Who is God?
Is he an unknowable cosmic force of mystery, animating our lives from the heavens? Is he loving and accepting? Vengeful and wrathful? Omniscient? All of the above? None of the above? Countless scholars across untold faiths and religions have asked these questions, and the answers are as wide and varied as you’d imagine. Christians tend to vacillate toward the concept of a loving God who accepts all who accept him, although what “accept him” exactly entails tends to be up for endless debate. Whatever the answer, Garth Ennis decided to settle the matter once and for all in Preacher, laying out a controversial treatise that takes the various notions of who or what the Christian God is and turns them on their head, revealing a deity very much in love with himself, and the idolatry of his worshippers. And make no mistake, this interpretation of God is very much rooted in the Bible.
Ennis’ treatise is relatively straightforward, yet incisive in its final conclusion. God made everybody, and in return, expects fealty and subservience disguised as love and adoration. This gets right to the heart of many atheists’ qualms with the very concept of God (myself included): Why does God need our worship? Why is entrance to eternal paradise upon death contingent upon this worship? Why is simply being a good person by your fellow man not enough? Why is being skeptical frowned upon, especially when concrete answers to the existence of a higher power are so maddeningly effusive? Why does God make humanity prostrate itself in faith? In Ennis’ conclusion, the answer is simple: the Almighty is every bit as petty and flawed as his human creation, but is stricken with a vast sense of entitlement because he created them.
If that’s a tough concept to wrap your head around, don’t worry: you aren’t alone. Scholars and theologians and everyday men and women have grappled with questions like this since the dawn of humanity, and likely will until the last vestige of humanity winks out of existence. To ponder the unknowable is part of the human condition; we know that gods and goddesses were created by early man to explain the unexplainable. And thus does it continue today. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but asking these questions is central to Preacher’s core religious themes.
And so it was central to my own burgeoning atheism. Like so many others, I was raised a Christian, taught that God loved me, that Jesus died for my sins, and if I was a good enough boy, someday I could hang out in Heaven and be happy for all eternity. It was either that or be tortured forever if I was bad or shunned God. When you’re a kid and you’re told these simple black and white concepts with nary a hint of moral relativism or skepticism, of course you believe it. It’s too big and frightening not to – and, of course, these words are being spouted by adults, whom children naturally assume are being truthful. That’s why religions indoctrinate their adherents so young: by the time they’re old enough to think critically about whether or not these religious concepts they’ve been force fed actually make any sense, the faith is so deeply rooted that shaking it off is unthinkable and even terrifying. But in my own journey, once I started asking the hard questions and realized that nothing I’d been taught could answer them sufficiently, it was that much easier to stake my own claim (a few years’ agnosticism in the intermediary notwithstanding).
It wasn’t so easy for young Jesse Custer, though. With his father dead and his mother a shadow of her former self, he was easy prey for Gran’ma. When he turned seven, she began to teach him the Bible so that he could become a minister and sally forth into the world, preaching the word of God and continuing he L’Angell family legacy. Her introduction of God to Jesse is simple, sweet, and straightforward: God’s special because he’s always with you, Jesse. He lives inside you, in your heart, and he sees everything you do, and he knows what you’re thinking, always. God loves you very much because he made you. And God wants you to love him, because if you love him and do good things all your life, he’ll take you away to live with him when you die. Now: isn’t it NICE to have a friend like God?
Young Jesse’s wide-eyed response: “No, Gran’ma. It’s kind of scary.”
And that gets him slapped hard enough to leave claw marks on his cheek. Gradually, even though he doesn’t understand how someone could live in his heart and was scared of someone who saw everything, Jesse learned that the correct answer is Yes. Yes, it’s nice to have a friend like God. Indoctrination through intimidation. This went on for years, as Jesse was forced to memorize a page of the Bible a day. The remainder of his time was spent tending to chores around Angelville with Jody or T.C., and sometimes if he was lucky, playing with his dog Duke or his one-eyed neighbor friend Billy-Bob.
Despite the fact that Billy-Bob is the product of generations of inbreeding and proudly, innocently proclaims he’s going to marry his sister when he turns sixteen without missing a beat, he’s the one normal constant in Jesse’s life. Beyond that, in Jesse’s words, he and a normal childhood passed one another like ships in the night. But there was a steady consistency to everything, at least, until the day Duke decided to hump Jody’s leg. And was nailed to a fencepost for it.
