Hello, there, and welcome to another New Comics Day. This week I’m taking the easy way out and reprinting an old essay I wrote for the now-defunct Savant. It’s older material, but I’ve gone through and heavily re-written several sections, adding about 500 words. Maybe I’m not lazy, just unimaginative. Either way, Preacher is my all-time favorite comic book series. It may not be the absolute best of the best, but it’s my personal favorite and one that, despite plenty of popularity, hasn’t gotten too much in the way of critical attention. (Or pseudo-critical. Shut the fuck up.)
One other bit of business — I wrote a long-ish review of Joe Matt’s third collection Fair Weather for Jessa Crispin’s Bookslut (bookslut.com). If it’s not still up on the front page, it will be listed in the archives under “Fiction.” Give it a look if you haven’t already, but, really, don’t tell anyone you weren’t already reading Bookslut, you unhip bastard you.
PREACHER: TEXAS AND BEYOND
I had been living in Chicago for nearly a month, and the strain of city life was getting to me. Before moving to the city, I spent all of my life down South in a couple of small towns with populations less than all the people living in a half-mile radius around my new apartment. For two decades or so I lived on the border of Kentucky, where men are men and sheep are nervous. I knew people who still drank honest-to-god bootlegged moonshine. My next-door neighbors were cows.
Just before I left the South I popped into a Kentucky comic shop and bought the first Preacher trade, Gone to Texas. Despite it being the most popular spandex-free book published at the time, I had never read a single issue. I figured I had plenty of lonely nights in a new city to look forward to, so I bought it, tucked it into my suitcase and shipped out.
I didn’t dig the book out of my suitcase until a few weeks after the move when I decided to take a train ride home. In barely three weeks I had seen every clubber, preppy dickhead and snotty private school attending, SUV driving rich boy I thought would ever want to see in my life.
Having never really traveled, I expected the world outside my half-horse town would be exotic, but all I saw were a bunch of apathetic burb babies. Political correctness was thriving. The guys listened to shitty pop music, wore Abercrombie & Fitch shirts with matching shoes, drank fruity drinks, watched Friends and really cared who won Emmy awards. One night a girl was nearly raped just down the hall from me; I was the only person to come to her aid after hearing the screams. Everyone else stayed in bed. I was surrounded by pussies.
Sitting on the late-night train back home, feeling tired and alone and out of place, I opened the Preacher trade. I couldn’t tell you much else about the train ride because as soon as I was done reading the book, I turned back to the first page and started again.
Preacher is a bloody, hilarious, all-American tall tale. Snobby folk might refer to it as something akin to mytho-poetics. It’s a book about America written by a man who learned most of what he knows about the States from war movies, westerns and pulp novels. His version of America has much less to do with the reality of the country than the idea of it. Writer Garth Ennis’ West is a kind of new Old West. His hero is Jesse Custer, a preacher who has lost his faith. Like any good American hero, Jesse is a kind of pioneer with a quest. After Genesis, the all-powerful spawn of an angel and a demon, escapes its holding pen in heaven, it latches onto Jesse Custer. In addition to giving him the power of God’s word, a kind of Jedi-like ability to make anyone he speaks to do whatever he says, it gives him inside knowledge about God. It turns out the creator isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, that he’s abandoned his flock out of cowardice and left civilization up to its own devices. Jesse decides he’s just the man to hold God accountable.
Accompanying Jesse on his trip is his girlfriend Tulip, a strong-willing Southern gal who moonlights as an assassin, and Cassidy, an Irish boozehound who also happens to be a vampire. Preacher‘s detractors like to point out that the concept is big and dumb. Of course it is — it’s all-American. (Have these people never seen a Superbowl?) For the last century, America has been all about making things bigger and more extravagant, so in writing the archetypal American story, Ennis makes it as big as he can: big shoot outs, big tits, big drinkers, big conflicts and big jokes. It’s a gaudy, ostentatious, beautiful, giant, unwieldy bit of bloody, profane hyperbole.
Ennis’ conception of God is a fairly Christian rendition, although it bears more resemblance to a neo-Baptist, fundamentalist idea of the creator rather than any version of God directly described in the Bible or elsewhere. Ennis taps into the jealous, vengeful Old Testament idea of God, then throws in all the hypocrisy and small-mindedness that is stereotypically associated with radical Bible-thumpers.
Ennis’s “God” can actually be taken two ways. The less heretical would hold him to be not so much the above-stated fundamentalist idea of God, but rather the organized church itself. (You have to love a book in which the least offensive way to interpret the villain is as an embodiment of the middle-American church.) He’s less a spiritual being than a political one, all too happy to make deals with the worst of the worst (and even the man willing to kill him) in order to weasel along for another day. He’s an entity whose life has been reduced to a kind of rotten version of the St. Anselmian definition of God as intrinsically existing in which ensuring another day of his existence is his only goal rather than an inadvertent one. He’s perilously close to being obsolete, and he’ll do whatever he can to duck the fallout of his actions and keep going for another day.
The more interesting way of considering God in Preacher is a literal incarnation of God as described in the Old Testament, a walking, talking bundle of hypocrisy who seems every bit as flawed as the strangely human deities of Greek mythology. In this reading, Ennis isn’t just poking at the church, he’s kicking dirt on the Western concept of God altogether. This God is a sort of power-mad but increasingly obsolete figure, inconsistent, petty and despicable.
