For decades the cartoon tracts of Jack T. Chick have fascinated and horrified. Their pages contain the most extreme, paranoid conspiracy theories imaginable. Among other things, Chick publications will tell you that:
- the Catholic Church keeps "the name of every Protestant church member in the world" in a "big computer" in the Vatican for use in future persecutions (see his tract My Name . . . In the Vatican? );
- through the Jesuits, the Vatican runs an extensive conspiracy that includes the Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, international bankers, the Mafia, the Club of Rome, the Masons, and the New Age movement, among others (Four Horsemen);
- the Catholic conspiracy also includes creating venomously anti-Catholic movements such as Communism, the Ku Klux Klan, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Islam (The Big Betrayal, The Godfathers: Alberto Part Three, The Force: Alberto Part Four, The Prophet: Alberto Part Six).
Chick’s material is weirdly compelling. It is amateurish, lurid, ham-fisted, and viciously hateful at times. But it is intense, and something about that intensity makes people want to read it. His tracts generate a kind of bizarre fascination. Since he first began publishing them, Chick has distributed over half a billion, making him the most published comic book author in the world.
Yet little is known of him. The seventy-nine-year-old Chick is a recluse. His office does not give tours, he never allows his photo to be taken, and he never, ever gives interviews. Little is known about him beyond what is revealed in the biography on his web site, www.chick.com.
Recently Chick has ventured out of the world of comic book publishing to produce a feature-length movie entitled The Light of the World. I received an unexpected invitation to the premier of the movie. Writing movie reviews is a hobby of mine, and the camp value alone of a Chick film would make it worth reviewing, so I made the trek to the premier—and got more than I imagined I would.
The Light of the World premiered in Ontario, California, where Chick Publications is based. The site was an old auditorium that would have been dazzling in the 1940s and that still boasted an impressive main theater. As I approached it an hour before the screening was scheduled to begin, a small group of people, including a number of elderly men, was out front.
Could one of these men be Jack Chick? I wondered, then answered my own question: probably not. No doubt he’d seen the completed film, and with his reclusive tendencies he wasn’t likely to show up.
Still, I kept an eye out, particularly for an elderly man with a young Asian woman. (After the death of his wife a few years ago, Chick married an Asian woman much younger than himself.)
In the foyer of the auditorium, representatives of Chick Publications had tables set up where copies of the film were on sale on VHS and DVD. One table was cash only, one check only, and one credit card only. Having a copy of the film would let me get exact quotes for a critique of the film, but I didn’t really want to give my credit card or checking account number to a bunch of conspiracy theorists. I approached the cash only table.
Once I had the copy in hand, I began to contemplate the fact that I had just driven two hours to get to the theater, the screening wouldn’t even begin for another hour, and it would be almost midnight before I got back home to San Diego. The thought of driving back and watching the DVD in the comfort of my own living room was attractive, and I was on the verge of heading home when I decided to take one more look around to see if I could spot Chick.
I was sitting in the back row, so I had a good view of the theater. Nobody looked like an obvious candidate to be Chick. The folks in the front row were too young. I couldn’t see an elderly man with Asian wife. There was an elderly guy sitting alone on the far side of my row, talking with a few people in the aisle. I heard one of them say, "It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir."
I took a closer look at him. He had white hair, glasses, and was wearing a white dress shirt and dark slacks. He had a fancy gold wristwatch (a Rolex?)—the kind that you could afford if you’d sold half a billion tracts.
If it were Chick, what would I say to him? The apologist in me would have loved to debate him theologically. Part of me would want to ask him futile questions like "You don’t really believe all that stuff you publish, do you?" But I decided that, if it was Chick, the most charitable thing I could do was simply be nice to him and chat.
Moving a few seats closer to him, I heard him tell the people, "We got started about forty years ago . . ." Doing some quick math in my head, I realized that was when Chick Publications began.
I moved to the seat next to him (well, technically, next to his jacket, which was draped on th seat next to him), and, when the well-wishers moved on, I said, "Excuse me, sir. Are you Jack Chick?"
"I am," he replied, smiling warmly. "What’s your name?"
"Jimmy Akin," I replied. "It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir."
We shook hands, and he asked me, "What do you do?"
"I’m an evangelist."
His face brightened. "Praise God!" But then his eyes studied me a moment. Wearing a Stetson, cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, and a Texas belt buckle, I didn’t look like the typical suit-and-tie evangelist from Chick’s Fundamentalist world.
"I’ve read a lot of your comic tracts," I said as he settled back into his seat.
"We have plans for a lot more," he replied.
