Tulip: The way I hear it, there’s two good places to look for God: in church, or at the bottom of a bottle.
Jesse: Maybe I’ll go find a liquor store, then … ’cause lemme tell you, it sure as hell ain’t church.
That passage from Preacher, written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Steve Dillon, stood out to me as a fairly good representation of the book. Preacher takes a long hard look at religion and doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it poses. Preacher was published from 1995–2000 and I missed the boat on it completely. Realizing that the AMC series starring Dominic Cooper was premiering in late May, I finally read it so I’d have some background if I decided to watch the adaptation. For the past month or two I’ve been plowing through all six volumes of the collected series, thanks to my local libraries. So I’ve been living with Preacher for a while now, with assorted volumes stacked around the house and whichever one I was currently reading being carried along with me from room to room or into my bag and out into the world. Reading a book or a series of books in an immersive binge-read like that is always an intense experience. You realize partway through that your obsession to find out what happens next is driving you to read more even faster than you already have been. So what follows are my initial impressions and a look at some of the themes Ennis explores. I’m sure I’ll have further observations after I’ve had time to digest the enormity of this epic run.
The key to hooking readers like that is to write characters that we can care about. Preacher hooked me quickly in large part due to Ennis’s phenomenally rich characters and their realistic dialogue. Ennis reminds me of Stephen King in that way—both write characters with real voices, have them interact as real people would, and make us want to live with and follow them as they face seemingly insurmountable odds. So in reading Preacher I saw a lot of similarities to King’s Dark Tower series, especially. Both feature a main character undertaking an epic quest and bringing along a ragtag group of fellow adventurers. In Preacher‘s case, the main group of travelers feature a Southern preacher named Jesse Custer who’s lost his faith but gained the powers of the unholy union of an angel and a demon; his ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hare who’s whip smart and handy with guns; and the inveterate alcoholic Irish vampire Cassidy. This oddball triad are traveling across America on Jesse’s mission to find God and make him stand accountable for leaving the human race in the mess we find ourselves in currently (or, the mess we found ourselves in back in the 1990s, which some might argue has only gotten worse since then). Along the way, they get sidetracked by a series of obstacles from some hilarious, repulsive, and truly frightening adversaries. Worn down over time, our protagonists still manage to claw their way back to Jesse’s original mission: to make God answer for his sins.
Jesse’s quote up above is symbolic of the series in that the characters spend a good amount of time in bars and elsewhere drinking and comparatively little time in churches. This reinforces that for some people, finding God in church—or anywhere—is an untenable prospect, yet that doesn’t mean they don’t have faith in other things. And Ennis skewers both believers and nonbelievers throughout the run, repeatedly exposing the terrible things people do to each other in thrall of religion, profit, revenge, love, drugs, and more. As someone who’s feelings about organized religion could most charitably be described as ambivalent, I found it refreshing how honestly Ennis explores religion and faith through these characters, typically not offering judgment on their choices but allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Ennis realizes that religion and faith are complicated issues, and he handles them with a sincerity that’s laced with just the right amount of cynicism.
Ennis makes Jesse and Tulip’s love story the very real and eternally beating heart of the book. This is where Ennis’s strong character development and dialogue are at their sharpest and also where Dillon shines most on the art. Dillon’s facial expressions and panel layouts are usually subtle so you might miss how good a storyteller he is if you aren’t paying attention. When Jesse and Tulip are expressing their innermost feelings to one another, Dillon captures these moments with perfect visuals—when Tulip makes a smart remark to tease Jesse’s old fashioned view of love, Dillon draws Tulip’s eyebrow slightly raised and just the faintest upturn at the corner of her mouth to indicate a smirk. Jesse and Tulip’s talks are often touching, heartfelt, contentious, and humorous all in the span of the same scene. Jesse is a man of contradictions, but one with an indomitable will and an unwavering sense of right and wrong. He’s also a gentleman, and an old fashioned one at that, something Tulip calls him out on often. She is strong enough to take care of herself—any man would be fortunate to have her at his side in battle—and she proves this several times over the course of the series. Jesse’s desire to protect her comes loaded with the best of intentions, straight from his chivalrous southern heart. Through her actions and her well-reasoned arguments against needing protection, Tulip makes it clear that Jesse needs to see her as his equal on this epic journey. Jesse and Tulip are easily one of modern literature’s most fully realized romantic pairings.
The look and tone of the series is somewhere between Southern Gothic and the Old West. The imagery is meant to be provocative: a man of the cloth shown repeatedly cursing, firing guns, and punching out the bad guys. It’s probably not a stretch to imagine some religious groups might’ve condemned it based on the notorious imagery and religious controversies. At times Ennis certainly reveling a bit too gleefully in the obscene and the absurd, sometimes overreaching for a laugh that just isn’t there. But those instances are rare, and Ennis mostly provides an exceptional balance between scenes of intimate dialogue and quick bursts of relentless action, all the while adding just the right amount of humor into the mix. Despite its reputation as a lurid and grotesque affair, Preacher is at its heart a humanistic story, and often times a very funny one at that. As is usually the case with art like this, the R-rated nature of the material might attract or repel readers at first, but the ideas and emotions being explored are what keeps readers coming back for more. I know it’s what kept me engaged with the series over the span of the six large trade paperback collections. Preacher‘s humanism forms the core of the series, with Jesse and Tulip regularly displaying individual and collective agency. They may believe in God but they sure as hell don’t believe he knows what’s best for them or the world in which they live.