And that is the crux of the matter: Jack Chick embodies a deeply fundamentalist, nativist section of the American right wing. But while in his stance, he willingly alienated potential allies — pro-life Catholics, very conservative evangelicals — his reach was extensive, and his influence vast.
Depending on whom you talk to, Jack Chick — who died in October at the age of 92 — was a fire-breathing hell-and-brimstone preacher, an underground cartooning genius, a leading disseminator of anti-Catholic sentiment, or a brave winner of souls.
The southern California-based artist was rarely seen in public, but for half a century he had a massive platform all the same: His ubiquitous tracts sold millions of copies, all designed to convert lost souls into Bible-believing Christians and warn against Satan’s wiles.
“According to the cartoons, if you’re a Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, communist, evolutionist, trick-or-treater or rock-n-roller, you’re pretty much doomed unless you accept Jesus Christ (with a little nudge from Jack Chick),” wrote Andrew Griffin in 2004 in the Alexandria, Louisiana, newspaper The Town Talk.
None of Chick’s own tracts were ever about Donald J. Trump. And yet, they explain a lot about some of the beliefs held by the extremist wing that is partly behind the Republican presidential candidate’s rise.
Can we draw a straight line from Jack Chick to Donald Trump? No — nor should we. Trump is a result of a complicated set of factors that interlock and combust, and Chick is, or was, his own man altogether, more a representative of modern American fundamentalism than of a specific political party.
But it’s wise to stay clear of brushing Chick off as merely a nutty anomaly, no matter how many religious and secular groups alike decried his logic. His reach was long, and his methods indicative of a pervasive way of American thinking that many people are only starting to understand.
“The Thomas Pynchon of evangelism”
Eulogized by a variety of outlets, Chick was deemed “the cartoonist who wanted to save your soul from hell” (Christianity Today), “the reclusive king of the scaremongers” (The AV Club), and “one of the most prolific and polarizing religious leaders in US history” (First Things). Chick’s obituary in the New York Times noted that “some people called Mr. Chick the Thomas Pynchon of evangelism,” due to his famously reclusive nature: “He had not given an interview since 1975,” it concluded, “and, it was said, had chosen comics as his medium because he was too shy to bear witness any other way.”
On the charmingly circa-1999 Chick Publications site, you can buy your own copies of Chick’s hundreds of tracts in small quantities or in bulk — or just peruse the in-print editions, which are available for free.
Chick’s approach was simple. Step one: Dream up the most extreme potential consequences of various “social ills,” from feminism to Dungeons & Dragons to homosexuality to, above all, the Catholic Church. Step two: Insist on the same last-ditch, cure-all solution — namely, trusting Chick’s specific, pope-hating, King James Bible-loving version of Jesus Christ as your personal savior — for each one.
Chick was reportedly an Independent Baptist, part of a collection of loosely affiliated independent fundamentalist congregations that see themselves as a remnant. They stand in opposition to widespread, supposedly hypocritical American Christianity, including mainstream and more moderate evangelical churches.
He rarely directly addressed specific politicians. But throughout his influential 50-year career, Chick managed to both capture and disseminate a number of attitudes that mark a certain branch of today’s American alt-right. Some of them are predictable; others are quite surprising.
Inspired by Communist propaganda, Chick co-opted a popular form — and then capitalized on it
Chick started writing his tracts in 1960, when he was about 36 years old, after a religious conversion prompted by hearing the radio preacher Charles E. Fuller’s Old-Fashioned Revival Hour.
He’d previously written a single-panel comic called “Times Have Changed?” but after his conversion, he decided to use his skills to create tracts, which could help him and others overcome their own shyness in talking to friends and strangers about converting to Christianity, a practice commonly called “witnessing.”
He started with Why No Revival?, which he self-published after taking out a bank loan. The concept, to put it mildly, took off.
But the origins of Chick’s famous comic-book format are rooted in an interesting political place. In April 1992, Village Voice reporter Pagan Kennedy wrote that, in response to her inquiries to Chick Publications, she received a “one-page form letter, which states that after Chick learned that the ‘multitudes of China were won to communism through cartoon booklets,’ he ‘decided to try to use the same technique to win souls for Christ.’”
Outside of the claims made by Chick Publications itself, it’s not clear how many tracts have led to actual conversions — by nature, statistics on tract-dissemination are hard to track. But Brandon Dean, who studies Chick, wrote to me via email that conversion don’t really seem to have been Chick’s aim, despite his rhetoric.
“I’m not sure 100 percent convinced that saving souls is the sole religious purpose of the tracts,” Dean wrote. “Like most Protestant Christians, Chick believed that only faith in Christ could gain you entry into heaven, and he often railed against believing in the saving power of good works in his anti-Catholic tracts. However, it seems that he believed that works, like his cartoon evangelizing, would deliver to him and the people who bought and distributed his tracts to the general population special rewards in the afterlife.”
No matter what, the tracts certainly sold. According to Chick Publications, around 900 million copies of the cartoons have been sold in 102 languages. Chick wrote all of the tracts himself but only illustrated some of them, teaming up with at least two other illustrators to create the others. (One of them, Fred Carter, is quite talented.)
They eventually became a cult hit with comics collectors, who hunt down rare or discontinued titles. You can buy The Unofficial Guide to the Art of Jack T. Chick, by Kurt Kuersteiner, or explore Chick’s work via the Chick Tract Club, a fan club which in its own short eulogy calls him “The King of Underground Publishing.”
American evangelicals and fundamentalists have a long history of co-opting whatever popular culture and technology is available to spread the good news, so in some ways, Chick was just another in this lineage, using the form of comics but to spread the story of Jesus, just as radio and TV preachers did with their respective new mediums.
Chick is best described as a fundamentalist with a deep evangelistic streak. (Evangelicals and fundamentalists are often equated with one another, but that’s not quite right either historically or practically, at least in the United States.) He believed most churches were corrupt and full of backsliders and fake Christians, but the true church still survived in small, Bible-believing congregations.
And his tracts had wide reach, as attested by the flood of tweets in response to his death:
I have my own memories of Chick tracts, mostly of the bestselling “This Was Your Life,” which told the story of a person who died and went before the Judgment Seat, on which a faceless Christ sat to decide his fate. (This is probably Chick’s best-known tract.) Our protagonist soon discovers that he is about to see a replay of his whole life, including his worst deeds:
I spent the better part of my childhood worried that everything I did would be projected onto a massive screen after my death, so I showered quickly, to lessen the time I’d spend on screen unclothed. Sometimes I waved, as if at some invisible camera. This assertion, that everything we did in life would be taped and eventually projected, is a recurring theme of Chick’s work.