Bob Fowler's new book scares people. But that's to be expected, says Fowler, author of The World of Chick?, the definitive guide to the comics of fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick.
"Some people just think I'm a religious nut," says the San Leandro writer, who is also a computer programmer and professional singer. "I have to convince them that this stuff is hilarious."
For nearly forty years, Chick's pocket-size comic books -- expertly drawn sagas of rock 'n' rollers, pot smokers, and other sinners burning in hell -- have been distributed free in public restrooms, bus stations, and everyplace else where people might make major spiritual decisions. A former actor and WWII vet who claims to have found his calling shortly after the war while listening to a radio broadcast of Charles E. Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour, Southern California-based Chick heads a virtual empire. Translated into languages from Afrikaans to Luxembourgian to Zulu, hundreds of millions of his tracts have been scattered by the anonymous faithful.
Rather than dismiss the tracts as propaganda, Fowler prefers to view them as a unique form of underground comic.
"Chick would never market them that way, but in terms of content and format," that's what they are, he says. "Underground comics are comics without compromise, made for the cartoonist."
Even in the already eclectic world of underground comics, collecting Chick tracts is a bit bizarre. Their controversial subject matter tackles everything from the sinister history-shaping mechanisms of the Vatican to the diabolical origins of Dungeons & Dragons, but all share the same underlying theme: Accept Jesus, they say, or burn for eternity.
Not even Chick would dispute that characterization of his work, says Fowler. Chick's fanatical brand of Christianity even offends many Christians, and critics have called him hateful, sexist, and homophobic.
"People either love him or hate him," says Fowler, who as a former yoga instructor who has dabbled in astrology seems an unlikely fan of Chick's fire-and-brimstone fare. He discovered Chick as a college student at Harvey Mudd University in Claremont. Chick Publications is based in nearby Chino, and Fowler found the comics littered on sidewalks and post office counters around his neighborhood. Their detailed artwork and unflinchingly fundamentalist dogma set them worlds apart from anything he'd ever seen.
"One thing you can't say about Jack is that he's spiritually weak. Jack knows he offends people. He knows living a righteous life won't be easy, and he's taken that statement to heart. I don't want to ridicule Chick, but I don't buy into him. One thing I will say is that his image of God is just stupid."
In Chick's comics, the deity always appears faceless, perched on a throne, meting out judgment.
Researched intensively over many years and packed with encyclopedic detail, Fowler's book chronicles every appearance of the faceless God, as well as plenty of other favorite "Chickisms," from demons laughing a hearty "Haw haw" after perpetrating some mischief to the classically nervous, sweating, blasphemous bald men who populate Chick's universe.
"I only catalogued the first appearance of a bald man in each comic because there were just too many to list. I could just imagine Jack's avenging angel over me, saying 'You forgot the other bald men! Good, that'll keep you busy for another two months.'"
Fowler had originally planned to just write the history of the world according to Chick, from creation to apocalypse, and all the paranoia in between -- but the project quickly grew to incorporate other aspects of Chick's work. Fowler covers world history in one chapter while others are devoted to cataloguing the comics and unraveling their author's philosophy.
"Jack thinks it's sinful to even think that the world can solve its problems by itself. It sounds like a crappy attitude to me. Whenever you think, 'Maybe we can improve things,' there's Chick's pissy-ass little God saying, 'No! No! It's not going to work!'"
Even so, Fowler can't help but admire his controversial subject. "Even if you don't go along with Chick's philosophy, you have to respect the commitment," he writes.
We may never know whether the feeling is mutual, as the secretive Chick rarely speaks in public and has a policy of refusing all interviews.
Fowler thinks of Chick tracts, like all underground comics, as an authentic slice of Americana. When Chick claimed on his Web site that his tracts were in the Smithsonian "as an integral part of US culture," Fowler called the museum to check. Although the comics were not on display, they are definitely in the collection. Fowler sent the museum a copy of his book.
"If they ever do a Chick display, my book will be right alongside," Fowler says. "Wherever Chick goes, Bob will be there."
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