When I was a child I was brought up as a Lutheran. My father was Irish, and had been put through a Catholic grade school which I gather he really hated. He became an atheist, but he didn’t really talk to me about it. My mother, brother, and maternal grandmother were Lutherans, and so I went along with their program by default. This was the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so the Sunday school programs were rather liberal. Most of what we did involved studying various workbooks, and not so much reading the Bible itself. As an adult I actually regret this, as when I encounter allusions to the Bible in art or literature, I usually have to go look it up to understand what’s going on!
Sometime in the summer of 1976 or 1977 I went to the county fair and encountered a Christian booth that was giving away Jack T. Chick tracts. I was immediately taken by what I was seeing. I hadn’t really read comic books as a child, with the exception of MAD magazine, which is not really a comic book anyway. I probably read Archie or Richie Rich a handful of times.
Chick’s version of Christianity was vastly more hardcore than the mild-mannered Lutheran religion that I had been exposed to. Yet it was so much more emotionally compelling than what I was exposed to in Sunday school that I read every Jack T. Chick tract I could get my hands on! At one point I think I mail ordered a huge compilation pack that included most or all of the issues that were in print at the time.
One tract in particular stuck out: Big Daddy. This was a rather infamous creationist manifesto, a direct and ruthless attack on the theory of evolution by natural selection. My religious thinking was beginning to come to a head with me sometime in about my junior year of high school. I remember taking a biology class that included a section on evolution, and the instructor had to spend the first part of the class simply addressing the negative creationist feedback he had received over the years.
But several things were in my favor, as far as the search for the truth goes. One was that the biology class set things out in an orderly progression, where one piece of evidence logically flowed to another piece of evidence. In contrast, Chick’s manifesto was a scattershot hodge-podge of criticisms, not a logically coherent theory.
I remember having a sort of teenage epiphany walking home to lunch one day with my friend John. I was talking about evolution and the biology class. John had known me since early grade school and was rather shocked to hear me express doubts about evolution.
“Matt, you’re a scientific kind of guy, what are you doing believing in all this creationist nonsense?’
Indeed, one of the saving graces of this period was that I had discovered the non-fiction books of Isaac Asimov. I don’t know what essay it was, but I had a genuine epiphany when I discovered Asimov’s treatment of the second law of thermodynamics. Asimov pointed out the great flaw in the creationist’s argument regarding the second law; the earth is not a closed system, and the second law only applies to closed systems. At this point I knew that Chick was full of shit, but the implications were deeper still, and this is why this episode rose to the level of epiphany for me.
The family I grew up in never “joshed” each other, or “told stories” or even “pulled your leg.” If this sounds rather emotionally rigid, you would be right. Obviously my friends didn’t adhere to this same kind of standard, and I believe the development of my “bullshit detector” was rather stunted. Even as an adult, I look back with sadness at how many times people have lied to me and gotten away with it, at least for a time. Again, I’m talking about the intuitive level, not the above board critical thinking level. I believe that critical thinking is like typing, it’s not a skill that one is naturally born with, it’s something you have to work at and develop.
So believe it or not, having a huge emotional infatuation with the tracts of Jack T. Chick then realizing that he was totally full of shit about evolution, made a huge impact on me. How could there be people in this world who spent their entire lives spouting nonsense and lies? How could there be people in this world who wouldn’t change their beliefs when exposed to strong evidence or logical argument?
Obviously the older I got, the more I realized that the world is absolutely chock full of liars, con men, frauds, and bullshiters of every kind!
I became a complete atheist by reading a rather odd pair of books. The first was the Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce’s book was an anthology of biting aphorisms, often quite blasphemous. But one theme that was constant in his book was that there are, and have been, many religions in the history of humankind, each of them believing itself to be the One True Religion. Simple logic dictates that they can’t all be right, and in fact most of them must be wrong because they all contradict each other. This is a simple concept, but it made a big impact on me.
Eventually I read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell. This was the first time I learned that various logical arguments had been proposed for the existence of God. The argument from first cause, the argument from design, etc. Russell systematically demonstrated that all of these arguments are fallacious. Russell’s book was also a valuable exposure to the nature of logic expressed in a linguistic fashion as opposed to the mathematical proofs of geometry that I was familiar with.
So by the time I started college in 1980, Jack T. Chick was an embarrassing episode in my mental development, kind of like admitting you liked some really bad music for a certain time period…
Only recently did I even start thinking about Chick again as a result of becoming interested in “underground” comics in general. I became a fan quite late in the game, largely as a result of Denny Eichhorn giving me a whole set of his Real Stuff comics, and seeing the documentary Crumb. Just a few years ago, Fantagraphics opened a retail store in Georgetown, which is literally just over the hill from where I live. Through Fantagraphics I was reacquainted with Jim Blanchard, an amazing cartoonist and graphic artist in his own right. I had actually met Blanchard in the late 1980’s when I came into a Kinko’s that he was working at. I allowed him to keep some copies of some photographic portraits I brought in. He eventually re-drew and incorporated some of them into his graphic compilations.
During Super Bowl Sunday, 2010, Jim was kind enough to loan me a rare parody-documentary tract called “The Imp” which was a rather scathing criticism of Chick. Unknown to me, during the 1980’s Chick had become associated with other individuals with beliefs just as far-out as his, and he integrated their stories into his own tracts. Blanchard also gave me a copy of a fantastic video documentary on Chick that included interviews with at least two people I was familiar with.
Chick is an enigma; obviously he’s not in the same aesthetic niche as Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, or any other “underground” comic artist. You won’t find his tracts for sale at Fantagraphics, nor even many Christian bookstores. According to the documentary, Canada considers Chick’s comics “Hate Literature!”
I’m sure I’m not alone in being one of those people who was affected in some weird and possibly profound way by Jack T. Chick. I think I’ll start asking people for their own stories…