Jack T. Chick’s cartoon gospel tracts offer some of the most interesting reading you’re likely to have thrown through the open window of your parked car. The tracts aren’t generally sold in stores; they’re distributed by an all-volunteer army of born-again Christians, and throwing them through car windows is one of the recommended means of distribution. Though Jack T. Chick prefers that his followers give the tracts out by hand, he has a multitude of suggestions for those who are too shy to “witness” in person: leave tracts “in empty coat pockets at clothing stores,” “between cans on grocery shelves,” hidden in phone booths and library books, in laundromats and restrooms. I’ve generally found them lying on the ground, scuffed and trampled, presumably thrown there by someone less than thrilled to find a tract hidden away in a strange place, waiting for them and their sins like some kind of unexploded gospel bomb.

Chick tracts are hard to escape. Nearly everyone I know has seen them at some point in their life, and before I decided to take the plunge and order a sample pack from the publishers I had been running across them every few months or so, to my great delight. (As a child, Chick’s “The Beast,” outlining the coming of Armageddon, made quite an impact on me.) The format is simple enough. The tracts are miniature cartoon booklets (3″ by 5″), with intriguing, sometimes sensational, titles which only rarely hint at the religious content within: “The Mad Machine,” “How to Get Rich,” “Tiny Shoes,” “Miss Universe,” “The Terminator?”, “Burn Baby Burn.” Chick, a former commercial cartoonist, began publishing these cartoon booklets in the early 1970s; he now has a stock of 67 different booklets, many of them translated into dozens of languages–from Arabic to Afrikaans, from Ukrainian to Zulu. (One volunteer distributor in Chicago, according to a letter in Chick’s monthly newspaper Battle Cry, distributes tracts in some 30 languages during his “street ministry” every Saturday; tracts in Tagalog, a language used in the Philippines, are especially popular.) Chick is something of a tract titan; his best selling work–a cartoon representation of Judgement Day called “This was your life”–is said to have sold over 50 million copies, and is available in 52 languages. More serious Chick fans can buy full length Chick books, some of them in cartoon format, taking on manifestations of Satanism as varied as witchcraft, rock ‘n’ roll, and the Masons. The products, especially the tracts, are inexpensive, and orders are returned promptly. Chick tracts, whether we like it or not, are an authentic American institution.

The tracts are based on a simple principle: bait and switch. They’re designed to lure their readers with deceptive titles and innocent looking drawings, before unleashing their “hardhitting” gospel messages. J.T.C.–as Chick calls himself–is not ashamed to mislead his readers as long as it gets them hooked; he’ll try anything to ensure that, as the slogan goes, “Chick Tracts Get Read!” The tracts are so strident, and so outlandish, that it’s not easy for an unbeliever like myself to get through many of them without giggling. J.T.C., though, is deadly serious, and barely aware of his own hysterical absurdity. At the end of one particularly loopy advertisement for Christ, J.T.C. pulls out his trump card: “If you find yourself laughing at this story, think about this: where will you spend eternity? In heaven? Or in the lake of fire?” (The lake of fire shuts up the critics every time.)

The bulk of the tracts, drawn by Chick himself, are gloriously ungraceful, but unique, works of art. Chick has developed an art form all his own, and within its narrow confines he’s a true master. His drawing style alternates between a 1960s “gag” style and a rudimentary realism, a kind of third-rate imitation of Mad Magazine’s Dave Berg; it’s quirky enough to have a surreal charm. (The more professionally drawn tracts, by Chick’s hired guns, are usually something of a disappointment.) There is nothing quite like the world of a Chick tract: characters appear and disappear in the stories without a trace, the plotlines are filled with strange and illogical twists, the stories switch with startling haste from seemingly secular melodramas into hysterical warnings against eternal damnation. No one in this world–or, I would imagine, in any world–has ever acted, or talked, or thought, like any character in a Chick tract. Of course, that’s part of their appeal: J.T.C. really believes that the world works like the stories in his tracts. He’s sincere, and his own peculiar brand of loopy fanaticism has an odd, and compelling, integrity. Chick tracts, for better or worse, do get read. After ordering my first batch, I was hooked; I’ve been ordering again and again, and giving them away to my friends like party favors.

