There’s a whole lot of sex in Preacher #13-17, the “Hunters” arc. Possibly more than should be legal. Definitely more than would be allowed in a mainstream non-Vertigo comic in the mid-‘90s. There’s hot Jesse and Tulip action. Man on man. Woman on woman. Group sex. Animal sex. A pair of self-described sex detectives. Missing heroin. The world’s most evil cat. Cassidy’s return. Cassidy’s girlfriend. But all of this pales in comparison to the arrival of the one man – and his organization – that would completely alter, amplify, and otherwise jack the noise up to eleven for the remainder of Preacher’s run:
Herr Starr is given no first name. He doesn’t need one. He is simply, “Mister Starr.” Appropriately, he sees the world through his single functioning eye, an apt a metaphor as could be for how he conducts is business. His right eye is blinded, with a five-point crude star scarred above and below it. He is bald, rarely smiles, and his demeanor could be charitably described as “demeaning.” He’s single-minded in his pursuits, cold-blooded, and utterly relentless until he achieves his goals, whatever they might be.
And yet – terrible, terrible fates continue to befall Herr Starr. Some are horrifying, most are hilarious. And therein lies the genius to his character.
It would have been easy – too easy – to for Garth Ennis to have continually treated the character like a joke with few or no consequences. After all, an ambitious, evil man constantly being undercut by some form of pratfall or misfortune is the formula for many a comedic villain – perhaps best epitomized by Dr. Evil, but easily applied to just about any villain from a comedy. The trick to Herr Starr is that by equal measure, Ennis never stops reminding readers what a cunning, ruthless foe he truly is. And the more terrible fates that befall him, the further he is willing to go in pursuit of his aims. The balance is difficult to maintain for any writer, but Garth Ennis never lets readers succumb to ennui when it comes to Starr.
No sooner is he introduced this issue, and he announces that the routine stresses he operates under are so great they can only be relieved by regular, sordid sex. To that end, he sends his hapless assistant, Hoover, out to procure a prostitute. Hoover, completely out of his depth, is tricked into hiring a male prostitute (one of the aforementioned sex detectives, Bob Glover – more on them to come), who forces himself on Starr in a grimy alleyway and relieves him of his anal virginity.
Elephant in the room – this is a sensitive topic. Rape should never be taken lightly in storytelling, and if it’s used as a plot point, it should be done so with great care and for reasons well beyond shock value. That Ennis uses it for laughs in Starr’s case hearkens back to the crass nature of South Park at the height of its cultural relevance a few years later: anything and everything was on the table for lampooning. It’s definitely not something that readers could expect in a comic in 2020, and for some, it could be extremely uncomfortable to read. That should be acknowledged and understood and respected (if you haven’t figured out that Preacher isn’t for everyone by now, you haven’t been paying attention). But this is Ennis walking the Herr Starr tightrope to its fullest: he’s introduced as an untouchable man of steel and conviction, but is helpless in the face of a giant doofy Englishman who thinks Starr’s there for a good time. The result the next morning is Starr throttling Hoover within an inch of his life, belligerently screaming about how he’s “been turned into a homosexual.” (That isn’t how that works, obviously, but Starr’s caught up in the moment.) His violence against Hoover is only stopped when his adjutant, Featherstone, tells him they’ve located one Jesse Custer.
Featherstone and Hoover each have vital roles to play throughout Preacher’s narrative, the former more than the latter. Neither of them are prepared for the lengths Starr is willing to go to at any given moment, but Featherstone in particular feels an immediate trust in her new superior. Whether that’s earned or not remains to be seen; but by the end of “Hunters,” she’s certainly proven her worth to his cause. Featherstone (like Starr, neither her nor Hoover’s first names are given) is a pragmatic realist: she sees that the world is in need of a massive overhaul, and although it’s later revealed that’s exactly why she joined the Grail, she also sees that “internal policy” therein needs to be redirected. Hoover, more or less, is ignorantly along for the ride. Both claim to be committed Christians, yet they are both willing to be party to grisly horrors in the name of their faith – for the sake of the world.
Which finally brings me back around to the actual plot of “Hunters.” It’s a remarkably on-the-nose title, as several interested parties are all simultaneously hunting one another; it’s a multifaceted chase where none of the other parties are even aware there’s a game afoot. It’s remarkably different in its structure than any of the preceding Preacher arcs, with a wide array of moving pieces that don’t all come together until the final issue (#16).
