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Satan, the pope, and Dungeons & Dragons: how Jack Chick's cartoons informed American fundamentalism

Conspiracy theories and anti-Catholic nativism mark the tract writer’s half-century career — and frequently mirror the alt-right.

a panel from the Jack Chick tract, The Storyteller
From the Jack Chick tract, “The Storyteller”
Jack Chick
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Depending on whom you talk to, Jack Chick — who died in October at the age of 92 — was a fire-breathing hell-and-brimstone preacher, an underground cartooning genius, a leading disseminator of anti-Catholic sentiment, or a brave winner of souls.

The southern California-based artist was rarely seen in public, but for half a century he had a massive platform all the same: His ubiquitous tracts sold millions of copies, all designed to convert lost souls into Bible-believing Christians and warn against Satan’s wiles.

“According to the cartoons, if you’re a Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, communist, evolutionist, trick-or-treater or rock-n-roller, you’re pretty much doomed unless you accept Jesus Christ (with a little nudge from Jack Chick),” wrote Andrew Griffin in 2004 in the Alexandria, Louisiana, newspaper The Town Talk.

None of Chick’s own tracts were ever about Donald J. Trump. And yet, they explain a lot about some of the beliefs held by the extremist wing that is partly behind the Republican presidential candidate’s rise.

Can we draw a straight line from Jack Chick to Donald Trump? No — nor should we. Trump is a result of a complicated set of factors that interlock and combust, and Chick is, or was, his own man altogether, more a representative of modern American fundamentalism than of a specific political party.

But it’s wise to stay clear of brushing Chick off as merely a nutty anomaly, no matter how many religious and secular groups alike decried his logic. His reach was long, and his methods indicative of a pervasive way of American thinking that many people are only starting to understand.

“The Thomas Pynchon of evangelism”

Eulogized by a variety of outlets, Chick was deemed “the cartoonist who wanted to save your soul from hell” (Christianity Today), “the reclusive king of the scaremongers” (The AV Club), and “one of the most prolific and polarizing religious leaders in US history” (First Things). Chick’s obituary in the New York Times noted that “some people called Mr. Chick the Thomas Pynchon of evangelism,” due to his famously reclusive nature: “He had not given an interview since 1975,” it concluded, “and, it was said, had chosen comics as his medium because he was too shy to bear witness any other way.”

On the charmingly circa-1999 Chick Publications site, you can buy your own copies of Chick’s hundreds of tracts in small quantities or in bulk — or just peruse the in-print editions, which are available for free.

Chick’s approach was simple. Step one: Dream up the most extreme potential consequences of various “social ills,” from feminism to Dungeons & Dragons to homosexuality to, above all, the Catholic Church. Step two: Insist on the same last-ditch, cure-all solution — namely, trusting Chick’s specific, pope-hating, King James Bible-loving version of Jesus Christ as your personal savior — for each one.

Chick was reportedly an Independent Baptist, part of a collection of loosely affiliated independent fundamentalist congregations that see themselves as a remnant. They stand in opposition to widespread, supposedly hypocritical American Christianity, including mainstream and more moderate evangelical churches.

He rarely directly addressed specific politicians. But throughout his influential 50-year career, Chick managed to both capture and disseminate a number of attitudes that mark a certain branch of today’s American alt-right. Some of them are predictable; others are quite surprising.

Inspired by Communist propaganda, Chick co-opted a popular form — and then capitalized on it

Chick started writing his tracts in 1960, when he was about 36 years old, after a religious conversion prompted by hearing the radio preacher Charles E. Fuller’s Old-Fashioned Revival Hour.

He’d previously written a single-panel comic called “Times Have Changed?” but after his conversion, he decided to use his skills to create tracts, which could help him and others overcome their own shyness in talking to friends and strangers about converting to Christianity, a practice commonly called “witnessing.”

He started with Why No Revival?, which he self-published after taking out a bank loan. The concept, to put it mildly, took off.

