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[And does he have VESTMENTS?! From The Chaplain by Jack Chick.]

(From Jack Chick's The Chaplain. Click to get it in the throat.)

I'm not sure what to make of this one. Either Jack Chick is subtly returning to form, or he's backed himself so completely into a corner that he's rapid-cycling through his stock tropes more than usual.

I'm half inclined to vote the former, if only because of the art. It's not just the expressive, eloquent schnozzes. (Ignore the remarkably offensive first panel here, and look carefully at the rest; these noses tell you everything you want to know about the American characters.) The Chaplain contains the best digital shading we've seen so far in a Chick tract. Before now, only The Wall had been even remotely passable. The Susyverse-styled Dirty Diamond hit a particular nadir. It's therefore all the more remarkable to me that the good hits with Chick's own lineart instead of Fred Carter's, since Chick stuck with plain old hatching up through the end of 2005. There are still traces of the old in the lineart, too; have a close look at the uniforms.

But I'm less certain about the writing. The characterization's much stronger than Chick's other own-art tracts this year, but also slightly stranger. This is less of a Chick tract than a caricature of one, down to the panel out of This Was Your Life!. Doofy soldier Benny is running through the tough-guy unchurched checklists here. Anger, boredom, Momlessness regret, outré notion of Christ, selective obtuseness... how do you pin it all on Preacher? Benny's been reading up. The titular chaplain is so far into the Corrupt Clergyman role that he has to be pushed into the action halfway through. Preacher's enthusiasm for the gospel is so close to the surface that it gets tapped for entertainment during slow moments. Lethal explosions are practically tied to page count. If Jack Chick isn't poking fun at himself here, he should be -- this falls down as a tract on its own, but it's fine self-parody that doesn't slip needlessly into metahumour.

In fact, The Chaplain is much more effective if you also read Four Angels?, a reworking and reissue of the much older Four Brothers. This one plays with the Corrupt Clergymen model in greater detail, although slightly less coherently than The Chaplain. (Watch for the Schuller vestments, by the way. Nice touch.)

Four Angels has nothing like those noses, though. Those are amazing noses. Never have noses been so effectively deployed for evangelism-by-comic.

[Mid-career Bibleman, in armor.]Now, Miles Peterson had everything -- money, fame, power -- until he lost it. (You can take that however you choose; the net effect was the same.) From the ashes of suicidal despair, Miles rose to embrace Divine force and combat evil. He built a cave of sanctuary and a base of operations beneath his manor home. He built a lightsaber and a full suit of colorful armor, patterned after Ephesians 6, that he might better stand upon the Gospel.

Miles Peterson was a man in a crucible. Now, he's Bibleman.

Christian-themed children's television, in the years since Davey and Goliath, has been very much a cesspool. Its most remarkable shows have engendered, in spite of themselves, a colossal sense of what?!; they are not so much encouragements as bizarre memory devices. [Puppet food for Christ!]Production values run the gamut from lavish (such as CGI juggernaut Veggie Tales, particularly the feature film Jonah) to lackluster (errr... like most of the stuff on Smile of a Child, to be honest). The bulk of it has been, errrr...

Well, generally puppets for Christ. Or fursuits for Christ. Or anthropomorphic food for Christ. But we've been over that.

We do enjoy The Bibleman Adventure, strange as it sounds. It has the what factor going quite heavily, but it's self-deprecating as all hell. In a field which consistently takes itself too seriously (apart from Veggie Tales), Willie Aames (yep) and company are fully aware just how ridiculous their concept is, how little logic is really in operation, and how much worse it would be if they couldn't laugh at themselves. It's a sensibility you just don't get out of Colby's Clubhouse.

[That kid is Harleigh Upton, Willie Aames's daughter!]So, we accept a lot that we wouldn't otherwise. We've never grasped why a superhero is asked to spend so much of his time encouraging depressed students from the nearby public school system, but we accept this. We've never entirely understood why he built an AI to serve Christ without being able to confirm whether or not she could have a soul. We certainly don't get why sidekick Biblegirl -- who has cycled through at least two separate visible ethnicities while remaining the same person -- has a gun that she never actually shoots.

