Monthly Archives: October 2009

“Not even once”: PSAs and horror

So, I haven’t posted in 2 weeks and Ashley has not in 1 week. This is very sad, but the facts are these: we both have significant non-blog obligations (e.g., writing other things, going to classes, illustrating, studying, etc.), which unfortunately must come first. However, since it’s the Halloween season – a season I have been greatly enjoying, whether by watching movies like Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case or by writing scary stories/comics/oral narratives – I’d like to try and post as much as I can on the subjects of fear and horror.

They’re both really near and dear to my heart, for a number of reasons that begin with fear’s huge role in my life. What can I say? I am a generally fearful person. And I think fear is important: first, on an evolutionary level, to keep you from being killed by scary things and second, on a personal level, because fear is fun. Let’s face it. We like being scared. It engages the body, it gets neurochemicals flowing, it’s just really appealing to us as human animals. And so I continue in my extensive study of the horror genre. I’ve recently started thinking about one curious location where horror can be found: public service announcements, or PSAs.

PSAs are frequently government-produced or else made by nonprofit organizations, and their purpose is, for the most part, to direct behavior – to guide people onto one path or another that will presumably be better for their physical and psychological health. Often, this leads to accusations that PSAs are ridiculous on one level or another for their presumptions that they know how you should act, as well as their attempts to “scare you straight.” These are the kinds of tactics I’m talking about. This type of PSA, from what I’ve seen, predominates. They’re basically cautionary tales, but adapted to the medium of advertising, which means they’re usually about 30 seconds long. I have to applaud the organizations that produce them, because they often compact such a huge, effective message into such a small time-span.

Granted, some PSAs may appeal to your intelligence and sense of responsibility – I think, for example, of Smokey the Bear’s “Only you can prevent forest fires!” – but even these would often resort to showing the consequences of the behavior in question (i.e., a forest fire and its horrific implications). The simple fact is that you can sway more people by scaring the shit out of them than by trying to convince them that they should be smart enough not to do drugs (PSAs’ most frequent target), or drink poison. You want to really show kids why they shouldn’t drink poison? Overwhelm their senses with a melange of darkly psychedelic animation, represent household cleaning products as monsters, and top it all off with a menacing voice reciting a chorus of nursery rhyme simplicity: “Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is green!”

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on the TV Tropes page for “Nightmare Fuel,” which is basically where people can post supposedly innocuous bits of media from their childhood that scarred the shit out of them. Children have interestingly undeveloped mental processes. While adults may have a relatively full understanding of the world – like knowing that no, Mr. Yuk labels aren’t really anything to be afraid of, and household cleaners are not marching to attack you – children just don’t.

I’m not well-versed enough in child psychology to explain how and why this happens, but I will link to Wikipedia’s page on Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Basically, children experience the world differently, because there are various orders and properties of objects they haven’t yet discovered. Even preteens will often have strange misconceptions about how the world works, physically and socially. And often, PSAs will play to these misconceptions in order to permanently scare the child away from an undesired behavior.

So we all pretty much have little ads or segments from shows that scarred us in childhood. One classic example is the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. They’re relatively understandable to adults, acting as the Wicked Witch’s henchmen. But a child, seeing a monkey with wings (an unusual combination), flying through a dark sky accompanied by the Witch’s leitmotif, then picking up the protagonists and carrying them away?

It’s a nightmarish scene that can inspire intense fear, and the same goes for the “Wondrous Boat Ride” scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Many Internet pundits can have commented on this scene: it comes out of nowhere, takes up a few minutes of intense, frightening screen time, and is then forgotten by the film. It’s also effective in further establishing the unpredictable nature of Wonka and his factory. But to a child, seeing “Pure Imagination” followed by scenes of graphic mutilation and a trippy light show? My point is that it’s fucking scary. And this doesn’t just apply to children (I can say from experience), but for children these scenes can leave a deep emotional mark, inspire lifelong phobias, and color their still-developing perceptions of the world.

That said, you can see how PSAs aim to reach kids while they’re still young and impressionable, and guide their behavior for the rest of their lives. Yesterday Ashley linked me to the Montana Meth Project, which I first ran into in my melodrama class last year; their methods are similar to the more child-oriented PSAs I’ve been discussing, but their target group is teenagers. Hence, we get ads going after teens’ anxieties about peer pressure, sex, and their futures.

