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God's Cartoonist - The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick

At some point, you've almost certainly come across a little three-by-five inch mini-comic book that tells the story of someone who sinned and went to Hell – and what you can do to avoid the eternal flames of damnation. You may have found this comic in a restroom of your local movie theater, or at the airport, or in a bookstore; or it may have been handed to you by a religious proselytizer you encountered on the street. And even though these religious tracts come from all sorts of publishers, of all denominations, the ones you remember the most are the ones by "J.T.C." – none other than Jack T. Chick. Yes, you've come across Chick tracts at some time in your life, and most likely you laughed at their primitive message, beating you over the head with the message that YOU ARE GOING TO HELL unless you repent, right there on the spot, and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. And chances are, you threw it out and forgot about it.

But Kurt Kuersteiner didn't throw these pamphlets out. A Florida resident who's spent the better part of the past two decades engaging in religious parody, he found himself fascinated with the quality of this disposable, often-forgotten corner of pop culture. He became one of a small but growing number of collectors of Jack Chick artwork, and in 2004 he published the definitive book on Chick tracts, The Unofficial Guide to the Art of Jack T. Chick. But he didn't stop there. In the years since the publication of his book, Kuersteiner took the time to track down several notable names in the world of Chick tracts – both supporters and critics – and interview them to get a closer look at the man responsible for those hate-ridden little comics. The result is a fast-paced and informative documentary that's probably the closest look we'll ever have at Jack Chick and his ministry. (And yes, it is a ministry – despite the virulently hateful reaction Chick's pamphlets get from average readers, he's still going out of his way to preach what he believes to be the Word of the Lord to his readers.)

Kuersteiner wasn't able to film an interview with Jack Chick himself; the man is notoriously reclusive, and the only know photos of him that exist are over fifty years old. But God's Cartoonist does begin with shots of the printing presses at Chick's own publishing house, Chick Publications; and after we get some crudely animated shots of scenes from his comics, we're treated to interviews with several persons who have interacted with Jack Chick himself, as well as a few of those who've followed his works and taken the time to criticize their message while simultaneously praising their worth as comic book art. Rather than casting Chick as a villain or a saint, Kuersteiner instead chooses to let his subjects tell their stories from their own point of view, and allow the audience to make up its own mind and decide if Chick is a villain or saint; or maybe he's just a person who's dedicated his life to getting his version of the truth out, despite what his detractors and critics may say.

What the film is missing, however, is an examination of the Chick tract phenomenon itself. It's taken for granted that Chick tracts have been distributed worldwide; at one point, Hal Robins mentions that Chick Publications has surpassed one billion tracts printed, and even the end credits mention how the movie's producers came across Chick tracts in random places as they were putting the film together. You'd think there would be a rich mother lode of stories to be told from people who found Chick tracts in remote locations, at their local churches, in phone booths, in porno theaters; not to mention the stories of how these tracts have affected and infuriated people who live in California, Alaska, Europe, Africa, Indonesia…but Kuersteiner doesn't explore this in depth. (He may not have had the budget to travel and tape interviews with people across the country who've found Chick tracts.) Instead, he concentrates on exploring the artistic worth of the tracts themselves, letting several of Chick's companions tell their stories about how they came to work with him. Kuersteiner uses the documentary style of "point the camera and let your subject do all the talking," remaining unobtrusive and not inserting any flashy camera tricks himself (except for the occasional animation of several Chick tracts at the beginning and end of the film). He doesn't even mention his own name until he lists himself as the director during the final credits, though he does note that this movie was "inspired by" his own book on Chick's tracts.

If God's Cartoonist is to be believed, then Jack Chick himself is simply a man who struck upon the idea of using comic books to deliver the message he wanted to give – namely, that we were all sinners doomed to Hell, unless we repent and accept Christ right away. The essence of Chick's message is spelled out in one of the earliest Chick tracts, "This Was Your Life!" which went on to become the most popular and most republished tract of all time. In fact, Chick's message originally was no more than that: we're all sinners, point blank, and we're all going to Hell for it. The first decade or so of Chick tracts merely spelled out the same basic message, over and over. But Chick tracts reached their zenith in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, when newcomers came to Chick Publications and began to influence Chick himself…and the result of this was the birth of a newer generation of Chick tracts, many of which prompted knee-jerk reactions from their readers that were as hateful and violent as the message of the comics themselves. Chick tracts today are infamous for promoting a twisted version of Christianity, rife with conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, and other pagan faiths including Islam, Judaism, and "witchcraft" (which Chick never refers to as "Wicca").

Three of the most prominent religious nutcases to work with Chick are mentioned here, including John Todd (who was the source for most of the Illuminati/New World Order conspiracies we see in Chick tracts), Alberto Rivera (he brought the idea that a vast Roman Catholic conspiracy, headed by the Pope, is secretly ruling the world and bringing most so-called Christians into the folds of Satanism), and Rebecca Brown (whose books she produced with Chick gave her a career as an anti-witchcraft crusader). These are the folks whose work we're often laughing at when we read about the evils of Halloween and Dungeons & Dragons, the Roman Catholic Church's ties to the Devil, the evils of Judaism, and other half-baked rants that thrive in the panels of Chick's tracts.