And boy, do we dig the transformation sequences.

But this isn't a story about Miles Peterson. We do plan to tell you that story, but not until we get a hold of the unedited DVDs; hopefully we'll get that done before Tommy Nelson relaunch the line later this year. After all, TBN and Smile of a Child may be rerunning the series over and over, but heavily edited for television. You can't possibly discuss Bibleman with true critical authority until you've seen every single musical number.

(Also, we need to get a hold of the entirety of "Shattering The Prince Of Pride," which concerns the perils of consulting with other people to produce your comic's character designs. Or possibly the pressures of working on a licensed newspaper property while getting zapped by demon Borg. I'm never sure. Anyhow.)


[Yep. The Bibleman Show.]No, right now, this is a story about a kid.

Before The Bibleman Adventure, see, there was The Bibleman Show. The concept hadn't really shaken itself out yet, nor had the execution. Or the funding.

[Bibleman likes to hang out at the church services.]Bibleman was around, and lurking, and talking to kids, and fighting light saber battles -- but he was doing so as something of an afterthought. What we were really there to see was apparently an all-singing, all-dancing youth group. Of five kids. With no associated youth pastor, at least in the first two episodes.

Five kids. Best friends, from all indications. Five kids, serving God by constantly rehearsing really, really bad musical numbers to perform in front of their indulgent congregation. (To their credit -- or possibly to their detriment -- the congregation seems suitably appreciative and excited by the whole affair.) It's not clear what good they serve, but apparently their praise and their prayers angers a string of Q-list demons enough to strike against them. One little girl is spurred to lying. A couple of kids are spurred to gossip. That sort of thing.

Bibleman's not got a lot to do yet, so he keeps an eye on the youth group and fights the demons off for them. It's what he does. It's not really an adventure at the moment, and you have to knock off the piddly beasts before you can get to level 1-4 and kill the first Bowser anyhow.

Besides, I can't say as I blame the demons. Since the stakes are so low, they fight fiercely. They're low on the totem pole, and little things irritate them an awful lot.

[ONE TWO THREE FOUR]Like appalling song and dance. I don't think I can emphasize this enough. The first time we hear from these kids, they're singing about the Bible vision they possess. It's important, you understand, to have Bible vision, and you should get Bible vision. For the Lord. You see, he wants you to have Bible vision. I will settle for LASIK after this, I am telling you what.

I have a hard time believing that kids would actually get into the work -- it's not edifying, it's not entertaining, it's not even particularly catchy. Near as I can tell, they raided the clearance sale on Trax tapes at the local Family Christian Stores, only to discover that they didn't have lyric sheets for any of the tapes, and the side with the singing on had been erased in a freak accident. So they dug out as many decontextualized catchphrases as possible, wrote padding aroung them, and practiced like mad. "Someday," they told themselves, "we'll get hired for Dooley and Pals, whose site has a Flash intro with sound."

Furthermore, they dance like overchoreographed mimes. STEP two three four! PLUCK FRUIT two three four! GESTURE TOWARDS THE HEART two three four! Now SASHAY! They do so without much synchronization, as one might expect from a self-trained youth group of five, and enthusiasm levels vary according to archetype. Jodi Sweetin there in front? She's more concerned with your hearing her than anything, and she's just a little bossy. She's gonna be the leader. Littlest girl? Sweet and cute and sad as needed. Little boy at the back right? The one who's too short? God, he wants a tap solo. Other girl? Yeah. She's the other girl.

[Ryan.]And the tallest boy? The one at the back left, with the glasses, sticking his leg out, there? The one you know really, really wants to be in show business, and has a real love of his craft, but just doesn't have the charisma of a Jodi Sweetin lookalike?

That's Ryan.

