The first time I'd ever heard of Preacher, I didn't know what to think. It was described to me as "A preacher, his gun-toting ex-girlfriend, and an alcoholic Irish vampire set out to find an absent God". That didn't exactly light a fire under me to read it, no matter how highly it was praised by The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for that year, nor how it was doing in the numerous comics publications that got the word out about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's lurid and highly mature American heroic epic (very well, despite the backlash Garth Ennis now enjoys for writing lurid and highly mature works). It just sounded kind of...well, not quite my thing. So I let it go until two years later the brilliant minds of Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum brought it up in their well worth the read webcomic Unshelved. Then, because I'd had multiple sources confirm that yes, this was worth reading, I fired up the Inter-Library Loan client at Maplewood Library, and...
...promptly looked at the sheer number of books and trades and side-stories, and promptly ordered Sandman, because at least I knew where to begin with that. It wasn't until years later where, jaded into apathy by Joss Whedon's utterly depressing run on Astonishing X-Men, I wandered into a comic book store looking for a pre-screening ticket to Grindhouse and decided (being completely flat-out skint) to talk comics with the guy at the counter while my friends browsed around the store. When he mentioned Preacher, I said something dismissive about that I didn't really feel like reading about a minister, only for him to jump in with "with the Voice Of God! He's a preacher with the voice of God!" And now that I knew that, the comic became intriguing. I wondered how anyone could get sixty-eight issues out of a preacher with the voice of God travelling around to find his creator when He abandoned the throne. So I looked into it, and what I found...
What I found blew me away. I have yet to encounter something like Preacher before or since-- a loud, brazen assault on the senses; a tale of a world gone mad in the absence of its creator, and the bluntest solution to the problem of theodicy I have ever seen. And yet...there's a softness to it. A humanity. These are people trying their hardest to put the world back together in spite of forces literally beyond their control. And for this reason-- as well as others-- it is one of the best comics I've ever read before or since. And I will defend it beyond reason and sense, tooth and nail, because of this. It's nasty, insane, brutal, lurid, and at the same time incredibly touching in its own way. It's vulgar, but with a heart. And I love it. Read this. Or try to. It'll probably be too graphic and sick for most people, but if you can see past this, there is a book with a lot of heart and a lot of heavy subjects in here.
More, as always, below.
Don't take no shit off fools. Judge a person by what's in 'em, not how they look. An' you do the right thing. Be one of the good guys. 'Cause there's way too many of the bad.
"Oh, well let me see...we had an angel, a whore, a eunuch, several dozen idiots, an unkillable Mick, a one-man holocaust in a duster coat, the occasional twenty-course banquet for the mother of all fat fuckers, inbreeding, family feuds, a retarded child-- always good for a laugh-- and the utter destruction of our most sacred shrine and secret retreat in the detonation of a fifty-ton bomb."
- Herr Starr
Preacher is the story of Jesse Custer. Custer, a minister in the small Texas town of Annville, has something of a breakdown one night where he gets drunk and decides to air the dirty laundry of the entire town. In front of them. After he gets the crap beaten out of him and is left outside the bar, he wakes up the next day and goes into church, where the entire town has congregated to watch him descend further into madness. Instead, everyone save Jesse is suddenly and violently immolated along with the church building, leaving him naked but otherwise unscathed. This is where he is found, with very little memory of what happened, by his ex-girlfriend, a hitwoman with the improbable name of Tulip O'Hare. Tulip and her companion, an Irish alcoholic vampire named Cassidy, promptly clean Jesse up and get a meal at the local diner to get all of their stories straight in what has been a very strange last few days.
In short order, the local sheriff, his deputies, and the FBI start looking into the Annville massacre and the mysterious disappearance of Annville's minister, one Jesse Custer. This leads them to a standoff where suddenly Jesse shouts at the deputies to drop their guns and stay where they are...which they inexplicably do. The three, realizing they are in serious trouble, attempt to get the hell out of Texas with their skins intact, but find themselves caught in a crossfire between the police, the FBI, the state troopers, and a mysterious invincible gunslinger known as the Saint of Killers who can literally shoot people in half. Jesse discovers that the thing that immolated his church remains stuck inside him, a kind of infant spiritual symbiote the angels call "Genesis", a thing so powerful that when it escaped, God himself vacated his throne and went into hiding on Earth. Armed with this knowledge, and the Voice of God (a power that means if anyone can hear and understand him, they have to follow his commands), he enlists Tulip and Cassidy to help him scour the Earth and hold God accountable for abandoning His creation in its greatest time of need.