As Ashley pointed out to me, this is like a horror movie in half a minute. It’s got a concise little narrative: the girl’s going to deceive her parents and probably go to a party and try meth. But first she’s going to shower, and it’s in the shower, while she’s at her most vulnerable, that this apparition appears, of her future self, covered in scabs and scratches, begging her, “Don’t do it… don’t do it…” It uses horror iconography to communicate a very real-world message: if you go and do meth at this party tonight, you will end up a different, less happy person within a year or two. (This is the overarching theme of this campaign and the origin of its slogan, “Not even once.”)

The website notes, “This new concept is based directly on input from Montana teens,” and I find that very interesting. They’re addressing the teens’ fears head-on, building the ads around them, but twisting them into terrifying, violent mini-narratives. I think this connects to another series of ads I’ve long found very disturbing, and I think I’ll end this post by talking about them. They’re Canadian PSAs about workplace safety, designed specifically to horrify adults in high-risk jobs, and they’re produced by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.

What exactly about these is so scary? Maybe it’s the slogan “There really are no accidents,” which places responsibility for the gruesome manglings directly in the hands of the victims, their coworkers, and their companies. Maybe it’s the accidents themselves, clearly evocative of horror/disaster movies, or maybe it’s how self-aware the victims are. “I’ve got this amazing fiancé,” says a chief, “who I won’t be marrying this weekend, because I’m about to be in a terrible ‘accident’.” The fact that she knows her face is about to be scalded, yet goes on mechanically about her work, is just spine-chilling.

This is an aspect of the PSA that might be interesting to examine later, in more detail: the voice of reason, or of the government, that pervades them, whether through a narrator or superimposed text stating, “This is your brain on drugs,” or through these victims of meth and workplace carelessness telling their own stories. We have these grisly 30-second vignettes, and it’s all framed in such a knowing, authoritative way. This is the way the world is, the PSAs seem to say, as a woman falls off a ladder or as a scab-riddled meth addict turns up in the shower. Now you have to adjust to it.

Pleasant nightmares.

fiancé

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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“Atalanta” and self-determination

So, this isn’t nostalgia for me, since I wouldn’t be born for another couple decades, but it might be for some people. This is an excerpt from a 1974 TV special called Free to Be… You and Me. Attributed to “Marlo Thomas and Friends” (other participants include Mel Brooks, Rosey Grier, and little Michael Jackson), Free to Be… is basically a series of songs and skits in the vein of Schoolhouse Rock or Sesame Street attempting to teach children about gender roles, tolerance, and the fact that they were indeed “free to be” identified with whichever gendered behaviors they chose. On the whole, it’s pretty cute, if sometimes a little nauseating or unintentionally hilarious. But the best part, without doubt, is “Atalanta,” a fairy tale cartoon voiced by Thomas and Alan Alda. Watch it for yourself.

It’s not the best-made cartoon of all time  – the animation style is low-rent and reminiscent of cheap storybooks, the music is dated, and the voicework sounds like Alda and Thomas are reading through and enjoying themselves. But it’s not bad for part of a TV special, and that’s the point anyway: it’s the moral. After decades (centuries?) of being told stories where a woman/princess is only an object of desire, caught between forces into which she can have no input, only able to hope that a handsome prince will win her hand, this is finally a fable about gender equity.

It’s an adorable fairy tale with three likeable characters (no requisite villain to be seen) that allows its protagonist’s self-determination. Among the most heartening moments: Atalanta’s correcting of her father’s decrees; John’s respect for Atalanta’s wishes; and of course the ending, when everybody really does end up happily ever after. No one is funneled into an enforced, specific type of “happiness” like that under fairy tale marriages. (E.g., what happens when Cinderella finds out that the Prince – who she’d only had a few hours’ worth of contact with before committing herself for life – has a few bad habits of his own?)

Instead, Atalanta and John get to choose their lives for themselves. They don’t blindly pigeonhole themselves into one single life choice that will decide everything else for them. The cartoon accepts that people change over time and that when you’re pretty young probably isn’t the time to make quick decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s important to be able to go out, explore the world, discover new alternatives, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. Maybe they’ll end up settling on a more traditional mode of life. Maybe they’ll find their own way to go, distinct from all established ways of living. And maybe they’ll realize that they’re too dissimilar and pursue other people instead. As the cartoon wisely concludes, who knows?