But the origins of Chick’s famous comic-book format are rooted in an interesting political place. In April 1992, Village Voice reporter Pagan Kennedy wrote that, in response to her inquiries to Chick Publications, she received a “one-page form letter, which states that after Chick learned that the ‘multitudes of China were won to communism through cartoon booklets,’ he ‘decided to try to use the same technique to win souls for Christ.’”

Outside of the claims made by Chick Publications itself, it’s not clear how many tracts have led to actual conversions — by nature, statistics on tract-dissemination are hard to track. But Brandon Dean, who studies Chick, wrote to me via email that conversion don’t really seem to have been Chick’s aim, despite his rhetoric.

“I'm not sure 100 percent convinced that saving souls is the sole religious purpose of the tracts,” Dean wrote. “Like most Protestant Christians, Chick believed that only faith in Christ could gain you entry into heaven, and he often railed against believing in the saving power of good works in his anti-Catholic tracts. However, it seems that he believed that works, like his cartoon evangelizing, would deliver to him and the people who bought and distributed his tracts to the general population special rewards in the afterlife.”

No matter what, the tracts certainly sold. According to Chick Publications, around 900 million copies of the cartoons have been sold in 102 languages. Chick wrote all of the tracts himself but only illustrated some of them, teaming up with at least two other illustrators to create the others. (One of them, Fred Carter, is quite talented.)

They eventually became a cult hit with comics collectors, who hunt down rare or discontinued titles. You can buy The Unofficial Guide to the Art of Jack T. Chick, by Kurt Kuersteiner, or explore Chick’s work via the Chick Tract Club, a fan club which in its own short eulogy calls him “The King of Underground Publishing.”

American evangelicals and fundamentalists have a long history of co-opting whatever popular culture and technology is available to spread the good news, so in some ways, Chick was just another in this lineage, using the form of comics but to spread the story of Jesus, just as radio and TV preachers did with their respective new mediums.

Chick is best described as a fundamentalist with a deep evangelistic streak. (Evangelicals and fundamentalists are often equated with one another, but that’s not quite right either historically or practically, at least in the United States.) He believed most churches were corrupt and full of backsliders and fake Christians, but the true church still survived in small, Bible-believing congregations.

And his tracts had wide reach, as attested by the flood of tweets in response to his death:

I have my own memories of Chick tracts, mostly of the bestselling “This Was Your Life,” which told the story of a person who died and went before the Judgement Seat, on which a faceless Christ sat to decide his fate. (This is probably Chick’s best-known tract.) Our protagonist soon discovers that he is about to see a replay of his whole life, including his worst deeds:

I spent the better part of my childhood worried that everything I did would be projected onto a massive screen after my death, so I showered quickly, to lessen the time I’d spend on screen unclothed. Sometimes I waved, as if at some invisible camera. This assertion, that everything we did in life would be taped and eventually projected, is a recurring theme of Chick’s work.

Almost everybody has a Jack Chick story

After Chick died, I wondered how many people had similar experiences with his tracts. So I asked around on Twitter, and received a flood of emailed replies. It turns out I’m not alone — and the dominant memory many people have of reading Chick tracts is feeling scared, but also curious.

Because there is so much repetition in his work — in some Chick tracts, characters are converted as they read other Chick tracts — the details of Chick’s plots have grown fuzzy for many people.

“It's hard for me to remember specific plots because they didn't seem to be about the stories to me,” one young woman, Hope, wrote to me in an email. “I thought they were just supposed to be scary. I remember several graphic images of people burning in Hell or generally suffering because of their transgressions.”

Another respondent, Noel, was similarly scarred: “His tracts helped traumatize my childhood while also offering me helpful conspiracies about the Catholics, the one world government and the Satanists.”

One popular way to pass out Chick tracts (or receive them) was at Halloween, since the pocket-sized comics were just the right size to drop in a kid’s bag of candy. “I went to a large Baptist church as a kid, where my father was a children’s minister, and greatly remember receiving numerous Chick Tracks at Halloween,” a man named Jonathan wrote to me. “They were, in a way, my introduction to graphic novels, though as an adult most of the graphic novels I read now are tamer than those.”

