Crisis of Faith: The Struggle to Believe in 'Preacher'

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?

Preacher Vol. 1: Gone to Texas

Publisher: Vertigo
Contributors: Garth Ennis (writer), Steve Dillon (illustrator)
Publication Date: 1996-03-01

The word “fuck” appears 1,758 times in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. Some of the more creative variations include fuggin’, thuck (when the speaker’s face has been removed), huck (when the speaker’s teeth have been kicked out), fooking (when the speaker is Irish), fuh-fuh-fuh (when the speaker is paralyzed), a “fu” followed next panel by a “ck” (when the speaker watches someone get shot mid-word), plus a huggk (when the speaker is gagged), and even a drawn-out version that takes up an entire three-panel page; the letter u appears 48 times in that one (the speaker is falling off a cliff).

Jesse Custer the eponymous clergyman says “fuck” a lot. So does his girlfriend, Tulip, a little girl raised by her daddy to love guns, until Daddy gets shot during a hunting accident and Tulip learns to hate guns… until she becomes a hitwoman. Jesse’s pal Cassidy says “fuck” more than any other character in the series, and indeed my favorite use of the word is probably this inspired declaration by Cassidy, not just Jesse’s friend but also an Irish vampire: “Oh fuck. It’s God.”

In a special issue dedicated to Cassidy (collected in the Dixie Fried graphic novel), “fuck” appears 56 times; at least once per page until page eight, which features no dialogue at all.

Even the angels of Heaven say “fuck” in Preacher, a popular but controversial late '90s comic book series which includes 66 issues plus a half-dozen “specials” (non-continuity tales), all collected in nine graphic novel paperbacks with striking painted covers by Glenn Fabry. The plot of the long, engaging, uneven series concerns Jesse Custer’s quest for God. Specifically, Custer has a superpower of sorts called “The Word”, which gives his every command the absolute authority of God’s word; if Jesse Custer told you to put a gun to your head and pull the trigger, you would not hesitate to obey. (His eyes helpfully turn an angry red whenever he uses his power.)

Jesse’s gift quickly leads him to discover that God has vacated his throne, and so Jesse and his two unlikely companions set off to find Him. As Cassidy puts it, “You’re lookin’ for God—I mean literally, not some soul-searchin’ bullshit.”

Spawn creator Todd McFarlane once said that a hero is only as good as his villain, and so by making Spawn fight the devil (or a devil, at least), McFarlane was trying to subtly imply that his creation was superior to all other superheroes. Clearly, Preacher creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon know something Todd McFarlane doesn’t know: if you wish to create an imposing, insurmountable David-and-Goliath scenario for your hero, then God, not Satan, is the greatest villain of all.

Here, then, are some of the many things Preacher has to say about God:

Tulip, who freely admits “I think He’s a piece of shit,” asks Jesse, “What will you do when you get the Almighty by the balls?” Custer—who refers to God at one point as “the good fuckin’ Lord” and later demands, “Where is He?! Where the fuck is God?!” and boasts, “God don’t stand a fuckin’ chance”—offers a succinct reply: “Squeeze.”

An angel protests Jesse’s callous blasphemy by insisting, “But he is the Lord of Hosts!” Jesse answers, “Yeah, an’ he can wait his goddamn turn.”

God Himself offers a privileged, oblivious protest of His own: “But it’s my creation…!” In response, the longsuffering Saint of Killers—a brutal murderer in the Old West, manipulated by God into replacing the Angel of Death as “the patron saint of slaughter and assassination”—says, “It’s outgrown you.”

Not to be outdone, Cassidy cheerfully offers the following: “Having met the Good Lord face to face, I think I can honestly say he’s a bit of a prick.” He also asks a fellow bloodsucker, “What’re yeh scared’ve crosses for, ‘cause some bollicks got nailed to one a couple’ve thousand years ago?”

Cassidy eventually admits, “I still can’t get me head round it. Findin’ God, punishin’ God—it’s too big. Too abstract.” Jesse Custer is dismissive: “Only if you allow it to be. He did wrong. He fucked people up. He has to be made to face it. You look at it that way, He’s just another son of a bitch.” (The dialogue and captions in comic books are written in all caps; I do not know whether Jesse Custer—or Garth Ennis—would approve of my proper-noun status for “He”.)

Meanwhile, and perhaps most resonantly, the Saint of Killers marvels aloud, “Why can a man not turn to doing good without the Lord getting all mixed up in it?”