"You’re going to be doing a lot after the film?"
"Yes," he smiled. "That’s in their hands now," he said, referring to the Light of the World Project, which has hopes to translate the film into a thousand languages. "There were times when I thought we would never be finished with it."
"I understand you’ve been working on it for ten years."
"Fifteen," he corrected. "I think it will help a lot of pastors. It should get a lot of people sold—uh, saved."
Was that a Freudian slip? Given Chick’s tendency to devote publication after publication to the sensationalist claims of men who were later exposed as religious con men, there has been some question of whether he really believes his own publications. Some have suggested he is simply in it for the money.
Another group of well-wishers came by to greet him, and while they did I fished out a pen and a tract promoting the film that I had been given at the door. When he turned back to me, I asked for his autograph.
He laughed heartily, as if he wasn’t used to giving autographs. I handed him the tract and pen, and he looked around for a hard surface to sign it.
"Here, use this," I said, handing him my Light of the World DVD.
He signed and handed the articles back to me. His signature matched the version I had seen printed in his publications.
Originally, Chick did all the art for his tracts, but in 1972 he began working with a then unknown artist. Fans noticed the difference immediately. Since the artist never signed his name, and since his style was much more realistic than Chick’s, fans speculated for years who "the good artist" was. In 1980, Chick revealed that the other artist was an African-American named Fred Carter, whom Chick claimed was shy and did not wish to have his name on his work.
"The artist who does the comic books . . ." I began, blanking on the gentleman’s name.
"Fred Carter," Chick said. "He’s a pastor. I’m really hoping he’s going to be here tonight."
Cool, I thought. Maybe I could meet him, too.
"I really like his work," I said. "He has a wonderful technique."
"Yes, he does."
"I practiced for a long time to be a comic book artist. I really like the way he uses Zip-A-Tone," I said, referring to a technique comic book artists uses to create detailed textures in their work.
"Have you ever used any other artists, or has it just been the two of you?"
"No, just the two of us," he said.
Score! I thought. One more rumor about Chick disconfirmed.
"Are you affiliated with any church?" Chick asked me.
"Catholic," I replied. Chick’s eyes widened.
"Oh? You have a Catholic background?"
"I love Catholics," he assured me.
"Uh-huh," I said, already familiar with the I-love-Catholics-that’s-why-I-attack-their-faith routine used by countless Fundamentalists.
"Well. A Catholic evangelist!" Chick mused. "Are you a Jesuit?"
It was my turn to laugh. If Jack didn’t believe his comics’ paranoid conspiracy theories about Jesuits, he was acting as though he did.
"No, I’m just a layman. I’m not even a priest. I’m not an anything," I said, hoping to reassure him that I wasn’t a sinister Vatican agent. Perhaps a brief profession of faith might help. "We have our differences," I told him, "but we both worship God—and his Son, Jesus."
Chick made what was probably best read as a pleasant but non-committal acknowledgement.
"I’m sure the Pope will have seen this movie by next week," he said.
"Oh, yes. I’m sure it’ll be going out on a plane. They have all my stuff at the Vatican."
Since he’d signed a tract for me on the back of my Light of the World DVD, he might think that my copy was the very one that would be sent to the Pope.
"I’m one of the few who stands up against Rome," Jack continued. "That all started years ago when I met Alberto. Do you know about Alberto?"
"Yes," I said.
Alberto Rivera’s conspiracy theories are the subjects of many of Chick’s comics and tracts. Rivera claimed to be an ex-Jesuit sent to infiltrate and destroy Protestant churches for the Vatican. He was later exposed as a fraud by Protestant publications and groups such as Christianity Today, Cornerstone magazine, and the Christian Research Institute. He also was wanted by the law for writing bad checks and credit card theft, among other financial improprieties. Chick’s persistence in publishing Rivera led to his leaving the Christian Booksellers Association. Rivera died in 1997 of colon cancer.
"Alberto was murdered, you know," Jack informed me.
"Well, I understand that he had cancer, but beyond that I’m not aware of anything," I replied.
"Oh, yes, he was murdered." Jack said an ex-member of the Irish Republican Army had told him of two poisons, one of which causes cancer. "And that was what they gave him."
More well-wishers said hello to Jack. While they chatted I tried to think how I might be able to get a tour of Chick Publications itself. These are seldom granted, and I knew my chances were next to nil, but I had to ask. When Chick turned back to me I said, "I’m sorry, but I have to ask: Do y’all ever give tours of your place? I’d love to see where you work."
"No, I’m afraid not," he said.
