Roman Mars [00:00:01] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. One summer day in 1972, when David Daniels was a kid. He found himself out in the front yard of his family’s home.
David Daniels [00:00:13] I was at the apartment, just sitting and enjoying the afternoon. For once in my life, I wasn’t doing anything.
Christopher Johnson [00:00:20] David was nine years old and living in the suburbs just outside of LA.
Roman Mars [00:00:24] That’s producer Christopher Johnson.
Christopher Johnson [00:00:27] As David sat in the grass taking in that Cali sunshine, he was pretty sure he was alone. And then on the other side of a big, creaky gate nearby, he heard footsteps.
David Daniels [00:00:38] And all of a sudden, the door swung open.
Roman Mars [00:00:44] David looked up to find a grown man–a total stranger–now standing in the front yard with him.
David Daniels [00:00:49] He walks right in, sees me sitting there, looks at me. And I looked up at the guy–he had black hair with a bare streak of gray over his temples. And he said, “Want to read a comic?” And I said, “Yeah.”
Christopher Johnson [00:01:05] So he hands David this little comic book about the size of your average cell phone.
David Daniels [00:01:10] And it says, “This Was Your Life” on the cover. And it has, like, a movie screen. And there’s an angel and a naked guy staring at the screen. Like, “This Was Your Life.” And he said, “You want to read it to me?” “Okay.” I mean, it’s a comic. I’ve always loved comics. I’m addicted to comics.
Christopher Johnson [00:01:29] Inside, David found a 21-page story illustrated in simple black ink. It begins with a dopey guy wearing a cardigan in a turtleneck, standing next to his flashy Corvette. He’s looking all smug, smoking a pipe, and sipping a cocktail. Life is good.
David Daniels [00:01:46] Then immediately, it’s the Grim reaper with a scythe in his hand, and he’s got this black cloak on. And it’s like, “Oh, dude.”
Roman Mars [00:01:55] The Grim Reaper sneaks up on this guy.
David Daniels [00:01:57] And he hits him in the back. And the guy’s grabbing his heart, and he says, “What?” And his drink falls out, and his pipe falls out. And that’s, like, not what I expected. I’m caught. I’m totally caught. I gotta know what’s happening next.
Roman Mars [00:02:13] In some ways, all this looked familiar to a comic book fan like David. You had the weird characters with the goofy, over-the-top expressions and those stylized speech bubbles. But when he looked closer, David saw something that made this comic book totally distinct from the superhero fare that he was used to because it was full of Bible verses.
Christopher Johnson [00:02:33] The stranger had given little David something called a “Chick Tract.”
Roman Mars [00:02:37] A “tract” is a common name for a pamphlet with religious messages. And Chick Tracts were Christian comic books that fit in the palm of your hand.
David Daniels [00:02:46] And immediately the guy falls down. The pipe’s in the air, the glasses in the air, and he falls to the ground. Then we’re at the funeral. “He was a good man!” And I love that.
Christopher Johnson [00:02:57] The Chick Tract that David was reading was about a man who dies suddenly and is whisked out of his grave and up to heaven by an archangel with a fresh blow-dry and ginormous wings, who streaks through the sky like Superman. In the tract, the undead man stands in front of a colossal, faceless God on a throne while they watch the guy’s entire sinful life in playback, like some drive-in movie. God’s deciding if this guy stays in heaven or burns forever in hell.
Roman Mars [00:03:30] And if all this stuff wasn’t heavy enough for a nine-year-old, at the end of the tract, like every Chick Tract, there was a prayer. The stranger asked David to keep reading.
David Daniels [00:03:39] And then they said, “Would you like to pray to receive Jesus as your Savior?” And I said, “Yeah…” So, then we went on page 23, and we read what it says. “Trust Jesus today.” And I went through, and I prayed and thought about everything I was reading and prayed it from my heart. And he said, “You’re a Christian.”
Christopher Johnson [00:03:59] He let David keep that small black and white comic book–told him to find a really good church. And then he just bounced.
David Daniels [00:04:07] He walked right back into the alley and out of my life, and I never saw him again.
Christopher Johnson [00:04:13] That whole exchange only lasted a few minutes, but it changed David’s life.
