The year was 1998. I was a junior in high school, and at the ripe-old age of seventeen, I was beginning to grow a malaise with standard superhero comics. Part of it was my age: sex-drugs-rock-n-roll was a bit more alluring; as were the films of Tarantino, Smith, or Rodriguez. Part of it was a general boredom with superfolks setting in. I’d been reading X-Men since ’91, Spider-Man not long thereafter, and a smattering of DC here and there. Grant Morrison was about midway through his seminal JLA run, but still, I found myself wanting something… more. I’d read a bit of Sandman, and it was good – better than good, it was great – but it didn’t quite speak to me on a personal level, more of an objective one. (To this day, even though I’ve read and reread Sandman countless times and appreciate the masterful literary skill Neil Gaiman brought to it, it still doesn’t touch me on a personal level. It’s an incredible narrative, but I tend to lean more toward character-driven fare.) I was growing up, and although I loved my superheroes, they weren’t necessarily growing up with me at that point in their evolutionary history.
I needed something a bit more in line with my mentality as an angsty, outsider-ish metalhead of some ill-popularity who didn’t really fit in with any one particular scene or group. Fortunately, I stumbled onto it in an issue of Wizard Magazine. If you were less of a vintage-age comics reader in the ‘90s, you probably read Wizard. It was hip, it was cool, it fancied itself a tastemaker, and it certainly helped engorge the speculator bubble that cratered the industry that decade. But it was also irreverently funny, and had helped me in the past discover some new reading delights. And so it came to pass, one issue, they did a review on a Vertigo comic called Preacher.
I had at least heard of Preacher prior to that. Few in the industry hadn’t. By 1998, the book had been around for three years, and had developed a reputation for being a lightning rod for controversy, obscenely hilarious, brutally violent, and downright badass, for lack of a more technical term. The brainchild of writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (R.I.P.), who had previously teamed up for a celebrated run on Hellblazer, posited a world where God had abandoned Heaven and the bastard offspring of a demon and an angel had taken up residence in the mind of Texas preacher Jesse Custer, imbuing him with the ability to make anyone do anything he told them to. Intrigued, I went and bought the first trade of issues one through seven.
Nothing was ever the same again.
Preacher blew my young, disaffected, ever-loving mind. I’d never read anything like it, and quite honestly, twenty years after its conclusion, I still haven’t. Certainly, part of it was my impressionable age. Part of it was that hunger for something more than standard superhero fare. Part of it was the fact that I was surly and rebellious toward pretty much everything even remotely resembling “the mainstream” and authority and conformity. But looking back, if I had to sum it up:
Preacher made several big, bold statements that have defined who I am to this very day. It was a lodestone, a defining moment for my personal growth and development, as well as my personal religious convictions. And, it’s an incredibly well-written story with compelling, three-dimensional characters, a killer hook, and some of the best villains ever to grace a comic page – or any page, period. (More on them later, and yes, one of them eventually winds up with his cock in the bitch’s mouth – and not in a good way.) What those statements are – and what they mean to me – are questions I’ll answer throughout the course of this article series.
Of course, as with anything, elements of it haven’t aged so well, twenty years into the twenty-first century. I’ll talk about those as well, and try to break them down in an honest and objective way. If you’ve read Preacher, you probably already have an inkling what I might be referring to. And if you haven’t read Preacher? Well, saddle up, pilgrim, because we’re in for a wild ride.
One: Gone to Texas
Texas, it’s later remarked in the series, isn’t just a state. It’s a state of mind. As a ranking member of its rival neighbor to the north, Oklahoma, I feel I’m certainly qualified to attest to this. Texas – and Texans – have just a little bit of a different world view than the other forty-nine states, a little bit of a different mindset. Part of that, I think, comes from the fact that Texas started life as an independent republic, having won that freedom with the blood, sweat, and tears of its people from Mexico. (Of course, that only lasted a decade, before inevitable annexation occurred and they became the twenty-eighth state in the country.) Texans are fiercely independent-minded, and although that can be said in general about the populace of any given state or region or city, there’s a particular amount of pride that goes into that independence that, historically, can probably be tied to their origins (and the Alamo – don’t forget that).
