“Thinking about Vietnam every once in a while, in a crazy kind of way, I wish that just for a while I could be there. And then be transported back. Maybe just to be there so I’d wish I was back here again.” – Anonymous U.S. Serviceman, quoted in Nam by Mark Baker
Preacher #18, entitled “Texas and the Spaceman,” closes with that haunting quote. It says a lot about an entire generation of soldiers who survived the Vietnam Conflict and lived in its shadow, and I suspect that’s why Garth Ennis chose it for this special, one-and-done issue. Snugly sandwiched between major storylines, Ennis and Steve Dillon took a short side trek back to the jungles of Vietnam for a look back at Jesse Custer’s father John, and the forces of war that shaped the man he’d become – which, ultimately, informed Jesse too.
The narrative throughline for this issue is about friendship, loyalty, and honor. It’s about watching your buddy’s back and doing whatever it takes to stand up for him/her. It’s about John Custer and Billy Baker, a.k.a. “Spaceman,” surviving together, standing tall, and living through horror. If that loyalty of brotherhood thread sounds familiar, it should – it’s at the heart of Jesse and Cassidy’s friendship, and creates a generational parallel between father and son as Jesse embarks to France to rescue the kidnapped Cassidy from the Grail.
Jesse is waiting out a layover at the airport on the way to France, when a chance encounter at the bar leads to him sitting next to Spaceman. The two men see each other’s “Fuck Communism” Zippos and there’s a wonderful moment where they stare at each other, not knowing what to think, and in the moment, Spaceman mistakes Jesse for his father. (As similarly as Dillon draws father and son – deliberately, mind you – it’s not hard to see why.) Jesse then has to break the sad news to Spaceman that his brother-in-arms died in 1974, and in reciprocation for the fact that Jesse never really got to know his father, Spaceman offers to tell him a story about their time in Vietnam. With an uncharacteristically soft and even somewhat desperate expression on his face, Jesse replies, “Yes, sir, I’d like that more’n anything.”
And so begins one of Garth Ennis’ finest hours as a war storyteller. What unfolds in the telling is a story of comradeship, betrayal, inept leadership, and above all else, the horrors of war. “Texas and the Spaceman” isn’t just a great issue of Preacher. It’s one of the best war stories ever told in comics, period.
I’ve spoken at length before about the insanely detailed historical accuracies Ennis goes into for the research of his war tales. (Heck, he’s so good at it, Vertigo gave him license to go full-bore with the concept by rewarding him two War Stories miniseries around the turn of the century; each issue was a fully-contained, double-sized, stand-alone story. Do yourself a favor and buy the trades ASAP.) But it’s not just the historical accuracies Ennis pours himself into so well. It’s the sense of what it was like in the day-to-day minutia, the sense of being there, whether it’s in the heat of battle or emptying latrines or sneaking a fat blunt after dark. Readers are instantly transported. And it’s not just Ennis’ writing that does that trick; it’s Dillon’s imagery as well. In this first shot of the flashback, readers immediately get a sense for where in time they’re witnessing:
The helmets. The soldiers. The trees. The low-hanging Huey. The orange skyline. The shadows, keeping the soldiers anonymous in their imagery. These images are all intrinsic to our shared memories of Vietnam, recounted through endless movies, books, songs, and more. The Vietnam Conflict – and really, the entire era it’s forever tied to – left a gaping wound on the soul of America that our nation is still struggling to recover from, igniting civil unrest, class warfare, and social divisions that have never healed. The Civil Rights Movement, women’s lib, the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, the hippies and their counterculture, Watergate – all of it distinct yet at the same time cannot be extricated from one another or Vietnam, everything tied together symbolically, historically, and socially. Change had come to America, and we’re still struggling with how to respond. Our current political moment can trace its historic roots to the era.