That introduction had a humorous consequence later in life for the former pastor’s kid: “Also, when I discovered [satirical comic artist] R. Crumb I thought he was the same guy. Not quite.”

Noel had a similar experience: “I went to an independent Fundamentalist Baptist church growing up, and these things were a primary tool to convert the sinners to Jesus,” he wrote. “My family gave them out not just at Halloween but left them everywhere you could think of.”

One woman I heard from, Rachel, had very clear — and almost comical — memories of covertly reading stacks of tracts stored in her grandparents’ bedroom: “I have very vivid memories of finding the ones that were most alarming and reading them over and over, sometimes hiding under the covers to read them. … Most vividly, I remember reading about the end of the world, the Rapture, men with 666, the mark of the beast, marked on their heads or their necks Reading these tracts felt like sneaking a look at a PG-13 movie at the house of a friend with cable much more than it felt like reading something written for the benefit of my soul. After reading them I would carefully place them in random places in the pile of tracts so that no one would know which ones I had been reading.”

I personally remember racks of tracts at my church in upstate New York, with piles left in corners at the state-wide homeschool conventions I attended with my parents. I spoke to one person who mentioned seeing stacks of Chick tracts left around science fiction conventions in the Pacific Northwest, a recollection shared by fellow con attendees.

“We were Jack Chick groupies in the ‘90s. Had the complete set in a box in the back of our oh-so-homeschooler conversion van,” wrote Nelle. “They taught me everything I needed to know about Catholics, gays, Muslims, Satanists, truck drivers, women who had abortions, women who had sex, big flat-white gods on IKEA thrones, etc.” (The faceless God on heaven’s throne is a hallmark of Chick’s artwork.)

The faceless God on heaven’s throne, a fixture of Chick’s tracts.
The faceless God on heaven’s throne, a fixture of Chick’s tracts.

Chick threw his most fiery bolts at … Catholics?

Most of the ink about Chick’s tracts has been spilled over his anti-Catholic rhetoric, which was particularly vehement, even by Chick standards. His anti-Catholic tracts are pervasively marked by vast, frankly bewildering conspiracy theories.

His tract “Mama’s Girls,” for instance, is “a fairly good example of Chick's far-reaching, anti-Catholic conspiracy theory,” Dean tells me. “In the tract, the Catholic Church, headed by Satan, gave birth to four ‘daughters’ — Islam, Communism, Nazism, and Freemasonry.” Here’s a sampling:

The Chick Publications website lists only 10 tracts under the “Catholicism” category — all 10 are also listed under “false religions” — but Chick’s anti-Catholic rhetoric goes far beyond these, also popping up in many tracts that focus on other topics. He spent an outsized amount of time on the religion, which he saw as Satan’s most nefarious plot on Earth.

One famous tract is “The Death Cookie” (1988), which proposes that the edible wafer consumed by Catholic churchgoers and members of some other denominations in the practice of the Eucharist is not what it seems. In U.S. Catholic Historian in 2003, Mark Massa wrote that “what the reader quickly learns is that the origin of these ‘cookies’ is not Jesus at the Last Supper (where Catholics mistakenly believe the Eucharist originated) but rather Satan himself.” The tract goes on to “show” that the tradition actually originated from an ancient pagan Egyptian practice.

Another one of Chick’s most famous anti-Catholic stories was too big for a tract, so he produced a series of full-sized comic books that were purportedly the true story of a man named Alberto Rivera, who had once been a Jesuit priest but claimed to have seen the light, left his order, and become a hunted man. “Rivera accuses the Catholic church of submitting him to shock treatment, of infiltrating Protestant churches, and of being led by the antichrist,” Kennedy wrote in the Village Voice. (In March 1981, Christianity Today published an investigative report by Gary Metz that debunked Rivera’s story.)