Part of Texas’ “Texas-ness” comes from its history as a cattle hub, too. The great cattle drives of the 1800’s inevitably wove their ways all through the state, creating a cowboy culture that – again, while not dissimilar to other regions or states of the country – is hardwired into Texans’ DNA in a way that, when tied together with that fiercely independent streak, creates a unique potboil of a state that has a very, very clear understanding of who and what it is, culturally, historically, and otherwise.
It’s fitting, then, that Preacher starts – and ends – in Texas, and that its main character, Jesse Custer, is as Texan as they come. Tall, lean, muscular, unwilling to ever take shit off of fools and proud to a fault, Jesse is, in a lot of ways, the epitome of what’s best about Texas. He’s the best friend you could ever have, loyal to his very core, but once you cross that pride or break his trust – watch out. You’ll most likely wake up with a broken jaw and no recollection of how you got there.
In the opening pages of issue one, though, Jesse is drunk off his ass, and takes the opportunity to walk into the town watering hole of Annville and spill all the town’s dirty secrets. As the town preacher, he’s heard everyone’s confession: everything from beer-watering to equine porn to eating dog shit, and by God he’s had enough of the hypocrisy. So, blind drunk, he wanders into the little bar and starts calling the whole town out on their crap. How dare these people act this way six days a week, then come say some prayers and sing some hymns on Sunday and call themselves good Christians? For his trouble, Jesse gets a pool cue broken over his head and the crap beat out of him until he’s unconscious. Not the most auspicious start for our hero, but right off the bat, Ennis and Dillon are setting the tone for the series, at least so far as religious hypocrisy is concerned. Despite the scene ending in Jesse taking a beating, he does so in the service of speaking truth to power and having the courage to call out religious double-standards. It’s a hell of an opening shot, but far from the last.
More to the point, from my perspective, it grabbed me right off the bat. I’d been raised Christian but it had always felt more of an obligation than a commitment; it was something that was just there rather than something I ever really gave any thought to. And that’s how religious indoctrination works: catch ‘em while they’re young, and by the time they’re old enough to think critically, it’s too ingrained to question. And although I didn’t know it in my initial reading of those first eight pages, the seed was being planted for my agnosticism and eventual atheism.
The morning after Jesse’s drunken tirade, he’s surprised to find the whole town is packed into his church pews. But then again – surprised, but not really, because word had quickly spread in the tiny town about the preacher’s drunken shenanigans, and everyone wanted to rubberneck at what crazy thing he might say or do next. But unknown to Jesse, something is going on in Heaven that’s about to change everything. A being called Genesis has broken loose of its confinement, and has bolted toward Earth “like a comet with a face” in search of a vessel. Genesis, as we later find out in issue four, is the bastard offspring of a demon and an angel. Good and evil mixed: something brand new since the dawn of the universe, and therefore every bit as powerful as God Himself. Genesis rockets into Jesse’s church, smashes into him, and the resulting explosion of energy incinerates the entire congregation and level’s Jesse’s church to smoking ruin.
Genesis is the next-most important character in the series, though in truth, it isn’t really a character at all. Genesis is more of a MacGuffin than anything else; it has no personality of its own, no drive, no emotional arc throughout the course of the series. It is new life incarnate with no true will of its own, which is why it must merge with a human in order to thrive and act. As a newborn, it’s as innocent as a newborn child. Its name alone conjures instant Biblical iconography and mythology; as the first book in the Bible, Genesis deals right there on page one with the creation of the universe, and the word itself has become shorthand for the beginning of something. Naturally then, the scion of an angel and a demon with God-like power is surely akin to the Biblical origin of, well, everything. It’s a strong, purposeful image that deliberately strikes right at the origin of Christian mythology. And in merging with Jesse and causing a massive explosion, Genesis even does double-duty and produces a big bang.
That brings the series’ other two protagonists into the picture: Tulip O’Hare and Cassidy, who although readers don’t know it yet at this point in the story, is a hard-living, hard-drinking Irish vampire. The pair is driving along in the latter’s truck, when Tulip happens upon the wreckage of Annville’s church. She then spies Jesse amid the rubble, and instantly recognizes him. When she calls out his name, he wakes up, and immediately kisses her. She pushes him away, but it’s immediately obvious: there’s some major history between these two. What its details are will have to wait, but rest assured, one of comics’ greatest romances is just over the horizon.
Cassidy, though, is a bit more skeptical. And why wouldn’t he be? Just who is this one guy left alive in the destruction of a church among the carnage? How is it possible that of all the people Tulip and he could have stumbled across, it happens to be her ex? Although Ennis is wise enough to keep their backstory hidden for now, he’s smart enough to plant many seeds as to what might have happened. To wit: at some point five years prior, Jesse and Tulip were madly in love, and then, one day, he was just gone. No note, no explanation, just gone. Tulip has had a mighty large chip on her shoulder since, and given her understanding of events, it’s utterly justified. Her resulting anger and heartache leads her to many questionable choices, not the least of which is that she tried to assassinate a drug dealer and instead “just” blew his associate’s jaw off (a great gore moment courtesy Dillon and colorist Matt Hollingsworth), which lead to her flagging the passing-by Cassidy down and hitching a ride to safety with him. Exit Houston, enter Annville.
Tulip immediately stands apart from many stereotypical leading ladies in comics. Sure, there had been plenty of strong women before, but none quite like Tulip O’Hare. No helpless female here, waiting on the male protagonist to rescue her. She’s tough, mean, and hell on wheels with a gun. Conversely, she’s also sweet, loyal, playful, thoughtful, and pretty much everything you’d ever want in a girlfriend. Similar to Jesse, she doesn’t take shit off of fools, but she tends to be less reactionary and more considerate in who, exactly, gets a beating (or just shot… folks, she gets mean later on down the road). As the series progresses, Tulip plays wonderfully off of Jesse, and Ennis does an expert job at selling us on the idea that she’s every bit as awesome as she is. And, especially at this early juncture in their reunion but more critically down the line in the series, she isn’t afraid to stand up to Jesse when he’s wrong about something.
Cassidy, at least at this embryonic stage of the narrative, is a bit harder to pin down. Sure, he’s funny, and speaks with that great Irish accent, and has no problem letting an armed madwoman into his truck and driving her out of town no questions asked. He’s clearly happy-go-lucky, but also has the sense to tell Tulip that No, we absolutely should not go anywhere near the smoldering rubble that used to be a church! He also has secrets of his own, though, since he hasn’t explained to Tulip why he sleeps in the bed of his truck all day with a heavy blanket draped over him. More on that to come.
With the protagonists set up, Preacher had one of the strongest first issues of any comic imaginable. And a quarter-century after its publication, it still holds up as a shining example of how to hook readers instantly with a strong first issue, leaving them immediately and impatiently wanting more now, not next month, but now. That first issue also set the comics scene on fire, and paved the road for Vertigo to expand its appeal and identity beyond the more fantasy-based, highbrow fare it had thus far in its existence catered to. It also made Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon into overnight comics rock stars, and set the stage for many more memorable collaborations to come, until the latter’s untimely and sudden passing in 2016.
But every hero needs a villain, and the creative team had the deck absolutely stacked.
To be continued.
Next time: with the protagonists all in place, the plot thickens as the series’ initial antagonists make the scene. Get ready for the Saint of Killers, Sheriff Root, them damn angels, and the singularly unique visage of… ARSEFACE.
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Part 1: Saddle Up, Pilgrim
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