The Cross and the Switchblade

Bloggified by Jake on Wednesday, April 19, 2006

There are moments in your life--meeting your first true love, losing your virginity, the birth of your children, finding the perfect job to launch your career--when things just click into place and fate seems to guide you to that perfect situation. Coming across a copy of The Cross and the Switchblade in the quarterbox (which--I'm now obligated per Robert's requests to point out--is full of comics that cost fifty cents regardless of what I call it) was one of those moments. Unfortunately, like those others, while the moments themselves seem perfect, upon further reflection they kind of suck.

Do you know anyone who married their first true love and stayed with him/her forever? If so, don't they make you kind of sad?

Look at that cover. How could a cover which delivers one of the most ridiculous threats ever only to follow it with one of the silliest responses ever disappoint?

By not being bad enough.

While I was reading The Cross and the Switchblade at work about two weeks ago, trying to devise my strategy for snarking it, a co-worker asked to look it over. Her assessment, which she repeated several times while reading, was "I just keep waiting for the punchline, but there isn't one." It's bad, but not "Clark Kent convinces two hunters that Jimmy Olsen is a wild jungle boy to be trapped and sold to a zoo in order to teach the cub reporter a lesson about responsibility" bad, which is to say while everyone can agree that Youngblood: Bloodsport has no redeemable qualities, there is a group of people who will read The Cross and the Switchblade and insist it is a great story told well. And judging from the current administration in the White House, the number of states passing anti-gay marriage laws, and the fact school boards anywhere are even considering teaching creationism, that group is fairly large and powerful.

This was one of the first titles published by Spire Christian Comics back in the 70's. It is based on the true story of David Wilkerson, a born again Christian preacher who has taken his message to the streets.

Whether you are a Christian or not, regardless of your religious views, you have to agree Wilkerson's decision to go into some of the worst neighborhoods of New York and preach to the gangs was kind of ballsy. Likewise, whether you agree with the religion, you have to appreciate the impact he had on people like Nicky Cruz, who gave up the gang lifestyle, took up preaching himself, and has also helped rescue many gang members from that lifestyle.

That said, The Cross and the Switchblade is an awful, awful comic that glosses over important points while hinging its key moments on utterly stupid coincidences and pointless rhetoric. While not quite in Jack Chick territory, Al Hartley's Spire Comics do as much to turn off people to Christianity as to convert them.

The story opens as David leaves his pregnant, about-to-deliver wife to go to New York after reading an article about seven teens who stabbed a polio victim to death. Wilkerson's arrival in and reaction to New York set the tone for the rest of the comic.Subtlety is not this book's strong suit. It comes off reading like a junior high school drama, infused with overly simplified Christian dogma. David wants to talk to the Dragons, the gang members on trial for the murder, but gets turned away by the district attorney and the police, probably because he just tends to burst into their offices, waving about his bible and insisting on seeing them without offering any reasons.

He's finally told he can only see the Dragons if the judge gives him permission. When he hears the judge has just adjourned the trial, David shows he apparently doesn't know the definition of "adjourn." Instead of understanding the judge has ended the trial for the day so it can resume tomorrow, giving David the perfect opportunity to speak to a clerk and try to get a minute of the judge's time now that he's no longer on the bench, David apparently thinks "adjourned" means "ordered the gang members be taken to a strip club where they will listen to rock and roll music and drink alcohol."You know the best way to make a good impression on a judge from whom you want a favor while simultaneously not making yourself look like an idiot in general and a religious fanatic in particular? I'll give you a clue. Bursting into a packed courtroom while waving around a bible and screaming to the judge like you're Dustin Hoffman and he's Katherine Ross is not part of the plan.

The press mocks Wilkerson, as everyone going to hell does to the heroes in these Spire books, putting his bible-brandishing picture on the front page of the paper with a banner headline. It's unfortunate for David that he just happened to choose the slowest newsday ever to make an ass of himself.

And herein lies another example of why these comics fail. Wilkerson made an ass of himself, but the comic tries to portray those who laughed at him as bad people, tools of the devil, and enemies of God. It's clear we're supposed to shake our heads at the media for not embracing the message of God's love that was shouted by a raving madman during a murder trial.

The press coverage, however, serves David's needs, leading him to conclude God was behind the mockery.You're a raving, religious nutjob in a nice suit who has chosen to come to the ghetto and preach and I steal hubcaps to buy my grandmother's insulin. We're practically brothers! This inane explanation leads to the gangs immediately accepting Wilkerson into their heroin den, where he spouts platitudes about how God knows why they shoot up and what they are looking for, but that they'll never find it in a needle or in premarital sex. Instead, they must turn their lives over to God.I've mentioned in the past that I teach GMAT prep courses. In one session, we focus on the Critical Reasoning portion of the test, which includes a long discussion of the validity of arguments. What David is doing in this frame is called an appeal to authority. This is a common tactic of religious fanatics, who expect that any argument they have will be one in which every word of the bible will be accepted as literal fact.

