Forget Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, meet the real king of comic-strip horror
Who is the bestselling comic-book creator in the world today? Alan Moore, author of such eminently filmable works as From Hell, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Neil Gaiman, writer of The Sandman, Stardust, and a host of others? The men who put together classic and enduring characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko?
None of the above. The answer – according to the man’s own website, at least – is Jack Chick, who this year marks four decades of publishing and a product reach that penetrates more than 100 countries. But you won’t find Chick’s work in the graphic-novel section of your local bookshop or being turned into blockbuster summer movies. Rather, he has created a global business in tiny, comic-strip “tracts” that drive home fundamentalist Christian principles with the force of a sledgehammer. Where can you find them? You might have had one pressed into your hand in a busy shopping street. You can find them left on pub tables, presumably in a last-ditch attempt to save sinners’ souls. Last week, I found one on the floor of a multi-storey car park.
To non-fundamentalist Christians – and, who knows? Maybe to them, too – the tracts are often (presumably unintentionally) hilarious. The one I found is something of a Chick classic: the very first he produced, back in 1970, called This Was Your Life! In it, we meet a guy with a nice house and a flash car enjoying a drink and a pipe just before the Grim Reaper appears and he breathes his last – all narrated with passages from the Bible running beneath the panels. This was a good man, we are told at his funeral, but when he gets to the Pearly Gates, we find that he might not have done quite enough to get into the kingdom of heaven. His life is projected on to a screen while a dour angel looks on. We’re treated to a montage of lies, theft, whispering, and a lewd little panel describing him as “whoremonger”. It’s off to the fiery lake with him. Then we have a quick rewind and see what his life could have been like: reading the Bible to his children at bedtime; prayers before meals; his line manager confiding in the owner of the factory where he works, “Incidentally, sir, he’s not only one of our best workers, but also he’s a fine Christian!”
And this is one of the milder Chick tracts. In later ones, he attacks homosexuality (The Gay Blade: “‘Gays’ and lesbians are common today on TV sitcoms and talk shows”), Halloween (The Devil’s Night, in which a girl called Buffy learns the true horror of trick-or-treating), and most infamously how role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons are a short cut to hell (Dark Dungeons: “Debbie, your cleric has been raised to the 8th level. I think it’s time you learned how to really cast spells”).
They have, of course, spawned healthy satirical ripostes, with one of the most enjoyable parodies coming from Daniel Clowes, creator of the Ghost World comic. His Devil Doll strip (in the first issue of his Eightball comic) has all the ingredients of a Chick great, with a bohemian couple enticing a wholesome young girl into a world of satanism, sex and drugs (“Hit me with that speedball, honey!”).
Chick’s website informs us that, contrary to internet rumour, he is not dead and is working on at least two new tracts a year. His tracts can be quite horrific, but probably not in the way the 86-year-old Californian intends. There’s not a great deal of scope for repenting in Chick’s world: once you’re damned, you’re generally on your way to the hot place, and your only purpose is to provide a stark warning to others about the kind of behaviour that Chick’s brand of fundamentalist Protestant evangelism abhors so much.