But, long story short: back together and finally free of Angelville, Jesse and Tulip head west to San Francisco to reunite with Cassidy, only to discover he buried a girlfriend the week prior. She overdosed on heroin, and Cassidy wants to pay back the dealer who supplied her in kind. Jesse, friend that he is, is all too happy to accompany Cass on his journey of payback and leg-breaking.
The pair doesn’t know it yet, but Gretta, Cass’s girlfriend, was supposed to deliver the heroin from a dealer named Gallico to Bob Glover and Freddy Allen, the one-and-only Sex Detectives. They, in turn, were supposed to deliver the heroin to one Jesus de Sade, lord of the Gamorra People, a group of the wealthy elite who allow themselves to indulge in all matters of perversion and excess because, well, they can. The pursuit of excess is the goal in and of itself. Finally, unbeknownst to anyone, Herr Starr is on the hunt for Jesse. All of these disparate characters create one huge circle chase, finally careening explosively and decisively in the story’s conclusion.
So, at this point, everyone’s motivations are (hopefully) pretty clear, with one glaring exception: Herr Starr. Who is he? What does he want with Jesse? Who is this “Grail” organization he works for? And why is the first thing he does upon meeting up with Featherstone, Hoover, and their superior, Pouissin, is shoot Pouissin in the face? To get to that, you have to scratch beneath the surface of one of the core tenets of Christianity: that Jesus Christ died for the world’s sins, and after three days, was resurrected from the dead.
There is absolutely nothing more consequential to Christian beliefs than this miracle. If it’s something you’ve been told your entire life, you’re more apt to believe it rather than approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. But what if you were told that was wrong, that Jesus’ death on the cross was faked, and he lived out his life for another decade-plus years, fathering children with Mary Magdalene and creating a divine bloodline that continues on even today? That would be a difficult pill to swallow, especially if this truth flew in the face of your most sacred religious convictions.
But, The Grail not only believes it – they have proof. And they have the final product of that holy bloodline. And come Judgement Day – they will wheel their child before the masses, bringing an order to the world which they themselves will control from the shadows. The Grail, as Starr later explains, has not only protected the bloodline of Jesus’ heir, but has only allowed breeding to occur within that bloodline to maintain its purity. That’s right: the savior of mankind is the product of two centuries’ worth of inbreeding. Readers won’t get to meet him for a while yet, but he’s as put-together as you’d think. The Grail’s unwavering faith in the Child blinds them to the truth: that it’s unthinkable to wheel a child with such obvious mental deficiencies before the masses of the world and expect anything good to come of it.
And so, despite his commitment to both the Grail and Christianity, Starr has begun a conspiracy within the Grail to replace the Child with a man who, according to his sources, “has a voice that you can’t help but obey.” Starr wants Jesse Custer, and he wants him to be the new messiah. With Featherstone and Hoover at his side – two operatives culled from a small list of Grail personnel who has questioned official directives more than once and lived to tell the tail – Starr is on Jesse’s trail, culminating in a dramatic shootout at Jesus de Sade’s orgy to end all orgies.
The Grail, by virtue of its very nature, is in a sense the ultimate conspiracy: they’re the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Deep State, and pretty much any other paranoid Infowars ramble you’ve ever heard all rolled into one – except they’re real, and they really do secretly run the world. Prime ministers owe them their careers; the Berlin Wall fell on their Allfather’s command; a USAF jet refuels a Grail airplane as a courtesy. To paraphrase as Featherstone describes them, they “Own nations and walk between the raindrops.” Unfortunately, they’ve tangled with the one guy who isn’t remotely impressed by or scared of any of that: Jesse Custer.
There’s a little bit more to Starr’s need for Jesse, though. Per his description, a vigilance order for Jesse went out among Grail personnel after the incineration of Annville. Standard operating procedure for any time a religious phenomena occurs. Yet six months later, the order still stood, and Starr found a photograph of Jesse Custer, age six, among the Allfather of the Grail’s personal files. This lead Starr to realize that the Allfather wanted Jesse for something – perhaps because he was suspicious of Starr’s growing conspiracy to replace the Child, but perhaps for personal reasons as well – which is why Pouissin had to go, as he was the Allfather’s right-hand man. With Pouissin disposed of, Starr was free to assume operational control in San Francisco, and begin making his moves to capture Jesse. Without realizing it, Jesse has caught the world’s largest tiger by the tail, and the scope of Preacher was set to go global.
