Crisis of Faith

The Struggle to Believe in 'Preacher'

by Monte Williams

29 September 2010


The Most Powerful 'Word'

What’s most notable about Dixie Fried—which begins with a tale of Cassidy at his most lovable and amusing—is that it’s where we first start to sense that Cassidy isn’t quite the great guy we like to think he is. This is a refreshing development that goes a long way toward preventing Preacher from becoming completely stagnant; in volume six, titled War in the Sun, Jesse brags to Tulip, “None of that ever changed me, not who I really am. Nothin’ does.” And that’s the problem.

Cassidy changes for the worse as we discover what a cruel, selfish shit he is—and kudos to Ennis for taking such a daring step with arguably the most charming character in the series—but at least he changes. Jesse only changes in the sense that, for every ten scenes of macho mayhem, he might show his sentimental side once or twice. These displays of sentiment quickly lose impact, however, because they almost always revolve around the same character: Tulip, who undergoes no more significant change than Jesse.

Tulip’s monopoly on Jesse’s affection goes mostly unchallenged until issue 42 (collected in Salvation, Preacher’s seventh volume), which ends with the greatest cliffhanger in the entire series. Jesse has been betrayed by Tulip and Cassidy, and so he becomes a wanderer. He ends up in a small Texas town named Salvation, where he meets a gruff older woman. During a conversation between the two, the woman is surprised to turn around and find Jesse standing close and studying her intently. As when he told Frankie the Eunuch to miss, Jesse here needs only one word to prove how much Ennis can make a reader care about his characters despite his lesser impulses as a writer. Here is the cliffhanger: “Mom?”

A hug means more than all the bloodshed we’ve witnessed thus far, and yet Ennis and Dillon don’t seem to learn their lesson. A scene like the mother and child reunion is inevitably followed by a Nazi dominatrix, or a villain who combines various cuts of meat into a gigantic sculpture of a woman and then fucks it, or a trio of retarded hillbilly cannibals living in a coal mine, or Arseface—the gunshot kid who always says “fuh shuh!”—visiting his furruh uhzmuhyuh (“fairy arsemother”) or Jesse Custer watching his soul mate and his best friend betray him with a kiss and responding by falling backward onto the ground like a zany neighbor character fainting in a tired sitcom.

Through most of its run, Preacher puts forth a decidedly conservative take on the world. Jesse Custer often comes across like the king in Braveheart, who unceremoniously tosses his son’s gay lover to his death. We can sympathize with Jesse’s disgust when he realizes, for example, that he’s holding a man’s dildo. But while I would feel disgust at the realization of where the thing had been, one gets the sense that Jesse is just disgusted that a man would even have a dildo.

However, in many sections of Salvation, Preacher raises the liberal flag. But whatever the politics, violence is always the solution. (Yet again I am reminded of Spawn, which solved everything from child predators to racism through stylish, vigilante murder.)

The eighth volume, All Hell’s A-Coming is easily the best book since Proud Americans, though the standalone story “Tall in the Saddle” is an ill fit. All the special issues should have been combined into a single collection so that the remaining volumes would feel less disjointed.

Ignoring “Tall in the Saddle”, All Hell’s A-Coming does a bang-up job of fleshing out Cassidy’s fall from grace as the reader’s favorite character; imagine if J.K. Rowling had decided to reveal in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Ron Weasley had a history of abusing girls and betraying his loved ones.

Tulip’s friend Amy describes Cassidy as a “nervous little boy”. Another woman says he’s “the nicest piece a’ shit I ever did meet”. Cassidy spent years beating women and turning tricks to support his heroin habit. Once, he hit a woman so hard that she lost an eye; one wonders whether, from Jesse Custer’s perspective, the low point in Cassidy’s sordid life wasn’t crippling an innocent woman, but sucking another man’s dick.

Finally, Jesse Custer discovers that Cassidy has been essentially keeping Tulip in a drugged stupor for months, arguably raping her. Issue 57 ends on an unusually subtle and understated cliffhanger: Cassidy at the door. Nothing is said, because nothing needs saying. I’ve hinted before at how much Garth Ennis can accomplish with a single word when he’s at his best, and the cliffhanger finalé to issue 57 proves that Ennis and Dillon make excellent use of silent panels, as well—there simply aren’t enough of them.