David Daniels [00:04:18] And after that, I would go on my skateboard or my bicycle all the way from the other side of town–all the way over to Christian Life bookstore–and pay my nickel. And every time they came out with a new one, I’d come and get it. I wanted them all. Gotta get them all! I wanted them very much. And whenever somebody had one that I didn’t have, I always wanted that one, too.
Christopher Johnson [00:04:38] David is still a Christian today. He’s one of countless people all over the world who have been impacted one way or another by a Chick Tract. When I was growing up in the ’80s, Chick Tracts were everywhere. You’d find them in movie theaters and bus station bathrooms–on subways and all over shopping malls. People would slip them inside VHS rentals or library books.
Roman Mars [00:05:01] Since Chick Publications started in the mid 1960s, it has sold more than 1 billion tracts. There are 270 different Chick Tract, with titles like The Death Cookie, Kidnaped, Mean Mama, The Sissy, and Satan Comes to Salem.
Christopher Johnson [00:05:17] Many of these are black and white, Christian, horror stories that pull from a huge cast of characters–witches, bikers, Hindus, rock and rollers, Catholics, queer people, truckers, masons, and trick or treaters. And at some point, in the tract, the protagonist often has to make a choice–either accept Jesus as their savior or get tossed like cordwood into a lake of fire.
Roman Mars [00:05:44] These little Christian comics have left a really complicated legacy. Collectors are mesmerized by their edginess and kitsch. The Smithsonian regards Chick Tract as American religious artifacts and keeps a bunch of them in its vaults.
Christopher Johnson [00:05:57] At the same time, many of these comics are filled with some ugly and dangerous messages, including homophobia and Islamophobia. So, the same tracts that have been hoarded and preserved have also been boycotted, banned, and condemned as hate speech.
Roman Mars [00:06:13] So what is it about these tiny inflammatory comic books that has allowed them to not just survive but spread across the planet for the past six decades? The answer lies in the rise of the larger-than-life artist behind the tracks.
Jack Chick [00:06:28] Greetings in the precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is Jack Chick speaking. Before we go into this…
Christopher Johnson [00:06:34] The voice you’re hearing is Jack T. Chick–head of Chick Publications, and the creator of Chick Tracts. Jack died in 2016, but in life he was the man responsible for some of the most influential and most infamous Christian lit of the 20th century.
Jack Chick [00:06:51] As believers in Christ, we have great authority over the powers of darkness given to us by Jesus because we are His ambassadors and joint heirs with Christ.
Roman Mars [00:07:04] Jack Chick didn’t actually grow up in the church. The story of his conversion begins when he’s well into his 20s. He was a World War II vet who just returned from fighting in the Pacific. He was fit and confident and good looking with his thick, dark hair and all-American jawline.
Christopher Johnson [00:07:21] Jack was also crazy in love with his sweetheart, Lola Lynn Priddle. They’d met at the Pasadena Playhouse, where Jack had a two-year scholarship to study acting. Together, they dreamed of being movie stars.
Roman Mars [00:07:34] Jack and Lola Lynn got married in 1948. What happened next would become foundational to Jack Chick’s almost mythic origin story.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:07:44] When he goes with his wife on their honeymoon, he meets the parents. And the mother is said to have–according to Jack Chick–pulled her daughter aside after meeting Jack Chick and said, “What is this thing that you brought home to us?” They were not impressed with him at all.
Christopher Johnson [00:08:02] Kurt Kuersteiner is an expert on Jack Chick and Chick Tracts. He says things didn’t get off to the best start when Jack went up to meet his new in-laws in Canada. Lola’s parents were super religious and very conservative. To Mr. and Mrs. Priddle, Jack was bad news. He was no saint before he was drafted. But while Jack was overseas, he picked up smoking and a potty mouth.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:08:26] I think it was his language and, you know, rudeness. And probably he was pretty cocky, too. You know, he’d just gone off and won a war and graduated the Pasadena Playhouse. He’s about to become a famous actor. So, you know, he had everything going for him.
Roman Mars [00:08:42] Maybe. But Mrs. Priddle was not impressed, and she was going to do something about the problem of Jack. She took him into another room and sat him down in front of the big family radio and clicked it on.
Charles Fuller [00:08:54] Friends in radioland, you’re listening to The Old Fashioned Revival Hour, an international broadcast of the gospel…
Roman Mars [00:09:00] And together they listened to a Christian show called The Old Fashioned Revival Hour, one of the most popular programs on the air in North America in the late 1940s. The host was a preacher named Charles Fuller.