Artist Steve Dillon, who drew every single panel of every regular issue of Preacher, something close to 1,800 pages, is as accountable for the madness and mayhem as Ennis. While Ennis may have to come up with wild ideas like a crazed killer carving off someone’s face and nailing it back into their skull upside down while the victim is still alive, Dillon has to draw them, and he does it with mad energy. His style is simple and straightforward, perfect for the story of a simple, straightforward guy from Texas. What distinguishes Dillon from so many of his counterparts is his ability to draw long talking-head sequences and touching character moments with the same verve and aptitude as he can draw, say, a thousand pound man being dropped out of a helicopter onto a group of soldiers and popping like bloated roadkill. Granted, most of Dillon’s characters all have the same face and are mostly differentiated by hairstyles and style of dress — it’s his most obvious shortcoming, without a doubt — but his ability to capture subtle gesture and expression as well as render the grotesque in beautiful detail easily makes up for this. Ennis’ dialogue may be sharp, but much of the humor in Preacher is violent slapstick and crude visual gags. One of the supporting characters, Arseface, is a walking, talking, slobbering joke, and it’s hard to imagine anyone so perfectly capturing the character’s twisted visage but Steve Dillon.
Preacher is an epic, and like any epic the story is long and involving. There are digressions about serial killers, covens of vampires, a town run by a crooked corporation and stories from the characters’ respective pasts. Ennis’ tangents are of varying interest. His vampire stories work as an amusing critique of the popular conception of vampires, or, more specifically, an extended middle finger at Anne Rice and her mini-cult. In the Cassaday: Blood and Whiskey one shot, Cass confronts a vampire who lives his life according to Anne Rice novels and who is, when placed in an even remotely real setting, revealed to be completely absurd. (Ennis seems to want to indicate that he’s queer as the day is long — doesn’t even want to look at tits in New Orleans, Cass notices — but he restrains himself a bit.) Somewhat more interesting diversions include Ennis’ take on the classic Western tale in which Jesse, the drifter, becomes sheriff of a town and is beholden to clean it up. It’s an interesting take on the genre, and though many mark its conclusion as the weak point of the series (the revelation of the villain Odin Quincannon’s sexual obsession is considered the low-water mark of taste and storytelling focus for more than a few critics), one could easily argue that it’s a necessary step for a man doing an extended riff on the American West. In fact, I’ll argue it, you pansy fuckers. All of the twists and turns in the overall plot are fantastic and not one of them fails to entertain, but everything great about Preacher can be found in the first seven issues collected in the trade. Themes of friendship and loyalty, romance, humor, horror-its all there, wrapped in the form of a horrific, hilarious western for the modern age.
Its heavy focus on morality makes Preacher more than amusing throwaway entertainment. Jesse Custer’s quest is driven by his old fashioned, hard-nosed values. His ethics come not from Kant, but from Wayne — John Wayne, that is. Jesse is a man out of time, a good ol’ boy who fondly remembers the day when a man did what a man had to do. The world he inhabits is filled with psychotic killers, deviant perverts, corrupt elites, and in fact seems to be run by them, but Custer stands tall against every one of them. Custer is the man who still has the balls to do what needs to be done when everyone else has ducked out and headed for the hills. He’s the idealized American loner, isolated from any form of group thinking, obsessed with his own personal quest and indebted only to his closest companions. A more negative spin on the character might be to call him capitalism embodied — the individualistic focus of America arguably stemming more from some economic focus than any kind of ideological notion — but Ennis is working only from ideology here and consistently presents nothing but the glossiest and most romantic version of America as filtered through its B-movies and dime novels. That’s the appeal but also the ultimate shortcoming of Preacher: it’s the idealized America, the twisted but sincere travel brochure proudly and loudly proclaiming the country’s most popular and widely held disillusions.
The heart of Preacher doesn’t lie in politics, however. Even when Ennis’ bizarre and glorious tale stumbles in its attempt at genre-bending or balks at the implications of certain cultural or political complexities, the center of the book is friendship and loyalty. The shocks and sight gags may lose a bit of their impact after multiple readings, but the themes of betrayal and redemption only get stronger. Ennis never shies away from following up on the grander notions of his book — he finally does deal with God, the Grail and the rest of the eccentric supporting cast no matter how large — but the last 100 or so pages of the book narrow down the focus of the story to three people and the bonds and relationships that exist between them. Even when dealing with such a large scale, one spanning heaven and the hellish underbelly of Earth, Ennis’ final message is one of friendship and love at any cost. It turns out that the dirty-joke ridden tough guy book was a heartfelt message for closet softies after all.
Ennis and Dillon’s tale of tough guys and brassy broads is a little bit of everything. It’s comedy and drama and horror, a morality play that wallows in immorality, a tall tale and a character study, Unforgiven as written by Kevin Smith and directed by George Romero. What it’s not is politically correct, dressed up, toned down or compromised. It’s the kind of edgy, fucked-up story that could only come from comics.
If comics being considered a third-class form of culture is what it takes to keep books like Preacher coming, I hope we never get too respectable. That would ruin all the fun and, besides, I never had much class anyway.