in Chick's universe. It's an exciting world of intrigue, espionage, demons, Mafioso popes, and evil Islamic moon gods, and it all ends with a bang, not a whimper.

For example, in the tract "Bewitched?" Chick claims that Satan's favorite show is, unsurprisingly, Bewitched because "it was the basis of all the vampiric and occultist shows that are watched by millions," terrifying television designed to lead viewers down the path of darkness. Another tract, "Your Name…in the Vatican?" claims that the Vatican owns a super-computer containing the names of every Protestant for future persecution. To Chick, by his own enthusiastic admission, Catholicism is the creation of the Evil One, a devilish red herring devised to lure the unsuspecting into the cult of "the death cookie," what the unenlightened know as the Eucharist. Predictably, Catholics are incensed by Chick's anti-papist rhetoric, but then it's difficult to find a social or cultural group that he has not offended.

What some may fail to understand about Chick is that this world of Satanic television and papal pawns of the devil is his reality, and that kind of genuine adherence to his faith—even in the face of outrage—is something to be admired, at least in the abstract. It's easy to laugh off Chick and his inflammatory ideas, but in his tracts he has created an incredibly comprehensive, self-contained theology and an alternate history that is not simply the stuff off pulp dreams, but also his existence.

The fact that this worldview is on the fringes of mainstream culture, instead of completely outside of it, has dissuaded many people from taking a closer look at his creations. This could explain why Chick is approached differently from other so-called "outsider" artists. Henry Darger, for example, was a reclusive and possibly schizophrenic man known for his epic In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,145-page fantasy story with several hundred drawings and watercolor illustrations.  Artists like Darger who are also working from their own complex mindsets with their own intricate moral structures are hailed for their unique perspectives while Chick is derided for his paranoid xenophobia.

It is important to keep in mind that Chick does not intend to be offensive; he is operating out of a culture that is primarily concerned with the salvation of souls through the acceptance of Jesus Christ. For a self-proclaimed Bible-believing Baptist like Chick, whose sole source of truth is the literal word of the King James Bible, the most urgent concern is evangelizing. If Chick believes there is a demon around every corner, what kind of person would he be if he didn't warn others about it? Chick himself said, "If your house was on fire and your wife and kids were sleeping…and I drove by and saw it burning and I didn't wake you up because I knew you'd be uptight…what would you think of me?" This is an extreme example, but most of us aren't living with Chick's die-hard fundamentalist ethos, either. He is a man who will go out on broken limbs to get the good word out.

His universe must be a strange, maybe even terrifying, world to inhabit, but Chick is mostly eccentric rather than disturbed. He prefers to live permanently in the 1950s, a now unpopular and antiquated frame of reference. Yes, he believes that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were special side projects of Satan himself, but I wonder if Britney and Lost aren't agents of stupidity. The primary difference between my claim and Chick's is that his seem ignorant while mine seem pretentious.

In some way, every frame of reference, every discourse community—even Chick's—is a way of paring down the world, making it accessible, tolerable even. What has me scrounging through phone booths is the fact that Chick reminds me that the world has always been difficult to understand and will continue to be. That we will weave in and out of paradigms and persevere in ordering it all—such optimism is bitter sweet. It can be silly and misguided, sometimes even destructive, but underlying it is genuine compassion and a desire to know the truth, if only the truth weren’t so evasive.

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