An appeal to authority does not have factual basis, but instead is based on someone higher up "says so." "My professor says the loss of the ozone layer will kill us all within twenty years?" Okay, how? Without evidence of what the ozone layer loss does to the environment and, in turn, to humans, that argument can't be accepted solely on the word of a professor. The equally valid counterargument to what David has said is, "God says nothing is impossible, yet medical experts say it's impossible to cure a heroin addict!" The difference being that you can site medical evidence to support the experts opinions while the only support for the bible is found within the bible.

In the den of drugs and sex, David meets Maria--not to be confused with Veronica Lodge. I understand she is just lines of ink on a piece of paper, but somehow still manages a melodramatic level of overacting that makes Tom Cruise's declarations of love for Katie Holmes look Bob Newhart-ian in comparison.Following Maria's tour de force monologue, Nicky Cruz, leader of the Mau Maus, the toughest gang in New York, kicks out the preacher because he's had "a belly full" of his "love jazz."

That doesn't stop David from spouting more meaningless rhetoric, and it's having an effect on Nicky, who is clearly laying on a bed in a room despite later claiming to be homeless.There is something quaint about the gang and ghetto lifestyle portrayed by this book. "Awww... Nicky Cruz knifed sixteen guys. Isn't that cute? A gang member who says things like 'a belly full' and 'jazz' and 'fink'... how adorable!" The idea that there was a time you could escape a gang killing by outrunning your would-be assailants because they were armed with chains, knives, and bats has an almost-Ozzie and Harriet simplicity to it.

Wilkerson hooks up with another group of Christians who have tried to preach to the gangs with no success, because they don't have the street cred David's earned. Considering the man's reputation among the gangs is based entirely upon his almost being charged with contempt of court, it can be assumed the other Christians are so whitebread one might need sunglasses just to look at them.

They convince David to host a series of rallies and hire busses to bring in gang members from all over the city, which prompts a visit from Maria.Having left dental impressions all over the scenery, Maria... um... man, she just does nothing. David pretty much convinces her not to kill herself by saying, "Don't," and then she decides out of the blue that Christianity is the solution to all her problems. Unfortunately, converting people isn't always so easy.

Nicky is the perfect example of the more skeptical minds David must overcome.Of course the kid takes the shoes, which somehow proves... something about God... I guess. It's a good thing Nicky didn't say, "These three kids don't even have any shoes," or Wilkerson would have just had to pack up and go back to Pennsylvania, where, by the way, his wife is now in labor, delivering their first child.

Another quaint moment takes place when his wife calls to tell him she's going into labor and David debates coming home, but decides to stay and make the world his child is entering a better place. The final decision is based on his wife pointing out that fathers aren't allowed in the delivery room anyway so it won't matter if he's there or not.

Nicky seizes upon the impending birth to test David's faith in perhaps the weakest way possible.Nicky prays to God that David's wife should deliver a boy. David protests, saying that's not a fair test of God's powers, but when his wife calls, he doesn't mind using the results to his advantage.Whoa! There was a fifty-fifty chance of the outcome you prayed for and it happened! God truly is omnipotent, isn't he!? If it was this fucking easy to convince the baddest man in New York of God's powers, David should have rolled into town with a quarter and prayed really hard it would come up heads when he tossed it. If it came up tails, he could just say it was God's will that there be a do-over.

Having seen that his prayer directly resulted in the gender assignment of a baby, Nicky is shaken to his core and agrees to attend David's next rally. With Nicky on the ropes, David delivers the knockout blow by allowing the Mau Maus to collect the offering, giving them the opportunity to steal the money and run away.Nicky decides to give himself to God right there on the spot and orders the rest of his gang to do likewise since he's their leader and they have to follow him.Again, I can't help but chuckle at Nicky being considered such a badass because he's knifed (not killed) a few guys, gets into fights, and is promiscuous. I've sinned worse that he has in playing ten minutes of Grand Theft Auto.

Nicky goes back into the neighborhood, where kids ask him to measure them and determine who is the tallest... which illustrates... uh... that kids... you know what? I got nuthin' for that. He announces his intention to become a preacher and show gang members everywhere that the cross is mightier than the switchblade.

Much like the aforementioned Chick Tracks, books like this one seem to do more to reassure Christians that there are strong Christian messages out there rather than to bring that message to non-Christians. I'm sure born again Christians would read this and see the power of Nicky's prayer for David to have a son being answered, but to those who don't already have a vested interest in believing God is everywhere and working in everything, this is just a crapshoot being blown out of proportion and undermining any validity of the story.

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