Charles Fuller [00:09:12] You that are alone in your home, find someone else that’s spiritually minded. And when two or three are gathered together in God’s name, he says, “Ask whatsoever ye will and shall be done unto you…”
Christopher Johnson [00:09:25] In Fuller’s sermon, he talked about the Christian belief that everyone is sinful, and that Jesus died so that each human being–all those sinners, even the smoking, swearing Jack Chick–could spend their afterlives in heaven and not eternal hell. The way Jack tells it, as the preacher spoke, he leaned in. It was a pretty basic Christian message, but he says it rocked his world.
Charles Fuller [00:09:50] Jesus is coming. Are you ready? How about it, friends in radioland. Won’t you kneel just where you are and give your heart to the Lord?
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:10:01] It had a big impact on him. And according to him, you know, he got down on his hands and knees and accepted Christ at that time.
Roman Mars [00:10:12] In the decade that followed, Jack’s conversion would inspire him to change nearly everything about his life.
Christopher Johnson [00:10:19] One of the first things he did when he got back to Southern California was rethink his dreams of becoming a movie star. As far as Jack was concerned, the Hollywood lifestyle was totally incompatible with his new faith, so he just walked away.
Dan Raeburn [00:10:34] So instead of Hollywood, he returned to an interest he’d always had since he was a kid.
Christopher Johnson [00:10:41] This is Dan Raeburn, who wrote a book about Jack Chick.
Dan Raeburn [00:10:45] I think it’s a dream most young men of his generation had–and that was comics, drawing, visual art.
Christopher Johnson [00:10:52] As an adult, his art skills were okay–good enough to land a regular day job doing ads and technical illustrations in LA’s booming aerospace industry.
Roman Mars [00:11:02] Jack also had a couple of artistic side hustles. On nights and weekends, he did opinion and editorial cartoons for local newspapers. Plus, he had a comic strip that he was really trying to get off the ground.
Dan Raeburn [00:11:16] It was a Flintstones type comic strip about a prehistoric Neanderthal family, called Times Have Changed? And they’re cartoon drawings of cavemen and cavewomen, where they wear animal skins, and the men carry clubs. They were very straightforward, mainstream strips where he was just trying to break into the strips the way Charles Schulz did with Peanuts. He wanted to be a mainstream cartoonist.
Christopher Johnson [00:11:44] As Jack was developing his art career, he was also growing deeper and deeper in his faith. He joined a local church, and he started attending regularly. And then sometime around 1960, one of Jack’s coworkers–a fellow Christian–gave Jack what seemed like a pretty unassuming book. It was called Power from On High, and it was written by a man named Charles Finney–a 19th century minister who was a huge Christian reformer.
Roman Mars [00:12:12] Finney wrote that church leaders were making the whole religious experience lifeless and flat. He argued that being a Christian was supposed to be exciting and invigorating. Going to church should be a powerful experience. But complacent church leaders and their congregations were sucking the energy out of what could otherwise be a rich Christian life.
Christopher Johnson [00:12:33] That book got Jack looking at his own church with fresh eyes, and he was not happy with what he saw.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:12:39] He felt like, “I’ve been going to church, but it’s just full of a bunch of phonies. And they’re more concerned about building the church than they are about building the people in the church. You know, they want more buildings. They don’t want more people. They want more money, but they don’t want more souls.”
Roman Mars [00:12:57] Jack felt that while he was super serious about prayer, devotion, and everything it took to be a hardcore Christian, his fellow prisoners were just pantomiming the religious life. He saw many of them as hypocrites who talked a good talk while living ungodly lives.
Christopher Johnson [00:13:13] Worst of all, their hypocrisy was dragging the whole church down–robbing it of the kind of sacred energy and vitality that Christians call “revival.” And for Jack, this was a four-alarm spiritual emergency.
David Daniels [00:13:28] He had read Finney, and that got his sparkler lit. That’s his term. “Getting his sparkler lit.”
Roman Mars [00:13:33] Here’s David Daniels again. He’s the one who was converted by a Chick Tract back in the 1970s when he was a nine-year-old. David later went on to work for Jack, and they became friends. He even wrote Jack’s biography.