So I highly recommend showing this cartoon to any young children or older children or really anyone you know who could still learn a thing or two about relationships and life decisions. Sometimes it’s astonishing how ignorant people can be about all the choices they have; when I can, I try to tell children, Different people can do different things. Not everyone needs to follow the same track of college, marriage, job, kids, house, etc. Some people can, and good for them, but not everybody. And maybe not Atalanta, even if she is a princess. Our birth ranks – like our genitals, chromosomes, bank accounts, and skin colors – should not determine where we end up in life. The only ones who should preside over that decision are us.

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Happiness and drag kings

Recent blogging bursts from Ashley and myself have put me into a blogtastic kind of mood. And what better way to demonstrate that than by posting something here? However, I don’t have anything that specific in mind to talk about. Instead, I have two very, very general topics: one is a basic aspect of human life; the other is a beautiful, comparatively young art form. That’s right, sexuality and film. The interactions between the two form a huge area of study, so I want to try to zero in some especially interesting points, or maybe just ramble freely.

First, last night I watched a movie mostly about sex, Todd Solondz’s Happiness. I watched his earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse last year, and I definitely think it’s good preparation for the pitch-black comedy and fetid suburban lives that populate Happiness. If Dollhouse‘s Dawn Wiener was tortured by her peers and family, what about Happiness‘s ironically named Joy, who faces tribulations from scene 1 (Jon Lovitz tells her she’s shit) through an obscene phone call that raises her hopes, a fling with a manipulative Russian cabbie, and an ending that sees her lonely and desperate all over again?

Solondz’s characters really do go through hell, suggesting that the only thing worse than Sartre’s “other people” might just be “no other people.” Because it’s a movie about the bad, often pathetic behaviors we engage in for companionship – unless, like Ben Gazzara’s hollow patriarch, aloneness is what we really crave in the first place. One man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds solace in his violently pornographic fantasies about his neighbor, but is unable to unload his emotional baggage because his therapist (Dylan Baker) is too self-absorbed, and too busy struggling with his own obsessive pedophilia.

All these interlocking tales of misery and self-defeating spirals add up to a general impression that no one is normal: everyone, whether sexually or emotionally, nurses little fractures and deviations, right down to the apparently “happy” housewife Trish, whose husband is the pedophile. It may be an unremittingly bleak film that holds out little hope for human relationships, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable both in its abrasively comic moments and its willingness to carry out its grim premise. So I recommend this complex, depressing, very NC-17 film if only for the lesson that everyone is at least a little fucked up.

Dan Clowes illustrating Solondz's wretched ensemble: an artistic match made in heaven.

And so, in this little discussion of sex in film, I’d love to briefly single out one particularly resonant character: Kristina (Camryn Manheim), one of the neighbors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lonely sex maniac. Contrasted with the beautiful, successful Helen across the hall, Kristina is overweight, sex-phobic, and slightly unhinged (shades of Repulsion?). Often this kind of depressed, spinsterish character could devolve into stereotype, but the character’s behaviors and Manheim’s performance avert this powerfully, for as she grows closer to Hoffman, her revelations get weirder and weirder while both drawing in viewer sympathy and failing to turn Hoffman away. The most effective part might be that despite her numerous sexual hang-ups, she’s by far not the most disturbed character in the movie. So she comes across not as one extreme case but instead as one abnormal person in a world filled with them.

While considering sexuality in film (a topic for which Happiness is indeed well-suited), let me jump somewhat to another area that endlessly fascinates me: the transvestite in film. I commented briefly and superficially on this last summer (mostly with regard to Cary Grant), but now after reading a chunk of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, I’d like to re-examine it. As part of a class on Pre-Code film, I’m about to start a research project on Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) – a film in which cross-dressing plays a prominent role.

[Mamoulian is a director who doesn’t get enough credit, considering the series of unique, beautiful films he made including Applause, a musical burlesque melodrama with dazzlingly fluid urban photography; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, probably the best filmed version of the Stevenson story, complete with an outrageously slutty Miriam Hopkins; and Love Me Tonight, a Chevalier musical in which class, gender, and logic go topsy-turvy.]