Jesse’s justifiable outburst over his dog’s sudden and violent death does not go unnoticed. Gran’ma, though, couldn’t care less that Duke is dead. She’s more “outraged” that he was cursing. To that end, she decides that Jesse is a “dirty boy who must go in the coffin.” This elicits a gut response from Christina, who finally stands up to her evil mother and declares: “Not my child.” Shaken from her emotional stupor, Christina defies Gran’ma for the last time, determined to protect her son from the same torture she endured. And in that moment, Jesse came to see his grandmother for who she really was: someone cold-blooded enough to order the murder of her own daughter, because Jesse and his continuation of the bloodline was all that mattered. Jody took a frightened and struggling and desperate Christina L’Angell into the swamp to dispose of her, and in that moment Jesse knew he would never see her again.
And as for the coffin in question, it was a tomb more than anything else: sealed airtight except for a breathing tube, and dropped under the brackish bayou water for a week as punishment. For a week. And without Christina around to deflect, this sort of thing became Jesse’s new normal. As far as metaphors for religion in general go, Ennis’ rendition of Jesse’s brutal upbringing is about as hardcore as they come. The point he’s making isn’t exactly succinct, either: religion is a blunt, hateful thing when misused. It doesn’t have to be, but all too frequently is by those drunk on the power of the pulpit.
Without the protective force field of his mother, Jesse’s life worsened, and as the years rolled on, all he could think about was escape. By his seventeenth year, he would soon be given cause at last, when Billy-Bob met a sticky end, going the same way as Duke or his parents. He’d stayed the night in the barn during a storm, and accidentally spied T.C. having sex with a chicken. Aside from being sneaky and ruthless and plain evil, T.C.’s stock in trade is bestiality. Ennis plays it for laughs, i.e. “I can’t believe this guy just talked about having sex with the slit in the belly of a catfish he caught!” T.C.’s sexual preferences are a bit of dark humor sprinkled into an otherwise pitch-black story, but this time, they wrought dire consequences.
T.C. caught Billy-Bob and, believing he was spying on him, slit the boy’s throat. Billy-Bob ran out of the barn, and collapsed to the ground just in time for Jesse and Jody to see him. In retaliation, Jesse started beating T.C. – and was then issued a massive beating from Jody in reciprocation as Gran’ma watched from the house, a cruel smile across her lips. For his actions, Jesse got a month in the coffin this time, and when he was finally emerged, his first action was to inform Billy-Bob’s family of his friend’s fate. After that, Jesse almost blithely decided that it was time to go, and hitchhiked his way from Angelville.
The story takes a bit of an incredible turn at this point depending on your point of view, as it doesn’t quite stand to reason that Jesse would so easily be able to escape his captors – especially given how quickly his family and he were caught when he was young. If Gran’ma knew Jesse was going into the swamp to tell Billy-Bob’s family what had happened, wouldn’t she make sure Jody or T.C. was on him to ensure he didn’t run away? Or did she make the mistake of believing that Jesse was sufficiently humbled enough to not dare escape? Such a miscalculation doesn’t quite seem to be in Gran’ma’s character either way. More likely, Ennis needed Jesse Custer to get from point A (Angelville) to point B (the rest of the world) in as expedient a manner as possible to keep the story moving forward, and sacrificed rationality for expediency. It happens. And it’s certainly not that egregious of a narrative error; far greater storytelling sins have been given a pass by countless critics and observers much smarter than me.
The end result is the same: for the first time, Jesse was out in the real world, and realized he didn’t know much about it besides what he’d seen on TV. Fortunately, he would soon meet his lodestone, his guide to life and eventually the center of his world: Tulip O’Hare. Three years his senior, Tulip led him to a life of freewheeling petty crime (specifically, car theft), hot sex whenever they wanted it, and stolen cars up and down every freeway in Texas and beyond. Two kids in love without a care in the world, living life by their standards with only eyes for each other, consequences be damned. So naturally, those consequences eventually caught up to Jesse. Conspicuously, Tulip’s backstory isn’t delved into yet – that would come much later – but this is Jesse’s story, anyway.
One morning in Phoenix, the lovebirds were sitting on a park bench, and Tulip walked off to buy cigarettes. The second she was out of sight, Jesse found himself flanked by T.C. and Jody. It took some work, but they found him. Jesse’s carelessness led to this point. (Had he really thought about it, he would have gotten as physically far from Angelville as possible – like, say, Nome, Alaska or something.) Jody gave him two options: either come with them quietly with no fuss or fight, or resist and watch them blow Tulip’s brains out. Jesse opted for the former, and at last, readers – and Tulip – knew the truth about why he’d “abandoned” her five years prior. The stark realization on Tulip’s face says it all: Jesse, I’ve spent all this time hating you for no reason. And in that realization, their love is rekindled, even if for a short while, as dawn quickly approaches.