Why would Chick object so strenuously to the Catholic church in particular? One answer is clear: Chick is devotedly American, and so in painting the Catholic church as a mass conspiracy spearheaded by Satan himself, Chick is tapping into a strong current of anti-Catholic sentiment that was present in America at its founding, partly summarized in Chick’s 1985 tract “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” There, the Catholic protagonist is characterized as a “a citizen of two countries” with “two loyalties” — one of which was to Rome.

This stance, along with the shadowy intimations of a vast conspiracy headed by Rome, is often associated with the nativism of the 19th century and early 20th century. “Until the 1920s, America’s doors were open to European immigrants, as long as they qualified under a statute passed in 1790 that reserved naturalized citizenship for ‘free white persons,’” Josh Zeitz wrote last year at Politico. “Whether Southern and Eastern Europeans of darker hue — or all Catholics, whose presumed loyalty to Rome rendered them suspect candidates for democratic citizenship — qualified under the statute, seemed very much an open question.”

Catholics are still viewed with suspicion by some conservative Protestants, who don’t consider them to be “real” Christians. And in Chick’s terms, as Massa summarizes it, a real Christian is someone who reads only the King James Bible, then attends a “Bible fellowship” that isn’t involved with any broader religious institution — not “the National Council of Churches and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church no less than the church of the ‘Pope of Rome.’”

Chick often weighed in on hot-button issues, with an apocalyptic bent

Until his death, Chick was still adding new titles. In later years, he often confronted hot-button issues that helped reveal his politics; they usually fell along standard right-wing talking points, but in their most fever dream-esque peak. Some Chick tracts sound like they were straight out of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson’s “Letter from 2012,” published to the web in 2008 as a way to sway people away from voting for Obama.

The Last Generation” (1992), for instance, meant to be a window onto the very near future, opens with the “Supreme Justice Mahoney, S.J.” issuing a decree on TV “from Rome” and professing that Christians will be executed. The rest of the tract goes on to depict a dystopian world nearing the return of Christ. “The kids call me slime because my parents are straight and still married!” a child exclaims, while another explains that his teacher is a witch who said that cats and dogs would make for a great Halloween sacrifice. (Tomorrow they’re going to learn about the “Mother Goddess.”)

In “Global Warming” (2012), Chick both characterized global warming as a conspiracy and said the real global warming was yet to come. “Jesus is calling the shots … not the environmentalists!” one panel says. Christians need not fear global warming, Chick argues, and can discount scientists who say that global warming is real, since Jesus controls the climate — “not mankind.”

Baby Talk” (1995) and “Who Murdered Clarice” (2000) are both anti-abortion tracts; in the latter, the doctor who performed the abortion commits suicide and must face judgement, where it turns out he did it in order to sell baby parts.

One Chick tract is reminiscent of the 2014 indie Christian mega-hit movie God’s Not Dead, in which a freshman philosophy student stands up against his professor’s atheism in front of the class and wins. That movie appeared to be based on a variation of a specific internet meme, but maybe it came from Chick; as Kennedy notes in her 1992 Village Voice article, the Chick tract titled “Big Daddy?” sounds awfully similar:

Copyrighted in 1972, the pamphlet opens with a professor asking, “How many of you believe in evolution?”

“We do sir!” yell the students, shaking peace-sign fists … Of course, a clean-cut Christian student stands up and debunks evolution. He converts not only the professor, but also the hippies, one of whom moans, ‘Then we didn’t evolve! The Establishment has been feeding us the big lie.’”

In “Thanksgiving” (2005), Chick explores the origins of America, in which Uncle Mortimer tells his family the story of the first Thanksgiving, which they’ve apparently never heard before. (This motif of total ignorance about very common things, like the Pilgrims, or Jesus himself, is pervasive in Chick’s work.) Then Uncle Mortimer chastises the gathered family: “Thanksgiving was once our most honored day. But today it’s a joke … We’re not thankful for anything. And this offends God.” When his nephew responds with questions that lead to the nephew accepting Christ, everyone else scoffs:

There are tracts on homosexuality and Israel, on “drugs/alcohol/STDs,” on the occult, on suicide, on Native American religion, and on ecumenicism. Family Guy and Harry Potter came in for criticism as well: One is a proponent of degenerate values; the other is evil occult witchcraft.

