Crisis of Faith

The Struggle to Believe in 'Preacher'

by Monte Williams

29 September 2010


A Profanity More Powerful Than the F-Word

Compare this to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, which features no profanity whatsoever until Inigo Montoya finally delivers his oft-practiced speech of vengeance to his father’s killer. When the killer pleas, “I’ll give you anything you want,” Montoya responds, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.” That one use of the phrase “son of a bitch” is more powerful than any hundred shouts of “Fuck!” in Preacher.

Still, the series does boast a number of inviting opening lines:

“First time John Wayne spoke to me I was five years old, not long after seein’ my daddy get shot through the head.” (Issue 4.)

“Well, well. If it isn’t the woman that nobody fucks with.” (Issue 33.)

“Life without genitalia, day fifty-one.” (Issue 59.)

“Between the stink of my shit an’ puke an’ piss an’ the noise from what was crawlin’ around outside, my week in the coffin kind of sucked.” (Issue 10.) (You would expect that a line about having spent a week in a coffin would be uttered by the vampire, but not in this case.)

Ennis has a way with dialogue in general, if only sporadically. The first time God serves as a deus ex machina is when he brings Tulip back to life after Jesse watches his family members shoot her. The lovers don’t talk much when she first returns; they’re too busy screwing. Eventually, though, Jesse says, “I kinda skipped this before, ‘cause I figured you mightn’t wanna talk about it—But what was it like gettin’ shot through the head?”

That sounds like just the sort of unintentionally tactless question a man like Jesse Custer would ask a person. It also has the pleasant effect of making Jesse’s relationship with Tulip feel believable, which is pretty important to establish after an otherwise absentee God just brought her back to life; one must enjoy quite a level of intimacy with another person to feel comfortable asking a question like “What was it like gettin’ shot through the head?”

The dialogue also shines when the characters playfully taunt one another in what’s often an endearing fashion. Cassidy admits at one point that he might be a bit insecure, to which Jesse replies, “I hate that goddamned word. Insecure: goddamn late-Eighties pop-psychology asshole’s fuckin’ buzzword.” Soon, Cassidy suggests that perhaps Jesse needs “a wee chat wi’ his inner child”. And later, “Yeh might just be in denial… get some downtime an’ really try to process yer issues.”

Or there’s the scene wherein our heroic trio crashes a sex party in search of bad types, and Cassidy is accosted by a goth chick who says, “Hit me! Bite me! I want you to bite me!” and Cass replies, “Heh heh heh! No yeh don’t!”

The host of this party, Jesus de Sade promotes himself thusly: “We in the Gomorrah people are interested primarily in physical gratification: in smashing through the boundaries of base and boring everyday society. In tasting of forbidden fruit, and luxuriating in our defiance of an old, defeated god.”

Jesse Custer is less than impressed: “You mean you fuck a lot.”

I don’t mind Jesse’s use of the F-bomb there; that word can add a lot to a joke, when used sparingly. This here is better, though, and it boasts not a single utterance of the F-word: Jesse Custer visits the Empire State Building and marvels at the New York City timeline (complete with Twin Towers), and he marvels, “It looks like… every goddamn movie I ever seen of the place… like every movie they ever made about here’s really happened, somewhere way down in all that smoky streetlight.”

Tulip gets a few opportunities to shine as well, though often as not her buddy Amy steals the scene, as in this exchange:

Tulip: Well, you know how Jesse makes such a big deal about honor and loyalty? I mean, it’s a very guy thing to do… I guess it’s a girl thing, too. But we don’t have to turn everything into an ideal, we just get on with it.

Amy: We don’t read enough Hemingway.

Unfortunately, there’s also lots of dialogue like, “Your father’s severed penis is stuck in his colon” and, “I will have vengeance… and if I have a face like an arse—so be it! I will become Arseface!”

Such nonsense is what drags Preacher down from the lofty heights down to the gutter, where it belongs.

I first read parts of Preacher more than a decade ago, when I reviewed the first two volumes (Gone to Texas and Until the End of the World) for my college newspaper. I was almost angry at how disappointing it was; I’d heard much in the way of hyperbolic praise from my fellow comic book nerds, who’d never led me astray before. My review ended with a wistful plea: “If only Jesse and his Word power were real, he could stare at Ennis and Dillon with his red, glowing eyes and say, ‘Moderate.’”

