Comics evangelist Jack T. Chick died this week at 92, leaving a complicated legacy of free speech in the service of censorship. Less than a decade after comics were burned and censored by those who saw them as the cause for all manner of juvenile delinquency and societal ills, Chick appropriated the medium and even the underground comix publishing model to advocate for censorship of other forms of culture including rock music, genre fiction, and roleplaying games. In the process he inspired loathing from many fellow Christians who believed he tainted their message, and ironic adoration from aficionados of underground comix and outsider art.
Chick’s first published work was a one-note mainstream newspaper comic titled Times Have Changed? which was syndicated from 1953-1955. After a sudden religious conversion while listening to a radio revival, he began self-publishing his now familiar fire-and-brimstone mini-comic tracts in 1960. These were sold in bulk to true believers around the country who left them in public spaces for others to find, distributed them to disappointed trick-or-treaters, and even gave them to restaurant servers in lieu of tips.
Ironically perhaps, the self-publishing and direct distribution model was just as necessary for Chick tracts as it was for Zap Comix, since they contained plenty of devil worship, gruesome deaths, and hard living that never could have passed muster with the Comics Code Authority. He did however scrupulously pixelate the generously endowed Venus of Willendorf in a screed against climate change theory which also featured cameos from Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.
While Chick himself said he got the idea for the mini-comics from Chinese Communist propaganda, an A.V. Club obituary points out that they also bear a strong resemblance to Tijuana bibles, the pornographic parodies that he almost certainly encountered during his military service in the 1940s. A 1999 article in the short-lived magazine Brill’s Contentdescribed Chick’s work as “a form of religious pornography, titillating and somewhat dangerous,” and the man himself as “the ultimate underground artist: single-minded and self-published, passionately committed to his message without regard for external social forces.” According to the trade site Christian Comics International, Chick sometimes drew the ire of fellow niche creators who felt that he “seemed to make comics so distasteful to the Christian bookstore market, making sales more difficult for later publications.”
One of the most notorious Chick tracts is Dark Dungeons(1984), which suggests that roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons are a gateway to actual dark witchcraft and eventually suicide. In the final panel, protagonist Debbie is “set free” by burning “all of her occult material.” Burning was Chick’s remedy of choice for all sorts of purportedly negative cultural influences from Christian rock music to Harry Potter books, but perhaps self-interest persuaded him to go easy on comics. Judging by Chick Ministries’ promise that “nothing changes” after his death, the little books will continue to rail against other media, religions, concepts, ideologies, and identities for the foreseeable future.
Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2016 by visiting the Rewards Zone, making a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.