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 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.
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.
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.