Preacher’s boldest statement about God might be a panel with no dialogue or narration at all: God is shot dead. This is of course presented as a happy ending.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith, in his introduction to Preacher’s second volume, Until the End of the World, writes, “As a man who has an unflappable, fervent, and devout faith in God… I know—in my heart and soul—the Lord to be mighty, just, loving, and righteous… and a huge fan of Preacher.”

Smith wrote the above fairly early in Preacher’s run. It would be interesting to see whether he still feels this way, especially in light of Jesse Custer’s mission statement: “God has to go… He deserves it for the things He’s done, but more than that the world just plain needs to be rid of Him.”

(To give you a sense of how much pop cultural time has elapsed since Smith’s misguided but well-intended comments about God’s favorable stance on Preacher, his post-intro bio mentions the imminent release of Chasing Amy, then continues, “His next assignment is putting words in the mouth of Clark Kent and his Kryptonian alter ego in the new Superman movie from Warner Bros.”)

Really, though, for all its “We’re gonna get you, God!” swagger, Preacher doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to bother with the Almighty. Consider: the first line in the first issue of Preacher is, “This where you’re gonna start lookin’ for Him, Jesse?” And the final word from that debut issue is “Bang”. Really, that about sums up God’s role in Preacher. God serves the same function in Preacher that Montana serves in Lonesome Dove; He is a destination for our heroes to aim for so that they can change throughout their journey—or not change, in the case of the characters in Preacher, as I’ll discuss later. God is there for our protagonists to rail against and to curse and to threaten, and yet he is never really there in any meaningful way. God is mentioned repeatedly, and He pops up for the occasional cameo appearance, if only to remind the reader that He does indeed exist—at least in the Preacher universe. And He also serves as a convenient deus ex machina a time or three. And then He is shot dead: “Bang.”

He's not the only one. The (many) shootouts in Preacher remind me of an old Gary Larson Far Side strip concerning an Old West sheriff admonishing his posse before a gunfight: “If you do get plugged, for gosh sakes don't just slump over and die. Put some drama into it and throw yourself screaming from the edge."

You see, no one in Preacher gets shot without physical drama to spare. You rightly respond, “Surely there should be physical drama when someone is shot,” but in the pages of Preacher, most bullets seem to strike the face, with the result that “fuck” hardly appears more often than flaps of skin that used to be noses and gaping, bloody caverns in place of jaws. I was reminded of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and while I happen to think Natural Born Killers is a brilliant film, it’s only a couple hours long; if it was made into, say, a long-running HBO series, then the over-the-top violence would quickly lose whatever impact it has, both as clever commentary and as simple cultural shock-and-awe.

Preacher was published by Vertigo, a popular dumping ground for DC’s non-superhero comics, most of which are deemed too controversial to share a publishing logo with Batman and Aquaman and the like. Vertigo was a popular imprint in the '90s, because no matter how fantastic the plots, the characters in a given Vertigo at least speak like real people… or more like real people than Flash or Green Lantern, anyway.

More often than not, Preacher takes this ostensibly realistic approach to dialogue too far; as noted above, even the angels in Heaven drop the F-bomb. To cite another example, when a detective approaches a hysterical, grieving widow and asks, “Is this your husband’s scrotum?” one is startled right out of the story, not because the writing is edgy or daring but because the dialogue has become distractingly implausible. That the detective in question is a vicious homophobe who turns out to be a gay connoisseur of S&M might seem to justify his distracted, gruff conduct with the widow—it must be taxing, living with such self-hatred—but in reality it just makes the plot feel as tired as most of the dialogue.

The problem with the kind of stupid humor that permeates Preacher (a hillbilly engaging in sexual congress with a chicken, say, or a self-inflicted shotgun-blast victim drooling and saying “For sure!”—or “Fuh shuh!”—to every question) is that such humor makes it difficult for the reader to invest in the supposed intensity of the dramatic scenes that surround all the stupidity. Likewise, the problem with excessive profanity is that there is no impact during those times when profanity is truly warranted. For example, Jesse Custer visits his deranged, abusive family members, who were responsible for the murder of Jesse’s mother and father when Jesse was just a child. He tells them, “I owe you pissant white trash cocksucking sons of bitches all the hurt in the fuckin’ world,” and it’s got almost no power, because he talks that way to everyone he meets, from his girlfriend to his granny to his God.

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