After that, Jesse, in his words, “Went belly-up and quit,” at last giving in to Gran’ma’s indoctrination. He submitted to her brutal faith, was rushed through seminary in record time, and installed as a preacher in the rinky-dink Texas town of Annville, where he spent the next three years drinking himself numb until one night he had enough and decided to tell his flock what he really thought of them. Jesse stopped believing in all those cowboy ideals of his youth, or at least let them get stomped into the ground, so much so that even the Duke abandoned him. (Calling him “faggot” in the process, which unintentionally plays more to who John Wayne really was than I suspect Ennis meant to. It’s probably both in-character and historically accurate for Wayne to use that slur in a general derogatory sense for someone who’s weak, and another moment where some of Preacher hasn’t aged particularly well.) After all he’d been through, it makes sense that even Jesse Custer could bear the strain no more. Angelville took his father, mother, best friend, any chance he might have had at a normal life, and now, Tulip. It’s hard to watch, seeing Jesse become so meek and prostrated, but there’s a logic to it. And, of course, it closes the loop between Jesse’s back story and where we find him in issue one.
And then, dawn arrives. In walks Jody and T.C., with Gran’ma wheeling in behind them. Jesse tries one final act of desperate pleas, to no avail: Jody makes good on Gran’ma’s promise and shoots Tulip in the face.
At this point, readers certainly would have been forgiven for thinking Tulip’s part in the story was over, and since this isn’t a superhero comic where there’s a bimonthly revolving door on death, they’d be right to believe it. Getting shot in the face is pretty final, no matter how you slice it. But this being Preacher, Ennis had one last trick up his sleeve.
Twice earlier in the narrative, Gran’ma was seen speaking to someone off-panel in a subservient nature, offering prostration and prayers and a fear of looking them in the eye. This individual is never shown, but they inform Gran’ma not only where to find Jesse, but that his Word won’t work on her or her minions. He then instructs Gran’ma to leave Tulip’s body in an empty bedroom for him once she’s dead. The clues are there, but I didn’t see it at the time: Gran’ma was talking to God, which not only brings sense to several key aspects of “Until the End of the World,” but adds an entirely new layer to the story, as well.
Issue eleven opens with Tulip rising from the dead in that empty bedroom, and before she can register what’s going on, she comes face to face with the Almighty himself. Dillon’s rendering of God is classic Eurocentric Christian: older Caucasian male, white hair, flowing beard, glowing with warm, yellow light. And while Jesse sits numb in the other room working through his shock with the help of the Duke, Tulip is getting her consciousness raised on a whole ‘nother level.
At first, God tries to spellbind Tulip with his own grandeur, and for a moment it works (she was literally just brought back to life, after all), at least until he starts talking. But then Ennis gets straight into the indoctrination fed to so many throughout their lives: “I am the Lord your God. I made you, I love you, you must obey me,” et cetera. God then tells Tulip that because he is the resurrection and the life and a loving god, he brought her back – but tips his hand when he tells Tulip to tell Jesse to end his quest to find him, at which point Tulip fearlessly tells him to cut the crap. Why doesn’t God just tell Jesse these things himself? Why treat her life so meaninglessly just to prove a point? If he’s so loving, why side with Gran’ma and her band of psychopaths? God then becomes incredulous, and although he lifts the inability of Jesse’s Word to work on Gran’ma or her minions, he leaves with a stern warning: I’m a loving god, but don’t push it.
And that’s the game – Tulip doesn’t take long to see right through God’s lightshow to what’s really going on: he’s scared of Jesse; scared of the Word. And he refuses to be held accountable for his actions. It might be a little bit of a stretch that Tulip would be able to keep so thoroughly cool, calm, and collected in the face of God himself, but at the same time, it’s pure Tulip. Just like Jesse, she doesn’t take crap off of anybody, not even God. That God doesn’t immediately strike her down for her recalcitrance is proof enough that he doesn’t want to push Jesse even further; his plan is actually that by resurrecting Tulip, he’ll force Jesse into submission.
Little does he know that a few rooms down, Jesse, with the psychoanalytic help of the Duke, has snapped out of his angst and has decided to stand tall against Gran’ma and the rest for one last time: to avenge Tulip, is parents, and even Billy-Bob; to finally free himself of the weight of his family. It starts with T.C., who finds out the hard way that Jesse’s Word has returned and gets the blood beat out of him with a vengeance. The look on T.C.’s face is priceless when he realizes the Word is up and rolling again. It perfectly conveys, Oh, SHIT.
Jesse storms outside like the wrath of God and commands Gran’ma’s lackeys – Jody included – to burn, and they immediately start to immolate. Only Jody has the facilities to jump into a trough of water; everyone else meets their gruesome fate. Jesse declares Gran’ma is next, but before he can make a move, Jody stands in his path, and the stage is set for the most brutal and cathartic beatdown in the history of comics.