Ryan's responsible. When rehearsals aren't at school, or at the church, or in the park, they're at his house. On the porch. Ryan keeps the tapes safe (although he gives one of them to the youngest girl, once, while she's demonically compelled to lie about her failures -- not his brightest moment). Secretly, one guesses that Ryan gets very good scores in math, plays trombone in band class, and keeps a secret blog about Hollywood stars.

Ryan is also going to grow up to draw high-profile webcomics.

[The many moods of Ryan: Happy.]

You heard me. That little boy is going to grow up to become David Willis*:

[Smirking!]
* DISCLAIMER: PROBABLY NOT ACTUALLY DAVID WILLIS

Assuming he doesn't, of course, break under the pressure. You know how it goes. You work all week on your Bible vision, your enthusiastic mime-dance, your heel-steppy things and your jazz hands. Inevitably, one or more of your groupmates fall under the thrall of lesser demons. Pretty soon, there's petty lying, transparent gossip, and overenthusiastic efforts to score tap solos in front of the congregation. No one is actually helping you with your jazz hands, figuring out where your leg goes during the big number, or -- goodness knows -- praying the blood of Christ over anything. The big night comes, and this superhero in a purple helmet is out fighting the demons for you! With lightsabers! Total overkill!

What kind of a responsible kid are you? What kind of a group prevents you from demonstrating your responsibility like that? What kind of Christian constantly falls under the thrall of lesser demons?

[And he snaps.]

Suddenly, a career as a puppet vegetable for Christ doesn't seem so bad. Thank goodness he escaped.

Next time: a story about Miles Peterson.

I am the only person in the world (apart from possibly Jan Crouch) who is excited about the new TBN channel.

The appallingly named Smile of a Child launches 24 December on American cable and satellite. I'm hoping very hard that it also gets streamed online, as with the other TBN stations. See, as the name implies, the channel is all kids' shows, all the time.

All Christian kids' shows.

As with their secular counterparts, many of these shows involve puppets. For some reason, I can suspend my disbelief enough in order to accomodate dealing with the puppet's lifestyle issues, or even when it becomes keen to explain matters of theology. However, particularly in mixed human/puppet environments, actively considering the puppet's salvation or having it engage in prayer strikes me as slightly dubious. It's not so much that I can't grasp the idea of a fictional character having a fictional soul, goodness knows, but the spiritual crisis later in life must be rather on a par with Santa Claus. It's bad enough trying to determine whether or not your pets are going to heaven; what the heck are we supposed to make of, say, anthropomorphized hamburgers? How do we even account for anthropomorphized hamburgers in any form of Christian theology? Really, my issues with talking animals just pale by comparison.

That said, I can cope with thinly veiled allegory, especially when it comprises a chunk of high school TV nostalgia. One of SoaC's launch programs is the Canadian high-fantasy puppet show Kingdom Adventure, which was sort of kinda impressive almost fifteen years ago. At the time, it was an interesting stab at straddling Christian and secular children's markets, something we wouldn't see take serious hold until Veggie Tales came along a few years later. I found the idea of the experiment fascinating, and kept hoping that the execution would grab me.

Unfortunately, as with any syndicated kids' show not bent on selling hot product back then, you only got to see it insensibly early in the morning. I used to watch it in the mornings, when the reverse insomnia kicked in and it was too early for anything else but County Calendar and weird, babbling nuns. Lacking reruns of Rocket Robin Hood and the Trans-Lux Hercules, what else are you gonna do?

The answer? Mostly, build up a tolerance and miss Newton.

Unfortunately, the production company -- Crossroads Christian Communications, best known for 100 Huntley Street -- didn't do the best job in retrofitting effective metaphor to their high-concept agenda. There's a bunch of cute little elfy characters in cute little woods. And a bunch of cute little ugly monsters in the service of evil. And a cute, beloved Prince. And that Prince's Bride.

The Prince dies. Then the Prince comes back. Gosh.

