Monday, July 31, 2006
Random Walks: Heart of Darkness
"No man can be said to know anything, until he learns that every day is doomsday," Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously observed. By that standard, there is no one more knowledgeable than Jack Chick, the controversial founder of Chick Publications, purveyor of fine evangelical propaganda since the 1960s. For decades, Chick has been a one-man prophet of doom and gloom, seeing Satanic conspiracies and signs of the pending Apocalypse lurking in every corner.
It's a safe bet that anyone reading this has encountered at least one example of Chick's work. He has both rabid fans, and equally rabid detractors, inspiring both the Jack Chick Museum of Fine Art, and an archive devoted to parodies of his signature style. Yet very little is known about the man himself, who is notoriously reclusive (partly from natural shyness, and partly out of paranoia, convinced -- like any true conspiracy theorist -- that his enemies are trying to assassinate him). He hasn't granted an interview since, oh, about 1975. But here's what little we do know.
Jack Thomas Chick was born April 13, 1924 in Los Angeles, California. A sickly child, he was fond of drawing cartoons growing up. He was also a member of his high school drama club, which sparked a long-standing interest in the theater. In fact, he attended the Pasadena Playhouse School of Theater on a scholarship in the early 1940s, whose former students also include Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. After a stint in the army, Chick returned to the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met his future wife, Lola Lynn. She was the daughter of fundamentalist Christians, yet apparently agreed to marry him anyway, even though he was, by his own admission, a foul-mouthed heathen. Thanks to his in-laws' influence, he eventually converted.
Chick took the biblical exhortation to spread the Gospel very much to heart. He dreamed of being a missionary, or a preacher, but was purportedly too shy for public speaking. That's when he hit upon the idea of evangelical tracts, inspired by their use as mass-market propaganda by Chinese communists. He worked days as a technical illustrator at Astro Science Corporation, and drew his comics at night. His first, and most popular, tract, This Was Your Life, appeared in 1964, in which a drunken, lustful, godless protagonist dies suddenly and is forced by an angel to view scenes from his "wasted life" before being condemned to the fires of hell. It is still in print today.
The huge success of that first little tract spawned an entire industry: Chick Publications now has tracts devoted to every conceivable threat to evangelical Christianity (real or imagined), denouncing premarital sex, abortion, evolution, homosexuality and AIDS (God's judgment, of course), astrology, Freemasons, Halloween, witchcraft, rock music, and just about every other facet of modern American life. By the 1970s, Chick had conceived of a more elaborate, full-color, full-sized comic series. He teamed up with an African-American painter and illustrator named Fred Carter to produce The Crusaders, detailing the adventures of two men, fighting evil and spreading the Gospel wherever they went. I was addicted to the series as a child: they had all the elements of good horror, and didn't skimp on the gory details. Carter's illustrations are so vivid in their depictions of sex and violence that some critics have described the series as "spiritual porn."
But then Chick made a serious miscalculation. He published a new adventure featuring the Crusaders, this time based on the "testimony" of a supposed former Jesuit priest named Alberto Rivera. Rivera claimed to have left the Catholic Church after uncovering the Vatican's plans for world domination, beginning with its systematic discrediting of mainstream Protestant churches (usually through sexual temptation of spiritually weak ministers). The first tale, simply titled Alberto, was followed by six others, each more paranoid than the last, accusing the Catholic Church of (among other things) participating in the Holocaust, the Jonestown massacre, and the rise of Communism.
The Alberto series proved too crazed and paranoid even for diehard evangelical Christians accustomed to fire and brimstone. They could accept that record companies and rock bands worshiped Satan, that demon possession was real, and that Halloween was evil, but not that the Pope was out to get them. It didn't help Chick's waning credibility that another tale in the Crusader series, Spellbound, turned out to be based on fraudulent allegations by a supposed "former Grand Druid" named Johnny Todd, who claimed there were Satanists in the US performing human sacrifice. And on July 15th, a longtime Chick collaborator, Ken "Dr. Dino" Hovind, was arrested for tax evasion -- specifically, for refusing to pay taxes on his religious theme park, Dinosaur Adventureland. (Hovind helped Chick revise the classic anti-evolution tract, Big Daddy, among others.)
In response to the growing outcry, many Christian bookstores stopped carrying Chick's comics entirely. (When I tried to buy the Crusader series as an adult -- in a misguided fit of nostalgia -- the salesclerk confessed they usually kept them in a special "restricted" section in the back, and were currently "out of stock." I ended up ordering them online.) Even Christianity Today, a popular magazine with mainstream evangelicals, denounced Chick Publications for its overly zealous anti-Catholicism. The dislike was mutual: Chick eventually resigned from the Christian Booksellers Association, claiming they had been "infiltrated" by Catholic operatives. Rivera himself apparently died in 1997 of colon cancer, although no self-respecting conspiracy theorist would ever accept an official death certificate as proof of anything other than a massive cover-up. Chick and his followers claim Rivera was assassinated by the Jesuits via a special poison designed to give victims terminal cancer.