It’s tempting to replay this climactic fight scene beat for beat, but there’s no possible way I could do it justice. Ennis and Dillon pace it perfectly, punch for punch, as these two men with so much hate and history between them size each other up for what they both know will be the last time. Before the fists start flying, though, Jesse smugly throws Jody off his guard by making sure he knows he just beat T.C.’s brains out. That does the trick, at least at first: Jesse lays into Jody with over two decades of accumulating fury. It isn’t a dance, it isn’t elegant: it’s just our hero beating the everloving crap out of the man who shot his father. And it is perfect. It looks like Jesse’s going to handily win, too, until he makes a crack about Jody getting old, which stirs every inch of brutality in the man to rise back up and give as good or better than he’s been getting the odds swiftly shift in Jody’s favor – not even a board with nails in it getting smashed into his face can stop him.
If you’ve ever been an outsider, if you’ve ever been bullied, if you’ve ever been beat up or beat down for any reason, the savage knuckleduster between Jesse and Jody is about as cathartic as it gets. Period. There’s something so perfect, so earned in the beating Jesse hands out. It’s more than just a fight, it’s man fighting to right an entire lifetime of wrongs. To avenge his parents. To end a legacy of hate. It’s almost impossible to read the sequence and not literally cheer as Jesse doles out the most well-deserved punishment in comics’ history. And when Jesse finally wins by breaking Jody’s back, Jody at last offers some praise: “Proud’a you, boy.” Hearing these fatherly words from so abhorrent a man as Jody sets off the last of Jesse’s rage, and the conflict is ended almost quietly as Jesse chokes the life out of his tormentor.
Back in the house, a fire broke out from one of Gran’ma’s minions running inside while inflamed. T.C., not quite dead from Jesse’s beating, wakes up to wonder if he’s found himself in Hell. Sure enough, he’ll be there soon: Tulip found his shotgun, and is intent on doling out some payback of her own. After dispatching T.C. permanently, Gran’ma is next. Tulip knocks her from her wheelchair, and her oxygen tank rolls away, swiftly in the mounting fire’s path. Tulip escapes just as the house explodes, and Gran’ma’s fiery corpse is sent rocketing from the window as Jesse triumphantly yells, “YEEEEE-HAWWWWW!”
And “yee-haw” is something readers should be feeling by this point, too, especially after Jesse and Tulip find one another again. Jesse doesn’t know how or why she’s alive, but he doesn’t care. The final shot of the story is the two star-crossed lovers reunited as Gran’ma’s house burns behind them. It’s a perfect ending, with all loose ends tied up, and with Jesse and Tulip reunited, the book was ready to move into year two.
“Until the End of the World” is more than the sum of its parts, though. Sure, it’s that – a perfectly executed mix of the past and present colliding, with immeasurable character growth, and a dynamite conclusion that brings not only real closure but also gives cause to stand up and cheer – but it’s also the beginning of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon hitting their creative stride so fully and completely, it would be impossible for either creator to top. Preacher’s first year set the stage, meandered just slightly, then brought everything together in a completely engrossing and compelling way. If this wasn’t the best book on the shelves when it was published, I honestly don’t know what could have been (sorry, Sandman). It’s rare that two creators become so thoroughly in tandem that they transcend the genre – think Lee and Kirby, Claremont and Byrne, Adams and O’Neil – but Ennis and Dillon officially managed to join those hallowed ranks and became the hottest creative team in comics, and frankly, in any medium. Preacher began to take on a life of its own around this time, garnering intense critical praise and outcry from the usual suspects of the easily-offended (“Won’t somebody think of the children!?” in my best Maude Flanders voice) in equal measure. DC knew it had a hit on its hands, and began relentlessly promoting it. And Ennis and Dillon became the industry superstars they were born to be – but they were just getting warmed up.
As for me, “Until the End of the World” is a pretty personal read as well, even among the cannon Preacher. Although my own familial struggles have never, thankfully, been as relentlessly brutal as Jesse Custer’s, reading him overcome them and triumph so thoroughly was a huge outlet for years of emotional turmoil. Jesse Custer became something of a totem for me, and it’s stories like “Until the End of the World” that are why. Sorry, Green Lantern, but willpower never looked better.
Next: The party moves west to San Francisco, a certain vampire makes his welcome return, and pretty much everyone’s having more sex than should be legal. Plus: the one and only Herr Starr debuts, and comics villainy would never be the same.
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Chapter 5: Until the End of the World, Part 2
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