While there's really only so many times you can watch the Gelflingscute little elfy things expounding on how much they like the Prince, how much they need the Prince, how bad it is that the Prince is gone, &c., it's not without brain candy merit. Anyone who gives you guff about how unsubtle the various Chronicles of Narnia were? Point'em at Kingdom Adventure, where cute little elfy things are yelling from the cute little treetops: "I SAID, IT'S TOTALLY BEEN THREE DAYS AND I WONDER WHERE THE PRINCE IS! GOSH, I HOPE HIS BRIDE IS OKAY!"

There was also a sword involved. And bad animation (Kingdom Adventure made an admirable effort to combine puppets and 2-D animation on an insufficient budget, but it just didn't pull together very well). Mostly, though, I remember the highly marketable Lolly, all red yarn hair and pug nose. She really should have grown up to take over the cute little elfy world. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the Prince preferred blondes.

Honestly, I'm kind of sketchy on a lot of the details. I haven't seen this in years, and there's not a lot around to punch up the memory. The show faded into utter obscurity in North America. Kingdom Adventure was dubbed for the Russian market, and the only reference I can find to the show at Crossroads's website concerns demand there for an overtly evangelical tie-in colouring book. You can find the show on video, at least in theory, but there's nothing on IMDB to indicate that it ever really existed. I know it's not for me, but it must have been for someone.

At the time, I'm sure I found the show utterly forgettable. Right now, though, I'm kind of looking forward to catching it on SoaC, if only so that I can remember how forgettable it really was. Give it a week, though, and I'll totally be praying for the batty technology and grievous heresies of Superbook.

NaDruWriNi: Every Perv's Battle

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I haven't talked about the side reading I've been doing for the sixteenth. (Or the seventeenth. It depends on how well everything goes.) Fortunately, some of it has very little useful application to the central work, so I can talk about it without fear.

I hadn't kept up very well with the American evangelical Christian "sexual purity" movement in recent years. The rhetoric didn't seem significantly different from what I'd run across as a teenager, or at the start of adulthood. Secondary virgins, premarital tongue kissing is a steep slope to slide, yes, yes, yes. I get better explanations of why oral sex is problematic to this worldview with my breakfast cereal. (Most of them necessitate a broader view of what constitutes "purity" or "sex," let alone virginity, but you really ought to wait for the marvelous Hanne Blank's upcoming book for the latter.)

As pornography became more and more of a going online concern, of course, I was captivated by the whole notion of "porn addiction" -- moreso, of course, the bizarre notion that such afflictions were largely the purview of men; most of the people I knew who enjoyed and produced the stuff were, and are, female. They've done studies? Whatever. Men are visual in studies? Whatever. That's not my observation, and that's not the life I know.

(Apparently I live on a different planet. You know, the one where you can have a few silicone wangs and it's not, you know, the stuff of NIGHTMARES. The one where you read On Our Backs and it's not about abstract notions of how breasts are sexual objects to men and maybe some lesbians, or humouring onlookers. The one where the old "men are visual and women are emotional and that's it" saw just doesn't exist. The one where you default to expecting that chicks like both, and it's not just about making a point or having a rebellion?)

Anyhow. Porn addiction: apparently that's every man's battle. (The hell. But more on that.)

I've known a few people who couldn't reconcile their taste for porn with their belief system, so phrased their struggle in the language of addiction. It made sense in one case, inasmuch as anyone can have a hobby which spins right out of control and takes over their lives. It didn't always wash, though. More often, it just registered as fear. It's not that they had an addiction.

It's that they indulged occasionally.

"I had a glass of beer once a week at the pub. I'm an alcoholic."

Fair enough if your faith or worldview doesn't permit you to include porn consumption as an expression of your sexuality. That's fine. Lots of people aren't comfortable with erotic art or entertainment in any form, even if they enjoy it. But phrasing it as addiction is a really, really good way to overblow your issue, misrepresent yourself, misrepresent pornography and cause more damage than your occasional sin was doing on its own.

But you know that, right? You're not dumb.