I paused for a minute trying to think if there was a good way to ask for an exception.
"Sorry," he smiled, knowing what I was thinking. "We have to draw the line somewhere. I don’t let my picture be taken. I’m on too many hit lists."
"Yes, we get death threats every week . . . from the Muslims."
"Yeah, we get them, too," I said, thinking of the periodic threats we get at Catholic Answers from various groups, though not Muslims in particular.
"Really?" he said. "I wouldn’t have thought you would." This would be a natural assumption for Chick if he believes his own propaganda about the Catholic Church starting and then later manipulating Islam. "Do you still draw a lot?"
"No, not anymore. These days I’m mostly just a writer."
This seemed to tickle Chick’s fancy.
"Really?" he chuckled at an unstated irony, perhaps thinking of his own evolution from being a writer and illustrator to being principally a writer. "Where do you work?" he asked.
"In San Diego." I realized immediately this probably wasn’t what he was asking. "At Catholic Answers," I said.
Jack laughed uproariously.
"You know of us?" I asked.
" O-o-o-h, yes," he said mirthfully.
Over the years Catholic Answers has conducted a number of campaigns to educate people about the paranoid anti-Catholicism in Chick’s tracts. We have sent out hundreds of thousands of pieces of educational material. No doubt some made their way to Chick’s desk. I thought of telling him that I am the author of the latest special report critiquing his work, but decided it might spoil the moment.
More well-wishers came by, and Chick informed me that his wife would soon arrive and that she would be sitting in the chair between us, where his jacket rested. I was very interested to see what she looked like. By this point, I was considering staying for the movie. Being able to say that I watched the world premier of Jack Chick’s movie sitting next to him and his wife would make it worth staying.
"I figured I’d be approached tonight," Chick confided.
"Really? I didn’t know you were going to be here," I said, unable to think of a way of convincing him that I wasn’t a secret agent sent to "approach" him for some evil purpose.
It was occurring to me that, despite his friendliness, Chick might well be uncomfortable with my presence—especially if he really were the paranoid conspiracy nut he appears to be. He probably was not looking forward to watching the film with a presumed Jesuit agent sitting by his side. Things were quite amicable between us, but it came as little surprise when a final group of people showed up in the aisle and Chick asked politely if I could move so that they could take the seats next to him. One in the group was his wife. Not as young as I had supposed from press accounts, but quite pretty.
"Of course," I said as graciously as I could, and we stood up to part.
"We’re in the war," Chick said. "I’m sure we’ll be hearing from you in the future."
"I’m sure," I said, nodding and smiling warmly. "It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir," I said, extending my hand again. Jack shook it and smiled, and that was the end of our encounter.
On the way out I saw a smartly dressed African-American man walking up the far aisle, and I suspected that he might be Fred Carter. As I approached to find out, a thin, poorly groomed man threw his arms around him and cried, "Fred! I’m so happy to see you!"
When the thin man released him, I walked up and said, "Excuse me, sir. Are you Fred Carter?"
He acknowledged that he was, and I shook his hand, saying "I’m pleased to meet you. I really like your artwork. You have an excellent technique."
He expressed his appreciation, but I wasn’t able to strike up a conversation because the thin man suddenly became interested in me, introduced himself, and started asking about a book on St. Paul that I was carrying. Carter departed for the foyer.
As I drove home, I reflected on my meeting with the king of Fundamentalist kitsch. Chick came across as a kind, gentle old man. He was nothing but polite. He smiled. He laughed. Unlike the characters in his comic books, he didn’t say "Haw! Haw!" when he laughed. From meeting him one would never suspect him to be the most infamous broadcaster of hate and paranoia in the Christian comic book world.
Chick noted that "we’re in the war." The only experiences I could compare meeting him to are strange wartime incidents I’ve read about where soldiers of opposing sides are able to put down their weapons and share a moment of humanity. Like when Yankees and Confederates stopped shooting at each other long enough to trade coffee and tobacco. Or when German and British soldiers climbed out of their World War I foxholes to exchange Christmas greetings.
I wondered what Chick thought of our meeting. Maybe nothing, but maybe his conspiracy-prone mind would cause it to assume larger-than-life proportions. He had read me as a potential Vatican agent making some kind of hostile "approach" to him. Maybe he would think that there was a cancer-causing poison on my palm when we shook hands.
Given Chick’s tendency to sometimes include real people in his comics—even as minor, unnamed characters—he might even record the incident. If you’re ever reading a Chick comic and see a young, bearded Jesuit agent dressed like a cowboy, it’ll probably be me.
I only hope Fred Carter does the art.