And into that hornet’s nest was dropped John Custer, U.S. Marine (nicknamed “Texas”) and his buddies, Spaceman and Gonny. Spaceman earned his nickname for remarking how he wanted to be an astronaut someday. Gonny, on the other hand, had gonorrhea. Texas and Spaeman (or just Space for short) were pretty tight, and had enough street smarts to handle themselves. But Gonny was dumb, scrawny, and more than a little bit of a screw-up. Fortunately, he could, as Space put it, “Make you laugh at your own mama’s funeral.” So Texas and Space always looked out for him.
But first, that Zippo with the immortal “Fuck Communism” engraved on it. We’ve seen it before, back when it was revealed that Jody had taken it off of John’s body after murdering him. Jesse got it back after exacting revenge two decades later. And we knew it invoked a major reaction from Jesse when he first saw it, attributable at the time to having his father’s death rubbed in his face. The story behind it is much more interesting, though: the Duke himself, John Wayne, flew out as part of a propaganda exercise and gave Texas and Space’s squad a whole speech about fighting the evil Commies, and then gifted each Marine with that Zippo. For a man raised and fed on a steady diet of John Wayne movies, it was a dream come true for John.
Wayne himself was, in real life, more than happy to be a vocal counterpoint to the quickly-growing antiwar movement. He happily made pro-‘Nam movies such as The Green Berets and would gladly expound on the conflict’s perceived virtuous nature in public and interviews. History, of course, would largely prove that he was on its wrong side (depending on your perspective), but as is the case with many things Duke-centric – including his unabashed racism – time has largely challenged our collective perception of the man. For the purposes of “Texas and the Spaceman,” though, it’s more than enough that John Custer got one shining moment in Hell to meet his hero.
The story, in its way, is somewhat slight plot-wise, but is heavy on characterization and deeper relevancy. Texas, Spaceman, and Gonny are allied with one Private First Class Murphy, a petty bully who specializes in finding any way possible to make his subordinates’ lives miserable. And above him is First Lieutenant Van Patten, an Ivy-leaguer way, way in over his head and with something to prove. Put all that together, and you have a near-perfect situation for something to go horribly wrong – and for Texas, Space, and Gonny to have to bear its brunt.
What happens next is confluence of events that can only end in tragedy, with the squad well off from where they thought they were on the map, finding what appears to be an abandoned village, walking into a trap, and the least among them being blown to a fine red mist – all because of Murphy’s foolish and unsafe direction. In issuing the order, it becomes obvious that Murphy doesn’t care about his men’s lives. Only that they follow orders. John wants justice then and there, but Space wisely talks him into cooling off an waiting for a more opportune time. And when that time comes, justice is served.
It’s a grim look at soldiering, and keeps true to the popular narrative that America’s operations in Vietnam were a clusterfuck to say the least. Soldiers killing their superior officers in retribution for bad orders? Such a thing would have been unimaginable a generation prior. But Vietnam was an inflection point for the United States, a battlefield twin to the domestic upheaval at home. Up was down and black was white. But despite all that – or maybe because of it – Spaceman’s tale for Jesse reinforces the distinct parallels between father and son through the years, despite Jesse only having a four-year-old’s memories of the man. And it’s a testament to the bonds of brotherhood, an ongoing theme for Jesse and Cassidy’s relationship throughout Preacher.
Preacher #18 is one of the most perfect one-and-done comics I’ve ever read. And it stands distinctly amid Ennis and Dillon’s epic (later joined in issue fifty for a quasi-sequel) as an issue that can be read on its own with no pretext. Finally, it’s just a ripping great war story. From a craft standpoint, it shows just how much can be done with the single issue format, but from a heart perspective – especially for any veterans who might read it – there’s simply no topping it. Preacher was already a monster of a masterpiece on its own, but “Texas and the Spaceman” stands tall as one of the best among the best.
Next: Saddle up, lil’ dogies, ‘cause we’re heading to the Old West for the Saint of Killers miniseries! Plus: two shorter pit stops for The Tale of You-Know-Who and Gran’ma Marie’s favorite henchmen, The Good Ol’ Boys!
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Chapter 7: Texas and the Spaceman
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