Porn addiction was the only bit that really struck out at me as new for a very long time. I wasn't expecting "emotional affairs," which is what chicks are supposed to do. I don't think I have the language to express the ire that concept inspires in me. An emotional affair can be anything from what really is a romantic relationship with someone you haven't got leeway in your central relationship to pursue, up through and including a goddamned crush on Clark Gable. I kid thee the heck not.

And girls have this. Women have this.

Instead.

Yes, all right, fair enough. As with porn addictions, take it to the extreme and you devalue the model? But take it to the extreme and you apparently also have a fair few lucrative books.

Which brings me to True Love Waits.

Why didn't anyone tell me that the TLW campaign pretty much belongs to a Christian merchandising company named Lifeway? It's a beautiful racket. Studies demonstrate that a chastity pledge tends to last about eighteen months (so much for [REDACTED] and [OMITTED]) before you get yourself some backsliding. So, introduce your product range -- True Love Waits rings, necklaces, books, CDs, and other "inspirational" tat -- into the Christian marketplace, and put some viral marketing into play. Make your logos and your rituals freely reproducible; provide some engaging activities for youth leaders to bring into their high school groups. Make it very easy to inject those rituals into the course of a normal church service, particularly ones which, you know, if you really want to, because you could use a silver ring, of course, but you could use a TLW branded ring to remind the kids of the pledge they'll be taking. The one you wrote.

The one they can take more than once. With a new ring each time, if you like?

One you can pick up at your local Christian bookstore?

This bothers me. (It's not just TLW, either. There's Silver Ring Thing, but that's more of an event-driven operation.) TLW is the Kleenex of youth sexual purity in the United States right now, and it's rigged. Coincidentally enough, you can start a teenager on this path right now, which'll get them into senior year of high school or the first year of college. At that point, you can start in on the Waterbrook Press series of Battle books for your age group and gender -- Every Young Woman's Battle or Every Young Man's. Problem with porn? Or all-consuming crushes on more than one person? There's books and music and CDs and events for all that, too.

And then, you know, eighteen months to three years? Do as well as you can, then fall over, because you're meant to fall over. That's not what you should do, and of course it's your fault (you wouldn't keep up on this path if you didn't keep right with the Lord, right? Dude, you need to keep an eye on that). But you will.

And then the adult stuff -- Every Man or Woman's Battle -- will be there for you. In the Armed Forces? There's Every Soldier's Battle.

Of course.

Of course.

Did you know that Lifeway own several Christian bookstores?

Do you know how angry I am right now that there's an industry devoted to drawing money out of people who set themselves up for failure in their romantic and/or sexual relationships, whether through an addiction model or through the notion of any sort of fulfilling extramarital bond (notwithstanding your girlfriends, of course, because you don't want them like that) or just getting overwhelmed by hormones and hewing to the letter of the law to stay sane? That it exists to trap you, with cheap rings as a teenager and manipulative workshops as an adult, when you fall over every eighteen to thirty-six months once you've been suckered into this paradigm?

And that it works in the name of God?

You know I keep an eye on Jack Chick, and I watch TBN, and I read Left Behind. I do this stuff for more than one reason. I take the power this stuff holds out of myself, and I look at it, and I dismember it.

I remember the time a well-meaning friend tried to send me into the arms of Exodus International. He wasn't the first, but he was the most persuasive. He was misguided. He was wrong. I knew better, and thank God I was strong enough to do that much; all it took was one phone call and I could see this road ahead of me. (The book you want here is Stranger At the Gate by Mel White. It's nothing new.)

You send yourself to the workshops, you read the books, you lag one step behind the fiscal trail; in one year or three or five or ten, you stop being able to put things in the little boxes, and you fall apart. And there's the machine.

There's the machine, which tells you it can put you all back together again. For a price.

For a price.

Do you know how angry I am that they've found a way to do this for everyone else, too?

[This never ends well. From The Devil's Night.]Illustrations from the Li'l Susy tract series by Jack Chick. Websnark entry number 1000 considers the plight of schoolteacher Ms. Henn, introduced in Apes, Lies, and Ms. Henn. She's a horribly underutilized character, an adversary with great potential, and it's a shame that we don't see more of her. It's hard not to sympathize with her, too -- would you want a child like Susy, the anti-Bobby, in your class?