With all these various parties in motion, everything comes to a head at Jesus de Sade’s massive orgy, for which the heroin that killed Gretta was originally bound. De Sade is a pale, thin, pretentious man who wanders around in a ludicrous purple royal cape and a G-string. As he explains to Jesse, the primary purpose of the Gamorra People is the pursuit of excess itself as a means for smashing staid standards of morality. To that end, his entire mansion is full of people in gimp masks, furries, a room with a man in stocks and a herd of sheep, a woman brandishing a cucumber for questionable purposes at Tulip, a sex dwarf, gerbil lubricant pumps, and pretty much anything imaginable that involves sexual decadence. De Sade himself remains emotionally dead to anything remotely resembling shock; after all, this is a man who was introduced in this tale by means of sodomizing an armadillo. (He’d already buggered his way around the local zoo’s larger quadrupeds.)
All of this is played for laughs (and to give Jesse something to rant about vis a vis people with too much wealth and time on their hands), but things take a dark turn when Jesse stumbles onto a porno being filmed – which involves two consenting adults but also a young boy who is clearly not there of his own volition. Jesse’s fury ignites, and he lashes into de Sade with all the physical force he can muster. This serves to distract him while Starr and his hired mercenaries raid the party – nearly killing Tulip and resulting in Cassidy pretending to be Jesse so that Tulip will be released from harm’s way.
While there’s a ton of great action and narrative flow in “Hunters,” there’s a wealth of quiet, introspective moments too. Jesse and Tulip’s reunion leads to a great deal of obnoxiously loud, sweaty sex, but also wonderful moments of them just being happy together. Jesse nervously asks Tulip what it was like to die; she softly replies that it wasn’t like anything – just a sudden blackness. But she also relates that she thinks God is scared of Jesse, and that he is in fact on the run from him. This suits Jesse just fine, and plasters a big, shit-eating grin on his face. This leads to more sex, and the affirmation that he loves her until the end of the world.
Cassidy’s return sparks some solid character dynamics, too. Outwardly, he’s the same “I could give a shit” party animal he’s always been, but in talking about Gretta’s death – and the preceding time before that, as she was aging and he wasn’t – he grows wistful, almost solemn, letting his mask of indifference slip just for a moment. Jesse confides in Tulip that a soft heart beats in his chest somewhere; she’s less convinced, as Cass doesn’t seem to particularly take her seriously. That all changes when he sacrifices himself for her safety, impersonating Jesse and attempting the most god-awful Southern drawl ever committed by man (“Gawd demmit,” he snarls).
But perhaps most importantly for Preacher’s ongoing narrative, the friendship and brotherly bonds between Jesse and Cassidy are reinforced almost without even trying. Ennis is a master of conversational dialogue; in a format that’s largely been dominated over the years by superpeople giving exposition dumps or making bold, loud proclamations instead of having meaningful conversations, Ennis shows that the best way to reveal relationships is by simply having two people talk about anything, from the sublime to the mundane. Jesse and Cassidy, in this instance, wind up talking about their shared love of Laurel & Hardy – as it happens to be on the bar TV – blabbering on about their favorite episodes and contrasting people who like Laurel & Hardy (good) versus those who like Charlie Chaplin (bad). The moment is ruined, though, when the bartender changes the channel to a baseball game, and an argument with a musclebound patron over what to watch quickly escalates into violence. Jesse and Cass walk away without a scratch, the fact that they have their backs unspoken at this point. That brotherly love is front and center in the next major arc, which is set up when Starr absconds with the wrong man. Once you’re in Jesse Custer’s heart, there’s no length to which he won’t go to protect you.
Which makes everything that eventually happens in Preacher all the more tragic.
Next: Before Jesse can rescue Cass, a chance airport encounter leads to a riveting tale about Jesse’s father. Buckle up, folks, ‘cause we’re heading to Vietnam for “Texas and the Spaceman.”
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Chapter 6: Whole Lotta Love
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