Jack Chick died on Sunday. It was a moment he'd been waiting for all his life. He was, in his own way, an incredibly successful man—an architect of the Satanic Panic, a hero of the religious right, and, for a long time, almost inescapable: His bizarre Christian comic books were given out outside churches, left in motel rooms, thrust into the hands of passengers at airports and bus stations by thousands of willing evangelists across America and the rest of the planet—up to a billion of the things have been sold over the years—but it wasn't life he was interested in.
Few of Jack Chick's stories ended without some unfortunate being hideously bumped off by a freak accident, before finding themselves faced by a gargantuan, faceless Christ, the suffering man of Nazareth reconfigured as a monstrous god of the underworld. His Jesus didn't care how good you were in your life, or whether you tried to do right by the people around you: Did you or did you not believe in him?
Jack Chick took a perverse delight in pulling the strings of this puppet Christ, having him send dozens of decent people to burn forever in the fires of hell, because he always knew that he would not be one of them. Jack Chick's theology was a Protestantism stripped down to its barest, coldest contradiction. The actual teachings of Christianity were always just incidental; the core of his project was a magic spell—something that only works if you believe that it will, but you'll only find out after you die. This spell was called Jesus Christ, but it didn't really matter. In other stories, gamblers and murderers and other unwholesome people would be told to accept Christ just before their death, and so long as they repeated the magic incantation, their reward would be eternal bliss in heaven. Maybe that was Jack Chick's reward, too. Only he knows now, and he's not around to tell us.
As a weird and awkward teenager, I loved Jack Chick. Other gangly, nerdish kids took solace in the stupid wish fulfillment worlds of fantasy or science fiction; I had Chick tracts. His comics were all available for free on the internet; the idea was that Christian evangelists too shy to spread the Gospel by mouth could print them out at home and then hand them to strangers.
It's hard to imagine that any of these bizarre fables actually changed anyone's mind; they were mostly a way for evangelicals to convince themselves they were preaching God's word while taking on all the impersonal efficiency demanded by Mammon. Nearly all of them involved a fantasy drama of conversion to Christianity, in which the ordinary person seemed to have never even heard of Christian ideas but believes them on the spot ("Wow—you're saying Jesus Christ died for my sins? That's so cool!").
For a Jewish kid from north London, insulated from the grim reality of the American religious right by thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean, these strange half-human creatures opened up a universe far stranger than any Middle-earth. These comics were entrancing precisely because they seemed so incapable of imagining anyone else's point of view, of even pretending to meet me halfway. They showed a complete, perfect secondary world, one that looked just like this one, but one in which people didn't behave like real people, or talk like them either ("Haw haw haw!"), which was swarming with actual demons, fanged, and ugly—and millions seemed to really think they were living in it. I must have read them all.
Not that Jack Chick's world was a nice place. Not that Jack Chick was a nice man. I didn't just disagree with his judgements on the theory of evolution (a godless lie), gay people (demon-possessed), rock music (a vector for demonic possession), the Catholic Church (a Satanic world conspiracy), Islam (a moon cult founded by nefarious agents of the Catholic Church and followed by the demon-possessed), or nice Jewish boys like myself (good for killing Muslims, but hellbound unless we converted to Christianity)—I found much of it to be utterly morally reprehensible, which it is. His politics came from the quasi-fascist John Birch society; his theology bypassed all the millennia of existential grappling with the Bible and tradition, powered by a very un-Christlike self-satisfaction and hate. But his cartoons were always so lurid, so gaudy, tactless, and fundamentally stupid that they were effectively defanged; all his poisonous ideology was neutered by the sheer silliness of its presentation. They were, each of them, a beautiful piece of fundamentalist kitsch.
As the gay author and publisher Huw Lemmey wrote, "As a teenager [Jack Chick] made me feel better about myself than 1,000 'It Gets Better' videos ever could." Something about these comics made them lend themselves so easily to ironic recuperation. They were, after all, modeled on Communist propaganda given out in comic book form to Chinese children; he was always playing with a form that never really belonged to him.
Like prurient tabloid newspapers, Jack Chick was clearly fascinated by every sin and vice he railed against; the comics were filled with drug use, occultism, gay erotica, joyriding, alcoholism—all the thrills that the Christian right usually tried to deny any kind of representation in other media. His paranoia about witchcraft and demons was magnificent and hyperbolic; particularly popular were his nearly annual broadsides against Halloween, the devil's birthday, including a tract in which Satan himself appears as a pumpkin-headed figure who sets about murdering unsuspecting teens, and his take on Dungeons and Dragons, presented as a form of occult training in which witches slowly prepare children to start practicing black magic.
But Jack Chick also had a really peculiar form of genius, which shouldn't ever be understated. In a banalized and depthless American postmodernity, he saw Miltonian struggle: devils swarming into classrooms, the slow gears of ancient conspiracies churning beneath the surface of everyday life, a world so much grander and more cosmic than it actually is. He wasn't so much a comic book artist as the last great stained-glass painter of the European tradition, his didactic little fables bringing theology and liturgy into the domain of fungible images, to educate the unchurched. There's something very medieval about his forms and his style; the monstrous and grotesquely sexual demons stalking through everyday scenes recall the paintings and woodcuts of an earlier era; the images built for symbolic meaning rather than representational accuracy might be the last remnants of a thousand-year-old allegorical tradition.
It's a dying world. The religious right's stranglehold over American politics is fading fast: In a few weeks, millions of them will find themselves voting for Donald Trump, an utterly godless and depraved sinner who barely even bothers to nod to their perverse ideologies of family values and Christian uprightness. Jack Chick's death is just another sign that all these things are finally vanishing. But with it comes the loss of a truly bizarre talent. All that we can hope is that he's moved on to better things.
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