There was a brief time in my life when Chick tracts were my obsession. I was 12–14. It was the early ’90s. Michael Jordan was dunking on fools in the NBA. Bill Clinton was sneaking thots in around the back of the White House. The color red fell out of fashion in Russia. And some nerdy goober named Bill Gates was trying to sucker everyone into using “doors,” or “hatchways,” or some software program named after a type of building opening. “Trapdoors?”
Marvel and DC Comics were still considered silly little children’s picture books, save for the big league film adaptations of Superman: The Movie and Batman. Big props to those hipster OGs who were into Iron Man and Thor before the MCU made it cool.
But while every other kid my age was into normal things like Stan Lee’s stuff, Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, Vanilla Ice, learning how to put condoms on bananas in school, and this new music subgenre freaking out all the white parents called “gangster rap,” I was the cool cat on the block who was into these little prosletyzing booklets called Chick Tracts.
What are Chick tracts? They’re little comic books that spead the Gospel of Jesus Christ from an evangelical Christian perspective. Each features a fictional story about a lost sinner learning about Christ dying on the cross for their sins, and then either repenting and entering heaven, or foolishly following Satan, and then being tossed into a lake of fire forever for their disbelief.
Suck on that, Stan Lee.
During my Chick tract fetish, I was growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, had just been pulled from the evil public school system to be homeschooled, and was eagerly awaiting the day I’d get to pick out my mansion in heaven. That was after getting whirlwinded up into the sky during the rapture, of course. An event I was sure would happen before I reached adulthood.
Look, I’d love to say I was a secret doubter the whole time. An undercover atheist. But the truth is, I was super hardcore. I made a poster of the ten commandments and hung it up in my school (before I was taught at home). I stood outside the bus stop so I could preach to all the neighborhood kids when they got back from their Satan-clutched classrooms.
Dude, I refused to even wear shorts one summer during a heatwave because I thought it would be “immodest.”
Yikes. Cringe. Ugh. Jeeeez, man.
I’m an agnostic now, I guess. I don’t claim to know and I don’t deny the potential validity of religions, no matter how outlandish they may be. Even Scientology, despite Tom Cruise man-spoiling my ’90s crush, Katie Holmes. If a belief or faith can help keep someone going through all the drudgery, and it’s not harming anyone, I say go for it. It’s all entertainment to me now. Spiritual Netflix binging for those who need to believe in magic.
I’m not embarrassed about my former fundie life. And certainly not Chick tracts. I used to pass them out to strangers, hide them in places around stores, and obsessively read through the mail order catalog (this was pre-internet) so I could get the next edition.
I was a Chick addict. Happily hooked. Totally sucked into the weird world of Chicktopia.
I even drew my own Chick tracts. Two of them, in fact. I sent them to Chick Publications in the hopes of getting them published and earning a few more jewels in my heaven robe, and even got a letter back from the founder and artist himself, Jack T. Chick. He didn’t accept them.
Chick tracts are actually pretty awesome. It was a nifty idea to help spread a belief system through cartoons with a moral. And some of them, especially the earlier ones Jack Chick put out, are actually pretty well done, if not entertaining. As a middle-aged adult, I see them more now more as a good marketing tactic than as religious devices. Jack Chick himself admits to having been inspired by the Chinese Communist Party propaganda comics Mao put out during the glorious revolution. Mao as in Mr. Planned Famines and Deaths of Millions. That Mao. Something I always thought was an odd thing for Chick to admit. That’s like saying you started a mustache grooming kit company because you were just totally rocked by Hitler’s toothbrush stache. But whatever.
Most of my favorite Chick tracts are from the creative heyday of the company — about the late ’70s through the ’80s. Prime Moral Majority time. During which Chick also had a line of comic books called The Crusaders, which featured two missionary best friends, a black guy and a white guy, going on adventures spreading the Word, and confounding outlandish criminal and evil global conspiracy plots. It was actually pretty progressive and fun, with a racially diverse set of characters, international locations, ’70s-era slang, and occasional twists and turns. Like if The Fast and the Furious were written by Jerry Falwell. The themes and messages were of course predictably sermonizing, a lot of the characters leaned stereotypical, while institutions traditionally held as “evil” by the Christian Complex (Hollywood, academia, the media, etc.) were always depicted as cartoonishly sinister.
Oh, by the way, Jack Chick hated, hated, hated the Roman Catholic Church, and viewed it as one big Satan-powered institution to ensare unsuspecting people into a false hell-bound perversion of the real Christian faith. He even had another comic series based on a former Jesuit priest named Roberto, who revealed the Church’s evil underbelly history of persecution and nastiness.
All guys have a crazy chick story. But I’ve got a crazy Chick story.
:::ba dum tiss:::
Anyway, here are a few favorite tracts I used to pass out and read back in the day, in no particular order. You may find them laughable, quaint, and even offensive. I still like them. They gave me an appreciation for the power of compact storytelling, and they no doubt influenced my own writing.
1. This Was Your Life
Aww man, This Was Your Life. My Chick gateway drug. A bonafide Christian soul-winning classic. This tract is to Chick what Nevermind was to Nirvana.
This Was Your Life is a two-part tract with a mid-point twist. The first half shows a guy who suddenly dies of a heart attack and is taken before God to be judged. His whole life is shown, including moments where he committed such immoral atrocities as telling a dirty joke in front of his friends, and even lusting after a woman. Then, in a scene surely meant to cathartically satisfy oft ignored gospel spreaders, our protagonist is shown rejecting his (apparently) one chance to get saved in a church service and avoid his hell-bound fate. When his name is not found in the Book of Life, he’s tossed into a lake of fire. Afterward, a frightening warning appears declaring, “This can be your life!” The second half shows our hero instead repenting in the church, accepting Christ, and then later dying and going to heaven.