And then things get weird
What follows is a barely-hinged rampage across America as Jesse and his companions tangle with corrupt law enforcement, serial killers, mobsters, the Saint of Killers, evangelical bayou-dwellers, vampires, cannibals, a voodoo priest, cults, the depravity king of California, a pair of "sexual private investigators", and the revenge-mad head of a worldwide conspiracy designed to safeguard the messiah and kick-start Armageddon itself. Along the way, they are aided by a motley assortment of allies and temporary friends, Jesse's guardian angel John Wayne, a boy with a face that looks like an arse (literally), and a cast of colorful characters-- none of whom are particularly sane or interested in stuff like "preservation of life". In the end, everyone will be changed, nothing will remain completely unscathed, and someone will get hurt. But everyone-- even the Almighty himself-- has to answer for what he's done. And Jesse Custer is just the man to make him answer for it.
I'd like to open things with a discussion of the main theme of the piece. Preacher is a book that isn't interested in redemption, not really. It's more interested in justice. Many of the people in Preacher don't actually get second chances, and almost all of them are far from deserving of them. Preacher exists in a universe where everyone-- from God on down-- is actually held accountable for the things they've done. And it's a very strong theme. It's especially strong in that there seems to be some kind of cosmic retribution hounding some of the villains. One of the big bads in the final half of the series suffers some incredibly painful mutilations and defeats in a kind of karmic exchange for the way he attacks the heroes. Another gets blown up and has everything around them burn down. A third gets fatally struck by lightning. If there isn't an interventionist god, there's definitely a universe with a sense of humor in some way.
A big part of this is also illustrating the consequences for actions, and enforcing karma. There's actually a few good illustrations of this, but most notably is a character in the final third of the series, where-- not to spoil it too much, as I do want people to read it-- a man who has committed a great number of atrocities is basically given a verbal beatdown by one of the main characters and forced to consider the weight of what he's done. It's not a spoiler to say that in a series like this, it doesn't end well. At all.
The theme is conveyed through a rather lurid script with equally lurid images. You can kind of tell if someone's good or evil in Preacher through Steve Dillon's rather expressive art, as the people who look more human are usually better morally-centered, whereas the bad guys have some kind of cartoonish flaw. Odin Quincannon (a villainous meat packer in the last third of the series), for instance, looks like someone took a stick figure and put skin and bones over it. Out of the entire Angelville compound, the only one who looks even remotely human is terminal sadist Jodie, and even then, his sharklike eyes kind of give him a certain inhuman quality. The art is also incredibly detailed, with ridiculous events happening in the background of the page and very little negative space. Negative space is actually used to pinpoint a few specific events, none of them good, throughout the series. You can always tell when something gets real because of the amount of white on the page. It makes me want to track down other things Dillon's done.
And Ennis's writing has a very strong command of the dialogue and of the page, as well. Despite most of it being snark and some definite soapboxing about therapy, the Irish, religion, and people who don't like Laurel and Hardy; Ennis's writing stays fairly tight throughout, only flagging upon the first entry of The Grail into the story. This is the most loosely-written section, which is disappointing. The showdown at Masada, the Grail's headquarters in France, is one of the major turning points of the story and the first time the heroes really gain the upper hand in their continual battle against God. But as written, it's a rather gross tableau of scenes until finally Jesse arrives to enter the fray, at which point it becomes an all-out melee and regains a little of the momentum it had carried until then. I like that Ennis seems to end each major arc in yet another cataclysmic battle, ending in a huge set piece in front of the Alamo as the Grail tries to start Armageddon. What I don't like is that the entire introduction of the Grail is basically a kind of darkly comic event which even despite the tone feels uneven.
Another place where Ennis's writing falters is Jesse and Tulip. Despite portraying them as a loving couple, and indeed showing that yes, they do love each other more than anyone would possibly care to, there are some major issues with how they're portrayed and how their relationship actually works out. There are too many things to go into for one paragraph, so allow me to break this down by character:
First, the good: Jesse Custer has the most responsible use of superpowers I have ever seen. It doesn't happen all at once, and it doesn't happen right away, but he essentially treats his power as an incredibly powerful loaded gun. One he doesn't want to point at anyone's head unless he absolutely has to. While earlier on in the story he's reliant on his verbal nuke, later on he learns to beat the crap out of people instead, and almost never uses it unless he's attacking a member of the Grail or the circumstances are severe. He learns, which is something that doesn't often come into using a power. Usually learning with powers means learning to control them and use them in better ways, with Jesse it means learning actual responsibility and when not to use his powers. And there's a certain respectability and honor to everything Jesse does, which adds to the heroism. Furthermore, while he's never really a good guy, he does try, and you can see him agonizing sometimes over the choices he's made.
