Jack Chick’s beliefs were as black and white as his drawings.
You might not know the name Jack T. Chick, but by any metric he’s one of the most-read cartoonists of all time. Starting in 1960, he wrote, illustrated and published hundreds of “tracts”?—?tiny, self-contained comics designed to be given away or left in phone booths, bus stations and other locations to reach the unconverted.
Chick’s company printed millions and millions of these tracts, with evocative names like “Burn Baby Burn,” “The Last Generation” and “The Sissy.” The 22-page comics mostly followed the same general plotline: They introduced a sinner; a friendly Christian gave that sinner the option to repent; the n’er-do-well refused.
And then they died, horribly, and were tormented forever in flesh-searing flames.
Jack Chick was born in Los Angeles in 1924. Like many young men of his era, he had dreams of becoming an actor. But a chance encounter with a radio show would set him on the path to God.
After serving overseas during World War II, he moved back to Pasadena to continue his dramatic studies. His wife Lola introduced him to the “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour,” a weekly program hosted by evangelist Charles E. Fuller. That preaching was so convincing that the previously non-practicing Chick had a religious experience and converted on the spot, devoting his life to the Gospel.
In the mid-50s, Chick had dabbled in the secular cartoon market with “Times Have Changed,” a single-panel cartoon in several local papers. When he found God, the cartoonist realized that he could use his drawing talent to reach far more people than a simple sermon could.
Chick’s breakthrough tract was “This Was Your Life,” originally drawn as a chalk talk for inmates at a local prison. It follows a 50s dude straight out of “Mad Men” as he dies from a sudden heart attack and is carried to the afterlife by an angel who reviews all his sins and crimes. Because our antihero didn’t accept Jesus, he’s therefore not forgiven, and the tract ends with him cast into the lake of fire.
“This Was Your Life” was a tremendous success. It was translated into over 100 languages and multiple versions were made with the main character altered to appeal to black, Asian and Middle Eastern audiences. Jack Chick knew that he was onto something.
Over the next few decades, Chick turned out new comics at a flabbergasting pace. He sold them for pennies apiece?—?barely enough to cover the cost of printing and postage?—?to churches and religious groups all over the world eager to win souls.
Tract after tract, Chick churned out relentless moral fables hammering home the idea that there was no salvation except through Christ. No matter how many good deeds you did in life, you were headed for the hot place unless you accepted Jesus as your savior.
Conversely, many of his tracts teach that you can be as awful a human being as you want in life, but if you convert before your last breath, you’re fine. Murderers, pimps, rapists and worse end up with the angels as long as they accepted Jesus.
For a non-religious person, it’s easy to see the flaws in this reasoning. Why bother being good at all if every sin is forgiven with a deathbed confession?
Chick’s merciless, fire-and-brimstone preaching came to define a sect of hardline Christianity that terrified a generation and probably turned as many against God as it converted.
Jack Chick’s vicious, take-no-prisoners approach alienated readers. His loose grip on cultural trends wasn’t unsurprising for a dude born in the 1920s, but as he aged, his stories got increasingly out of touch. While his tracts could win souls in the homogenous 1950s, the media-saturated modern age treated his little comics as embarrassing jokes.
In addition, Chick’s narrow view of Christianity alienated readers by loudly insisting that only his gospel was correct. The Catholic Church was an enemy to his ministry, and he drew several tracts claiming that it was run by demons. Other enemies were Islam, Buddhism, the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria and Dungeons & Dragons (uh, what?).
Although Chick drew most of the comics himself, a man named Fred Carter joined him in 1972. Carter’s more realistic, muscular work was more suited to the style of the day, and some of the most iconic Chick tracts were drawn by him. Carter also illustrated Chick’s venture into standard-size, full-color comics, “The Crusaders,” which ran for 11 issues.
It wasn’t until 1980 that Chick admitted he wasn’t drawing Carter’s tracts, and he also announced that the artist was going to embark on an even more ambitious project: an animated feature film.
The end result was “The Light of the World,” which was “animated” in the loosest possible sense. Essentially a slideshow of hundreds of Carter’s detailed biblical paintings, it tells the story of Jesus in gruesome and gory detail.
Jack Chick passed away in October at 92 years of age. He was productive up to his passing, continuing to create tracts. His final published tract is 2016’s “What A Shame,” the story of a young woman who finds Christ but is ostracized by her family for it. It ends in classic Chick fashion, with the woman’s elderly grandmother dying, her face frozen in a horrified rictus, heading to her final destination in Hell.
What of Jack T. Chick himself? Well, there’s no way of knowing where he is now. Did his fire-and-brimstone preaching really win souls to Jesus or was he tempted himself by the sins of hubris and pride as a sort of Satanic long con to turn the unsaved away?
It’s too bad we don’t have a tract to tell us.