Along with his takes on hot-button social issues, Chick had a sticky relationship with matters of race and immigration. Scholars note that he seems interested in evangelizing all people, with a clear sense that the gospel is for everyone. And yet there are plenty of racist tropes spread throughout his work as is the intimation that women are naturally more prone to corruption.

For instance, a “black tract” series tailored for African-American readers exists, with tracts like “Hi There!” redrawn and renamed “Wassup?” (This is real. I am not making it up.)

Along with this comes Chick’s views on immigration. In a paper on Chick’s outreach to Spanish-speaking populations, Dean writes about “Holocaust,” an out-of-print tract from 1984 “that details the conspiratorial actions of the Roman Catholic Church in orchestrating the Holocaust and planning another ‘inquisition’ by taking control of the US government and executing Protestant Christians. Within this plot, illegal immigration from heavily Catholic, Latin American countries is an essential tactic.”

Dean goes on to note several changes in Spanish-language versions of popular tracts; in “This Was Your Life! (¡Esta Fue Tu Vida!),” for instance, the English-tract sin of deceit is replaced with fornicario, playing into stereotypes.

And there are seven tracts on Islam (which as a religion is a secondary concern, given it is one of Roman Catholicism’s “daughters” and thus just another pawn in Rome’s quest for world domination). One tract called “Camel’s in the Tent” outlines Islam’s strategy for taking over the world:

“May I come all the way in?” the titular camel asks in the next frame, poking its head into a tent topped by an American flag. “Of course. We are a tolerant nation,” a voice replies.

In addition to the familiar Chick tracts, Chick Publications has published lesser-known, full-color graphic novels. One of them, “Unthinkable,” is about why the US must support Israel in order to secure God’s favor.

“The portion dealing with Washington and the American Revolution argues that God sent Jewish people to America in order for them to finance the war (Chick specifically mentions Haym Solomon),” Dean wrote in his email to me. “In return, Washington cared for the Jewish people and therefore God looked after the USA. This continued through the following presidents, until FDR, who ‘was not a friend of the Jews.’”

Jack Chick isn’t the alt-right, but they sound a lot alike

Chick’s nativist-leaning rhetoric sounds a lot like the discussions that have characterized the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right (with the key exception of Chick’s support for Israel, which is characteristic of many strains of conservative American Christianity). But Chick himself was not overtly political — which may seem surprising, given the intertwining of the political and religious right in the US over the very decades during which Chick was active.

“Chick tended to stay out of political campaigns,” Dean wrote to me. He explained further:

There is no mention of Trump or even Cruz anywhere on his website, and only a few references to Hillary Clinton. It is natural to assume his personal views aligned more closely with the Republican Party — anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, etc.

However, he does seem to critique both Republican and Democratic presidents and politicians. He went after Romney for his Mormonism in 2008 and 2013, but even that was limited to two articles in his newsletter Battle Cry. I can't find any evidence of Chick Publications pushing an "Obama-as-a-secret-Muslim" agenda.

In "Unthinkable," Chick argues that God killed FDR because of his opposition to the state of Israel and replaced him with Harry Truman, "a Bible believer" who supported the recognition of Israel. He praised Nixon for his love of Israel. But he gave the most recent four presidents ([Unthinkable] was published earlier this year so that includes George H.W. Bush through Obama) all failing grades when it comes to Jewish relations, which in turn led to an increase in natural disasters and terrorist attacks because God lifted his protection for the US.

So, it seems to me that Chick cared less about political affiliation and more about how closely their world views matched his own.

Yet there are some key matches in style, if not in statement. In an interview about his work’s origins published in Chick’s newsletter Battle Cry in 1984 (originally sent by snail mail, and later email to all Chick Publications customers), Chick said that “when everything is caving in, and when the world laughs at the church, that's when we need revival. We're in that position now … We're a big joke out there. Everybody says they're born again … Mormons, Catholics, everybody, but they don't know what it means.” Echoes, here, of Donald Trump’s assurances that everyone is laughing at America.

