Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Finding Your Audience: Unfortunate Lessons From Jack Chick

If you grew up a geek in the United States, chances are good you know who Jack Chick is. You probably received his tracts, cleverly disguised as little flip comics, in your Halloween bag when you went to the church lady's house at the end of the block. You probably found a few in the community rec center, or sprinkled around your college campus. Especially if you went to a religious institution. And, if you were one of the truly unfortunate geeks, your parents gave you these tracts with solemn expressions on their faces, hoping that maybe the medium of a comic book would be enough to make you understand that your soul was in peril.

Souls in peril, you say? Well, keep Jack away from them, he'll just make it worse.
If you were lucky enough to never come across one of these tracts (perhaps because you lived in a country that banned them as hate speech), they're full of some pretty wild claims. Everything from the idea that freemasons are out to destroy the true church of Christ, to the rumors that RPG enthusiasts will sacrifice their friends, and strangers, in order to become ordained as true priests of a hidden, demonic order. Catholics, homosexuals, and other groups were all tarred and feathered as spiritual predators, out to destroy the faithful.

In other words, these tracts were pure Satanic Panic, conspiracy theory nonsense (more on that at The Satanic Panic: America's Forgotten Witch Hunt of the 1980s). They were coarse, ugly, backward, and they catered to the idea that Christianity was being attacked by every aspect of the modern world. They were also more than a little libelous, from time to time. Not only that, but they shared the odd similarity that, somehow, the characters in them had never heard of Jesus. Even characters who had lived their whole lives in farm country, square in the midst of the bible belt.

Despite what should have been a ridiculous pile of scare tactics penned by an amateur cartoonist, Chick tracts grew. Millions of these stupid things have been purchased and distributed, and they built a truly successful propaganda machine. And despite the death of Jack Chick at the age of 92, Bleeding Cool reports that the company is going to carry on. Something that confirms to many of us that true wickedness cannot be stopped by mere death.

And while these tracts have been banned from many countries for their hatred, ruined lives by planting the seeds of paranoia, and been ridiculed by entire generations for the childish ideas contained within them, there is no denying that a lot of people are buying them.

There is a lesson in that.

Understand Your Audience

Authors don't work in a vacuum. There is no secret council of learned elders who decide which work is inherently good and meaningful, and which is dross. Often the success of a book, graphic novel or otherwise, is a total fluke. You managed to touch the nerve of the cultural zeitgeist, and so everyone reacted by buying your book. Maybe you managed to upset a lot of people, and the flames of that outrage illuminated you, and drew a lot of curious people who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe you packed your book with an unusual kink, or got hit with a, "cease and desist," letter in a very public way.

I'm sure there's another example out there... somewhere...
The point is that even "good" books can go unrecognized. It isn't the author's skill, or their time, hard work, or dedication that's being rewarded. You are a gladiator, doing your best to get the crowd's attention. You are writing for the mob, and it is they who decide whether you live or die, drowning in your own red ink.

That's why you need to know who you're writing for, and what need they have you can fulfill better than anyone else. It's also why everything, at its core, is pornography. There are the obvious examples, like the series of incestual mind control stories by Pandora Box that I talked about in You Need Quality AND Quantity to Make a Living as an Author, but that is just the most obvious kind. A series like A Song of Ice and Fire, and even my own book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam are geared toward harsh catharsis. Readers who love to watch awful things happen to the characters they love enjoy those kinds of books, and will tell all their friends about them once they're done howling and crying. Whether your audience loves the tech specs of hard S/F military stories, like you see in the Honor Harrington series, or they enjoy the back and forth uncertainty of a romance novel, all of these things are pornography.

They just cater to different needs.

So what you need to do is sit down, and ask yourself what needs you can fulfill in your readers. What will they get out of your story? What are you selling? Is it ball gags and leather? Blood and guts? Tears and fears? If you had a neon sign advertising your shady little shop on the corner of the Internet, what sort of people would be under the trench coats and big hats who come in to buy from you?

Jack Chick knew the answer. Do you?

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