However...while Jesse tries, and tries very hard to be a good guy, he's a dick. He has a violent temper, he can be downright vicious to people at times. There's a certain absolutism to Jesse that I don't completely enjoy, and while he's strong in his convictions, his inability to see people for anything but what he thinks of them kind of makes him hard to sympathize with at times. This also comes out in a little of an annoying way as Ennis clearly couldn't find too much to do with Tulip and so has Jesse find increasingly convoluted ways to abandon her before he goes off to fight the next major obstacle. While in a certain light, this could be seen as a rather blunt attack at the whole "No, I have to keep you safe while I undertake my duty as a hero" scenes in comic books, what it comes off as is Jesse treating his girlfriend like shit. Which is a shame, because Tulip is a compelling character in her own right, and seeing her kicking ass during the "War in the Sun" arc and wielding a high-powered rifle during the climax of the final chapter, "Alamo" is freaking awesome. Also, for a guy who values honor and justice and is trying to be good, the scenes where he condemns a reformed war criminal to death is a big transgression, even with moral absolutism. And finally, the part where he knocks Tulip out with a drugged water bottle and goes off rushing into danger is really not a great look out for him.
And on the subject of Tulip, Ennis actually handles her as a character pretty fully. There's really no problems with Tulip as a character. She's vivacious, snarky, and completely independent. It's actually quite surprising giving Ennis's rep, but that might just be me remembering how undeserved that rep kind of is. She's a strong character, she's actually more capable than most of the male characters in the work, and she kicks more ass than anyone in the story, which is something to be said because she doesn't really have as much page time as Jesse and Cassidy. She also seems to be the most socially capable, which, given that her competition are an abuse survivor and a vampire who sees no relationship between cause and effect, isn't saying much, but on the page it comes off very well.
Unfortunately, she's always more of a pawn, more of the "stop having fun" guy. She has to force her way into the big battles because Jesse is keeping her out of harm's way. and while she gets revenge, the one way she doesn't seem to have agency is the way Jesse keeps moving her out of the way. And Jesse never seems to suffer any consequences. Tulip always takes him back, which isn't the best bit of characterization. It says something that two pages after telling him at one point she never wants to see him ever, ever again, he shows up on a horse and she immediately takes him back. He doesn't even use the Voice on her. She just does.
Which brings us to Cassidy. Cassidy, despite being among the most despicable characters in Preacher hands-down, winds up being forgiven and given all kinds of second chances. He spends literally an entire third of the story perving on Tulip behind Jesse's back, she rebuffs him, and they keep bringing him along. When he finally seems to get his comeuppance...there he is again. No matter how many lives he ruins, no matter how many times he fucks the heroes over, they still keep Cassidy around. It would be nice, in a graphic novel about being held accountable for one's actions, if Cassidy had ultimately had a karmic fate that actually fit his crimes against humanity and his friends.
But it's actually far from bad, despite these glaring errors. While Jesse is an antihero and wears the term like a coat he could wrap around himself, the book doesn't let him get away completely clean, as the way the stories are framed gives the reader plenty of chances to indict him. Tulip may be more of a prop, but when she gets her own arcs, she's easily the most compelling and heartbreaking character of the three. She brute-forces herself out of a dependent cycle at one point, and it made me almost stand up and applaud. Cassidy is great comic relief despite being a drug-addicted, alcoholic sociopath, and gets some very human, very real moments. Despite glorifying the actions of the somewhat antiheroic characters, the book also makes sure to show that they're trying very hard to be more than they are and become better people. Despite a very antireligious stance, it's clear there's something bigger going on in the universe, as God is afraid of things and there's some kind of extra-universal karmic retribution. Despite being casually sexist at points, it nails the Bechdel Test once if not twice, and has a frankly unnerving but honest take on rape culture. Despite being blunt in its solution to the problem of theodicy ("God is a massive dick") and indeed blunt solution to everything, it subtly examines and re-examines each point it makes for different views.
It's a book that instead of being a polemic or a simple epic about a man searching for God and finding him wanting, is also an examination of the plots it puts forth. It says something that the two most prominent villains in the book (God and Herr Starr, respectively) are a coward trying to run from what he's done, and a man who is the recipient of some brutal lessons in why communication is important. It's an epic where people don't necessarily change due to the plot or their deeds, but due to the self-reflection of the plot and of the characters themselves, and in the end, it's well worth the sick, twisted, occasionally flat-out unsettling ride it takes its readers on.
So yes, I think you should read Preacher. I think I've spilled enough virtual ink informing you of the pros and cons of the book, and while I will warn you that "vulgar and lurid" doesn't begin to cover it, it's a fun, subversive book that I still haven't gotten tired of reading and have found new ways to look at every time I do. So read it. If you can make it through the vulgarity, you'll find an interesting book with a lot of heart and a lot to give. If you can't, at least you tried, and you know Garth Ennis isn't for you. But give it a try. Even a vulgar and crazy magnum opus is a magnum opus worthy of some respect, and this one will always be for me.
- The Sandman by Neil Gaiman et. al.
- Lucifer by Mike Carey, Peter Gross, et. al.
- 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, et. al.