The ninth and final volume of the Preacher series is called Alamo. Alamo proves that Preacher isn’t Jesse Custer’s story. It’s Cassidy’s. This is confirmed for good in issue 66, the series finale, wherein Cassidy says to Jesse, “I can’t help wondering if maybe the big job you took on wasn’t really about God and everything, about saving the world or whatever. If maybe it was more about saving me.”  It’s probably no coincidence that Proud Americans, the greatest book in the entire series, features a number of issues exploring Cassidy’s origins.

Preacher is not just Cassidy’s story. Preacher is Cassidy. It’s vulgar and crass and stupid and stunted, and it seemingly cannot resist screwing up its own potential at every turn. Yet there are enough glimmers of goodness and greatness lurking beneath all the shit that you feel compelled to keep giving it another chance, even as it’s spitting incest and vomit and Arsefaces in your face.

Like Cassidy, Preacher finally makes you proud in the end. Indeed, a final gesture of Cassidy’s even brought tears to my eyes. (The last page made me cry a little, too, not least because of its title, the last of many Preacher salutes to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.) The curious thing about the gesture in question is this: all Cassidy really does is tell someone the truth and admit he’d lied before. What is it in humans that makes us so enamored when bad people try to do good?

One thing I’ve wondered about for ten years or more is Jesse Custer’s power. It’s called The Word, which was also the name of the city newspaper that employed Spider Jerusalem in Transmetropolitan, created by Garth Ennis’s friend, Warren Ellis. Is there some subtle, secret connection here, or was Warren Ellis just having some fun and sending a nod his best mate’s way?

Speaking of Transmetropolitan, its artist, Darick Robertson provides a consistent, grounding look to that series, and ignoring the guest artists who contributed to the various Preacher specials and miniseries, Steve Dillon does the same for Preacher. However, flipping back to Until the End of the World for reference after finishing Alamo proved to be rather startling; Dillon’s illustrations featured far more cross-hatched detail in the early issues, with the strange result that the characters seem to grow younger and cleaner as the story progresses.

Otherwise, Dillon’s illustrations, always lively and intriguing and intelligently composed—if also too often redundant thanks to Ennis’s scripts mandating gunfights every third issue or so—are almost too consistent, at times. Steve Dillon’s portraits all tend to blend together; everyone seems to share the same scowl, and there’s something in the eyes that makes all the characters appear to be distantly related to one another. In Heaven, a warrior breed of angels called the Seraphi are pupilless, which is actually nice, ‘cause it means they’re the only characters who don’t resemble every other character.

Another question: do the gods of other faiths exist in the Preacher universe, too?  God is real; is Buddha? Allah? I assume Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are atheists, but if so, they clearly decided that it’d be more subversive to skewer God within an He-does-exist context. Also, there is an odd Babel touch in issue 20: The Word only works on those who understand English. Presumably, a deaf person would be immune too, then; at one point, a woman successfully evades the Word’s power simply by covering her ears. This seems to be quite a reckless loophole.

It seems to me that most Preacher fans discovered the series at a young age. Back in the ‘90s, its defenders would probably have suggested that Preacher’s every gunshot and titty shot and F-bomb was a knowing, brilliant parody. If it were released today, would those same fans still admire its armchair vigilante posturing? Or would its fans discover that Preacher is mostly just ugly and silly and—for all its giant-toppling attacks on pretentiousness—painfully self-serious? (This doesn’t contradict my assertion that the series is filled with far too much lazy, lowbrow humor; it really is a perplexing combination of stupid humor and tiresome self-seriousness.)

If Preacher’s longtime fans were to take a fresh look at its nine uneven volumes today, would nostalgia keep them from noticing its flaws, or would they banish it to the realm of other crude, corny, ostensibly shocking ‘90s relics like South Park, Attitude-era WWF shows and Kevin Smith movies?

Speaking of Kevin Smith, I quoted his Until the End of the World introduction earlier, and I’d like to do so again. Smith suggests that, “This is not a book full of sensationalistic crap.” This from an introduction to a volume featuring chicken-fucking hillbillies, countless characters being shot through the head (including the protagonist’s father on the very first page), a depraved party for wealthy perverts where one of the guests sings “Let’s fist again, like we did last summer,” someone getting a bicycle parked in his ass, and 252 appearances of the word “fuck” in 255 comic book pages.

I’m reminded of pro wrestler Mick Foley, who once admonished his fans for writing “Foley is God” on their signs, but admitted that “Foley is Good” wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. In closing, I offer a more accurate version of Kevin Smith’s introduction:

This is a book full of sensationalistic crap. But it’s also good.


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