Chickstrobution: Proliferating a Message in Images

Jack Chick arouses a great deal of hate. Rightfully, of course, because of the content of his work and the evangelical community whose views he reflected and frequently exacerbated, result in some of the most authentically hateful and malicious content seen in the comic book format. He was a shock-jock before the advent of shock-jocks. A conspiracy theorist, a fact-denier, and truth-constructor, he had a massive platform built on an empire of right-wing evangelicals, sponsored and promoted by the likes of Billy Graham, Joel Olsten, and Oral Roberts. He was a bigot and a religious zealot. This is all to say that the content of his work is well-placed within the category of “hate literature” that made the lives of many residents of the American South, myself included, undeniably more difficult than it would have been had his comics never existed. Unfortunately, I have a great deal of interest in his project, specifically with regard to the distribution network that he controlled and the method of distribution that made his comics so popularly known and so infrequently read. 

This is Chick-stro-bution. When you enter the Chick Tracts website, you are given the option to purchase a “sampler” of the most popular tracts. For $8.45 plus tax and shipping, you can get fifty of these comics and you are also able to order them in multiples. If you select an individual tract in English, you are prompted to choose how many you would like in singles ($.018), packs (25 tracts for $4.25), or cases (1,000 tracts for $105.00). They are available in many different languages and are always available to be read, in full, online before you purchase. The testimonial at the bottom of the website reads “These gospel cartoon tracts are available in over 100 languages and are very popular, with over 900 million sold”. They operate, explicitly, in quantity.  Moreover, the basic assumption is that you order these comics in order to give them out for free. The average individual consuming Chick Tracts in good faith is, most likely, a fellow evangelist using these as a tool to attract converts to a specific brand of Christianity that aligns with the Chick message. Just as well, one could argue that the importance of Chick Tracts pertains to the history of American evangelical Christianity rather than the shape of the American comics industry. 

Nonetheless, I believe that the distribution network of Chick Tracts places them in an interesting conversation with the distribution of popular American comics. While the latter is based on a scarcity model, the former is based on oversaturation to the point of disposability. In my life I have seen more Chick Tracts in the trash, discarded on the side of the road, soggy with rain, or otherwise completely destroyed in public view than I have seen Tracts being actively read. They are virtually worth nothing. They are continuously reprinted and have almost zero resale value. They are meant to be thrown away, given away, or, in some manner, displaced from your possession to be consumed by another person. As it says on the Chick website, “Chick Tracts Get Read!” By contrast, the aftermarket for comic book publications is its own small-time industry. There are graders, showcases, and ebay listings with products expensive enough to fund a downpayment on a house. This is true of the alternative comics aftermarket as well, albeit for different reasons; small publishers frequently go under, individual creators don’t have the money to fund endless reprints, and the direct market does little to promote or distribute titles outside of the mainstream. What I see, however, are two fundamentally different approaches to the comic book as an object that have been gradually formed by the material conditions of an industry that considers the third party aftermarket a necessary aspect of its existence. 

The Chick model is based exclusively on content and readership, while the normative model hedges its bets on the concept of the artifactual object that is valorized in the implementation of “rarity”.The comic book as a collector’s item has notable successes and notable failures, but, regardless of the financial swings to-and-fro, the practice of collecting comics has been established culturally. It is, afterall, “cool” to have a collection of “rare” comics. But rarity pigeon-holes the comic book. It creates a system under which comics, in single issue form, are required to be purchased at specialty retailers and purchased at specific times “while supplies last” as opposed to Chick’s comics which are widely available for extremely cheap. As a culture product, the model of disposability does, by its nature, attract more readership. It spreads, as Chick well knew, the message. Instead of purchase and hoard, Chick Tracts prompt the consumer to purchase and share: to spread. This is buttressed by Chick’s project of Evangelical Christianity, but It is somewhat ironic that he happened to construct a model of distribution that is, essentially, more communal than the hoarding impetus prompted by the common American comic book. 

Where I see this spirit most commonly enacted is in the sphere of webcomics, daily comics, Instagram comics, or comics otherwise posted on the internet bound for almost certain obscurity. In the spirit of disposability, there exists radical freedom. Furthermore, the polemical instinct of Chick is linked to the disposability of his work and this, too, is true of internet comic creators. In order to draw attention and to be read, these comics practitioners need to be particularly incisive, particularly loud, and particularly flagrant in their aesthetic sensibilities and claims. The ironic, the grotesque, and the easy-to-consume are the easiest to follow and the most likely to attract a following — all without the security of a physical product to exchange. This is not, however, to say that hate literature a la Jack Chick should be recreated or an object of admiration. Plainly: it shouldn’t be. There’s no space for that here. 

To me the history of comics is the history of distribution: how it has changed and how the models of distribution create a value relationship between the reader and the comic they are reading. It would be possible to make a historical statement on the nature of the Direct Market, the rarification of each individual book, the reality of instantiating each and every consumer into an “archivist”, and the class divide that constructs between those “with rare comic books” and those who “can’t afford rare comic books”, but I’m not qualified to do that. I do, however, think it is obvious that the creation of an industry that prides itself on limited-time, limited-run artifacts is doing its consumers no favors. And while Jack Chick was a vitriolic racist, the model of distribution of Chick Publications displays a possible scenario in which things are meant to be shared when they are purchased and that the content, itself, is the object of inquiry rather than the elevation of that content into an artifact for resale. Readership, and the relationships formed through readership, should be the goal. In utopia we’ll see comic books in the trash. 

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