I just concocted a new conspiracy theory. A year and a half after seeing R. Crumb’s illustrated Genesis in the New Yorker, I’ve had some time to digest it and I now believe that Robert Crumb and Jack T. Chick are the same person.
I knew that I had seen those crude black and white comic drawings before. But for some reason those happily forgotten memories of Chick tracts (those creepy little pamphlet/comics about the eternal dangers of non-Christianity) were coming back to the surface, convicting me to get saved all over again. All thanks to the agnostic king of underground comics, R. Crumb. But how can I really posit that Crumb and Chick are one and the same? The evidence piles up surprisingly quickly.
After Crumb’s initial rise of popularity in the late 60s, he went on to become an icon of 1970s pop culture with characters like Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and the “Keep on Truckin’” guy. Coincidentally, Chick Publications began productions in 1970, and ever since then, the same demons Crumb had been exorcising were being battled by Chick. Both of these artists created stories that dealt with sexual perversion, fear of authoritarianism, existential dread, and shocking violence. The one key difference was that Crumb worked from a psychological lucidity, while Chick came from a daft, religious point of view. Gruesome nudity is commonplace in Crumb’s comics, but Chick tracts can be just as disgusting. People who celebrate Halloween, gay rights, or religious tolerance are often cast as the villains in Chick’s stories. Basically, if the reader does not accept Jesus by the end of the tract, he will burn in Hell for eternity.
One Chick tract is about Henry, a non-Christian man, who molested his daughter due (somehow) to his pornography addiction. The victim daughter is never seen in the comic, but the protagonist father is convicted of his sin. A Christian tells Henry that he will go to Hell if he doesn’t repent. Henry fears for his afterlife and says, “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. I’m so ashamed… I don’t want to go to Hell.” Then he prays a prayer and gets saved. Suddenly, he feels clean. Later that day, he tells his wife that the most wonderful thing happened to him, but before he can say “Jesus” she confronts him about how he’s been sexually abusing their little girl. Henry quickly explains that Jesus can fix everything, so they commence prayer. The wife gets saved too, and then the daughter makes a surprise appearance at the last frame. The parents tell her “We’ve got wonderful news Lisa, your Daddy and I will never hurt you again.” A frightened looking child holding a teddy bear up to her ear responds, “Really?” They assure her, “Really, honey. We love you, and Jesus does too.” And they lived happily ever after. The end.
In Chick’s comics, the bottom line is Jesus. It doesn’t matter how big or small your sin, everybody is going to Hell, and that’s all that matters. If you believe in evolution you’re going to Hell, or if you molest your daughter you’re going to Hell. The sin itself isn’t really that important, as long as you ask Jesus to forgive you of it (because he will, no matter what!).
Chick tracts are an anomaly in both the underground comics scene and fundamental Christian circles, neither demographic fully embracing Chick’s work. Underground comics artists are a community who often support and encourage each other, but Chick was never a part of this group. And Christians may either despise or adore Chick tracts, depending on the individual’s level of close-mindedness and self-righteousness.
Chick’s comics are so controversial, extreme, and vile, it seems improbable that the man sincerely believes in the messages he presents. Then again, the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t a joke– not even a really bad joke.
But one can’t help but wonder. After all, Chick studied drama in high school and college, even receiving scholarships thanks to his acting talents. And back then he wasn’t a Christian. Could a man so creative and prolific be equally as hateful and narrow-minded?
After reading a Chick tract, a thinking person’s first reaction is something like, “is this satire?” The standby evangelical question, “do you know where you’re going after you die?” is the core of every Chick tract. The morals come from the purest form of fundamental Evangelicalism, even down to the occasional King-James-Only tirades. They are offensive and crude, but nearly 1 billion of these tracts have been published (more than any other underground publisher). How can an anonymous evangelical nut accomplish such a feat? Power of the Lord, I guess. Either that, or the power of Crumb.
