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"Everybody here will burn in hell when they die"

Evangelical Comics and the Mystery of Thanksgiving

This is the tenth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

In my last post, I lamented the election taking precedence over my usual Halloween-comics fare, the Chick Tract; but on that following holiday, Thanksgiving, I was literally handed an opportunity to revisit it. Standing outside a grocery store in Fargo, North Dakota, while waiting for my wife and oldest son to re-emerge with the emergency sweet potatoes we were dispatched to retrieve, I was silently given a Chick Tract by a passer-by. Normally, these Evangelistic comics are left at bus stops or given out in lieu of Halloween candy, but having a stranger actually offer one to me was a first. And it was thematically appropriate!

Before I summarize the comic’s mediation on the secularization of the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m aware some of you may need a crash course on Jack T. Chick. Probably one of the most widely-read theologians ever, Chick and his publications have been in business since 1961. While they produce many hardcore fundamentalist religious materials, it is his tracts, or little comic books, that he is most known for. They are filled with incredible illustrations and their stories can be summed up as: whatever your ethnicity, creed, or socio-economic status, you’re going to Hell. Chick has taken every conceivable aspect of the American dream, blended it with his antipapist evangelism, and spat it back out at us as bitter little cartoons that sing songs of eternal promise and damnation. He has synthesized every half-baked, fear based philosophy into his comics, maintaining the good fight against Jesuits, druids, Shriners, homosexuals, the Illuminati, musicians, and those who believe in evolution. This sort of hardcore Protestant propaganda cements Jack Chick as an American original.

So, while if you’ve read one Chick Tract, you’ve probably read them all, it’s still a delight to encounter one in the wild and see what scenario Chick has devised this time. In "The Missing Day," a secular family gathers to celebrate Thanksgiving, enduring the only Christian in their midst, Uncle Mort, because of his immense wealth. When the kids start asking him about Thanksgiving, he offers to tell the story, and the lady of the house effusively agrees. He tells the story most Americans have heard since childhood. You know the drill: The Pilgrims fled England on the Mayflower to escape religious persecution, founded a colony at Plymouth, endured a harsh winter, encountered friendly natives, learned how to grow crops in the new climate, and had a big feast to celebrate their first harvest. "Thanksgiving was once our most honored day," Uncle Mort explains, "but today it's a joke...we're not thankful for anything. And this offends God." His preaching gets on the family's nerves, except for young Brad, who may have been persuaded by Mort’s proclamation: "Everybody here will burn in hell when they die." So, Brad gets down on his knees in front of the whole family recites the Sinner's Prayer and gets saved. The rest of the family--his parents, Grandma, his bratty cousins, his gay uncle--make fun of them and curse God, which delights the demons who hover invisibly around the living room with them. At the end of the tract, instead of the Faceless God banishing the cursed into the lake of fire, we see Brad's naked family members falling down a rabbit hole and being herded through caverns into hell. "The only smart one in the whole bunch was the kid," the narration proclaims. "DO WHAT HE DID." Presumably little Brad and Uncle Mortimer are now in Heaven celebrating Turkey Day with the founding fathers. Something I almost wished I could have done, instead of standing outside a grocery store in Fargo, North Dakota, wondering if there were any more sweet potatoes…You can read your own copy here.