Then a funny thing happened. I saw a weary copy of Preacher’s third volume at a used bookstore near my home a year or three later, and I figured $8 wasn’t too much to pay to watch the story circle the drain for another ten issues or so, and… well…

The third Preacher book, Proud Americans struck me as such a dramatic improvement over its predecessors that I immediately purchased the remaining six volumes. Years later, looking back at the series with relatively fresh eyes, it takes only three pages to see why Proud Americans broke through my skepticism: Jesse Custer runs into a Vietnam buddy of his dad’s, who offers to tell Jesse about the father he can’t remember. For once, Jesse is neither flippant nor dismissive nor sarcastic nor ironic. For once, after nearly twenty issues filled with melodramatic posturing, Jesse manages to appear engaged without being profane. Finally, Jesse Custer is quietly earnest:

Billy “Space” Baker: Jesse… do you wanna know a little about your daddy? ‘Bout what happened to us three in the ‘Nam? ‘Cause I hope I ain’t outta line here, but I think he’d of been cool about you hearin’ it.”

Jesse: Yes sir, I’d like that more’n anything.

Later, a mellow scene featuring star-struck marines meeting John Wayne is richer and more satisfying than all the combined vengeance and wrath in Gone to Texas and Until the End of the World.

Proud Americans is not without its tired gags, including a really, really fat villain who’s apparently supposed to be entertaining simply because he’s fat, plus the inbred descendant of Jesus Christ. You might expect that a writer could do a lot with a power like Jesse Custer’s, and in Proud Americans, Garth Ennis does not disappoint. Though Preacher is not a superhero comic book, Preacher #24 (collected in Proud Americans) features arguably the all-time most clever and inspired use of a superpower:

Jesse Custer enters a chamber where a moody mobster named Frankie the Eunuch is torturing Cassidy. Frankie immediately points his gun at Jesse and says, “First word outta your mouth I swear to fuckin’ God you’re dead before the second. I know you, motherfucker… I know what you can do! One fuckin’ word, motherfucker! One word!”

Jesse’s eyes glow red, and he offers a lone command: “Miss.”

That single panel featuring Jesse Custer ordering a gunman to miss is what turned me into a Preacher fan. Unfortunately, there are six more collections to wade through after that delightful moment, and they’re maddeningly uneven. Proud Americans did not represent the start of an escalating improvement, as I’d hoped. Instead, Garth Ennis seems to improve in the same manner Marilyn Manson improves: intermittently, at best.

The fourth volume in the series is called Ancient History, and it exhibits a particularly stark plummet in quality. Collecting a trio of Preacher miniseries, Ancient History begins with a personable, enthusiastic introduction by Garth Ennis, and a stirring, giddy love letter of an opening two-page spread, featuring narration that mixes real-life figures of the American West with such fictional legends as Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, until even the narrator admits, “It’s been so long since then that I no longer know just which of them are truth… and which are only legends.”

From there, alas, it’s pretty much consistently downhill. Some scenes are set in Hell, during which time the story takes on some of that lumbering, early-‘90s, desperately grim ‘n gritty feel that seemed to pervade every comic book in those days. At its worst, parts of Ancient History almost read like a forgotten story from the pages of those Spawn comics I mentioned earlier.

Volume five, Dixie Fried begins with a special issue dedicated to Jesse’s good friend Cassidy, though the plot mostly just serves as a foundation for a series of comical mockeries of Anne Rice’s overwrought Vampire Chronicles. Cass meets a fellow vampire for the first time, and is disheartened to see that his fellow creature of the night is a wanker (or, as Cassidy puts it, “Wanker. Noun. One who wanks.”). Cassidy’s interactions with the pretentious Eccarius are frequently hilarious:

Eccarius: How could they know the torment that we face? Of never quite belonging, always looking in from out here in the cold… the exquisite hell of a life both blessed and cursed…

Cassidy: Aye. Torment.

Eccarius is fond of pretentious phrases like “christened in crimson” and “a nativity of moonlight and nightmare.” He gives a whole page-long speech filled with such gibberish, only to realize he is alone; Cassidy has joined a nearby crowd of drunken fratboys chanting “Show your tits!” to a girl on a nearby balcony.

One of Eccarius’s human groupies is an obvious jab at Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Coraline. He even writes a poem for Eccarius—Cassidy notes, “Now how did I know it wasn’t gonna rhyme?”—which ends with the word “dream,” a clear nod to Gaiman’s Morpheus character from the Sandman series. This playful knock at Gaiman would carry more weight if Gaiman’s Sandman wasn’t so vastly superior to Preacher. Still, it’s good for a laugh.

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