The Hidden Twinship of Jack Chick and Flannery O'Connor

Jack Chick, founder of Chick Publications, is a shadowy figure, practically the Keyser Söze of evangelists.

It is not known whether he raises peacocks or suffers from lupus. Personally, I hope he doesn't, but not because I'm afraid that chronic illness or an absorbing hobby will stop him turning out more masterpieces like "This Was Your Life."I just pray that something, anything, distinguishes him from Flannery O'Connor before the two merge, in the general imagination, like Chesterton and Belloc. The Chickonnor? God save us.

Winch your jaw back into place, reader, while I explain. Chick Tracts—those twenty-page pen-and-ink salvation dramas handed out by evangelists on street corners everywhere—have already drawn their share of bad press. Catholics and Hindus have cried bigotry. Gamer geeks, ahead of the curve as usual, have vitiated "Dark Dungeons,"Chick's jeremiad against D & D, by adopting it as a camp classic. Spittle in the wind. Drawing glasses on the Mona Lisa deducts nothing from its contribution to the evolution of Western painting. Mocking Chick Tracts can't disguise their very real—if infuriating—brilliance. And nothing reveals that brilliance better than the structural resemblance they bear to the Maid of Millidgeville's estimable oeuvre.

The common formula for Chick Tracts and O'Connor stories is a simple one: some character, unpleasant yet eerily familiar, gets kicked in the spleen by the Eternal and Divine. In Chick's "Titanic," we follow Chester, a grasping, venal haut-bourgeois of the Gilded Age, as he boards the doomed ship. After violently rejecting his pious Aunt Sophie's call to conversion, he ends up . . . well, not so much nearer, my God, to Thee. The reader, it is hoped, will do better.

Compare that to O'Connor's story "The Comforts of Home." In "Comforts," readers meet Thomas, a sullen layabout forced to share his childhood home with Star Drake, a petty thief and sometime hooker taken up as a pet cause by his mother. Flummoxed by Star's sadistic flirting and disdainful of his mother's charitable impulses, Thomas hatches a plan to get the girl sent back to jail. In the interest of excluding spoilers, I'll simply say that, by the end, he might be happy to trade places with Chester. 

The formula serves both artists—and I use the word advisedly—because it's great fun to see bad things happen to bad people. Schadenfreude is the emotion Christians keep tucked under our souls in brown paper bags. This is never truer than when the characters' badness is niggling and domestic rather than grand and cosmic. Anyone can imagine, say, Hitler or Stalin cast into the city of Dis. Inflicting the same fate credibly on the snowbird who rear-ended you or the dirtbag who sold you that suffocating 80/20 mortgage takes special talent.

With both Chick and O'Connor, this talent finds its apotheosis in their use of annoying, though apparently harmless, quirks to signify profound internal corruption. When we see Aunt Gladys, the eponymous heroine of Chick's caveat against psychics, sail into the room wearing a dizzily self-satisfied grin, we know she's in for a hot time. The moment any of O'Connor's backbone-of-America moms or farmwives commences firing clichés—that is, when she tells her son that Rome wasn't built in a day, or informs the patients in a doctor's waiting room that nothing beats a good disposition—we know the old harpy's due to get her mind blown, at best.

Now, it hardly needs saying that the better set of artistic chops belongs to O'Connor. When, in "The Displaced Person," she has Mrs. Shortley imagine foreigners "like the three bears, walking in single file, with wooden shoes on like Dutchmen," we guffaw in recognition. This feels like real human stupidity. When, in "The Sissy,"Chick has a skeptical trucker named Duke concede that fighting Jesus must be "like fighting the bionic man, only worse," we wince. If Chick has never visited an actual truck stop, fine—the better to avoid near occasions of sin. But you'd think he could at least stand to check the TV listings from time to time.

Not all the advantages are on O'Connor's side, however. Although some of her stories—"A Temple of the Holy Ghost" and "Revelation," to name just two—end on a hopeful or ambiguous note, they are exceptions to the general rule. Far more typically, her characters' embrace their spiritual awakening as an empty Coors can might embrace a freight train. After experiencing Christ's passion, thanks to a scourging at the hands of his broomstick-swinging wife, the hero of "Parker's Back" ends up leaning against a pecan tree, "crying like a baby." And he's one of the luckiest by far. 

3/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • An Israelite Without Guile
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  • Max Lindenman
    About Max Lindenman
    Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon.