One: Gone to Texas, Part 2
It should probably go without saying, but a comic as wild and blasphemous as Preacher has a murder’s row of memorable antagonists. Right off the bat in issue one, we get an eyeful of some – but certainly not all – of the bad guys, starting with the deadliest killer the West, Heaven, or Hell has ever known: The Saint of Killers.
After Genesis escapes Heaven, a sole angel is dispatched to awaken the Saint from his eternal slumber on Boot Hill. After a particular incantation is recited, the Saint awakens, and immediately shoots the angel in the face out of, as he puts it, “Force of habit.” With his dying words, the angel gives the Saint the a watered-down version of events; Genesis has escaped, has the power to bring down the kingdom of Heaven, is bonded with a mortal man. The angel dies, bewildered by the seemingly random loss of his life when he’s never sinned or done anything to question Heavenly authority. His final words are, “What d’you call that?” to which the Saint replies, “Good start.”
And that’s how the world met the Saint of Killers.
The Saint of Killers is a man out of time. Immortal, unstoppable, and armed with never-emptying Colt revolvers that can kill anything with a single shot, his purpose is singular: to do Heaven’s bidding, typically when a whole lot of killing is needed. Why all that is won’t be revealed until later in the story, but as the series’ initial big bad, the Saint makes quite an impression right out of the gate. Clad in a cowboy hat and duster, he looks like he was dropped right out of a Clint Eastwood film, immediately catching the eye of anyone foolish enough to come into his orbit. But there’s more to him than just his outer garb: Steve Dillon drew the Saint with a face that looked carved from stone, and eyes that conveyed no emotions other than hate. From page one, readers – myself included – knew this wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill villain du jour.
The Saint is clearly designed to evoke Clint Eastwood (specifically, in Unforgiven), which creates an interesting parallel to Western films in general. Clint Eastwood – again, particularly in Unforgiven – made a career out of taking the myth out of the Old West. Eastwood’s Westerns are mean, viscerally ugly things that are specifically designed to contrast with older Hollywood standbys starring the likes of Gene Autry or John Wayne. The latter’s films – and by extension and impersonation, the whole Western genre – was full of humble white-hats who rode into town, cleaned up the bad guys, and got the girl. Very clean-cut, no muss, no fuss. They were paragons of virtue without much depth of character and they reinforced a myth of the Old West that perpetuates to this day.
Conversely, Eastwood’s westerns are quite a bit less fanciful, quite a bit more morally muddled, and quite a bit more faithful to The Way It Actually Was. There’s usually no clear-cut “good guys,” motivationally or otherwise. If the Saint embodies Eastwood’s more historically accurate vision of the Old West, and Jesse Custer, with his unwavering ethics, upright demeanor, and, yes, literal spiritual connection to the Duke (more on that later) represents the Wayne archetype, then Preacher was coyly playing the two iterations of the Western film genre off of one another – just as they had in real life. Ennis clearly enjoys both takes on the Old West but was cognizant of their clashing values, thus setting up the adversarial dynamic between the Saint and Jesse as something far richer than simply “bad guy versus good guy.” It was a very clever move on the writer’s part.
Then there’s the angels themselves. As presented in Preacher, there are two classes of angel: the Adephi, who are meek, low-level poet-types, and the Seraphi, the warriors of Heaven. (To borrow some phrasing from Supernatural, the Serpahi are dicks, plain and simple.) It makes sense from a narrative perspective to break angels into two distinct classes; that in and of itself creates a generalized explanation for the seemingly-dual nature of angels as presented in the Bible. Because it was pieced together over many decades by many different people, the Bible is rife with contradictions, and the presentation of angels is no different. Sometimes they’re kindly and loving messengers of God’s word, other times they’re laying waste to Sodom and Gomorrah with total impunity. Ennis’ class distinction between the Adephi and Seraphi also shows that just because it’s Heaven, doesn’t mean everybody is equal. This is an important distinction from other, more pro-Christian depictions, which classically portrays Heaven as a place where everybody is of equal footing. In Garth Ennis’ world, though, angels are not only far from perfect, but just as susceptible to mankind to the sins of greed, lust, envy, and power.
Of a more earthbound trajectory, readers are introduced to Sheriff Hugo Root as he surveys the destruction in Annville. Root is an ugly stereotype of a Southern lawman, although unfortunately he’s not far from the occasional truth, either. Upon surveying the destruction of Jesse’s church and the 200 corpses within, his immediate conclusion is that it had to be the work of “Martian niggers.” He backs up this dubious, racist assertion by stating the “eff bee eye” has a secret hangar with a spaceship in it, complete with the Martian’s corpse, but they figure “We aren’t ready to know about it yet.” It doesn’t take Root long to find Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip not far from Annville, and he surrounds the group with plenty of deputies, a helicopter, and enough ammo to start a small war.