Kuersteiner gives plenty of time to interviewing Robert Fowler, who wrote the first actual biography of Chick, and Fowler paints a picture of a reclusive man who just wanted to get his word out. We also get to see Chick supporters give their own opinions of the tracts, including a couple of persons who've worked at Chick Publications directly. Fred Carter, who brought a genuine artistic style to Chick's tracts and drew many of the more lavishly illustrated comics, is profiled; he's the person who drew the full-sized Chick comic books of the late 1980s, as well as launching the Bible-themed Crusader Comics line. We're also treated to interviews with televangelist Richard F. Lee, who loves Chick tracts and makes them available to his followers, as well as famous Creationist kook Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind and David Daniels, who still works with Chick Publications. On the other hand, we also see the point of view of several figures from the underground comics scene, who give praise to Chick for his perseverance and the artistic effort of creating his tracts…though these characters don't hold back their scorn when it comes to the laughable message of the tracts themselves. Entertainer and Chick tract collector Hal Robins notes that Chick's success as an underground publisher is one that makes many other comic creators envious, especially since all of his tracts are variations on the same message, right down to the checklist on how to be saved that is included at the end of every tract. There's even a few minutes with Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius, who notes that Chick tracts were a heavy influence on his own efforts to bring his own message to the masses. (Stang also notes that John Todd is now serving a prison sentence, having been set up by the Illuminati to stop him from exposing the truth about their insidious plans.)

If Kuersteiner contacted or interviewed anyone who was of the opinion that Chick tracts are simply worthless due to their hateful message, he doesn't mention them in this film. He does touch on the controversial aspect of Chick tracts, noting how many Catholic and Christian bookstores were banned from making the more offensive tracts available; and Dan Raeburn (publisher of The Imp) expresses his distaste at the more vile, cold-hearted, and sadistic comics from Chick that suggest that anyone at all can be saved if they repent, immediately. Among the examples he provides of this is a Chick tract entitled "Lisa," which features a young girl being sexually molested by her father. At the end of this comic, her father repents and accepts Jesus, his sins are forgiven, and even his daughter forgives him for the horrible crimes he committed against her. Chick's stance of ultimate salvation for everyone who "repents" may sound good at first, but tracts like this one are likely to make all but the most hard-hearted Christian fanatics start screaming for Chick's blood. Indeed, Kuersteiner even notes that a number of countries have banned Chick tracts outright, including "our neighbor to the north, Canada."

So, why make a documentary like God's Cartoonist? Aside from bringing his own book The Art of Jack. T. Chick to life, Kuersteiner is making the good old-fashioned argument for freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Jack Chick wants to make sure we're all saved by repenting…though, at the same time, he's also enjoying himself by describing and illustrating the torments we'll all face if and when we are cast out of God's presence into the lake of fire. This, naturally, has upset a lot of folks, and it's made Chick tracts a prime source for parody and derision over years. But this hasn't stopped Chick from publishing what he wants, and this is what Kuersteiner admires more than anything. He doesn't care that he's considered a buffoon, or a purveyor of hate; he just wants you to read his message. He's not in it for the money, which is something that can't be said about a lot of other religious proselytizers out there. It makes for an interesting tale, and it shines the light of truth on someone who has kept his identity hidden, even as he tries to shine that same light (filtered through his own lens) on the rest of us. And to his credit, he didn't try to stop Kuersteiner from making this movie. So why not watch and learn something?

If Chick's story interests you, you can see the trailer for God's Cartoonist on YouTube at this URL: Be sure to post a comment there giving your story – or even post a video reply. You can help document the Chick tract phenomenon by telling your story of how you came across Jack Chick's underground art. With over a billion Chick tracts distributed around the world over the years, there are certainly some stories about people's encounters with Chick tracts that deserve to be told…and if anyone deserves to read and hear these stories, it's the person who took the time to put Jack Chick's story onto film and make it known to you.

(Early on in God's Cartoonist, one of the interviewees mentions off-handedly how Chick's tracts have spawned many parodies from detractors, who engage in the sincerest form of flattery while knowing that Chick isn't likely to take action to enforce his copyrights. However, despite this claim (and not mentioned in God's Cartoonist), there have been a few people who've incurred the wrath of Jack Chick. A friend of mine who goes by the online name "Psycho Dave" discovered this when he hosted an online archive of Chick tract parodies (which you can see for yourself at ). Not only did he inspire Chick Publications to contact him and request that he remove his Chick tract parodies from the Web, they actually took the time to track him down at his place of employment and call him there. I have no reason to believe that he lied about this; why lie when the truth is far stranger?)