The best-selling comic book author in the world recently received the filmic treatment from Kurt Kuersteiner in God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick. The film is a flawed attempt to perpetuate the infamy of Jack Chick, full of cheesy music and choppy editing. But by the end of the film, the subject of Jack Chick becomes even more mysterious and perplexing.
The documentary features interviews with authors who have written about Chick, as well as a few friends of the artist, and various other religious figures who do their best to explain who the man behind those horrible gospel tracts is. Unlike Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed documentary Crumb, which is mostly camera time with the subject, Chick is not seen in Kuersteiner’s film. In fact, Chick has never been interviewed on camera, and he intends to keep it that way until the Lord takes him home, or returns in the rapture. (Chick is a dispensational premillenialist; Jesus will return in the clouds to take him and all Christians up to Heaven prior to the forthcoming Apocalypse that destroys Earth in seven years).
While Crumb has given more than a handful of interviews over the span of his career, Chick remains intentionally unseen. Could it be because Chick isn’t even there to give an interview? Just another clue that my conspiracy theory has legs.
In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, Crumb said, “You don’t have to be a Fundamentalist Christian to be interested in the Bible. It’s really a fascinating mythology.” He wasn’t talking about the success of Chick tracts, but his own personal interest in the Bible and his reasons for illustrating the book of Genesis. However, it’s possible that quote could be used to explain why Chick has no need to do an interview.
Although Chick attempts to portray Biblical messages in very literal, easy-to-understand layouts, it’s possible that his art is more similar to Crumb’s than either man would ever admit. Crumb always knew that his crude art was a projection of his subconscious. He says in Crumb, “I don’t work in terms of conscious messages, I can’t do that. It has to be something that I’m revealing to myself while I’m doing it, which is hard to explain. While I’m doing it, I don’t know exactly what it’s about. You just have to have the courage to take that chance.”
In a sense, Chick’s comics require some psychological courage as well. The images, though literally interpreted, come across rather surreal, not unlike a Crumb comic. Grim reapers shoving businessmen into a pit of flames. An angel flying through space like Superman. It can be quite a trip. And yet, Chick’s art is actually an attempted representation of literal truth, not semiotic metaphors.
Interestingly, Genesis has more realism than perhaps any other Crumb comic, which is ironic considering the mythic content. And when that spiritual surrealism combines with realism (in black and white comic layout), the two artists appear amazingly similar in both their style and substance. Both are straightforward and simple, but both feature an anthropomorphic God of the universe as a key character in the plotline. What both artists achieve most successfully is a visual representation of things that ought not be understood in a concrete sense. Whether religion is perceived as a mental or spiritual manifestation, both Crumb and Chick are able to make invisible worlds apparent to the naked eye.
For Crumb, the artistic merits of his comics hinged on freedom of expression. Though mainstream comics rehashed old Superheroes and Looney Tunes characters, Crumb’s daring work shocked even the most desensitized cynics. The underground landscape was essential in enabling Crumb to exercise the freedom of unleashing any psychological monsters that were terrorizing his mind. His art was his catharsis and his savior, and inspired millions of readers to relate to his openness.
Chick is also concerned with freedom. Even though Canada banned his comics as hate literature, he’s a flag bearer for bigoted Christians across the U.S. And his freedom is found in accepting Christ, not gushing out his repressed psychological demons for the sake of the collective unconscious. His art is a means to an end/savior. Soul-winning is priority number one, even if that requires bullheaded ignorance and illogical opinions. Of course evolution is false and leads to eternity in Hell. Of course.
Could there be two underground comic artists who deal with the exact same neuroses? Or is it just one man who deals with his neuroses in two different manners (spiritually or psychologically)? Are Crumb and Chick the same man? I posit they are. But if not, Crumb still has a chance. If he read a Chick tract today, he could choose Christ and enjoy an eternity with Him in Heaven. And Chick still has a chance to see a therapist.