In general, female-to-male cross-dressing doesn’t get the kind of attention (or cause the same titillation) as male-to-female, and this intrigues me. Maybe it’s because when a woman assumes male dress, she’s elevating herself in terms of power and status, while a man in a dress is seen as lowering himself, rendering himself impotent and ridiculous? Look at the presentation of Roscoe in Freaks: a stuttering, effeminate parody of a patriarch, first shown dressed as a “Roman lady” alongisde the virile, all-man Hercules. According to society, dresses on men are undignified, evoking giggles and catcalls, while a woman in a suit and tie is a solemn event. Who laughs when Marlene goes in drag and kisses a woman in Morocco? Erotic, of course (it’s Josef von Sternberg, for chrissake!), but funny? Not really.

I haven’t thought too much about this particular line of reasoning, but maybe comedy is only created when the cross-dresser has to struggle to maintain the illusion. And while Garbo and Dietrich are both comfortable and confident occupying this hermaphroditic middle ground – Garbo, of course, is a defiant queen, and Dietrich is performing in a self-conscious nightclub act – maybe another great example, Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, is both not as talented or assured in her double performance, and also has more to lose should her masquerade be uncovered.

The Swedish Sphinx: a riddle of personality and gender identityMarlene, the consummate performer of alternate identities

While Garbo and Dietrich are both fully in control of their respective male impersonations, Hepburn’s Sylvia/Sylvester is young, inexperienced (both at playing male, and sex in general), and has her father’s life at risk. Garbo’s Christina may guide her disguised rendezvous with John Gilbert’s Spanish envoy, but Sylvia is prey to the desires encircling her, whether from her stepmother (taking her for a boy) or a roguish Cary Grant (confused by his attraction to her unseen femininity). Through her guise’s insecurity, these encounters result in nail-biting comedy –  will she be discovered, or will she reveal herself on her own terms?

And this is where we start to get some answers to the questions, Why study sexuality in film history? What could it possibly teach us? Examining these three texts of female-to-male transvestism from the ’30s, we see patterns regarding who can cross-dress, who can’t, and why. We wonder whether the clothes make the man, or whether a woman, in dress, suit, or neither, is still first and foremost a woman. These are questions I’m exploring right now in my WGST classes, and hopefully will be able to carry over to my work on Queen Christina. I’ve studied the Production Code and the PCA a fair amount, but I don’t know exactly what their stance on Garbo’s playful sexual antics would be, and I’m excited to find out.

So, it’s about 3 am, and I have more movies to watch (and explore gender in). But these alleys of inquiry really are endless, and I think each of them can lead to personal breakthroughs in our perception of sex, gender, and media. With so many movies out there talking about the same issues from such radically different viewpoints, there’s really no limit to the analysis you can do.

Katherine Hepburn plays the boy in Sylvia Scarlett

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The world of Jack Chick, cont’d

So, a few matters to talk about: first of all, sorry (to some imaginary, hypothetically blog-hungry audience) for not posting in forever. Classes, quiz bowl, film society, writing articles/screenplay/stories, etc. have conspired to make me very busy, with more busyness to come. So blogging will probably remain infrequent for the next few weeks. However, I’ll still try to write whenever possible, like today.

Today, at last, I am going to tackle a topic I’ve touched on in the past, but never given the attention it deserves: Jack T. Chick, the fundamentalist artist behind a series of remarkable, poorly-thought-0ut, and widely distributed “tracts” on everything from evolution to Halloween, from rock music to Catholics. So where to start when addressing the style and content of Chick’s work? I think I’ll try to use a specific tract to highlight some of his tendencies – Chick’s Bad Bob!, from 1983.

Chick trademarks: impossible facial expressions and random Bible quotes

Chick tracts walk a difficult line: they’re compelling, yet godawful. The “compelling” aspect relies heavily on my ironic enjoyment of their various stylistic quirks and overstated messages, but it can’t be denied that Chick knows what he’s doing with the broad, simplistic storylines filled with stereotypes and cliches. It’s definitely populist storytelling, and I could imagine it appealing to someone who doesn’t think too deeply about what they read (although it’s almost a struggle to read them superficially enough that they make direct sense). Bad Bob! is no exception. Let’s see what we can get out of this page:

1) Looking at the artwork, we get some of the usual Chick craziness. He can clearly draw the human form well enough, but when it comes to, oh, faces or motion, watch out. From the motion lines here, it appears that the baby is twirling his arms 360 degrees, forcing air upward as the word “WAAAAAAA!!” emerges from his head. And when it comes to faces, Chick characters tend to either have their jaw quivering in explosive anger, contorted in mid-speech, or staring blithely into space with a vapid smile. Or in little Bobby’s case, metamorphosing into some as-yet-unknown species of bird.

