25 October 2016
Jack T. Chick, the cartoonist and evangelist, died on Sunday at the age of 92. It is probably safe to say that there was no one else like him in the world.
Karen Rockney, Chick’s secretary and friend of 45 years, confirmed his death by phone on Monday, saying she had last seen him the previous day. Chick, for weeks in poor health, had known he was close to the end, Rockney said.
“The last time I actually spoke to him was last Thursday,” she said. “We were there in his home. He didn’t have a lot to say; he knew he was going. There were several of us from Chick Publications who were there to share with him. He let us know he loved us all and would see us soon.”
Chick rarely gave interviews; Rockney declined to provide contact information for his widow, Susie Chick, or Fred Carter, Jack’s co-artist since 1972. Carter’s work graced the pages of Chick-written comics during the mid-1970s boom in Christian comics publishing, alongside titles from the former Archie Comics artist Al Hartley’s religious comics company, Spire. Carter also illustrated a line of comics featuring black characters – some of them his own stories, some reworked from previous Chick tracts in order to broaden the comics’ audience and better serve Chick’s all-important mission of evangelism.
To Americans who grew up in or adjacent to evangelical Christian communities in the 1970s and 80s, Chick’s harsh stories about the wages of sin were both inescapable and oddly inviting in the way of very few other methods of proselytizing. Often left in places known to attract sinners – on video games, public transportation or stacks of glossier comics – the little black-and-white books are instantly recognizable: about the size of a dollar bill, each cover with stark white title text over one half, a two-color illustration on the other half.
This format, incidentally, is also the right size for a Tijuana bible, the slang name for the cheaply-produced depression-era pornographic comics starring cartoon characters such as Blondie and Popeye, which would have been in circulation when Chick was a boy. His innovation on the format outlasted the porn version by several decades, which surely pleased him.
Chick was married to his first wife, Lola Lynn, for 50 years; when she died, he married again, to Susie Chick. His only child, a daughter named Carol, died in 1998 after complications from surgery, Rockney said. Chick was not a Christian when he first met Lynn, Rockney told the Guardian, but his future in-laws insisted they listen to Charles E Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour together, and Chick adopted a charismatic form of Christianity that recast life’s difficulties in terms of a titanic struggle between ultimate good and absolute evil. That perspective would inform his work for the rest of his life.
A lot of people hated Jack Chick. He wrote furious screeds against Dungeons & Dragons, against Catholicism and against rock music; he waged a long and ultimately unsuccessful war on Halloween. If you were Jewish or Muslim or gay, Chick wanted you to be saved from the fires of hell and wrote a comic to tell you so.
At one time or another, Chick’s work was repudiated by his co-religionists, bookseller trade associations, and at least once by the government of Canada, which outlawed the distribution of a few of his comics as hate speech, according to an issue of the critic and New Yorker writer Daniel Raeburn’s magazine the Imp, devoted to Chick.
If Chick was troubled, it wasn’t by insincerity. Asked about Chick’s personal life, Rockney suggested a recent excerpt from the organization’s newsletter, Battle Cry: “He wrote about the witches that were sent to take his family out and how the Lord protected him,” Rockney recalled. “That’s recent. He just wrote that.” Chick befriended at least one of the witches, Rockney said.
The organization would throw parties – “banquets”, in her words – to celebrate milestones. In his last days, as he sat quietly surrounded by friends, Rockney said, they tried to ease his pain by reminding him of his hope of heaven. “I told him the next Chick Publications banquet is going to be with the Lord, and he got a big smile on his face,” she said.
Many underground and alternative comic artists admired him. In an interview last year, the cartoonist Daniel Clowes said that, as far as he was concerned, Chick deserved a place in the comics pantheon. “As a comics aficionado you don’t really think of those as being part of the official canon of effective comics,” he said. “And one day I sort of changed my mind on that. I thought, ‘These are really compelling and interesting and I’d rather read these than pretty much anything else published in 1985.’”
The revelation came after a Chick tracts bender, Clowes said: “[O]ne day I made a long trek out to a Christian bookstore in Queens where they had a rack where they sold them, and I bought every single one, which totaled I think $3. I think they were each 10 cents. And I went home and read them all in one sitting, and it was maybe the most devastating comics-reading experience I’ve ever had. I really felt like he’d almost won me over by the end. There’s really something to be said for that.”
Clowes drew his own parody of a Chick Tract, called Devil Doll, for the first issue of his own indie comics series, Eightball; other cartoonists including Jim Woodring and the celebrated underground cartoonist Robert Crumb mimicked Chick’s blunt storytelling style. At one point, a rumor circulated that Chick was in fact a pseudonym for Robert Crumb. (He wasn’t.)
By financial standards, the Chick Publications enterprise is successful – it has employed its small staff for nearly five decades – but in terms of pure saturation, it is a phenomenon. Raeburn called Chick “the most widely read theologian in human history”; if that is an exaggeration, it is a slight one. Four hundred million Chick tracts, sold in packets of 25 at just above cost, had been distributed in 1998 when Raeburn wrote that.
Rockney put the number closer to 1bn. “He was that very special, special person,” she said. “He sacrificed a lot to give what he gave to the world, and he’s one of the greatest reformers in the world.”