David Daniels [00:13:45] And he got the idea of using his characteristic art, and he now has a purpose for it. It’s not just to entertain, it’s to point out that something needs to change in the world.
Roman Mars [00:13:56] Jack wanted to shake his church out of its stupor, and he thought he knew how. So, he sat down with a pen and a sketchbook, and using Finney’s writings as text, he began to make his own illustrated gospel tracks.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:14:07] Now, the very first tract he did was this rather scathing tract about churches that were not really filled with the Holy Spirit. And it was called Why No Revival?
Christopher Johnson [00:14:18] The tract was roughly the size of a typical comic book. And in it, Jack basically dragged his whole church for being a bunch of lazy and selfish hypocrites. He depicted them as Playboy-reading, rock and roll-listening backsliders, who were more interested in their Sunday school parties than truly praising the most high. Why No Revival? is a harsh comic critique that’s even more vicious because he used the faces of his fellow parishioners for the comic’s characters.
David Daniels [00:14:46] He used members of his church. And it got them very upset.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:14:52] It did get him into hot water at his own church because he used real people’s likenesses in there. And they didn’t appreciate it.
Roman Mars [00:15:00] Jack ended up quitting that church, but he saw in his old congregation how a comic could grab people’s attention and stir things up. And he decided to take that concept and go way bigger with it. He was going to use comics to reach non-Christians everywhere, with a message of salvation. And he got guidance from something that was decidedly secular.
Dan Raeburn [00:15:23] There’s a minister who brought him this book–these comic booklets–Chinese communist comic books that Mao commissioned.
Roman Mars [00:15:33] That minister showed Jack a half dozen wallet-sized comic books that he’d brought back from a mission trip to communist China.
Dan Raeburn [00:15:40] They’re just small, rectangular propaganda booklets, and they’re basically advocating communism. I think people just realized that small comic booklets were a great medium for spreading propaganda.
Roman Mars [00:15:54] The government was using them to teach socialism 101 to its citizens, especially kids.
Dan Raeburn [00:15:59] And Chick specifically said that’s where he got the idea–was from these Maoist revolutionary comics–and that he was going to use the devil’s medium to fight the devil.
Roman Mars [00:16:11] Around 1962, Jack got to work creating his own propaganda booklets. But instead of converting kids to socialism, Jack’s comics aimed to convert sinners to a life dedicated to Christ.
Christopher Johnson [00:16:23] When Jack first embraced his faith, he didn’t just become any Christian. He became an evangelical. And one key tenet of evangelicalism is to evangelize–to spread the faith and win converts. Jack saw himself as a soldier in a holy war, and he was motivated by his hatred of what I’m just going to call “the ’60s.”
Jason Bivins [00:16:44] I see Chick as basically understanding himself as situated in this almost mythic narrative where the forces of evil have conspired.
Roman Mars [00:16:54] Jason Bivens, who teaches religious studies, says that for Jack and his fellow evangelicals, the social changes of the 1960s were essentially a declaration of war. The forces of evil that Jack saw conspiring all around him were–in no particular order–equal rights for gay people, sexual liberation, the so-called “divorce revolution,” and the Supreme Court’s ban on mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools.
Jason Bivins [00:17:19] Clearly, this is a guy who himself is being rattled daily by America and how America is developing. And so, if institutions are not similarly rattled, that’s going to immediately code as a problem to hit.
Christopher Johnson [00:17:34] Jack’s aim was to rattle the cage. Like many evangelicals, he positioned himself as an embattled outsider who had no choice but to spiritually take up arms and fight.
Roman Mars [00:17:46] Jack’s targets included anything he associated with sorcery or the occult. He saw it all as part of Satan’s plot to lure people away from Christ and into hell.
Dan Raeburn [00:17:56] You’d see a tract about how Dungeons and Dragons will lead you to hell. You know, not just hell, but you’ll be murdered–brutally murdered–by a demon or a witch, in violent, gory detail before you’re then cast into the lake of fire in the last panel.
Christopher Johnson [00:18:12] Jack came for Ouija boards, witches, heavy metal, Satan, obviously, even Halloween. That dude hated Halloween.
Jason Bivins [00:18:22] You just get these depictions of, you know, a mass murderer abducting you while you’re trick or treating or being, you know, secretly abducted into a satanic group simply by attending a rock concert–this kind of stuff.
Christopher Johnson [00:18:34] Those sorts of tracts might sound ridiculous–like Jack just kind of hated fun. But he’s also made comics that are much darker, uglier, and honestly dangerous. He depicts Muslims as demon worshipers who are inherently violent and bent on taking over America. There are more than three dozen Chick Tracts attacking Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths that Jack has labeled “false religions.”
Roman Mars [00:19:00] Another of Jack’s consistent targets was homosexuality. In one of his most famous tracts, Jack goes hard on the Sodom and Gomorrah story. In another, frankly, horrifying Chick Tract, he portrays homosexuality as a product of childhood rape and what some evangelicals like to call the “gay agenda. “
Christopher Johnson [00:19:18] Over the decades, Jack has been heavily criticized–and rightly so–as a purveyor of hate literature.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:19:25] And whenever he gets attacked, he looks at that as “that sounds like something that, you know, is being inspired by Satan. He’s at war with me, and this is proof that it’s working.”
Christopher Johnson [00:19:37] This kind of confrontational finger-in-your-face, fight-picking energy drove Jack Chick from the moment that he sat down to create his gospel tracks in the early 1960s. And for the next few years, Jack spent every second of his free time working feverishly on those comics. He would make his illustrated panels, get them printed, and then–right in his kitchen–he assembled the pages into eight to ten-inch booklets, about the same size as typical comic books.
Roman Mars [00:20:05] By the early 1960s, the Chicks had turned their home into a kind of production center where Jack would write and draw.
Dan Raeburn [00:20:12] He’s sitting at his kitchen table. He’s working on his own work for the first time–with an unknown audience. He’s not targeting the syndicates. He’s not drawing for his boss in the aerospace industry. And in my opinion, it’s some of the best work he ever did. I think his depictions of hell are fantastic, and they’re very detailed. It shows in the quantity of the line work–just the amount of cross-hatching and pen marks on the page–it was not a rushed job.
Christopher Johnson [00:20:47] Around the same time that Jack had been developing as a comic artist, horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror had become super popular. And even though Jack never acknowledged it, Dan Raeburn is convinced that those horror comics had a big influence on Jack’s visual style.
Dan Raeburn [00:21:05] It’s very kind of 1962 vision of mainstream America, where all the adults are wearing suits, smoking cigarettes, and drinking hard drinks. The demons are cartoony, and the people are realistic and drawn straight. That’s the tension that makes the comic strip work is the cartoony Hell’s minions versus the very straightforward mainstream, I think, especially with A Demon’s Nightmare.
Roman Mars [00:21:36] A Demon’s Nightmare was the first of what Jack Chick called his “soul-winning tracts”–books meant to be purchased at Christian bookstores and handed out to bring nonbelievers into the faith. It also has the kind of weirdness that makes comics comics–tropes that Jack would use over and over again for the next several decades.
Dan Raeburn [00:21:55] The Devils are imps. They are little, cute, neurotic, little demons with exaggerated facial expressions. And when they get nervous, drops of sweat jump under their head or run down their face.
Christopher Johnson [00:22:10] The evil imps ride an express elevator back and forth between the bowels of hell and the city streets. One demon plays the violin while serenading an innocent teenager with a lullaby. If you didn’t read the text, you might even mistake it for just a regular comic.
Dan Raeburn [00:22:28] He was very much using the idea of a comic funny booklet to hook you into his fire and brimstone, eternal damnation message. And the effect is really strong on the reader.
Christopher Johnson [00:22:43] And the cover that Jack drew for A Demon’s Nightmare became a template for his comics. It features a two-color illustration on one half and the tract title in bold white letters on the other half. This elegant, instantly recognizable split-cover design became the standard look for almost all Chick Tracts.
Roman Mars [00:23:05] It’s possible, though, that Jack’s tracts would have never gone global–that they’d never have found their way into every nook and cranny of our public space–if it weren’t for just one little tweak. And we’ll get into what that is after the break. In 1969, the print shop owner that Jack Chick had been using to make his tracks was modifying his process to fill some other orders. Here’s Jack’s biographer, David Daniels, again.
David Daniels [00:23:44] And he went to Jack and said, “We’re not going to be able to print these big format things anymore. Do you think you could shrink it down?”
Roman Mars [00:23:52] To keep using the same printer, Jack needed to cut his tracts by more than half–from classic comic book size down to a little under three by five inches.
