When I was a kid, and through my teens, nearly every family vacation involved a trip to the Smokies. There were several reasons for this: It was Dad’s favorite place, it was within driving distance, and we could camp instead of spending money on a motel. Nowadays, my idea of roughing it is when the concierge speaks broken English, and that may be a consequence of numerous summers spent sweltering in tents and tent campers during summer rainstorms: “Don’t touch the canvas — it’ll leak!”
But on one of these trips, we had stopped at a laundromat and I found what appeared to be a very small comic book on one of the tables. It was the story of a man who had died, faced judgment, and went to Hell, with simple drawings and word balloons with printed letters like the ones in MAD magazine, as opposed to the hand-lettered words of the comics I usually read. The “comic” was called “This WAS Your Life!“, and it was my introduction to the bizarre world of Jack Chick and his tracts. I was hooked — not because I was particularly impressed by the theology, but there just seemed to be a strangeness, a religious paranoia, that even when I was a pre-teen, held a car-crash fascination for me.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I had plenty of exposure to these things, and as the years went on, I’d find them here and there — at pay phones, the cash registers of small restaurants, the benches of bus stops. Friends of mine who waited tables would report that people would leave them “these crazy little Jesus comics” instead of a tip from time to time — if that move inspired any prayers, I’m guessing they were imprecatory.
I was always thrilled to find them, but it was especially terrific when I’d find them with a friend who wasn’t familiar with the Chick Tracts (as I learned they were called.) I’d hand them to whoever I was with, and watch as their jaws would drop. Sometimes it would be a reaction to the depiction of God on the Throne of Judgement — a humanoid figure with a faceless, glowing head — Deity as Gyro Gearloose’s lightbulb-headed Helper. Other times, it would be general shock at whatever Chick had determined to be a gateway to damnation, whether it was Dungeons & Dragons, rock and roll, the Freemasons, or the Roman Catholic Communion Host (which Chick memorably dubbed “The Death Cookie.”)
However, as happens to us all, Mr. Chick died yesterday. He was 92. And while I never subscribed to his particular brand of Christianity — far from it — I never quite lost my fondness for what I came to see as a sort of outsider art. I’m not alone in that regard; a google search for “Jack Chick parody” will provide quite a bit of material. But in his own way, Mr. Chick was trying to save us, I guess, and that brings me to today’s quote, from fellow Jack Chick fan and occasional National Review contributor Mike Potemra on Facebook:
R.I.P., Mr. Chick. I think you’ll discover that God is bigger than you thought He was — and that he loves you even though you were so wrong about so many things.
That much, I hope, is true for all of us.