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The Hidden Twinship of Jack Chick and Flannery O'Connor

In their own way, Chick's plots are subtler than that. Or at any rate, his outcomes show more variety. Although he consigns plenty of characters to the Lake of Fire, he makes sure that plenty of others get saved, in fundamentalist parlance, and live happily ever after. If reading an O'Connor story can feel like watching a grand and glorious train wreck, picking up a Chick Tract feels more like playing a round of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" This is especially true when Chick elects to save an apparent sociopath, as he does in "Bad Bob," or when he damns a relative naïf, as he does in "Somebody Goofed." Nowhere do prodigal sons get a warmer welcome than in Chick's sola fide universe; nowhere are dutiful elder sons in greater peril. The upshot: Chick's endings can actually catch readers off guard. 

Critics praise O'Connor's reliance on "dark grace," which Patrick Galloway defines as "violence as a force for good," as a sign of her sophisticated vision. It certainly is that. Living through the loss of a parent, a painful disease, and an abortive affair with a psychotic poet must have qualified her uniquely to see Grace operating like an air force in a counter-insurgency campaign—destroying people in order to save them. But there's a more basic, more strictly technical reason why O'Connor's characters must end up miserable, if indeed they even end up alive. She makes them so detestable that no other ending could possibly satisfy the reader.

Would you want to share a pew with the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," after hearing her squawk about cute little pickaninnies? What about Mrs. MacIntyre, from "The Displaced Person," after witnessing her great sin of omission? Me neither.

In comparison, Chick treats his characters affectionately. Even those who are selfish (like Mr. Bronson in "Love that Money")or downright cruel (like the platoon sergeant in "Holy Joe")seem worth rooting for. His medium, cartoons, is tailor-made for creating this effect. When we see a character with an impossibly big nose or bug eyes, we can't help regarding him with some compassion. In that light, Chick's medium and his theology are in perfect sync. A believer in free grace and eternal assurance has to view humans through compassionate eyes: people can't help being what they are.

The Catholic O'Connor, seeing the State of Grace as a revolving door, mistrusted compassion for the opposite reason. As she put it, compassion, or excusing "all human weakness because human weakness is human" makes for bad art. Strip compassion from caricature and you're left with grotesquerie, a quality often ascribed to O'Connor, and which, I think, she would have achieved even as a cartoonist. If she'd drawn, say, a guest strip for Peanuts, Lucy would have snatched the football away from Charlie Brown, and Charlie Brown would have died of a brain aneurysm following his fall. Lucy, having seen Christ crucified from the goal posts, would have come down with a nasty case of alopecia that left her tonsured, crowned with thorns. Good grief indeed. 

If O'Connor's principled rejection of compassion makes her a better theologian than Chick, it is not the thing that makes her a better artist. By no yardstick save the snob's has it made her a more successful one. Chick Publications claims to have sold 750 million tracts worldwide. Although the 86-year-old Chick reportedly farmed out the actual drawing to hirelings ages ago, it is his vision and formula that drives production, and has enabled the company to branch out into video. He may be a hack, but he's a supremely canny hack.

So what's the takeaway? That nobody ever went broke overestimating the public's tastes? There's no denying that. When it comes to scaring readers into turning the page, nothing works like the kind of paranoid dispensational premillennialist hoo-hah that Chick shovels up. But I'd argue Chick owes his success as much to the flip side, the feathery hope for salvation he serves up on the side.

Maybe, for writers as well as evangelists, the real lesson is that a spoonful of schmaltz helps the medicine go down.

3/7/2011 5:00:00 AM