David Daniels [00:24:01] Jack said, “Sure.” And so, he took the longer tracts and made them shorter. And he shrunk the art down, modified it if he needed to, redid some of the art and stuff. But it actually made it wonderful because it fits in the pocket now.
Christopher Johnson [00:24:14] Jack’s decision to cut his comic books down to pocket-sized booklets helped launch Chick Tracts out into the world. He’d pioneered a successful formula by mashing up grabby propaganda comic art with Bible verses and evangelical messaging. And then he took all of that and shrank it down into these little, viral packages–almost like little zines.
Roman Mars [00:24:37] And the newly reformatted comics were perfect tools for proselytizing.
Melani McAlister [00:24:42] You know, I think there’s a secret about evangelicals, which is that a lot of people find it hard to evangelize.
Roman Mars [00:24:49] Melani McAlister teaches American studies, and she wrote a book about evangelicals.
Melani McAlister [00:24:53] It’s not an easy thing for most people to talk to friends or strangers and say, “This is what I believe. This is what I think you should believe.” It’s difficult for a lot of people.
Christopher Johnson [00:25:06] Proselytizing to complete strangers was a fundamental part of evangelicalism. They call it “witnessing.” But what if your God-fearing heart was no match for your crippling social anxiety?
Roman Mars [00:25:20] These little comics were great for shy Christians. As a Jack chick comic character once said, “Witnessing doesn’t have to be terrifying. Chick Tracts make it easy.”
Melani McAlister [00:25:30] Like, “Here, I’m going to show you this thing. It’s not exactly me talking to you. I’m showing you this thing and telling you about this thing that we can read together.”
Roman Mars [00:25:39] The timing couldn’t have been better for Jack to drop his new and improved gospel comics. Jack’s redesign in 1969 coincided with some big changes that were happening in the Christian world–changes that would help put Chick Tracts in serious demand.
Christopher Johnson [00:25:54] First, American evangelicals were becoming leaders in global missionary work, and many saw Chick Tracts as vital tools for witnessing abroad.
Roman Mars [00:26:03] And second…
Melani McAlister [00:26:04] In the period of the 1970s, evangelicals, like everybody else, become more interested in a kind of countercultural feel to the things that they’re doing. And so, they want things to be relevant, to be accessible, to be user friendly.
Christopher Johnson [00:26:25] This was a period of resistance and all kinds of experimentation. And lots of evangelicals thought that the way to save souls was to lure them in with an appeal to this countercultural vibe. The longhaired hippie preachers, the huge Woodstock type festivals for Jesus people, and Christian rock–all of it brought to you by this evangelical revolution.
Roman Mars [00:26:48] As preachers tried to connect with the youth, many of them would whip out Jack’s little Christian comic books, which at least seemed to have an openness and edginess that were in sync with the times.
Melani McAlister [00:26:59] And so people like Jack Chick, who are offering easily digestible, user friendly, short entrees into the faith–they make sense in a way they just wouldn’t have made sense in the early 1960s.
Christopher Johnson [00:27:18] Orders for Jack’s tracts came pouring in. Business was so hot that Jack had to move his company from his garage to an industrial suite in Pomona.
Dan Raeburn [00:27:27] Chick Publications is really taking off. They’ve bought their own printer, they’ve got their distribution networks, they’re getting everything out there, they’re making money.
Roman Mars [00:27:36] Next, in order to appeal to a wider and younger audience, Jack decided to hire a more modern and more skillful illustrator named Fred Carter.
Dan Raeburn [00:27:46] Jack needed Fred to reach the younger generation who were accustomed to more muscular action comics that they’d grown up with in Marvel Comics, etc. And that’s the niche that Fred could fill–that Jack never could because Jack’s style was a cartoony style that was still rooted in the newspaper strip era.
Roman Mars [00:28:12] By the late ’70s, Jack’s company had pushed more than 100 million Chick Tracts out the door.
Christopher Johnson [00:28:18] There’s an old Chick Publications logo that shows the planet Earth encircled like Saturn by a ring of Chick Tracts. And it’s not really an exaggeration; in the decades since Jack started Chick Publications, his cheap, very cool looking, pocket-sized comics reached a type of popularity that’s otherwise reserved for bestselling novels and the daily paper–maybe bigger. A couple of years ago, the company sold its one billionth tract.
