The abiding connection between America and cowboys has always fascinated me. Despite it having been generations since cowboys were in their heyday, the cowboy remains one of those quintessential American figures. Ask anyone to name something American and along with baseball and mom’s apple pie, I guarantee that cowboys are on that list. This seems particularly true when you’re talking to or about Texans. My dad’s side of the family is Texan and I grew up listening to country, cowboy poetry and being inundated with westerns. In large part, I think westerns as a genre have shaped this love of the cowboy. Even in the modern, technological world, there’s a strange appeal to the idea of the lone ranger who’s out on a quest for justice or revenge, standing up for the little guys against the grander schemes of evildoers. There’s a black and white simplicity to it that seems more and more rare these days. In Preacher, creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon brought this love of the cowboy to vivid life as only Ennis and Dillon can. Preacher is one half love of the west and the cowboy and one half violent, crude, quixotic quest of man versus God. The series was published in 1996 by Vertigo Comics and is about to be translated into a TV series for AMC so in my normal timely manner, I chose to review it before its premiere.
Preacher is the story of Reverend Jesse Custer and his need for answers from the God that he feels has failed his creation. When the escape of an entity known as Genesis leads to Jesse being possessed in a conflagration that incinerates both Jesse’s church and his congregation in Annville, Texas, this frustration becomes a sacred quest. Along with his former lover Tulip and roguish vampire friend Cassidy, Jesse must find out what exactly this whole Genesis being wants now that it’s a part of him and find God, who has gone missing from Heaven. This quest seems crazy at best but on Jesse’s side is his new ability: to speak the Word of God so that anyone who hears must obey. With this power on his side and the support of Tulip and Cassidiy, Jesse aims in no uncertain terms to make the Almighty explain himself. Along with the forces of Heaven, a strange cult known as The Grail aim to make sure that Jesse fails on his quest. It is an epic adventure like no other, particularly with Ennis at the helm.
Friends have recommended the Preacher series to me for years and I have always resisted because, to put it kindly, Ennis has never been my cup of tea. Preacher is classic Ennis and I don’t mean that in a particularly complimentary way. It’s crude, violent and brash. Where other writers might make a story of man versus God nuanced and hint in subtle ways at the shades of grey inherent in a story about the foibles of the Almighty, Ennis just comes right out and slaps you in the face with the egomania of God. I don’t have any particular religious beliefs and it still felt like an atheist manifesto at the end. Given my lack of belief, I don’t have a problem with Preacher because of its atheism, I have a problem with it because it’s part of the classic Ennis inability to be subtle in any fashion. The humor in Preacher is crude and over the top with figures like Arseface (a teenager who attempted to commit suicide a la Kurt Cobain but failed spectacularly and now literally has a face similar to an asshole). I don’t mind violence, but the crudity and sexual perversion and over the top satire is so intense that it feels akin to attempting to have a conversation with a pyschopath. If you constantly have everything dialed up to eleven, at some point it’s all just screaming into the void and becomes more tiresome than amusing. This is always my problem with Ennis. Even when he’s telling a good story, there’ll be constant rants about some PC topic or another or a character who is just so ridiculously over the top that it completely pulls me out of the story. Which is frustrating, because Preacher is one hell of a story.
Despite my dislike of Ennis’ style, Preacher is one of those stories that I feel like I almost have to recommend. It’s so epic in scope and just so much the western American myth brought to life that it’s hard not to like it in spite of myself. The quest to make God answer for the abandonment of his creation creates this crazy American mythos that takes Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy from one end of the country to the other. It’s almost as much simultaneously a love note and satire of the American ideal as it is a good versus evil story. And the core characters of the story are much better than I expected. Jesse’s been dealt a pretty shit hand in life. His childhood is about as dark as it gets and all he wants is answers. He’s a pretty typical Texan in his adoration of the cowboy and that quintessential man of the South that I’ve seen in every Texan man I’ve ever met. He’s a strange mix of dark and light, with his need to protect innocents and yet wild, dark nature. Tulip was particularly fantastic. Having been cast aside by Jesse in the past, she’s got a hell of a chip on her shoulder and yet is one of the most stubbornly kickass female characters I’ve ever come across in a graphic novel. As someone who grew up as a tomboy, it was easy to identify with her as a woman who isn’t about to sit back on the sidelines and play the damsel in distress. I immediately loved Tulip and shared her frustration with Jesse’s macho attitude about who’s allowed to risk their lives in pursuit of the quest and protecting their loved ones. And Cassidy…what a character. There are grey characters and then there are grey characters. Given his vampire nature, you expect Cassidy to not be a boy scout type but he really took me by surprise. You can never be quite sure with Cassidy whether his roguish attitude is real or just a way to hide the monster within. It’s just brilliant. While I might not be the biggest fan of some of the other characters, the three main characters and a few of the other side characters are nuanced, complex individuals that you want to cheer for even when they’re totally screwing up. They’re just so painfully human that you can’t help but identify with them.
Preacher is a series that I have to be careful in recommending, as I would be with any Ennis story. It’s one of the few (along with his Punisher run) that I would actually recommend but not to the easily offended. Preacher is bombastic, blasphemous and crude beyond belief. It’s filled to bursting with profanity, epic violence and perversion. If you want a comic that pushes all the boundaries, read Preacher. If you want a story full of subtlety and grace, stay far, far away from this one. But above all, if you want an epic, crazily quixotic adventure, pick up Preacher before the show premieres this Sunday, May 22nd. As long as you can handle it, it’s worth seeing the original vision as Ennis and Dillon orchestrated it twenty years ago.