It Had to Happen - The Jack T. Chick Documentary

God's Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick

Like my pious aunt often says, nothing starts a weekend off right like the waxy nightlight luminescence of Jack T. Chick's smooth-faced God staring out from your computer monitor, even if drawn by another artist. Feel free to thank me in concealed cash or gift cards.

This is a new film on dvd, and I was kind of shocked to realize that it's apparently the first of its type - considering the long-term ubiquity of Chick's famous giveaway comic tracts, you'd assume that someone would have thought to make a feature-length documentary on the topic before now, but it appears that Kurt Kuersteiner is the first director to put something together. I don't know if the popular rental sites will have it; hell, I just read the press materials and I don't even know of the disc is region coded or not (I doubt it), but it's definitely NTSC, and definitely available for $17.95 (plus $2.00 postage) in the US, through the film's homepage.

Kuersteiner is also the author of a book on the artist, 2004's The Art of Jack T. Chick, to which this film is essentially a companion piece. The book was notable mainly for access; Kuersteiner remains one of few writers to have actually met and interviewed Chick, and his tour of the artist/publisher's facilities offered a unique glimpse into the world-unto-itself that apparently is Chick Publications. There's precious little of that in the film, save for some fleeting shots of tracts flying off the presses. Truthfully, there's little at all in the film that will be new to devout Chick readers, despite its one special coup: an honest-to-God, first-ever sit down chit-chat with famed tract artist Fred Carter.

But mostly it's a 77-minute overview, strolling through the Jack T. basics (biography! conspiracy! controversy!) via talking head interviews with enthusiasts like Robert Fowler (author of 2001's The World of Chick?), Dan Raeburn (who dedicated the second issue of his much-admired comics criticism zine The Imp to Chick), Hal Robins (comics artist and radio show host) and the Rev. Ivan Stang (co-founder of the Church of the SubGenius), all of whom approach the topic with varying levels of fannishness, sarcasm, disgust and smugness. Interspersed are comments by Chick admirers like "Cowboy" Chaplain Dann (a fellow comics tract artist and specialist in witnessing to Native Americans and prisoners) and Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind (founder of the Dinosaur Adventure Land creationist theme park), plus actual Chick-published writers Rebecca Brown and David Daniels.

There's also a pair of long, rescored clips from Syd Garon's & Rodney Asher's excellent 1997 animated adaptation of Chick's Somebody Goofed, and a partial animated version of the quintessential This Was Your Life, but mostly the movie is unadorned talk, framed and paced like a subdued television production. Some of it will be handy or educational talk for those who're more casually interested in Chick, but I can't say the film's construction does much to enhance the experience; the picture's loose, ambling structure and piecemeal coverage of its topics seems to presume that the subject matter's inherent fascination will carry the day.

Luckily, I think there is a lot of inherent fascination in the topic, and the True Believer contingent of the interview subjects has a clarity of voice and purpose that proves compelling - it's little surprise that most of the disc's bonus interview extracts focus on those subjects, letting Hovind elaborate on his distrust toward the federal government (subsequent to the interview he was imprisoned on tax offenses), or allowing Brown describe a literal visit to Heaven, where the dead pets of the devoted wait to speak with their masters like people.

And even the most well-read Chick maniac will enjoy hearing audio recordings of the late(?) John Todd, whose inside scoop on the Illuminati's conspiracy of witchcraft informed several comics prior to his incarceration on sex offenses (although he claimed to have been set up by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond after unveiling his Masonic ties and souring his relationship with Bob Jones University). There's also prime video footage of the infamous Alberto Rivera, whose purported experiences formed the crux of Chick's Roman Catholic-based conspiracy masterplan as presented in his and Carter's comic book series The Crusaders. Rivera's widow Nury is interviewed, and she and Daniels (himself an inspiration for the newest Crusaders issue, on the topic of Mormons) suggest historical precedent for these seemingly wild claims, like the machinations of fascism, or the empire-caliber abuses of the Catholic Church throughout history - I doubt it'll win many fresh converts, but it does suggest a grounding for such inclinations.

The Fred Carter interview, meanwhile, is very short, perhaps out of necessity - he seems nervous on camera, and speaks rather softly (and I might as well point back to my last Chick post and confirm that no, the religious guy in Oops! is not a self-portrait). But while he also doesn't say anything that determined Chick scholars couldn't at least guess, it's nice to hear him talk of first discovering Chick, another artist interested in overtly Christian comics. He's gently self-depreciating about his art, as shy alternative cartoonists tend to be, and generally comes off as a sweet guy.

For what it's worth, Chick himself doesn't appear on camera (of course), although his voice is heard in vintage audio tapes - it'll only play into his mystique, I'm sure. But while there's little revelation to be witnessed in this film, I do think it ably illustrates how Jack T. Chick is not a solo act, in terms of either production or belief. He is part of a society -- several, actually -- that supports and inspires him, and affects his beliefs. At its best, Kuersteiner's film magnifies these threads that are the stuff of Chick's accomplishment, suggesting that even men who claim the touch of the divine are weathered by this Earth, and that even iconic, unknown artists are prone to influence and human inspiration. But then, isn't it among Chick's messages too that we are all, totally, mortal?