Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Jack Chick Publications, I will fear no boredom, for his hysterical story lines and stark images art with me; his lurid, blistering religio-comics like This Was Your Life, The Sissy?, Bad Bob!, Are Roman Catholics Christians? and Where's Rabbi Waxman? shall comfort me.
Do you know of what I speak, friends?
Let's say you're in a bar, weaving your sad, loaded self to the rest room to do something that does not include resting. No, let's say you're in a bus station, leaving town on the midnight Greyhound to avoid facing up to some shameful sin. Maybe you're at a pay phone beneath a broken streetlight at the corner of Despair Street and Wretched Way, where an unusually sadistic trick has just pushed you from his car.
Let's say you are in any of these situations, adrift with only degradation as your guide, and then you see it:
A little rectangular comic book that will, some allege, cure you of your wicked ways, bring you to your knees, anoint you with the healing powers of the Lord himself.
It is a Chick Tract.
I have been coming across these strange, manic little belts of Bible for years, and I found one the other day wedged in the train tracks in my very own neighborhood.
I found it when I was on my way to a bar.
Angels?, it was called, an eye-opening tale of a "Christian" "rock" "band" down on its luck. Until, that is, the boys meet their new manager. He promises them "groupies, booze, drugs, money," and all they have to do is sign a contract. In blood.
This manager's name is Mr. Siffer. That's Mr. Lew Siffer. Beginning to get the picture? I couldn't put this thing down. Took it to the bar with me. Sure enough, the Green Angels go straight to the top, singing lyrics like "We're gonna rock, rock, rock, rock with the rock!" But when guitarist "Bobby" wants to leave the band to marry his sweetheart--"Face it, Lew, I'm famous now . . . so shut up!"--Mr. Siffer has a tiny surprise for him delivered in typical, Message Before Taste, Chick Tract fashion:
"Then I'll give you a little wedding present . . . some AIDS!"
In case you ever come across this one, I won't give away the ending. But here's a hint: A Green Angel is given a Chick Tract, which is apparently like having a hot line to God; he reads it and finds a new career counselor. His initials are JC.
Since Brother Chick published the terrifyingly direct This Was Your Life 37 years ago, hundreds of titles of stories, both original and Scripture-based, have been sold and sold and sold--an estimated 375 million tracts distributed in 42 languages (including Tagalog, Amharic, Ilocano and French, where they really need help). And at 13 cents per 24-page tract, we're talking about an entertainment value that just can't be beat.
The standard of artwork used in the tracts is usually slightly lower than Marvel/D.C. variety, which only adds to the unnerving, fire-and-brimstone wallop these babies pack. The evangelical message is always hard-line Bible: You either adhere utterly to everything in the King James version down to the question marks, or you will be banished forever to the fiery pit of hell.
Quite simple, really.
Name your sin, Jack Chick has a tract for you. I found a copy of the Chick Publications catalogue, complete with synopses of many topnotch tracts.
Bad Bob!: "Bob was mean. He didn't need God, until he nearly died in the jail. Great for bikers."
Trust Me: "You're gonna love these drugs, kid. Trust me!"
Titanic: "Chester didn't need God. He would soon be rich. But when the ship began to sink, he learned how little that was worth."
The Sissy?: "Duke thought Jesus was a sissy, but learned that He had more guts than anyone who ever lived. Great for truckers."
The Letter: "Mildred dreams her friend, Frances, sends her a letter . . . from hell! She says, 'You weren't really my friend. You never told me!'"
And if your religious beliefs cannot be found in a tract, don't worry. Chick has one that'll straighten you out, no matter how pathetically confused you are about a Higher Power. Catholic? Page through The Death Cookie--you'll pass on the wafer next time around.
Buddhist? Check out The Tycoon, wherein a generous, filthy-rich Buddhist (don't ask me to explain that one) dies in an awful car crash. Boy, is he in for a surprise when he finds out who's in charge, life-after-death speaking.
Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, even New Agers will be pleased to know that for 13 cents they can finally get in touch with the proper Savior, but I guess my favorite wake-up tract is Where's Rabbi Waxman?. This poor Jewish man; he made the mistake of dying without accepting the faceless, shining, finger-pointing, robe-clad Chickified JC (there's no doubt what He looks like) as his official Savior. And this is the kind of loving, forgiving God that speaks in boldface when he says things like "It's too late for you!"
So who is this Jack Chick, this man whose initials just happen to be JC? The Chick catalogue reveals that, though he wanted to be a "missionary" and a "soul winner" (wasn't that the name of a '70s band on the Stax label?), "something always blocked my efforts to spread the gospel . . . phone calls and every kind of interruption." I can understand that; pesky phone calls can really be a bitch.
Then his wife helped him lay out This Was Your Life at the kitchen table, and a business was born. The Chicks took a page from those evil-but-clever Communists; note this, from the tract Who, Me?: "At the cost of millions of dollars, Communist propaganda in the form of cartoons were printed to influence the Asiatics. Their success was fantastic."
And so it was that Chick hit upon a winning formula that dovetailed nicely with a market of nonbelieving Americans who barely read anything longer than a beer label and love a story chock-full of action, violence and high drama. The distribution suggestions were right on the money, too: "public rest rooms, gas pumps, Laundromats, rented cars, bill payment envelopes, store dressing rooms, under windshield wipers and in motel Gideon Bibles." Tract marketing became a success story with big-time legs.
In keeping with the fast-paced computer age, Chick Publications is now online (http://chick.com), enabling potential franchisees to "expand your personal ministry" with a variety of full-size comics, videos and books. There are even a couple Chick home pages offered by fans, not out to spread the Word, but to honor the achievements of this pop-culture icon.
There is also a phone number for the Chick home office in Cucamonga, California, on the back of each tract, one I used in an attempt to contact this fundamentalist entrepreneur. Here's what happened:
"Hi. I'd like to interview Mr. Chick for an article I'm doing on his fantastic tracts."
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"Mr. Chick doesn't do interviews. You can fax questions to Mr. Rockney; he'll get back to you right away." This I did, and waited many hours with no response. I called back.
"Hi. Can I speak with Mr. Rockney? I faxed him some questions a while ago."
"Mr. Rockney doesn't take calls. But he got your fax."
"Oh." Then I began to wonder. Jack Chick . . . what if he's . . . could it be that . . .
"Does Mr. Chick actually exist?"
Then, for a good 20 seconds of palpable uncomfortability on the other end of the line, there was silence. Which brings us to a question that is nothing if not religious: What does it all mean? I don't know. Maybe Jack Chick is simply a name to humanize yet another international, religion-based business concern.
Or, perhaps I'll be seeing you in hell.