Even though the copyright on the tract reads 2002, I believe this was the first tract Chick ever wrote back in the ‘70s, and one he first used witnessing to prisoners. As a “proof of concept” tract, it works phenomenally well. Structurally, it’s pretty clever. Like nearly all Chick tracts, it uses fear as its main motivator. Fear of burning in hell. But also the fear, in this case, that God acts as Big Brother, recording every bit of your life, to be played and judged later. So basically China’s social credit system. Man, Chick really dug the CCP.
2. Somebody Goofed
If I had to pick a favorite Chick tract, Somebody Goofed would probably be it. Mainly because, like many earlier Chick tracts, it has a good twist. And this one has a Shyamalan-level one. It also has some humor, and features a meta reference. In one panel, a preacher hands out a gospel booklet that looks suspiciously like a Chick brand tract. Which goes to show that it’s not just sophomoric rappers who make references to their first album in their second album, but evangelist cartoonists as well.
I won’t spoil the fun twist ending by detailing out the plot here. You can check it out in the link above.
3. Back From the Dead?
This tract legitimately scared me as an impressionable adolescent and young teen. In it, a man clinically dies in an operating room, goes to hell, only to miraciously come back to life. He recounts his terrifying ordeal to a preacher, being tortured by demons, and almost thrown into the lake of fire, before escaping at the last second. It uses Chick’s fear factor trademark quite effectively.
Back From The Dead? also has a certain cinematic quality to it. Like I could see it as a horror movie. You think of the demons from Ghost that drag Patrick Swayze’s killers to hell. It also taps into the zeitgeist of near-death experiences that were popular back then, especially in many Christian circles.
4. The Long Trip
Sometime around the early to mid-90’s, Chick’s creative wellspring began to run dry, matching similarly to horror director John Carpenter. The Long Trip may very be the last of the “classic” era, as afterward his tracts began to become overly simplistic and one-dimensional. Even this one recycles the twist from Somebody Goofed. Though it adds something more in the way of its “road of life” metaphor. Sticking with the Carpenter comparison, The Long Trip is sort of Chick’s In the Mouth of Madness, which coincidentally premiered the same year as this tract.
5. Doom Town
This tract recounts the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities God destroyed for their extreme wickedness, and offers a “compassionate plea to repent of homosexuality.”
Doom Town begins at a gay rights rally where activists are threatening to committ “blood terrorism,” if their funding demands for HIV research are not met. A TV journalist/Christian who’s almost a dead ringer for Tony Dalton’s Lalo from Better Call Saul starts talking with a young gay man, and eventually converts him to the faith, and presumably to heterosexuality. Because obviously sexual preference can be turned on and off like a switch just like that. Of course.
Chick seemed to save his best artwork for the tracts that showed scenes from Bible stories. And Doom Town has some remarkable renderings. I’m not sure Chick himself actually drew this tract, as his style was more Sunday funnies than near-photorealistic.
Some Chick tracts are pretty fun. Including this one, Boo!, which is a Christo-parody on the Friday the 13th series. Chick liked to emulate pop culture, and then repurpose it in his own way. Like many Christians caught up in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, Chick had deep abiding concerns about the demonic origins of Halloween. Which is why I find this tract’s anti-corn candy messaging so uncomfortably yet nostalgically familiar — I myself wasn’t allowed to celebrate Satan’s supposed birthday growing up. In fact, I didn’t go trick or treating until I was like 21 or something, and only as a plain clothes chaperon for my younger non-faith affiliated cousin. I’m sure it’s not quite the same tagging along as an adult. But that’s okay. I missed out on God knows how many Hersheys and Snickers-induced cavities, right?
7. Hi There!
I was initially all set to leave this list at six, until I remembered that six is Satan’s favorite number. One of the many things Chick tracts taught me. I also remembered this tract, which probably ranks as my number two favorite behind Somebody Goofed, so I was thankfully able to get to seven (God’s favorite number). So we’re all good now.
Hi There! is another early Chick classic, and it’s remarkable for its bleakness and sadism. The story centers on Charlie Connors, a Charles Bronson look-a-like construction worker who dies in a tragic workplace accident and goes to hell. Or at least a section of hell. It’s just a dark cave without air conditioning. There he meets an angel with some rockin’ ’70s sideburns who casually lays out to the blue collar worker that he’s doomed to an even worse fate —burning in the lake of fire, after he’s judged by God on the Great White Throne.
This is a haunting, creepy tract that’s stuck with me. Not just because the main character is hopelessly condemned. But also that his death is apparently caused by Death itself. A Grim Reaper-type demon/angel/spirit causes a wind to blow while Charlie is working atop a building scaffold, and he plummets to his grisly death. A plot point that introduces a disturbing question — why would God purposely cause someone’s death just to send them to hell? Why not at least give him a near-death experience, like the guy in Back From The Dead? Divine morality and “fairness” in Chick World are perplexing things.
Honorable mentions could go to rapture-themed titles like The Beast, and The Last Generation, a sort of 1984-inspired tract where Christians are hunted down in a totalitarian world. Then there’s the humorous How to Get Rich (and keep it), a good you-can’t-take-it-with-you-themed tract about money. Though I’d contend you could technically take Bitcoin with you to the afterlife, assuming you memorize your seed words (and the afterlife has internet). Another good one is Holy Joe, set during the Vietnam War.
Love them or hate them, Chick tracts rank among the best-selling forms of “literature” in the world, having sold over 800 million of the booklets according to the company. That’s pretty incredible, and worth examining from a marketing/publishing perspective.
I suspect if Chick tracts had been created today, it would involve social media. Like Tik Tok, the Chinese short video app. Something I’m sure Jack Chick would have loved to use.