What's 2 3/4 by 5 inches and can scare the hell out of you?

Gotta be one of these miniature comic books put out by Chick Publications. You've probably seen them before, maybe picked one up in a phone booth or fast-food joint. Each booklet is about 20 pages long, and makes a pitch for the gospel through a dramatic story told in cartoon format.

You might be generally successful at avoiding gospel tracts, but Chick comics tend to appear under your fingers. "Over 500 million sold world-wide" boasts the homepage at www.chick.com, and at 13 cents each, would-be evangelists can scatter them like confetti. The tracts are available in nearly 100 languages from Afrikaans to Zulu; the home page itself can be read in Chinese, German, or Spanish.

The theology in these tracts is old-time Protestant, proposing that all humans sin, that the just reward of sin is hell, and that even piles of good deeds can't buy a ticket out. Only Jesus' death on the cross could pay that debt. The "Good News" is simple: stop trying to justify yourself, and accept Jesus' free gift. Thus Chick tracts are full of tatooed, stubble-chinned bikers waltzing into heaven after a tearful "sinner's prayer," while prim, self-righteous types who declined Jesus' offer are tossed into the flames. The depths of sin are displayed in lurid, if sometimes clumsy, terms. Two citizens of Noah's wicked pre-flood town have this exchange: "I love drugs. Do you?" "No, incest and murder are my thing."

The force behind Chick Publications is Jack Chick, a WW II veteran who underwent a powerful conversion experience while listening to a revival radio show. Launched from that rocket pad, his work has a revival-tent flavor, and it steps on people's toes, as evidenced by the proliferation of parody sites. In the 1980s, Canada's attorney general called for a countrywide ban on the tracts. Still the comic tracts keep pouring out, and haven't stopped for 36 years.

The tracts are designed to solve a specific problem. Although Jesus commanded his followers to try to convert others to the faith, they hate doing it. It's embarrassing and liable to make people mad at you. But if they can be anonymous--leave a tract on a restaurant table under the tip, or in the back pocket of an airline seat--they'll do it. The whole Chick strategy is to get ordinary Christians to fulfill "the Great Commission" by enabling them to do it in their safety zone. If you've ever picked up a Chick tract, it's likely some shy evangelist left it there in hopes you would.

The Chick folks also know that people won't read a tract full of tiny words, but they will look at cartoons, and these short booklets can be read in 60 seconds. As their ad literature repeatedly insists, dramatic cartoon stories this short are well nigh impossible to resist.

Take, for instance, the tract titled "The Little Princess." On the cover is a little girl in a princess costume, carrying a jack o' lantern full of Halloween candy. But something is wrong--the girl's eyes have dark circles and beads of sweat indicate a fever.

We learn that Heidi is dying, but wants to go trick-or-treating one last time. That evening her brother Josh takes her to a few houses, including the Smiths', where she is given a Chick tract with her candy. (There are about 70 tracts, and they make cameo appearances in each other's stories.) Back in her bed Heidi reads the tract and prays, asking Jesus to be her savior.

Then Heidi has her dad invite the Smiths over, and says, "Dad, remember when you said nobody knows what happens after you die? Well, these people know." Mr. Smith begins, "I'm sure the thought of your daughter dying breaks your heart. Well, God was even more heartbroken when he sent his son from heaven to die on earth." Five minutes later Mrs. Smith tells her, "Heidi...they did it!" They, too, have accepted Jesus.

Later that night a beautiful strong angel lifts Heidi from her wasted body on the bed, and the caption below reads, "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15). In the next panel Heidi is running toward Jesus who kneels and extends to her his nail-scarred hands. "Welcome home, child. You will live in heaven with us forever." In the last panel Josh places Heidi's princess crown on her gravestone and says, "My little sister is in heaven because she trusted Jesus. What about you?"

Okay, yeah, I'm choked up, you wanna make something of it? These Chick folks know what they're doing. They know that a powerfully sentimental story, even one this blatant, can still give you whiplash of the heart. A cartoon story comes across in a way a theological treatise would not.

Chick is described as a professional artist, but the artwork is one of the strangest things about these comics. The quality varies from book to book, but in no case could it be called sophisticated. Facial expressions are the hardest for an artist to depict, and these stories involve extreme emotion, from anguish to rapture.

The art isn't quite up to these challenges, with results that can be unintentionally creepy.