Saturday, 30 July 2011

Jack Chick, Tommy Wiseau: Unintentional Genius

For those who don’t know, Jack Chick is the creator of a series of pocket-size comics that seek to convert the unsaved – according to him, a spectacularly broad category of people, covering everything from atheists to devout Catholics – to his brand of Christianity.  They are designed to be handed out in public places, left on the seats of trains, given in a restaurant in place of a tip, or any other place that they might reach their intended audience.  Each comic contains a brief guide to becoming a Christian, consisting mainly of the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’: a stock couple of sentences that Chick argues will automatically reserve a place in heaven for the person praying them.

Chick tracts fall well into the mainstream of fundamentalist American Protestantism, complete with unquestioning reverence for the King James Bible, an extremist ‘faith, not works’ doctrine, emphasis on the importance of evangelizing, and a complete disregard of other religious traditions.  In The Death Cookie, Chick explains how Catholicism was founded by Satan – literally – to deceive the unwary.  In Allah Had No Son we hear how Muslims really worship a ‘moon god’.  The Visitors tells us that Mormonism is a ‘modern-day version of Baal worship’.  His treatment of race and gender issues is no better, ranging from hilariously unsubtle to outrageously offensive.

However, despite the content of these tracts, Chick succeeds at making them a pleasure to read.  The art looks endearingly like a young Charles Schultz’s attempts to channel Hieronymus Bosch.  The stock characters are familiar: the devout, handsome Christian man; the stunted figure of the villain-of-the-week; the convert-ee, who invariably combines worldly cynicism with a willingness to instantly believe any evangelist that comes within earshot.  There’s a certain absurdity to the regularity of the plots, and every tract would work almost without revision as a parody of evangelical Christianity.

What Chick tracts remind me of most is Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room.  Called the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”, The Room is a spectacularly unsubtle drama about a love triangle between Johnny, his fiancé and his best friend.  Like Chick tracts, its flaws make it endearing: wooden acting, bad scripting, and a total disregard for consistency or continuity of plot.  Like Jack Chick, it’s unclear how seriously Tommy Wiseau takes himself; the possibility exists that both of them imagine themselves as geniuses, enjoyed sincerely by legions of fans.  That, at the heart of it, is what makes Chick tracts and The Room so much fun to watch: the image of the creator, working furiously at his art, unaware that his creation is so abysmally, amazingly awful.

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