2) In terms of the story, I really don’t understand how this page fits in. Chick throws around his stereotypes so freely that sometimes they just make no bloody sense in context. Does this mean that Bob was born to be a rowdy, drug-dealing psychopath, and his baby self was just exhibiting the same satanic impulses? If so, what does that have to do with the rest of the tract in any way? The barely relevant biblical verses Chick sprinkles on every page don’t really help – do “the sparks [which] fly upward” in the book of Job relate somehow to the anguished cries emanating from the baby’s head? If only we could know.

The next couple pages deal with more of Bob’s youthful indiscretions: he floods a house (while his mother insists, “in his heart, he’s such a good boy.”), then gets off easy with a psychiatrist despite saying “GRRR” in his office (no pussy involved) – since in Chick’s world, psychiatry exists only to encourage homosexuality, satanism, etc., and enforce the government’s edict against corporal punishment. Apparently all Chick thinks you need for mental or emotional problems is a good whiff of the holy book, and professionals be damned (literally). Then we fast-forward to “years later,” when all this psychiatry and lax parenting has turned Bob into the kind of bearded, jacket-wearing hooligan who dumps liquids out of orbs onto waitress’s heads.

And Bob just goes on grimacing.

In Chick’s world, there are only a few types of people: there’s A) the saved, who are, well, saved, and evangelize to other people nonstop. They’re gracious, impossibly polite, and will tolerate being spat on without fighting back. They live to distribute Chick tracts. Then there are B) total raving psychos who hate hate hate Jesus with all the fiber of their being, and will murder freely at the very mention of his name. Another damned soul, not quite so aggressively damned, is C) the poor, misled fool who’s never heard of this strange “Jesus” person and thinks he’ll be OK if he goes on being a good person. Oh, how wrong is he. Then, finally, we have D) the false prophets, authority figures, psychiatrists, teachers, and all the other pawns who act out Satan’s decrees on earth. Whether or not they know it, every middle school principal, Catholic clergyman, developmental psychologist, and Obama campaign worker are secretly in league with each other, and probably attend some kind of meetings presided over by Mr. I.M. De Ville.

So on this page, every character seems to be either (B) or (C). Chick was born in 1924 and started doing comics in 1960, but his knowledge of hippies or drug culture is anything but first-hand. The two drug addicts on display here are really par for the course in terms of Chick characterizations: whether good or bad, everyone repeats cliched dialogue, obvious exposition, and straw man opinions. While she tilts her head uncomfortably, the woman declares that everyone loves Bob, despite him being “socially unacceptable.” Lost already? You’re not alone. The man happily lists off half a dozen street names of drugs, and Bob stands around gruffly in the background, holding a bottle, being gruff, and impressing everyone (who “just love him”) by being a head taller than them.

Well, believe it or not, Bob ends up getting arrested by a narc (or “narcotics officer,” as a footnote helpfully informs us) while trying to score with his cousin outside Tooties Bar. He goes to prison, where he continues to wear shades and be gruff, but when a jittery young evangelist walks in with a Bible, you better believe that Bob gets pissed, going so far as to use the word “[spiral] !!! * * !!”, and adding his old childhood favorite, “GRRRR!!!” The poor innocent’s eyes recede into the back of his head and he thinks “Gulp!” as a guard notifies him that the “party’s over.” As the prison walls evaporate into nothingness, the guard begins lecturing Bob and his cousin, mentioning that “[the kid] might be a little off base,” to which a footnote adds, “Love gospel – no repentance.” Does Chick mean that the “love gospel” follows a different, repentance-free theology from the guard (and, implicitly, Chick himself)? Is this a command to love the gospel? Why do the footnotes raise more questions than they answer?*