The alt-right — and Trump’s own rhetoric, which belittles sissies and losers — also finds some common ground with Chick’s 1978 tract “The Sissy,” in which a pair of truck drivers call Jesus a sissy, but are then schooled by a third truck driver who explains the real situation:

From the Chick tract “The Sissy”
From the Chick tract “The Sissy”
From the Chick tract “The Sissy”
From the Chick tract “The Sissy”

The story ends with the truckers accepting Jesus into their hearts because “that Jesus had more guts than any man that ever lived … And I love him for that!”

Clearly the aforementioned immigration/Islam tract “Camel’s in the Tent” shares a straight line with Trump’s rhetoric about Islam, even if no one has seriously suggested (yet) from the political stage that Islam is in league with Catholicism. Similarly, Chick holds a caricatured view of nonwhite people that often leads him to code stereotyped views into translations and adaptations such as the “black tract” series.

Chick’s rhetoric suggests we need more nuance when talking about the religious right

One last conundrum from this election has been Trump’s much-noted ability to split the religious right, a coalition in America for decades, often over the issue of abortion. As Kate Shelnutt recently noted in Christianity Today, Trump has effectively destroyed the voting bloc that consisted of both evangelicals and Catholics. Among Catholics, more than a quarter are first-generation immigrants, and 42 percent are people of color. Most Catholics — along with most nonwhite evangelicals — have backed Clinton.

But that split may be the signal of something deeper. Writing about Chick and the culture wars in the journal Religion and American Culture, Michael Ian Borer and Adam Murphree noted that Chick’s fundamentalist Protestant insistence that the Catholic church is the devil’s handiwork greatly complicates the easy “battle lines” that commentators tend to draw when writing about the culture wars. After all, Chick’s strong stance against homosexuality, abortion, and other similar social matters are also characteristic of the Roman Catholic church. The alliance along political lines seems obvious.

But, as Borer and Murphee point out, it’s faulty to talk about wars over culture as if they draw themselves merely along obvious political contours. From studying Chick, they conclude that “when considering conflicts between worldviews, it is just as important to consider subjective definitions that groups make about their own and other worldviews as it is to consider the ‘objective’ worldviews themselves.”

In other words, to someone on the secular or religious left, all conservative Christians may seem the same — but within conservative Christianity, people like Jack Chick may view Catholics or other Christians who don’t exclusively read the King James version of the Bible as progressive. (In the view of some fundamentalist Christians, the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, is the only “divinely inspired” English version of the Scriptures; all versions since are bastardizations subject to human error and agenda.) And in their view, progressives are as much a source of evil as anyone else.

“Paying attention to the ways that claims makers like Jack Chick frame both their worldviews and the worldviews of their ‘villainous’ opponents, we must acknowledge that the boundaries of allegiance that define the culture wars are less stable than previously considered,” Borer and Murphee conclude.

It’s hard to imagine a better summation of the confusion of this election and, in particular, the potential combustion of the GOP. The boundaries that define the sides are unstable. As Sarah Posner reported in the New York Times on October 19, “The divide — or, more aptly, the crater — between pro-Trump and anti-Trump evangelicals is a window into the future of the Republican Party.”

And that is the crux of the matter: Jack Chick embodies a deeply fundamentalist, nativist section of the American right wing. But while in his stance, he willingly alienated potential allies — pro-life Catholics, very conservative evangelicals — his reach was extensive, and his influence vast.

Chick’s decades-long appeal to conspiracy theories is symptomatic of a section of the voting public still susceptible to the idea that those whom they oppose are not just wrong, but part of Satan’s plan to rule the earth.

Of course, this doesn’t represent everyone voting for Trump. But it’s a decent indication that this sort of alt-right conspiracy-mongering has been present for a long time, and is often rooted in the anti-establishment religious fear present since the middle of the 20th century. What’s startling now is that it’s been explicitly mainstreamed.