Poor Ms. Henn. From her very first day, she had trouble with Susy Barnes.

Ms. Henn works in a public school. She hasn't been in this particular job very long; she was hired as maternity cover for the semester. Mostly, she likes it here, though. She enjoys organizing special events for the class, like speakers from the community and Halloween costume contests. learn, and grow, and embrace new ideas. She wants them to have the best possible education they can.

But the kids are going home from school scared, and shaken, and saying upsetting things to their parents. "Well, my friend Susy told me..."

How does a little girl end up that way? It just makes Ms. Henn sick to think about it.

Of course, Susy's bright and charismatic, but she's a very troubled little girl. Why, her father died last year, and her mother died in childbirth; the only person she has left in the world is her grandfather. The way her file tells it, she didn't even have a chance to grieve properly; she showed up at school barely a week later, a little too cheerful, telling everyone about her new daddy in Heaven.

[Susy Barnes is no fan of sin. From Li'l Susy.]Conversion under duress? It's as though Susy sees a completely different world.

Obviously, Susy's personal faith keeps her going, keeps her from breaking completely; it's good that she can draw strength from that. But the way her grandfather's raising her, she's learning to impose her faith on others at every available opportunity. And she's developing a terrible worldview in the process, too.

It frightens Ms. Henn. It really does. It's not that Susy's religious; it's that she's cruel. And militant.

It'd be another thing altogether if it was even just good-natured sharing, but Susy's incredibly overbearing and manipulative. She zeroes in on her most vulnerable classmates, like little Cathy, whose father ran out on the family. She'll say the most vicious and hateful things about other people's beliefs or practices to get underneath their skin. My friend Susy told me that Pagans sacrifice cute kitties and little girls. And that's not even the worst of it. What must her grandfather be teaching her? She's building up a little following of students, and they're starting to trust her with just about everything that goes wrong.

[Liar! From Apes, Lies...]That just won't do. It just leaves those poor kids open to getting their heads messed with, and there's not a blessed thing that Ms. Henn can do about it.

Ms. Henn doesn't know how to manage Susy at all. Mr. Barnes is awfully clever, and teaches his little girl how to weasel around the school's authority instead of properly respecting it. A little bit of it is Ms. Henn's fault, in a way, and she knows it -- she lost her temper on that first day, when Susy called her a liar in front of the whole class -- but Mr. Barnes took his granddaughter's side, and that didn't help things at all. (She probably told him horrible things about her.) He made sure Susy only spoke to her little group off of school grounds, where Ms. Henn couldn't do anything at all about the nasty things Susy would say or do. He sent Susy to school in a Santa costume today, for goodness' sakes! Just so that she wouldn't be participating in a fun holiday like Halloween!

(Ms. Henn wonders if Susy even knows where Santa comes from. Probably not yet. Mr. Barnes will probably tell her about druidic sacrifices sometime next month.)

Really, it'd be much easier for everyone if Mr. Barnes would just homeschool little Susy, as was suggested at the parent-teacher conference. Why, Susy's so convinced that there are demons everywhere, Ms. Henn's not convinced that Susy isn't hallucinating them now. There's no getting through to that little girl while she's so unbalanced, and it's getting harder and harder for her to keep control of the class. [Off school grounds! From Birds and the Bees.] The other parents are complaining horribly about it, but she can't do anything to stop Susy outside of class. She had to spend weeks apologizing to Larry and Charles for Frankie's horrible outburst, and she just knows that had nothing to do with Frankie's home environment.

If the children turn up to school tomorrow with those wretched little hate literature tracts in their Halloween candy, Ms. Henn just doesn't know what she's going to do about it. Perhaps she ought to see about getting Susy referred to the school counselor.

This just isn't going to end well. Ms. Henn might have to go drinking.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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