Three: I: The Ballad of Tulip and Jesse
After moving into a slight holding pattern for “Naked City,” Ennis and Dillon kicked things into high gear – emotionally and otherwise – for Preacher’s third arc. The stakes are set right there on the first page cold opening of issue eight:
If it wasn’t clear, that was a young Jesse Custer witnessing the murder of his father.
But before all that, let me make one thing abundantly clear – Preacher is three things: a Western, an atheist screed, and a love story. Perhaps more than anything else, Jesse Custer and Tulip O’Hare’s relationship is the engine that drives the story. Garth Ennis could fill his masterwork with enough blasphemy, blood, and ink-black humor to fill a small library, but without these two at its heart, it would ultimately be an empty affair – or at least far less effective. For a story – any story, in any form or genre – to work, the most important thing, more than even plot or narrative structure or execution – is developing characters with internal lives the readers care about. Without this, the experience is ultimately hollow. Fortunately, as I hope I’ve made clear by now, loveable characters are something Preacher has in spades.
Jesse and Tulip were made for each other. That might sound like some whimsical romcom gibberish, but at the end of the day, Ennis sells us on it. They complement each another so completely that one without the other is quite simply incomplete. Up until this point, readers had only gotten hints of what had once been between them – and a nasty, nasty breakup five years earlier, which Tulip was still bitter about and Jesse was at best standoffish. More than Jesse’s quest to find God, the dangling plot threads of this once-epic romance was the far more urgent cliffhanger to be addressed.
Of course, one other, seemingly-less pressing question was hanging out there, too: just who the hell is Jesse Custer? Where did he come from? How did he wind up as a small-town preacher in the ass-end of Texas, drowning in whiskey and self-loathing? How did he become the man we’d been following for seven issues now? Ennis brilliantly brought all of these errant plot threads – yes, even the hunt for the Almighty – together in Preacher #8-12, five issues that rounded out the title’s first year with not just a bang, but with a tie for strongest story of the entire run: “Until the End of the World.”
Temporarily parting ways with Cassidy, Jesse and Tulip head back to Dallas to settle things with the local thug, named Macavoy, who hired Tulip for the botched hit-job. He still wants her to finish the job, and won’t leave her be until she’s killed his rival. This means, though, that Tulip has to actually reveal she was – at least temporarily – a hitwoman, a fact Jesse has quite a hard time wrapping his head around. But Tulip manages to cool his jets by “gently” reminding him that the last person he stood in judgement on was Cassidy, and he felt bad about it right away. Compound that with the fact that Jesse had only just ordered a man to die with the Word a handful of days earlier, and Jesse manages to calm down enough to listen to her story.
After being dumped (her word, not his) by Jesse in Phoenix under still-mysterious circumstances, Tulip turned to alcohol, and eventually checked into rehab using borrowed money from a local hood. When it came time to repay her debt, the only acceptable response Macavoy would accept was Tulip take out a hit on his rival. Once Tulip convinced him of her bonafides on a shooting range he had, the gig was on – until it wasn’t, leading to the scene in issue one where Tulip shot the wrong guy’s jaw off by mistake, and linked up with Cassidy.
Jesse very naturally doesn’t take kindly to anyone making threats against Tulip, which leads them back to Dallas and, unbeknownst to them, in the coincidental crosshairs of two very, very frightening customers. Once inside, negotiations go about as well as you’d expect, with Macavoy demanding his money back, Tulip trying to buy for time and keep a bloodbath from breaking out, and Jesse about to pull the Word out for maximum effect, when everything goes immediately south. There’s a shot fired in the front lobby, and moments later, the door is kicked open by the meanest-looking SOB this side of the Mississippi. The man dispatches Macavoy’s minions with one shot apiece (except for the black man, whom he takes a special interest in shooting multiple times), disarms Tulip with a quick gesture, and manages to make Jesse – Jesse fucking Custer – to look scared.
And that’s how readers are introduced to Jody, the only man on Earth who can instill immediate fear in the Reverend Jesse Custer.
It’s an expertly-rendered scene, paced flawlessly by Steve Dillon’s page layouts for maximum impact. The second Jody enters the room, he immediately dominates the scene, and is in complete control of not only the in-story proceedings but has the rapt attention of the reader as well. Then, much to both readers’ and Jesse and Tulip’s shock, Jesse tries to use the Word on him to no effect. Jody smiles, takes the effort in stride, and maintains complete control of the situation. He leads Jesse and Tulip outside to his van, where they’re greeted by a second highly-threatening individual: T.C. He’s far scrawnier than Jody, but is wily enough to recall that he remembers Tulip from Phoenix.
