You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Jack T. Chick Was the Leni Riefenstahl of American Cartooning

Other cartoonists abhor Chick's hateful message, but find it hard not to admire his artistry.

Jack T. Chick, the cartoonist who died Sunday at the age of 92, almost certainly thought you deserved to burn in Hell. It wasn’t personal—strictly theology. Adhering to one of the most exclusionary forms of fundamentalist Protestantism this side of the Westboro Baptist Church, Chick spent a lifetime drawing cartoon warning of the eternal damnation due to all non-Christians (including Muslims and Jews), believers in false forms of Christianity (the Catholic Church was an especial object of hatred), Mormons, liberal Protestants, homosexuals, and anyone who partook of a wide range of Satanic activities (ranging from trick or treating on Halloween to playing Dungeons and Dragons). Beloved by his fellow fundamentalists, who bought his tracts by the hundreds of millions and seeded them in bus stops and diners all over the world, Chick was widely derided by the world at large where he was seen, accurately, as a producer of hate literature.

Chick was a particularly divisive figure among his fellow cartoonists, whose arguments about the fanatical artist were concerned as much with aesthetics as morality. Many cartoonists, especially in the tradition of underground and alternative cartooning that emerged in the 1960s (most famously the scandalous Robert Crumb) have an intense admiration for Chick, extolling his undeniable passion and heartfelt quirkiness.

Chick’s tracts had a disturbing power to make you see the world through his eyes, a squirrelly and sweaty vantage point where everything is a demonic conspiracy to rob you of your soul. Chick started off as a garden variety magazine cartoonist in the Virgil Partch mold, but stretched that genial idiom to encompass nightmarish Boschian imagery. (Chick drew most of his tracts, although some were also drawn by an artist named Fred Carter, who had a more naturalistic style, strangely similar to the homoerotic Tom of Finland series created by Touko Valio Laaksonen.)

Demons played a big part in Chick’s work, and he was gifted at endowing them with a visceral reality. Chick believed in the demons he drew; they were as real to him as the people he met when he walked down the street. He was sufficiently talented as an artist that he could almost make you believe in his visions of sly, sneering impish demons trying to snare humans at every turn. A deft hand at grotesque caricature, Chick was more successful at drawing sin than sainthood. He was perhaps best at capturing the sneer of pride in those rejecting faith and the bug-eyed fear of non-believers who learn, too late, that they are doomed to Hellfire.

All of this was in the service of winning converts. Chick rarely gave interviews, except in his own in-house publications. In one of these self-promotional interviews he said, “[M]y main thrust is soul-winning. Right now, Christians are self-satisfied and complacent. God’s got a handful of people out there who really mean business, but the rest are playing games.”

“He had authentic greatness,” Kim Deitch, one of the stalwarts of American alternative comics for nearly 50 years, told me in a Facebook exchange. “He knew how to use the comics medium. You didn’t have to agree with his point of view to appreciate the compelling way he could [carry] a story over.” Deitch’s admiration perhaps stems from his being a sort of secular counterpart to Chick. Since the late 1960s, when his work first appeared in The East Village Other, a small New York underground newspaper, Deitch has produced hundreds of pages of off-the-wall comics exploring an elaborate private mythology featuring characters like Waldo the Cat and Jesus Christ. Deitch’s work is revered by fellow cartoonists like Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and Chris Ware, but it hasn’t won the same level of fame with the general public as the esteem it has within the world of alternative comics. Deitch has become a model for other cartoonists thank to his persistence in producing visionary comics in a world where artistic merit and commercial success rarely overlap.

Sammy Harkham, who edits the much-admired comics anthology Kramers Ergot, sees an affinity between Chick and counterculture cartoonists. “Chick was great,” Harkham emailed me. “A true folk artist. I would find [his tracts] in random places in Sydney Australia in the mid-nineties, and it was like burrowing deep into the mind of a maniac. But a maniac that seemingly had no desire to be loved or respected by the wider culture and in that way I felt him to have a certain kinship with the cartoonists and other writers and artists who made deeply felt, idiosyncratic work.... I don’t agree or relate to Chick’s perspective on the world, I respect and love how much he stood apart from it all.”