Kurt Kuersteiner [00:28:47] A lot of people say, “Okay, well, that’s pretty impressive.” That’s how many he published, but that’s not how many that have been read because the average Chick Tract goes through many people’s hands. They read them and then they pass them on to somebody else because, you know, “Hey, I’m done reading it.” And they’ll do that ten times or so. So, his reach is much more broad than your average book reader.
Roman Mars [00:29:08] Chick Publications is still going strong today, even without its eponymous leader. Jack died in 2016, when he was 92 years old. To this day, his company gets tons of orders from missionaries. Evangelicals still participate in a time-honored practice that they call “tract-bombing,” where they swarm your neighborhood–sometimes at night–and flood it with hundreds of booklets on windshields and doorknobs, in mailboxes, and under your front door. And when you wake up, it’s as if Chick Tracts have rained down like one of the ten plagues.
Christopher Johnson [00:29:45] I talked to several people who have thought a lot about Jack Chick’s work, and most of them absolutely detest his messages. After all, Chick Tracts have been an undeniable, uncontainable source of viral hate. Over the years, Jack’s focus intensified from general moral decay to much uglier and more detailed yarns about homosexuality and pretty much all non-Protestant religions. But there’s still something about the artist and his weird little comic books that’s interesting and even alluring for many of those folks.
Dan Raeburn [00:30:16] When I was growing up, you’d get them on Halloween. You would find them scattered across town. I was a paperboy, and I would find a lot of Chick Tracts there.
Roman Mars [00:30:28] When Dan Raeburn was a kid in Iowa City in the 1970s and ’80s, he came across Chick Tracts just the way Jack Chick intended: Everywhere.
Dan Raeburn [00:30:36] In front of my elementary school, you know, at the beginning of the year, somebody would leave a little pile of Chick Tracts there for the kids, and we would all grab them.
Christopher Johnson [00:30:44] But instead of spreading them around the way Jack wanted, as a college kid, Dan did what many collectors have done–he just hoarded them away for himself.
Dan Raeburn [00:30:54] You know, my roommates and I would kind of laugh about them. And you’d keep them on the little tray next to your rolling papers and your copy of Led Zeppelin II. They’d kind of migrate to the top of the toilet, and people would read them while they used the bathroom. And they’d just sort of disintegrate and fall apart.
Roman Mars [00:31:12] None of those Chick Tracts ever converted Dan. But he did become an avid Chick Tract reader. He couldn’t help it. The comics just seemed so over-the-top.
Christopher Johnson [00:31:21] In the last few decades, Jack has found a pretty big audience with people like Dan–folks who are actually sucked in and even tickled by the horrifying and self-righteous everything phobia of Chick Tract. On fan sites, collectors have videos where they lean fully into the weirdness of Chick’s comics.
Fan Club Video [00:31:39] Oh, howdy, friends! Preacher here. Hey, friends, today I want to invite you to become a member of the Chick Tract Club. Now, you know those. Those are the old comic booklets that put the fun back in fundamentalism. Hallelujah, friends!
Christopher Johnson [00:31:59] To a lot of Chick Tract fans, the comics are just quaint and kitschy parodies of themselves–hilarious precisely because they’re such earnest, paranoid relics. Others see parallels between Chick Tracts and early DIY zine culture. Here’s Jason Bivens again.
Jason Bivins [00:32:15] You know, Chick was punk as fuck. He controlled his own distribution. It’s almost like staple gunning advertisements for your show or leaving free copies of your fanzine, you know, on the counter at the record store. It’s a similar kind of mentality. Get the word out, repeat the message. And hopefully effect change that way.
Christopher Johnson [00:32:37] Jack Chick has been called a lot of things in the press over the last 60 years: A “lunatic Jesus freak,” a “comics scaremonger,” a “fire breathing, hell and brimstone preacher,” and an “underground cartooning genius.” His tracts are just as complicated, shocking, graphic, hateful, and just plain mean–and, for better or for worse, completely unique. It’s what drew readers to Chick Tracts from the very beginning.
Roman Mars [00:33:41] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Christopher Johnson. Edited by Kelly Prime. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Satan is Real was written by the Louvin Brothers, this version performed here by The Grace Thrillers. Delaney Hall is the senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.