Wait, what? Phoenix? Correct: Jody and T.C. are connected to Jesse’s vanishing from Tulip’s side in Phoenix five years prior. They’re key to everything, or at least an integral part. And with that unspoken truth hanging over their heads, Jody and T.C. abscond to Louisiana with Jesse and Tulip their prisoners. It’s time to go home to Angelville, where the story truly began.
As much as “Until the End of the World” is about Jesse and Tulip, it’s equally about family, too. That tricky thing that is a tie that binds and can either lift you up or drag you down. It’s a defining thing, whether you believe in nature or nurture or something in between. Maybe the defining thing for anybody, insofar as formative years are concerned – but even then, past that, family will always be there to beckon even the staunchest individualist back. Sometimes that beckoning is blissful, sometimes it’s a millstone around the neck. In Jesse Custer’s case, it’s a millstone the size of an iceberg.
And while Jesse’s familial drama makes pretty much anyone else’s seem small by comparison, it’s easily identifiable, especially to the black sheep. Make no mistake, as the black sheep of not one but two sides of my family, I get it – and I’m not alone. Anyone who’s lived their life on the outside looking in could. In a sense, I suspect that’s a large reason why I identify so strongly with Jesse and Preacher: he’s the outsider with a righteous cause, and the grit to stand up for what he believes in come hell or high water. To borrow Jesse’s parlance, only an asshole wouldn’t identify with someone like that on a gut level.
Jesse’s family is as twisted and horrifying as they come, but at the end of the day, they’re still the only family he knows. But they’re a twisted version of the familial ideal, prizing loyalty and obedience and the preservation of the bloodline over love and acceptance. Duty and fealty are everything. And into that comes Jesse’s grandmother, the matriarch of the clan, Miss Marie L’Angell: Gran’ma.
Marie L’Angell is not a happy, matronly grandmother. She’s an evil, twisted hag who thrives on her own power and the cruel authority it gives her. And more to the point for the broader themes of Preacher, she’s an arch-Christian woman completely oblivious to just how hypocritical her actions are in the face of her supposed faith. Like so many other misguided faithful (regardless of religion), she molds Christianity to fit her needs and her worldview, rather than trying to embrace faith’s better angels and becoming a more moral person for it. She is, in a very real sense, anyone who abuses their faith for personal gain. Though Gran’ma takes that abuse to the furthest extreme possible, the parallel couldn’t be more obvious.
It doesn’t take long for that power to make itself known. Just by being in her presence, Jesse is cowed: he bows his head in shame and fear, and ever-so-politely introduces Tulip thusly: “This is Miss Tulip O’Hare. Tulip, this is Miss Marie L’Angell, my grandmother.” Jody and T.C. and a host of faceless others are equally subservient in her presence, even if they’re not so cowed. They all clearly understand who is in charge, and dare not question her authority. To drive that point home, Gran’ma shows Jesse she loves him by giving him until dawn with Tulip, and then to show him that she’s in charge forever, Jody will then blow Tulip’s brains out.
And so, with nothing else to lose, Jesse at last reveals his origin to Tulip. That closes out issue eight, the rug pulled so thoroughly and completely out from under our protagonists that the truth is the only recourse they have left in what remains of their time together.
Garth Ennis loves his war stories. As the medium’s foremost adept at the genre, he does his research, and can meticulously recite the most minute details of pretty much any battle in a given war or conflict, down to the weaponry used to the various battalions deployed to the exact model tanks and planes at any given moment. Throughout his career, he’s peppered war stories in wherever he could; even Hellblazer, for all its mysticism and street-level supernaturalism, was granted a one-off World War II tale. After Preacher ended, Ennis made a whole second career for himself penning war stories of all shapes and sizes for innumerable publishers throughout the industry. It’s a second career he continues to this day, most recently with TKO’s Sara. That love for war stories and history are probably why he became the definitive Punisher author after the turn of the century, because not only does he understand the minutia and historical aspects of war, but he also understands the human cost of the endeavor. Broken men and women, eaten whole in one way or another by the unshakable specter of war, litter Ennis’s entire bibliography. So it should come as no surprise that war found its way into Preacher, too.
Preacher #9 opens with Jesse’s father, John Custer, returning home from the battlefields of Vietnam, unsure of his place in the world after everything he’s endured – and is immediately spat upon by a fiery, black-haired protester and called a babykiller.
That’s how readers are introduced to Jesse’s parents. John shares a moment of sheer shock mixed with grief, paused pregnantly as Christina L’Angell meets his gaze with a look of her own surprise that she had it in her to treat someone like that. Christina’s anti-war friends break the silence by egging John on even more, calling him Uncle Sam’s murder-machine and such, and in that moment, we see John’s gaze turn solemn and introspective and almost on the verge of tears. He’s genuinely hurt and doesn’t know what to do for, we can only imagine, the first time in his adult life. Christina then finds him alone in a bar, and the entire page is silent – she approaches him, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. She turns to walk away, but he reaches out to her, tears of his own now streaming, and they share a single, beautiful hug. Without a single word between them, they know one another as intimately as two people possibly can. They’re both borne out of trauma, and have found solace in each other’s arms.