This is the point of the story where Jesse reflexively discovers he has the Word of God, or just the Word for short. His eyes go red, and for effect, so too do the letters in his speech bubbles, and he tells the cops to drop their guns. Immediately they all obey, and the trio gets in Cassidy’s truck and drives off. But before the flummoxed Root can do anything to respond, the Saint of Killers shows up, hot on Jesse’s trail. With conflict imminent, Jesse ends the issue with one word: “Bang.”
And that’s how you craft a first issue, folks.
Not for nothing – and granted, I didn’t read Preacher #1 when it first hit stands – I can easily imagine readers’ eyeballs melting after reading this first issue. It does exactly what a first issue should do: sets the stage, gives us characters we immediately care about, and ends in such a cliffhanger that readers absolutely want the next issue. The world the issue creates feels real and lived-in; the characters all feel relatable in one way or another (we’ve all, unfortunately, met a Sheriff Root at some point in our lives), and the antagonists grab you by the throat and don’t let go. This issue not only commands your attention, it demands to be re-read multiple times. None of this “Oh you have to read the whole first story to really get into it” decompressed storytelling; one issue and readers are frothing at the mouth for more. And by god, did Ennis and Dillon deliver, especially on that first arc but more impressively, throughout the course of the entire series. Many long-format finite series start out strong and either meander in the middle before picking up steam for the grand finale, or lose focus as the book heads toward its conclusion and it becomes evident that maybe the author didn’t quite know how things would end. Not so with Preacher: right from the jump, it’s full-throttle, and by the time you reach the end of the series, every plot point locks into place so thoroughly that there’s no way you’ll ever convince me Ennis didn’t have a road map from start to finish.
The rest of the first arc continues the impressive momentum established in that first issue. The Saint of Killers makes short work of Sheriff Root’s deputies in issue two as readers first see exactly what he’s capable of. It’s a wonder to behold (in an extremely violent kind of way): the Saint mows down police with single shots apiece with the least bit of effort; he even downs the helicopter with one shot to the fuel tank. Ennis delivered everything he’d promised for the Saint, and then some – and as the series went on, and the stakes got bigger with each appearance of the titular gunslinger, it became more and more evident that truly, nothing could stop him.
The triad of Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip continues to prove to be tenuous at best: Tulip has her own beef with Jesse for abandoning her five years prior and won’t leave until she gets answers; Jesse crassly asserts in the heat of an argument that “all [she] wants to do is go to bed with [him.]” Ouch. But that doesn’t change the fact that he clearly still holds some very deep emotion for her that his unresolved. And he doesn’t know it yet, but those feelings run both ways. Ennis masterfully plays the “will they or won’t they” trope just long enough without it wearing out its welcome before we truly come to learn not just where he comes from, but the twisted reason why he had to leave her.
And then there’s Cassidy. He’s presented as a rogue right from the start, but his cagey demeanor leaves some major questions to be answered. The main one – why he stays out of sunlight – is answered at the end of issue two, when, after a barroom brawl, he starts drinking the blood of one his attackers. Jesse is horrified and uses the Word to make him stop, calls Cass an abomination, and the two budding friends – truly their bromance is the stuff of legend – part ways for the time being. Cassidy is a vampire of the Near Dark variety: stripped of all of the mythology and gothic romance, and you’re left with a guy who is pretty much unkillable, drinks blood, and has a deep aversion to sunlight. No stakes through the heart, nor fear of crucifixes, garlic, or running water; no turning into mist or a bat or sleeping in a coffin. Anne Rice-types need not apply (Cassidy’s run-in with said Lestat-style vampires will come later in the Blood and Whiskey one-shot, and it’s one of the funniest single comics in the entire series, and probably ever written). Cassidy is an excellent foil for Jesse, too: if Jesse were to loosen up a bit, he and Cassidy wouldn’t be too very different… at least, at this point of the story. And that’s why they’re drawn to one another as friends: in Cassidy, Jesse sees the guy he won’t allow himself to be, and in Jesse, Cassidy sees the person he wants to be. They pair off so well, it makes later events in the series all the more tragic.
John Wayne, too, figures prominently in the narrative. Borrowing a beat from True Romance, wherein Christian Slater’s character speaks to the ghost of Elvis, Jesse Custer has a similar relationship with the spirit of John Wayne. As I said previously, Jesse Custer – with his forthright morals, inability to take shit off of fools, and old-world notions toward gender roles (specifically, his need to protect Tulip whether she wants it or not) – is specifically cut from the John Wayne mold of Western. The spirit of Wayne has been with him since he was a little kid, before the Duke passed away in 1979, so there’s a bit more to his presence than a simple ghost. I like the word “spirit” to describe Wayne’s role in Jesse’s life, because it’s not Wayne from real life, but rather the archetype he embodied on screen. He’s a guiding light, a support, especially when Jesse needs him most.
