Tag Archives: Religion

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 beingĀ  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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Pondering faith & spirituality

Last night, trying hard to get to sleep in the midst of watching Sergei Eisenstein’s October, I started having a lot of interesting thoughts. I bolted out of bed, sat at my computer for a few minutes, and typed a few of them up (and then briefly edited them just now):

“I do believe in God.

An omnipotent, omniscient God who loves me. I don’t believe in a petty, more or less human God who gets pissed off and kills people or sends them to eternal torture for minor infractions. I believe in God and his son, Jesus. I believe his nature is confusing to us, and that we’re not capable of fully understanding it. I don’t believe that he wrote and inspired the translation of every single word in the King James Bible, and one thing I believe absolutely for certain is that the God I believe in would never toss out eternal punishment for something so simple and natural – and which causes such a basic pleasure – as questioning, learning, and thinking about every aspect of life, including his nature and what is right or moral.

And questioning whether the vision of God insisted upon by fundamentalists could ever lead to a universe that contained any happiness at all. If the God I’m supposed to believe in is spiteful, insecure, quick to violence, and cares about a select group of people while forsaking the rest, well, then, fuck that. That’s no God I will ever be willing to believe in. Why believe in an all-powerful being who’s never given you any proof of his existence, who requires your faith to believe in him, and yet who wants to cause endless, inescapable pain, to you even, at the drop of a hat or the slightest sign of weakness – if that’s the God there is, we were screwed from the beginning, the universe is inherently horrible, and heaven and hell are pretty much indistinguishable.

I wonder if it doesn’t seem more likely that there is no God. But I think even if it that’s the case, he’s still worth believing in. Especially if he’s good, loving, wants only the best for all of His creations, and is willing to give us a chance if we’re willing to try to be good people and leave his earth a little better than we found it, if we can. But the unforgiving, absolutist, sadistic, and generally hateful God that fundamentalists believe in? If he’s the only choice, I give in any day to the nagging feeling that an afterlife in paradise is just too implausible given the world we’ve seen so far. I believe in God, but only if he’s the one who cares about us, wants only the best for us, and loves us deeply. I don’t see why it would be worthwhile otherwise.”

I was raised in a Christian family and educated in a Catholic school, but my relationship with religion has been an odd one. There are some questions where I just can’t find satisfactory answers: for example, if the sins you commit can cause your damnation, why aren’t they more clearly enumerated and in greater detail, so that we know God’s word on every possible action? Also, if you have to believe in Jesus or you go to hell, well, what about the billions of people throughout human history who were, because of their time period or environment, never exposed to Jesus? Are they all fucked over by default? These are quandaries I’ve never had sufficiently explained. But, going along with what I wrote above, I think another big question is this: there are many, many mutually exclusive conceptions of what God is and wants, so why should I automatically go with what the fundamentalist Christian or Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon evangelist is yelling at me from across the street? (This really happened when I was standing in line for a concert at 1st Avenue; he was screaming, but the traffic drowned him out.) I could believe anything, so why should I specifically side with the minority belief that tells me everything I enjoy is sinful and I’m going to hell, unless I devote every last moment of my life to prayer, or unless I give lots of cash to this megachurch, or unless I pass this letter on within 24 hours, or etc., etc.? I think religion is a powerful thing that can give a lot of help and guidance in life. But I just don’t see why endless amounts of good, selfless, and hard-working non-Christians should be condemned to hellfire forever just because they weren’t lucky enough to be born to Christian parents, whether good or not. That seems like the worst kind of ethnocentrism. (And has led to brutal ethnocentrism, too – the Crusades, the conquest of the New World?)

I have long enjoyed this thought experiment: what if the way the world works is that everyone, when they die, goes wherever they feel they should go, whether heaven, hell, the ground, being reincarnated, or anywhere else? It may not make much sense – and it may suggest some kind of eternal segregation of mankind, which would be sad – but it’s just a thought. Or maybe we all, every one of us, join together for one eternity-long carnival like the end of 8 1/2. Or maybe, speaking of faith-related film, we should just watch more Ingmar Bergman movies. The Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, Winter Light, The Silence – these are some deeply religious movies that probe into questions of God and man, of heaven and hell. And as David Thomson reminded me the other day, while 1950s Hollywood was making bombastic biblical epics like The Robe and Ben-Hur, full of showmanship and swords & sandals, anything but actual faith – Robert Bresson was off in France making quiet little films that are deeply spiritual in style and substance (he’s been called “the patron saint of cinema”) like Diary of a Country Priest (1951), about a poor and sickly young priest who’s rejected by his own new congregation. I haven’t examined Bresson closely enough. I know vaguely, at least, a couple things: obviously, his movies aren’t nearly well-known enough outside of people already well-versed in film. I didn’t learn his name until after I started college. And then, that his movies generally concern a protagonist who suffers, endures, is tortured by the whims of fate, and eventually, for the most part, dies. His films are entirely unconventional, very low-key, and he even made an entire movie about an abused donkey (Au hasard Balthazar [1966]) that never once stoops into the realm of exploited sentiment in which virtually every other movie about animals dwells. So as I tend to do, I suggest turning to films like those of Bergman and Bresson for some measure of spiritual guidance. Movies can perform many functions, and one of those is giving insight into how the world works, physically and spiritually, and how we can come to terms with that.

So to bring this all together: I am extremely open-minded and, in my case, therefore easily confused, about religion and everything else. But after all is said and done, I really do believe that there’s someone, something out there who loves every one of us and will use, in some way, his infinite wisdom and power to help us along. I’m not saying the world doesn’t suck. It does, and then some. And sure, there very easily might not be a God. But so sue me, after all these years, I still think it helps me to believe.

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