Collecting Controversial Card-sized Comics!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2004 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
As difficult as it is to imagine, some of us have interests beyond our silly little obsession with trading cards. In my case, it's an equally silly obsession: comic books!
But not all comic books are created equal. Four years ago, after I finally finished my monster card collection, I was looking for something different to collect that didn't take up much room and was CHEAP. That ruled out regular comics, which are both bulky and expensive. But I found some tiny comics that were often given away for free, and the more I learned about them, the more engrossed I became with them. That fascination lead me on a remarkable journey into a demon filled world of conspiracies and controversies, a quest that many feel has cosmic consequences (for those who believe). It's a journey that most of us have received tickets for at one point or another, but we threw them away without thinking much about it. The "tickets" I'm referring to are Chick tracts.
"Chicks" are the 3 x 5 inch comic books that are deliberately left in almost every conceivable public place. The 24 page black and white cartoons urge readers to reevaluate their lives and convert to Christianity. Not just any form of Christianity, mind you, but fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. To call these comics controversial would be an understatement. They have actually been banned in countries as repressive as Apartheid South Africa, and as "progressive" as Canada. Both bans were eventually lifted, but Chicks continue to be confiscated in Islamic and communist countries like Iran and Cuba. Moreover, many Americans hate Chick tracts for a variety of different reasons, and do everything in their power to put them out of business. Yet despite their efforts, opponents have failed to prevent the creator of Chick tracts from becoming the most widely read writer alive today. Over 175 different titles have been printed in 100 different languages, with a stunning total of over 500,000,000 made!
Who is this King of Christian comics? His name is Jack T. Chick. He's been cranking out these little dandies since 1961. He found a niche and he stuck with it, riding it through big storms and onto sunnier skies. Even more amazing is the fact that Chick out published everyone on his own terms. All his books and tracts are self published, without the deep pockets of corporate publishing giants. Ironically, the man who wore the most published crown before Chick was also a self-published religious kingpin, the infamous L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. He sold over 750,000,000 books! When he died, Chick inherited the throne. At age 80, Chick may still break L. Ron's record! His presses can turn out millions of more tracts each week.
Chick has deliberately dodged the media and prevented any journalist from snapping his photo. The last newspaper to cover him had to resort to using Chick's high school yearbook photo... from 1942! Chick is convinced enemies are out to kill him and he doesn't wish to help them succeed. He also refuses interviews. His efforts to avoid the media only make him more mysterious and interesting to those who are curious about him. Journalists continue to hound Chick for interviews, the most recent being Dan Rather from 60 Minutes II, but so far, he's given them all the slip.
It wasn't always so. Back in the early 1970s, Chick was considered mainstream and not controversial at all. But as society moved further and further to the left, Chick remained steadfast in his Eisenhower era values and became reactionary in comparison. The tract that really turned up the heat on Chick was one that attacked the homosexual agenda. It was called The Gay Blade and was published in 1972. That's what started the hate mail and fire bomb threats. But Chick refused to backpedal and has remained politically incorrect ever since.
However, the fracas over The Gay Blade was nothing compared to the controversy caused in 1979 when Chick published Alberto. That was a full sized, full color comic book based on the sworn testimony of Alberto Rivera, a man who claimed to be a former Jesuit that worked undercover to sabotage Protestant churches. The firestorm of protests from Catholics and their supporters nearly closed Chick Publications down, yet the company survived and became a pioneer in mail order and internet direct sales.
There's been other controversies as well. Most of them involve Satanic conspiracies to infiltrate society though popular clubs or activities. Angels? (a tract from 1986) explains how the devil runs the music industry so he can corrupt the minds of listeners with rock and roll music. Dark Dungeons (from 1984) tells how the Dungeons & Dragons game leads kids to witchcraft and suicide. The Curse of Baphomet (1991) shows how the Masons are also part of a sinister plan to win souls for Satan.
Do people who read these things believe them? Some do, some don't. Some collect Chick's tracts because they find them so outlandish and humorous. Others swear by them. I'd estimate Chick collectors are evenly split between those who are Christian and those who are not. Many collectors are Catholics, gays, Masons, or whoever else Chick has singled out for damnation. They collect Chick's stuff for much the same reason that Oprah Winfrey collects racist Jim Crow art from the past. They don't endorse it, they just find it interesting and over the top.