Part of the charm (at least for us unbelievers) comes from Chick’s simple ineptitude. Though he’s been producing tracts for decades he remains a true naif. His language is as awkward as his art, and the logic of his arguments are as twisted as his contorted plots. Most endearingly, the tracts are rife with bizarre anachronisms–much of the stock is left over from Chick’s early years, and these early tracts feature long-haired, bell-bottomed youths railing against the “establishment.” But even the newer tracts seem caught in a kind of time warp. A 1992 tract warning against the Satanist conspiracy of safe-sex is illustrated by a 1970’s-era Steve Martin wannabe on the cover, with an arrow through his head (the tract is called, appropriately enough, “That Crazy Guy”); when the main character, an innocent young girl led off the straight and narrow path by a handsome stranger, finds out that she has AIDS, all she can say is: “Wow! That’s heavy!”

Jack T.Chick is not a subtle preacher; he believes in what we might call a Gospel of Horror. Few of the tracts have happy endings, and a startling number end with horrible (and eternal) vacations at the “lake of fire.” In “Somebody Goofed,” one of Chick’s first tracts, a young boy dies in a car accident after trying to outrace an oncoming train. (“I don’t think I should.” “Go ahead! You can make it! “YAAAAAA!”) To his great surprise, he finds himself in Hell. Turning in anger to his older companion, who had assured him that the notion of hell was a simple superstition, the boy shouts out: “You were wrong! YOU GOOFED!” His friend begins pulling at his face; it’s a mask, and underneath he’s really…well, you guessed it, Satan. He tells the boy with glee: “No, little buddy. I wasn’t wrong! YOU WERE WRONG! You didn’t accept Jesus Christ as your own Lord and personal savior!” As this point, presumably, the innocent reader is expected to let out a blood-curdling YAAAAAA! of his own, and to come to Jesus at once, trembling and terrified.

Though he purports to be in the tract business for purely altruistic reasons–to save souls–Chick takes an obvious, barely-disguised pleasure in the tribulations of the unsaved. In one booklet, Chick takes a detour (for no apparent reason) to tell the “true story” of one unbeliever who borrowed thousands of dollars from a Christian, fully intending never to repay the debt. “3 weeks later,” Chick reports, “that man and his girl friend plunged to Christless grave.” The story is illustrated by a car going over a cliff (a favorite Chick motif); the unfortunate riders cry out “YAAAAAA!” as they tumble to their death–and eternal torment to boot. As much as I hate to admit it, this fearmongering probably works. All my friends who came across Chick tracts when they were young remember being scared to death by them; I was certainly frightened by my first exposure to “the Beast.”

The basic formula of the Chick tract is as simple as can be: Sinner is offered salvation, sinner rejects salvation, sinner fries in Lake of Fire. (Alternately, if the sinner accepts the gospel according to Chick, he or she rules forever with Jesus, and Jack T. Chick, in heaven.) But within the confines of his tiny tracts, J.T.C. plays out endless, and often strikingly original, variations on his basic themes. The main point of the tracts, after all, is to reach the unwashed, unsaved millions, and so J.T.C. custom-designs his tracts to reach every imaginable audience.