The tract, in any case, plugs right ahead after the guard’s tedious, heavy-handed lecture with a melodramatic, predictable plot twist (a prison fire) that pretty much spells out “The guard was right, now listen to him.” Chick’s stories tend to be about damnation and redemption. In a damnation story, some dumb schmuck – whether a happy-go-lucky sinner, a devout satanist/Catholic/Jew, or a pathetic 6-year-old unaware of Jesus – goes on with their wicked ways despite the overbearing advice of a Chick-loving Christian, and is usually shown in the last panel burning in the flames of hell. One example is the ridiculous Flight 144, where it’s missionaries who spent decades in Africa who end up damned; another is Fairy Tales. Some tracts lean toward either damnation (the main character[s] end up stewing in hell) or redemption (everybody converts, yay!), but most have a mix of the two: some characters get damned as an example to the rest, who hurry up and pledge themselves to Jesus. So I think we can sketch out pretty easily an archetypal tract plot structure:

Protagonist is sinful –> Fundamentalist tries to convert them –> Protagonist is unreceptive –> Some crisis occurs –> Protagonist falls right into the fundamentalist’s hands –> Protagonist ends up on their knees begging for forgiveness.

Bad Bob! follows this structure meticulously. After the prison fire, do you think Bob retains even the slightest bit of his earlier antipathy toward Christianity? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. These characters aren’t remotely realistic; they’re poorly-motivated caricatures who exist solely to propel Chick’s morality tales along.

A Chick mainstay: the former sinner repenting.

You may ask, why is Bob still wearing his burnt, tattered clothes? Why is the wall inconsistently and incompletely drawn? Why does Chick give his speech bubbles such strange, jagged shapes? I don’t know why, but all of these artistic tics contribute to the ultimate impression the tracts make. Another note: Chick loves his establishing shots, but is terrible at them. We have a few in Bad Bob!, including one of the prison and another of the hospital, but his attempts to incorporate dialogue into them just lead to confusion and inexpressiveness.

So, Bad Bob! ends up with Bob’s conversion, followed by his old druggie friends laughing about his changed behavior and concluding, “we’ll just hafta go find a new dealer” (although the question of how effective a dealer he was while in prison is itself never considered). The final page, as with all tracts, has a list of Chick’s basic pointers for being  Christian, including how to be saved, what prayers to pray, and even other tracts you should read. Now, having glanced over a tract and identified some common features, let’s consider why tracts are worth reading (outside of being a gullible, homophobic, anti-everything, fundamentalist loony).

First, as I’ve pointed out here and there, Chick’s visual style is so distinctively and defiantly odd. He doesn’t care if the backgrounds don’t make sense, if characters’ faces are eerily twisted, or if the speech bubbles and sound effects interfere with the rest of the panel. It all exists in the service of his evangelism anyway. So do the characters, dialogue, and story, which means that if these make no sense or conflict with each other, that doesn’t matter either. As long as one character represents Chick’s beliefs and someone else represents the opposing viewpoint / Satan (since his worldview is so fiercely Manichaean), every other element of the comic is secondary.

But instead of just making the comics really bad and incompetent (which they are), the extremely low emphasis placed on quality, accuracy, or logic in the visual depictions or storylines grant the comics a strange appeal. As the saying goes, it could be compared to an artistic car crash – you’re unable to look away, and so, for example, Ashley and I become fixated and spend hours reading tract after maddening tract. It’s a desperate search for the depths which Chick’s art can reach; you’re compelled to keep reading to find out how bizarre and divorced from reality his reasoning and portrayals human behavior can become.

So Chick’s work has an Ed Wood-like appeal on one level: it’s so bad, but also So Bad It’s Good, and almost so bad it’s avant-garde, also like Wood. Then there’s also his inexplicable, wide-reaching exposure and recognizability. Whether or not he’s untalented or insane, Chick is an artistic pioneer. His work has reached and, God forbid, probably converted a lot of people. It’s been found sitting around in public places or handed out by strangers on street corners. Despite all of its aesthetic and rational shortcomings, Chick’s technique works and, if nothing else, it gets its message (“Think like me!”) across to people with all the subtlety of the Tsar Bomba. And besides, the tracts are handed out for free. That can help a lot, I think, when you’re entirely ideologically driven with no visible profit motive.

I think I’ll cut this discussion short for now, but hopefully in the (much later) future, I can return to it and examine some more of Chick’s method and madness. This is some fertile ground for analysis and I still consider Chick one of my many artistic influences. He’s got some interesting stuff going on. So I’ll leave that for whatever point in the next few weeks I get a chance to write more.

* See Bible for explanation.

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