Dec 21, 2016

Jack T. Chick Obituary

B. 1924
The fundamentalist zealot whose cartoons also inspired underground comics.

New York times

December 21, 2016

He drew inspiration from a painting he kept on display in his studio, a depiction of souls plummeting into hell — a constant reminder of the multitudes that even his pen, wielded by a cartoonist for Christ, could not save from eternal fire. Still, Jack T. Chick did what he could, illustrating and mass-marketing his palm-size booklets that told different stories with the same message: If you do not accept Jesus Christ as your savior, you are hellbound.

And in scattering some 900 million so-called Chick tracts all over the world — his faithful readers were advised to tuck them under windshield wipers, into clothes pockets at department stores, even into the rental shoes at bowling alleys — Chick built a multimillion-dollar publishing empire on works that sold for less than 20 cents apiece.

Chick knew the precise moment when he made the transition from foulmouthed World War II veteran, a would-be actor who doodled on the side, to true believer. It was a Sunday in 1948, and his new in-laws insisted that he listen to “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour” on the radio. The host quoted a line from the Book of Isaiah — “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” — and Chick fell to his knees.

After a decade of struggling to combine his artistic talent with his burning faith, Chick struck upon an idea while giving a Gospel lesson to a group of inmates that incorporated a flip chart with his own illustrations. Eventually that same artwork became his most famous tract, published in 1964: “This Was Your Life!” In it, a man holding a drink drops dead, and an angel whisks him to a celestial drive-in theater, where scenes from his past play before him: that time he told a dirty story, ogled a young woman (“ummm NICE!”), wondered about the score of a ballgame while in church. His sins are tallied, and his name is not found in the Book of Life; he is damned. But an alternate ending is on offer: Embrace Jesus and be rewarded with joyous eternity. “This Was Your Life!” is said to have been published more than 50 million times, in Zulu, Tagalog and more than a hundred other languages.

‘I routinely ask my secretary if we are getting any hate mail. If she says no, I get upset because I think I’m doing something wrong.’

By the 1980s, new works by Chick were appearing every couple of months. They are classic forms of effective, quick-strike storytelling, every illustrated panel propelling the reader to the next, as dramatic tension builds: Just how far will the author go in rendering the wrath and mercy of God? In “Gun Slinger,” an Old West killer for hire goes to heaven after turning to Christ just before he’s hanged, while the marshal who captured him goes to hell for never having done the same. In “Lisa,” a man who has been molesting his young daughter is confronted by the family physician, who — rather than call the police — invites the predator to pray for repentance. All is forgiven!

Chick’s widely parodied works were intolerant, paranoid, Satan-obsessed. “Angels?” includes a musical agent named Lew Siffer who says he controls billions of souls through rock ’n’ roll: “In the ’50s and ’60s I started gradually, introducing my new beat into some of the crooners . . . at first it was nice and soft. Then I gave them Elvis and the Beatles, etc.” Dan Raeburn, who published a zine, The Imp, about underground comics, characterizes Chick’s work as “the dark heart of American fundamentalism.”

But Chick’s “soul-winning tracts,” as they were called, also earned him recognition as a kind of underground-comics patriarch. Raeburn once devoted an entire issue of The Imp to Chick. Kurt Kuersteiner, author of “The Unofficial Guide to the Art of Jack T. Chick,” describes his cartoons as “an inspiration to countless artists who otherwise condemned his religious and conservative views.”

Yet those views appalled some religious bodies, like the Christian Booksellers Association and the Catholic Church, which took issue with Chick’s frequent anti-Catholic depictions, including the claim, laid out in “The Awful Truth,” that the Jesuits were behind the assassination of Lincoln. That conviction may underpin why, in late middle age, he came to suspect that his own life might be in danger. In the end, the creator behind religious tracts that were ubiquitous removed himself from public view so effectively that for decades only those closest to him even knew what he looked like.

Dan Barry is a national columnist for The New York Times and the author, most recently, of “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland.”

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