If John Custer’s Vietnam was Hell on Earth (more on that in later issues), so, too was Christina’s upbringing in Angelville. Ennis never really explores John’s backstory prior to Vietnam – a quick brush-off in Jesse’s words, “There was really nothing back home waiting for him” – is all we get. But John’s backstory prior to Vietnam is irrelevant, because it’s the forces that shaped him on the battlefield that matter most. With what we’ve been shown of Angelville and Gran’ma, readers can easily fill in the blanks of what Christina’s upbringing was like. In that way, Christina and he are two kindred spirits, traumatized and trying to not only outrun their past, but make peace with it as well. There’s a second parallel to be made between the literal war that John fought in and the evil family ties Christina was compelled to fight against all her life. War is everywhere – whether in Southeast Asia or on a brutally religious plantation tucked away in Louisiana. And since war is everywhere, it’s also inevitable – and it leaves countless people scorched and scarred in its wake, and they have to do the best they can to pick up the pieces and make something of themselves.
Needless to say, when John and Christina found each other, it was a whirlwind romance for the ages, culminating in Jesse’s birth and a life lived free in the badlands of Texas. Christina had hinted at her past, and told John at one point that she “knows from bad men, and you’re not it,” but John never pressed her on it, assuming she’d get to it when she was ready.
And four years after Jesse was born, the fairytale ended. Jody and T.C. at last caught up to them, and after a brief scuffle, forcibly returned the entire family to Angelville and Gran’ma’s tender mercies. A shotgun marriage was forced upon them, and they effectively became prisoners. John bided his time and waited to make his move, and on the night before he left, he told Jesse, all of four years old, the most important thing he would ever say: “You gotta be one of the good guys, son. ‘Cause there’s way too many of the bad.” It’s a simple credo (even more so than comics’ greatest oft-repeated maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility”), but is resounding in that simplicity. It’s also the single thing that drives Jesse Custer most as a character, that marrow-deep need to do the right thing, consequences be damned. And with that, John, Christina, and Jesse made their ill-fated escape, which culminated with Jody shooting John in the head right in front of his only son.
Things would only get worse from there.
That’s a lot to take in, and Dillon makes sure to convey that on Tulip’s face as she hears Jesse’s tale. But it also reveals a lot about Jesse’s demons. Even though it’s never explicitly spelled out, Jesse is clearly suffering from ongoing trauma beginning with that night. He hides it well, under a thick skin of masculinity and Marlboros, but the truth is, he never stopped being that little boy who witnessed the execution of his father. This is codified by his brash decision he makes that night, in the immediate aftermath of John’s demise: John Wayne never cries, so neither will he. Upper lip as stiff as a board. It’s a remarkably unhealthy decision, it’s a child’s decision. It’s horribly damaging decision, emotionally- and psychologically-speaking. But from then on, Jesse is determined to never let the world hurt him again, or at least let it see that he’s in pain. And to be sure, that stubborn refusal to never cry, to never reveal himself and be vulnerable, plays out until the very last pages of the series. Jesse is, in many ways, incapable of growing past his idealized notion of manhood that was formulated by a child in shock, and it’s because of the unresolved trauma rent at this very moment in his formative years.
In fairness, who wouldn’t be traumatized by witnessing the murder of their parent? Regardless of age? That this is the particular coping mechanism Jesse chose doesn’t make him particularly different in psychological terms than someone who chose to cope by drinking, behaving recklessly or promiscuously, taking dangerous chances, or ideating suicide. They’re all coping mechanisms for unresolved trauma; Jesse’s just happens to make for better entertainment when he beats the shit out of some unsuspecting redneck who insults his honor. But as we’ll see as the series continues, that mentality has consequences, even if it is cathartic in the moment.
And it should. It would be irresponsible of Ennis as a writer to glorify that sort of behavior (even if he walks a fine line throughout the series). But actions have consequences, and ignoring those consequences because of psychological damage masquerading as an anachronistic code of honor is dangerous. Despite the sheer laugh-out-loud fun of watching Jesse go to work on unsuspecting meatheads throughout Preacher’s run, there’s (almost) always very real fallout.
More importantly to the immediate story, though – without John around, and the fight having gone out of Christina because of it, Jesse became easy prey for Gran’ma and her religious indoctrination. To be continued!
Next: How Jesse Custer learned to love the Lord, inbreeding, bestiality, true friendship, and at last, God stops in for a quick visit. Plus: the most righteous, brutal, and emotionally cathartic beatdown in the history of comics.
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Part 4: Until the End of the World, Part 1
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