I watched God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick on the Documentary channel with my dad, who studied theology and nearly sought ordination when Chick tracts espoused the wildest conspiracy theories that their authors and artists would commit to the limited panels and formatting of Chick’s signature medium. The craziest, most evidentially wrong claims filled books and audio cassettes and the “Crusader” comic books drawn by Fred Carter. When the documentary turned its attention to John Todd and played audio from one of his tapes on the Illuminati, my dad started laughing. He had owned that tape.
My own experiences with Jack Chick’s instruments of testimony and witness are comparatively limited, in part because I grew up after his tirades against Catholicism cost him the support of Christian booksellers and, more pertinently, because my parents had very quickly grown to dislike him and his method of proselytizing. But I do remember that, while attending a Baptist school, a teacher handed out copies of the infamous “This Was Your Life” tract to illustrate how salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone (what the Baptists call “Accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”) works. Chick’s illustration of God as a faceless giant and the galaxy wide cinemascope screen on which the angels broadcast the sinner’s iniquities are images that stick with an eight-year-old.
God’s Cartoonist does not interview the man behind these iconic images. He is notoriously reclusive. And a couple of (sarcastically) animated tracts aside, God’s Cartoonist very much thrives on the content of its interviews. Director Kurt Kuerstiner interviews Chick supporters, including Dr. Rebecca Brown and Fred Carter, as well as underground comic authors who openly admit their not always ironic appreciation of Jack Chick.
In all honesty, the people who back Chick are not all that interesting except for reasons that are unrelated to Chick. Fred Carter’s humility is disconcerting; Rebecca Brown and Alberto Rivera’s wife are interesting only because they have stuck to their lies long after their association with Jack Chick ended. The collectors and underground comic artists who comment are the ones who actually tell the story of Chick, what little is known of him, from his early commercial art to his start as an independent artist/publisher and on to his current operation as the most successful independent comic publisher in the world. Each of them offers anecdotes about strange places they found tracts or the peculiarities of the collecting hobby, occasionally commenting on the theology of Chick, which resembles very much that of right wing, American fundamentalist protestants. Jack Chick would feel very much at home in an Assemblies of God church.
The tract which raises the most ire is not one of the homophobic or religiously intolerant ones, but a now rare and infamous tract aimed at child molesters titled “Lisa.” In it, a man who abuses his daughter Lisa seeks repentance and forgiveness and receives it from God, his wife, apparently the criminal-justice system and even the daughter whom he sexually abused. It’s actually worse than it sounds. Other observations on Chick’s methods are that he often repeats the, “I know... I was once one too!” plot twist. In these tracts, a wayward sinner (homosexual, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, Illuminati, Mason, etc.) is informed by somebody who used to be trapped in the same sin about its dangers.
Chick actually claims that the people who knew him when he was younger would think him the last person who would become a world-wide evangelist. Has his memory been shaped by his work, or his work by his memory? It’s hard to say when he refuses to speak for himself on camera.
During the commercial breaks, my dad would talk about finding tracts in weird places. He would find them at construction sites in porta-potties and at gas stations on top of condom dispensers and sometimes just lying about in parking lots at the campus of his now defunct Bible school. Most of the locations he spoke of were in Dallas, San Antonio and Orange County. I have spent much time in these places. I worked in the construction industry, off and on, for about six years. The only Chick tracts I’ve ever seen in person are still the ones given to me at that Baptist school.
God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick does not just document the wild world of Jack Chick, his associates, and the mystique that surrounded them for years. Mr. Kuersteiner has produced documentation of the predigital world. I have read most of the more infamous Chick tracts online, many from the man’s own website, and yet I can only remember holding a single Chick tract physically in my whole life. The world has changed and with it, the way that we consume media, including bizarre, underground comics and religious tracts. There will never be another Jack Chick. Or rather, there are hundreds of Jack Chicks fighting over the limited attention of the anonymous, indifferent collective of the online public.
The talking heads in this movie made me nostalgic for a world I didn’t live in and in which this writing would not exist. The ubiquity of people like Chick has devalued the weirdness of his whole phenomenon. And still, I find myself in a position not unlike those talking heads. There is something admirable about Chick and something fascinating in the world he occupies. There are mysteries there that the probing eyes of the digital nyarlathotep cannot penetrate.