Chick takes a special pride in being able to reach the most hardened, testosterone-loaded transgressors out there in the wicked world, to go mano a mano with the roughest sinners. The tract “The Sissy?” (“Great for truck drivers and bikers”) attempts to prove that Jesus Christ was the original macho man. Duke, an unkempt, ungainly trucker, with hair sprouting from every exposed patch of his flabby flesh, is convinced that Jesus was a sissy. He’s taken to task by a smooth-talking Christian trucker (whose stong-but-sensitive features contain equal parts Clint Eastwood and Elvis), who assures him that Jesus suffered like a he-man to atone for all our sins: “You see, Duke, He was beaten to a pulp for you! That’s how much he loved you!” Duke is convinced; driving off the next day with his little buddy Billy Joe, he bursts out, in a kind of manly awe, “Jesus had more guts than any man that ever lived…and I love him for that.” (J.T.C. is as impressed as Duke with Jesus’ stolid suffering, offering in one full-length comic book a “medical view of the crucifixion” emphasizing the blood and gore of the lamb.) In another highly virile tract, “The Bull,” an ugly, ultra-macho convict (so feared by guards and the other prisoners that he virtually runs the high-security prison in which he’s incarcerated) is won over to Jesus by a Chick tract left in his cell. (“Somebody bring me a Bible and that #$%! chaplain!” he bellows through the bars.) Soon the once-terrifying Bull is winning souls for Christ; calling the prisoners together for a mass meeting he announces his conversion: “I’m madder than I’ve ever been in my life!” he shouts. “I hate sin and I won’t put up with it any more! As of right now, the killing stops! There will be no more raping, because I just found out that God hates sodomy!”

Is this Christianity, one is tempted to ask, or conspiracy theory? Like all great paranoids, J.T.C. has a varied, and highly peculiar, set of obsessions; in his mind, just about everything is connected to the great Satanic conspiracy. In “The Attack,” J.T.C. slams all translations of the Bible except the old King James version as, quite literally, works of the devil. Other tracts link Masonry to Baal-worship, and declare both Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons to be tools of the devil himself. In yet another tract, we learn that television–the “boob tube”–is “probably Satan’s greatest weapon.” In Chick’s world, the wily old devil is hard to escape: “Satan’s spider web covers the whole world…very few escape from him.” Chick searches out Satan like a pig sniffing for truffles.

Few Satanist conspiracies, of course, have quite the power of good old Rock ‘n’ Roll. But while most anti-rock Christian crusaders are content to sift through the lyrics (forwards or backwards) of the most evil-sounding bands in search of the footprints of Satan, J.T.C. sees in all rock ‘n’ roll (from Megadeth to Menuedo) the outlines of a conspiracy so immense that it may boggle the merely secular mind. In “Spellbound,” a full-size “Crusader” comic, J.T.C. exposes the devilish origins of rock; the comic book, from the seventies, is proudly illustrated with eight-track tapes. Rock, in Chick’s view, originated not with Elvis but with Druid priests in the dark forests of medieval Scotland. Up until now I had thought the only contribution the Scots had made to the world of rock ‘n’ roll was the late, lamentable Bay City Rollers. But no: “The same beat the Druids used is in the rock music of today,” Lance (a reformed Druid himself) tells his Christian pals. “Let me tell you, gentlemen, the Beatles opened up a Pandora’s box when they hit the United States with their druid/rock beat in the 1960s.” According to J.T.C., basing his report on secret inside sources, the whole music production process even today is controlled by a secret organization of Druids. Witches write the lyrics to the songs, which are based on old Druid melodies; the final songs are “blessed” by witches and demons in secret Satanic ceremonies.

In the world according to Chick, even Christian Rock is the work of the devil. In “The Angels,” a fledgling Christian rock group struggles from one ill-paying Church gig to the next, until they meet up with a mysterious new manager named Mr. Siffer (“You can call me Lew”) who boosts them to fortune and fame after they sign away their souls to his secret worldwide organization, “Killer Rock.” As Mr. Siffer explains to his more-than-willing-slaves: “My heavy metal has turned millions into rock-a-holics…This music removes love, and ushers in lawlessness worldwide. We in the occult control it all….” With Siffer’s generous help, the band’s songs quickly climb the charts; teenagers can’t get enough of “Rock with the Rock” (sample lyric: “We’re gonna Rock Rock Rock/Rock with the Rock”). Of course, when you’re managed by Satan, things can’t always go right, and the new stars degenerate into drugs, perversion, and even (yow!) vampirism. Luckily, a young Christian crusader stuffs a tract into the jacket of the group’s guitarist; the guitarist exposes Lew Siffer as, well, Lucifer, and rock itself as a “powerful demonic force controlled by Satan.”