Harkham’s point about Chick being an utterly committed outsider artist echoes one of the most astute critical analyses of the fundamentalist artist’s work in a 1998 self-published chapbook called The Imp by Chicago-based essayist Daniel Raeburn. According to Raeburn:

Chick’s an individualist, a loner protesting even Protestant forms of organization. In his Battle Cry interview, Chick says that he had to leave his own church (a “Jesus Only” congregation, meaning that Jesus, not God, created the Universe) after he exposed its “sin and hypocrisy” in his first published comic: “I got the cold shoulder because I drew some people…in the choir, and they recognized themselves.” Chick’s no choir boy; he refers to well-known evangelists as “the biggies on Christian television,” and always refers to himself in minuscule terms: living in “my little home,” driving “my little Renault,” and running “little Chick Publications.” Of course this much humility on display points to a megalomania reveling in underdog status, a little David who fancies himself slinging stones at the Goliath religions.

For North Carolina–born cartoonist Dustin Harbin, who grew up in an evangelical Christian household and read Chick’s work as a child, it’s harder to share this romantic view of Chick as an outsider artist holding his own against a world that denies his vision. As Harbin wrote me, any “value” in Chick’s work “is drowned out by how soaked in homophobia, misogyny, recalcitrant hatred that seems 1000% retrograde when compared with actual Biblical doctrine. Even as a now completely un-religious person, those tracts ... fill me with angst and dread. So any ‘value’ is wasted on me, functionally.”

Mary Fleener, an alternative cartoonist from San Diego, has a more personal grudge against Chick. “In the summer of 1971 I was having a mad, ‘love the one you’re with,’ affair with this guy named Jim,” Fleener wrote to me. “We’d make huge salads, and then walk all night in the hills above Malaga Cove in Palos Verdes, then come back to his house, where his parents were never home, and I’d read his Tarot cards, and we’d smoke pot, and had the best time. We really had an ‘open relationship’ with no ties, no expectations, and it was working ... we were happy! Then he went to Hawaii for 3 weeks and came back a Born Again Christian, and told me we were finished, and as a parting gift, handed me a Chick tract that told the story of ‘Maria’ who was into astrology and how she was gonna burn in hell, or something like that.”

A few years after that, while Fleener was in college, the same thing happened with another man, who after the break-up of their relationship handed Fleener the anti-evolution Chick tract “Big Daddy?” Reflecting on the artistic question, Fleener concludes, “the art was good, the stories started off pretty well, but then became text heavy, and their intent was to shame and make people afraid... so I agree with [fellow cartoonist] Gary Panter: Jack Chick was a fucking asshole.”

Not everyone is even willing to concede Chick had talent. Matt Bors, founder of the comics site The Nib, writes, “Let’s be honest, the storytelling conventions of Chick’s tracts were cluttered with expository dialogue and ham-fisted narration ramming a scared-straight fable down the reader’s throat ... I think people have convinced themselves that Chick is actually good somehow because he worked in this old style of comics they read as kids but applied this bizarre Christian lens to the modern world. Putting his beliefs aside, I simply don’t think it was very good work.” (Bors parodied Chicks work here).

Bors goes too far. In truth, Jack Chick was the Leni Riefenstahl of American cartooning. Like the Nazi filmmaker who made Triumph of the Will, Chick was an artist of genuine skill who put his talent in the service of an odious ideology. Both Riefenstahl and Chick raise perennial and unsolvable problems about the relationship between content and form: Can art transcend the intentions of the artist? Can we separate out the message of a work of art from the artistry it contains? Art that helps us understand the mind of another is valuable, but what do we do with art by a mind like Chick’s, whose sheer hatefulness numbs empathy?

Even evaluating Chick as an artist is to neglect his intentions. He was forthrightly a producer of agit-prop. By his own account, he started doing cartoon tracts because he was told that Maoist Communists had found this a useful mode of propaganda. To see Chick solely as an artist, then, is to reject his own approach to life and art: His art was a conduit for fire-and-brimstone message. Paradoxically, those who are most likely to value Chick as an artist—cartoonists working in a counterculture tradition—are among the people he most despised (to judge by his nasty, vindictive portrayal of hippies). If Chick were still alive, he’d be sure to remind these fans—with perhaps more sadness than malice—that they’re going to burn in hell.