In modern times, though, the specter and legacy of John Wayne is vastly different than it was in 1995. Particularly in the MeToo era, Wayne’s characters’ attitude toward gender roles is problematic at best and misogynistic at worst. There’s a fine line between chivalry and paternalism and depending on your viewpoint, John Wayne straddles that line very precariously. Then there’s the increased awareness of the John Wayne the person’s racism toward African-Americans and Native Americans, which have been very well documented in our modern times. However, this isn’t news; that most infamous Playboy interview was conducted in the ‘60s, so it’s not like his words are any kind of revelation. What’s changed is our society’s tolerance for those attitudes. It’s dismissive to simply say, “Well, that’s just how it was at that time,” because it gives a pass to racism – casual, systemic, or otherwise. But it’s also true: society was simply far more tolerant of racism at that time, despite the Civil Rights Movement. Years after, this subject was brought up to Ennis in an interview, and his response was that his inclusion of John Wayne in Preacher was meant to invoke the spirit of his onscreen persona, not the man himself. That seems a bit dismissive to me, but I think Ennis has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. It also makes a strong case for referring to Wayne as a spirit rather than a ghost in this tale, at least how he relates to Jesse. And make no mistake, Jesse’s relationship to the spirit of John Wayne is a cornerstone of this comic, as we’ll see in detail when his backstory is delved into.
As Preacher kicked the door down with its first mind-blowing arc, there’s one more character with a part to play that defies easy definition. He’s an innocent, a fool, a source of comedy, and a tragic character all rolled into one. And he has, as Cassidy so delicately puts it, “a face that looks looks like an arse.”
Folks, I give you: the one and only Arseface.
Arseface is never given any other name. He’s the son of Sheriff Root, though you’d be hard-pressed to find anything resembling fatherly love or compassion between them. Arseface worships the ground his father walks on, but the elder Root barely even acknowledge them. There’s an allusion that Arseface’s mother abandoned them both; the poor kid is too dim to understand that she’s never coming home and gleefully awaits her return. He talks as though he has a wadge of gum the size of a softball in his mouth, drools uncontrollably, and has to have his dialogue interpreted via separate dialogue box. He really plays as a comedic foil for everything that’s going on, as if Ennis were taking a moment amid all the chaos, blasphemy, and carnage to pull readers back from the brink and say, “Look, here’s a guy whose face looks like a butthole, it’s okay to laugh. I promise.” It sounds like a questionable balancing act, but it works perfectly, at least for the purposes of this first arc. Arseface’s role in the ongoing narrative is often ill-defined, though. When he eventually returns, rather than dovetailing back into the narrative, he has an arc all his own, independent of the larger story. How well that actually works is a story for a future chapter.
For the purposes of this first arc, though, Arseface is a monkey wrench nobody planned for. After the poop hits the fan, and Hugo Root has been thoroughly and completely taken down every possible peg there can be, Root finally acknowledges his son – so that the boy can hand him his gun and he can commit suicide. It sounds bleak (and it is) but bear in mind, a man brandishing the Word of God just told him to fuck himself, which resulted in him severing his own penis and shoving it up his ass. Potato potahto.
This all comes after the climax of the first arc, in which Jesse invokes the eternal wrath of the Saint of Killers by using the Word to force him to stay his hand and call forth an angel to explain, at last, what the hell is going on. And that’s when Jesse learns the truth: that God abandoned Heaven, and no one knows where he is. In Jesse’s mind, that’s inexcusable: God has a responsibility to His creation, and deserves to be brought to task for abandoning it. A supreme deity with not only feet of clay but a severe lack of sense of responsibility: perhaps the ultimate blasphemy, especially in Christian circles. This, to me at the tender age of seventeen, was mind-blowing. The notion that maybe religion wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – that in fact I didn’t have to believe it if I didn’t want to – absolutely blew the doors off of all my preconceived notions about religion, society’s relationship to it, and most importantly, who I was as a person. Something in me had awakened, and it would continue to define me to this very day.
And as for Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy, that meant finding God and punishing Him. No easy task, and one that would chart the course for the remainder of the series. With the first arc complete and the narrative galloping out of the barn, the series would only get stronger as it went on. It was Preacher’s world now, the rest of comicdom was just living in it.
Next: Our heroes venture from the heartland of Texas to the wilds of New York City in their search for the Almighty, and come face-to-face with a very different kind of monster than they were looking for. Plus: what happens when the world’s worst cop is partnered up with the world’s superest cop? Hilarity ensues, that’s what!
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Part 2: The Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly
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