It's impossible to specify with any certainty the main reason so many people collect Chick tracts. The conspiracy and controversial themes are two attractions, but it's probably the art that hooks readers the most. Chick draws the lion's share of the tracts himself. He never received any former training and his scibblish style is very recognizable. His other artist, a black minister named Fred Carter, is a stunning illustrator, and one of the true masters of his craft. Carter's tracts make Chick's work look like kid stuff, and Carter's full color comics are some of the best ever drawn. Chick has published 20 different full sized, full color comics, all of which were drawn by Carter.
Another attraction to Chick tracts are the cost. Many of them are found for free in public places, especially in the South through the "Bible Belt" (a ban of states ranging from North Carolina down to Georgia, and across to Texas.) Over half of his tract titles are still in print, and can be bought from Chick via the internet at Chick.com for just 14 cents each! Even Chick's full color comics, which are 32 pages long with no ads, cost just $2.25 retail. Chick makes the regular comic companies look like rip-off artists in comparison.
That isn't to say there are not expensive Chick tracts out there. About 75 of the 175+ titles are out of print, and some of those fetch very high prices on eBay. (They've ranged from $3 to $250 each.) And there are countless variations of different titles as well. Chick continues to update his tracts with unannounced modifications and revisions. Sometimes, he makes subtle dialog alterations. Other times, he completely redraws the tract or changes the cover or title. Over 666 variations have been recorded by Bob Fowler, a foremost Chick authority and author of the book, The World of Chick? The ongoing variations make Chick tract collecting a life long pursuit which can never be completely finished.
Another addictive aspect of Chick collecting is the recurring themes. Disbelievers often laugh at the heroes of the tracts with a gut busting "haw-haw-haw!" But the tables turn when the heathen dies and appears before a giant, faceless God sitting upon a White Throne of Judgment. The sinner's life is reviewed and unless he accepted Jesus before dying, he's quickly dispatched to the Lake of Fire. The stories are littered with footnotes containing various Bible verses and reference sources (many of which are in other Chick books).
Chick also hides little "Easter eggs" in his comics, daring readers to find them. The most famous of which is Fang the dog. The mutt has been making cameo appearances in Chick's tracts since 1975. He can turn up in the most subtle of places, in a background family photo, or in a janitor's tattoo. It's like Where's Waldo?, only Fang existed decades before Waldo did.
There's so much more about Chick tracts that is remarkable, bizarre, and/or humorous. It's far too much to cover in a limited space of this size. One detail worth noting is the surprising number of card collectors who also collect Chicks. (Maybe because tracts are the same size as widevision cards.) Yet they never seem to mention it unless you bring it up. I guess that's because most Chick collectors consider Chick tracts a "guilty pleasure" and are too embarrassed to confess they collect them out of fear of offending others. Some people go as far as to label Chick tracts as "hate lit," due to Chick's condemnation of other religions and organizations. I know one card collector who found lots of tracts in Atlanta, collected them all and ripped them up because he thought they were too crazy and potentially dangerous. Countless others have also destroyed them... which only succeeded in making the surviving copies worth more!
But I'm unashamed to admit it. I find the tracts fun, and the fact they are controversial and taboo just makes them even more cool. Chick tracts are not for everybody, but if you enjoy comics or conspiracies, politically incorrect humor, or "in-your-face" religious rants, you will certainly find Chick tracts both interesting and unique. Okay, maybe I am embarrassed to admit I became so carried away with these little treasures, that I wrote entire book about them. (Get a life, Kurt!) Perhaps the real point of this article is to prove I'm not crazy for liking these weird little comics, but to show that you're crazy if you've never read one. It's almost a rite of passage to American pop culture. You can read them free at Chick.com, or wait 'till you find one in a bathroom or bus station. Odds are that you'll either love them, or love to hate them. 'Coz nothing provokes a reaction like Chick tracts -- for better or for worse!
[June 2014 update: Chick is now over 90 years old and is closing in on his 250th new tract (not counting variants on the same stories!) His 24 page comic tracts are still remarkably cheap, just 16 cents each! Chick Publications is now over 50 years old and has produced over 800 million tracts.]
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