Chick has a thing about the Druids. Several tracts warn against the dangers of Halloween; the apparently innocent custom of “trick or treat” is itself a sinister relic of Druidic ceremonies, and even today Satanist conspiracies use the holiday as an excuse for HUMAN SACRIFICE! (Wow! That’s heavy!) In “Boo,” a group of suburban Satanists load their trick or treat candies with drugs and razorblades. Eight-year old Johnny Dexter dies of a drug overdose; his last word, appropriately enough, is “YAAAAAAHHH!” Months later, the neighbors learn the dark truth behind little Johnny’s death. “The children who are mutilated and murdered every Halloween are no accident,” born-again Becky tells them solemnly. “They are carefully planned sacrifices to Satan, carried out by those who serve and worship him.” Her audience reels in horror: “Are you saying little Susie and Jerry are under Satan’s influence?” The answer, of course, is yes–J.T.C. can be pretty predictable–but the story has a happy ending: Becky leads the children to Christ before they are swallowed up by juvenile delinquency and the forces of Evil. (Now that’s a real treat!)

So long as J.T.C. sticks to his own peculiar obsessions, it’s hard to resist his loopy charm. The trouble is that he goes further than this, treading along the well-worn paths of self-appointed saviors in the past who turned their conception of God’s love into an excuse to hate. J.T.C is utterly obsessed with Catholicism, and that’s putting it mildly. He’s convinced that the pope is the Antichrist and that, in these Last Days, the Vatican (controlled by Satan) virtually rules the world. A number of the tracts take on Catholicism with a stunning viciousness. In “The Death Cookie”–one of his stranger tracts, and that’s saying a lot–J.T.C. denounces the Catholic Eucharist (“the wafer god”) as “the greatest religious con job in history.” The more subtle “Why is Mary Crying?” denounces Catholicism’s focus on the Virgin Mary as a misguided, if not actually evil, form of idol-worship. But Chick’s anti-Catholicism goes well beyond a few tracts. The Chick catalog offers no less than 12 full-length books purporting to show that the Catholic Church is “really the Whore of Revelation 17.” The books, with titles ranging from “Babylon Mystery Religion” to “Convert or Die!” run through a litany of lurid charges, all designed to prove that the Vatican is a “wealthy, global political organization that teaches a gospel contrary to the scriptures!” A six-part comic book series, based on the testimony of Alberto Rivera (purportedly a former Jesuit priest), details how the Vatican leaders are really modern-day “Godfathers.” (There are shades here of the tactics of the 1920s-era Ku Klux Klan, which sent its female members on anti-Catholic speaking tours disguised as “escaped nuns.”) According to Chick, the “Jesuit order seeks to dominate the world economy through [its] front organizations”–the Illuminati, the Mafia, the Masons, the New Agers, and, of course, the International Bankers. (What would a conspiracy theory be without the International Bankers?)

It’s despicable–and yet, in the hands of Jack T. Chick, even the most vicious bigotry takes on a certain perverse charm; he’s the Howard Stern of evangelicism, at once endearing and utterly vile. I’m repelled by Chick’s fanaticism, his bigotry, the sadistic pleasure he takes in the torments of the unsaved; but at the same time I cannot help but be fascinated by the sheer artistry of his obsessions. Even now, in the dark of the night, poring over “Doom Town”, or “The Only Hope,” I sometimes wonder: what if Jack T. Chick is right? It’s a frightening thought, to say the least. If this oddball paranoid is on the same wavelength as the Almighty, all I can say is: YAAAAAAAAAAHH!