Chick has a few scattered fans outside the wingnut evangelical enclave, most notably underground comic artists R. Crumb (whose work Chick would frankly find appalling) and Daniel Clowes, whose screenplay for the film Ghost World received an Oscar nomination. Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning creator of Maus, is far less complimentary, telling The Independent in 2003, "It makes me despair about America that there are so many people who read these things."
Spiegelman has it right, in my opinion. Chick comics are nothing more than propaganda masquerading as harmless entertainment. Their only purpose -- overtly stated by Chick himself -- is to quite literally scare the hell out of us. It's a tried-and-true method of manipulation, used to great effect by evangelical groups in their zeal to "win souls for Christ." It certainly worked on my childhood self; even adults find them disquieting. I once loaned my collection of Crusader comics to PUNK co-founder Legs McNeil, whose tastes ran to the extreme, to say the least. They gave him nightmares. Clowes reported that one night in college he read 80 Chick tracts in a single sitting, and admitted, "I had never been so terrified by a comic."
When I was around 10, I saw a Christian film called A Thief in the Night, about the supposed "end times." (The title derives from a Biblical verse pertaining to the Second Coming, which says that Jesus will return "like a thief in the night," when we least expect it.) Chick had nothing to do with the film, yet it followed the same simplistic formula: a skeptical, unbelieving woman is warned repeatedly that the Rapture is imminent, yet even when her husband converts, she puts off making a decision -- until one morning she wakes up to find he has been raptured, along with all the other born-again Christians, and she has been Left Behind. The sequel was even more grim: we witness the rise of the Antichrist, who turns America into a police state where everyone is required to receive the Mark of the Beast (a bar code on the forehead or back of the hand). Anyone who resists is rounded up, imprisoned, and summarily executed. The final scene depicts our unfortunate heroine being forced to watch as a close friend is guillotined for refusing the Mark -- her final chance to be "saved." (The implication: accept Christ now, so you can be raptured and not have to go through that whole guillotine bit to get to heaven -- or otherwise burn in hell.)
Evangelicals milked the effect on audiences for all it was worth, following every screening with an "altar call" -- in which those now scared out of their wits were invited to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Needlesss to say, my ten-year-old self was terrified. Even though I had technically already been "saved" at the age of 8, largely to please my recently born-again mother, I figured I'd better head up for the altar call again -- you know, just in case. Nor was I the only one. Practically every single person in the church did the exact same thing. A former college roommate of mine saw the same films as a child and confessed to being equally traumatized.
Are fear-induced religious conversions sincere or genuine? I doubt it. It certainly didn't "take" in my case. These days I'm a diehard agnostic, and far happier for it. I prefer cheeky biblical irreverence to evangelical horror, eschewing Chick comics for the far more entertaining Web comic, Holy Bibble. But like Spiegelman, I am dismayed by the seemingly unquenchable American thirst for the kind of Apocalyptic, fear-mongering garbage being disseminated by Chick and his ilk. There are more than 500 million of Jack Chick's comic books and tracts in print, and they have been translated into over 100 languages, making him the world's most published living author. (Technically, he's self-published, but still...) Then there's the bestselling Left Behind series of end-of-days novels penned by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, using the book of Revelations in the bible to weave a story of apocalyptic events -- again, little more than thinly disguised Christian propaganda, yet hugely popular among the Christian community.
So what? You might be thinking. People like a good scare now and then, and besides, it's only fiction. But it's far more subversive than one might realize, especially since the line between fact and fiction is so easily blurred when it comes to things like Bibical prophecies and religious beliefs. For instance, the tragic outbreak of violence in the Middle East over the last week or so seems to have fanned the flames of Apocalyptic conspiracy theorists. LaHaye has been featured in Newsweek (with the heading "Are These the End Times?"). His co-author, Jenkins, and another Christian author, Joel Rosenberg, were interviewed by Kyra Phillips on CNN in a segment specifically citing the current conflict as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. That's right: CNN interviewed two writers of fiction as if they were expert scholars on the Middle East. (You can read portions of the transcript here.) That's right up there with Congress asking Michael Crichton to give expert testimony on climate change.
I confess to puzzlement as to why the mainstream media would give so much prominent space and air time to this kind of unfounded conjecture. It's probably all about ratings, but that's no excuse. My objection has nothing to do with sincere personal faith, with which I have no quibble. But this is exploitation of tragic events at its most despicable. Yet once again, people are lapping it up unquestioningly. Perhaps it is more comforting to take refuge in wild religious scenarios and conspiracy theories, rather than face up to the truth: sometimes the worst, most fearsome "monsters" are to be found in the darkest hearts of men.
When not taking random walks on 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses on science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.
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