Preacher – Comic review
When I proposed to do a review of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion’s Preacher comic I thought I’d knock it over in a week. Two tops.
Yet reviewing Preacher is a lot harder than it looks. On the surface it’s the violently profane story of a burnt out Texan Preacher Jesse Custer’s literal search for God.
In Heaven a demon and an angel mate and their union is the creature Genesis. Genesis has the knowledge of heaven and hell and hence in almost as powerful as God.
It escape heaven and fuses with the Jesse’s soul, giving him the voice of God. Any who hear his command are compelled to obey. Along the way Jesse teams up with his ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hare and an Irish vampire called Cassidy.
Yet woven into the story is an examination of American culture and its effect on the world.
As Joe Lansdale says in the foreword to the first trade back ‘Gone to Texas’ Preacher isn’t about the real America, but the America of myth. The America that you see in John Ford and Sam Peckinpah movies. The America of Gunsmoke and the Rockford Files. The America you find in ancient dog eared pulp novels with lurid covers of cowboys and detectives. It’s an America that only exist in people’s imagination, and yet everyone wants to go there.
In a way it examines American mythology’s influence on how Americans perceive themselves through its main character Jesse Custer. In his head he’s a knight in shining spurs. A good old boy who abides by the codes of the old west. Talk straight, aim straighter and always stand by your friends. Much of this is encouraged by what may or may not be the ghost of John Wayne. Whom Jesse calls ‘the Duke.’
Unfortunately this attitude clashes a lot with the world at large. His ex Tulip finds it sexist at times, and is often infuriated when he repeatedly abandons her to face dangerous situations alone. He compounds his crime by often giving ‘a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do’ speech. Often it’s just a mask for his fear of losing her.
For many, both in America and out, the old west was some sort of libertarian paradise which they lost when they took up equal rights and dental hygiene. Yet the uglier side of the old west mythos tends to be ignored. The cold blooded killing machines that populate these tales.
One such character is The Saint of Killers and Assassins. An amoral, blood thirsty killing machine that would shoot an allay, just to stay in practice. In a twist that is an homage to Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven” he’s made good by the love of a gentle woman. Only for that to be taken away from him by an act of fate and spite.
He’s killed and damned in the attempt to avenge her. Sent to hell and becomes the angel of death.
America as seen by outsiders is examined by the 90 year old Irish vampire Cassidy. Accidentally turned into a vampire during the failed Easter Rising, Cassidy travels to America to escape his past.
He sees the U.S as the ‘Shining City on the Hill’. A place where greatness is made. Alas like a lot of other people lured to the dream of America he is sucked into its seedier side. He then spirals down into alcohol and drugs. For him it’s a nightmare that he can’t stop loving.
Which gives rise to the American dream. A place where everyone can be all that they can be. A place where they can live out their dreams, achieve their potential. There’s a tragic comic examination of this through the life of Arseface.
Arseface is the survivor of an horrific suicide attempt that leaves him with ‘a face like an arse.’ His suicide was inspired by Kurt Cobain because of the despair he felt in being unable to get away from his violent home life.
After the death of his father, he goes on a series of adventures that culminates with him becoming a rock star. He has it all, money, fame and women and loses it because he doesn’t have anyone he can trust.
For Arseface the pursuit of fame and wealth is a hollow lie. Because it doesn’t give him the love and respect he craves.
Yet despite its ugliness Ennis still finds a lot to admire about the United States. He finds the bad in the good, but also the good in the bad. For every evil small town meatpacking tyrant. There’s a kinder, gentler,younger fertiliser tycoon brother.
Preacher is also an examination of the old Problem of Evil argument against God. That is if God is All powerful, All knowing and All good, how can there be evil in the world?
Ennis resolution is to make god a whiny, needy, self righteous dick. God in Preacher is a loving god utterly obsessed with how much everyone else loves him. A confused patriarch who constantly tests the devotion of his followers.
Which is why he’s so keen to avoid Jesse. He’s the one man in the entire universe who can call God to account. God has no desire to justify himself to anyone and will go to the ends of the earth avoid it. He is incapable of recognising the harm his actions causes because he just can not see himself as a villain.
Even though for most of the story God is a background character, his whims and neediness cause so much pain to all of the other characters. At the end of it, you’ll be wishing the Saint of Killers would put a bullet in him.
So if you’re particularly religious… well you’ve been warned.
Blind obedience is explored in the story through Jesse’s power to compel others to obey his commands. By and large Jesse seeks to avoid the corruption inherent in his power, but occasionally through lack of thought or anger will cross that line.
In one scene he tells Arseface’s obnoxious cop father who’s been chasing him to “go fuck himself.” Who then promptly mutilates himself and commits suicide out of shame.
In another long running gag Jesse orders a Grail agent to count all the sands of grain on a beach. If only to buy him some time before the agent tells the Grail where he is. The agent protests that he’ll be there forever. Jesse decides to be merciful and says he can stop at three hundred thousand. What Jesse assumed would only be the work of a few days turns into months and quite possibly years.
The experience leaves the agent traumatised and half insane. It’s only by Jesse’s use of the word that the agent is healed.
Then there’s the Grail, an ancient conspiracy obsessed with obedience. They’ve forced the descendants of Christ to mate with each other in the bizarre belief that that it will keep the blood line pure. Instead it produces an insane, retarded idiot who’s so inbred that only the miraculous powers of his blood keeps him alive. They then plan on using this retarded messiah as a tool for global domination.
So its only natural that the series villain Herr Starr would join them at a young age. Starr is warped sociopath who is obsessed with bringing order to the world. He pursues Jesse because he doesn’t believe that the rest of the Grail and their plans to use their idiot messiah will work.
But its close to impossible to force someone with Jesse’s power to do your bidding. Starr’s pursuit of Jesse’s compliance takes it toll mentally and physically on Starr. At the end of the series he’s been raped, crippled, had a scar cut across his bald head that makes him look like a giant penis and castrated. He’s also sent completely and utterly insane.
Indeed the physical and mental corruption inherent in the desire for obedience is a reoccurring theme in Preacher. Characters from God the almighty to Jesse’s ancient and utterly evil grandmother, Marie L’Angelle, are willing to commit acts of depravity and malice in order to force others to obey. Free will, independence and questions are punished with sadistic force.
There is a lot of violence in Preacher. Some of it funny, cartoonish violence, some of it graphic, some of it richly deserved and a lot of it senseless. Heads are blown off in gory detail, people are punched so hard that they lose half their teeth. Blood is splattered against walls and viscera is ejected across the landscape.
No punches are pulled. No cut away shots to avoid the awful gory glory of violence. If anything Garth Ennis continually pushes the boundaries of showing violence. All aided and abetted by Steve Dillion’s four colour art work.
If you can take a long look at the book covers for Preacher. They’re all lovingly detailed images of the after affects of violence. You’ll see people dead, dying or wishing they were strewn about the page. You learn a lot about the characters by looking at these pictures. The hard lives they’ve lived, the hopes, dreams and disappointments. They’re all there, etched into every line.
So if you’re not faint of heart or religiously inclined then give Preacher a go.
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