Part 3: A City So Nice, They Named It Twice
After deciding – as only a man’s man such as Jesse Custer can – to find God and hold Him accountable for abandoning His creation, Preacher’s trio of leads suddenly find themselves realizing they don’t have the slightest clue where to start. Since one guess is as good as any when looking for a wayward deity, Jesse and Tulip decide to go along with Cassidy’s random notion to travel to New York City and visit an old buddy of his who’s been known to have encountered the occasional odd, weird, and strange. What could possibly go wrong?
Preacher #5-7 features the gang – and by extension, the narrative – venturing out of the comfortable territory of Texas and into the wider world. Although it’s not the farthest the story will take Jesse and company into the great beyond, it’s certainly the most urban, which immediately sets up a classic juxtaposition of the cowboy going to the big city. It’s not necessarily the most comfortable fit, and these three issues (collectively entitled “Naked City”) together comprise what I consider the least-essential story to Preacher’s grand narrative. But what they lack in direct impact on the overarching story, they make up for in sheer fun – and at least one problematic aspect in the conclusion.
But before all that, it struck me as I concluded last week’s installment that I really haven’t devoted any space, critical or otherwise, to the artists that bring Garth Ennis’ vision for Preacher to life – something I need to rectify immediately, because no comic is an island (well, most comics aren’t). The two core artists Ennis brought along for the ride were the inimitable Glenn Fabry for covers and Steve Dillon for interiors and character design. A relatively short succession colorists made their way through the book, too, most notably Matt Hollingsworth and Pamela Rambo. But from start to finish, the core trio of Ennis/Dillon/Fabry remained intact, with the exception of some different artists on the scattered one-shots and the Saint of Killers miniseries, the finished product is squarely the creation of these three men, who just about as in sync as any three-way creative team could be. (Close second: Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, and Dave Johnson on 100 Bullets).
Let’s start with those immaculate Glenn Fabry covers, though. Fabry got his start drawing features in 2000 A.D. in the mid-‘80s, and eventually made his big breakthrough with American audiences when he started painting covers for DC’s Hellblazer, paired with – you guess it – Garth Ennis. Interestingly, Ennis’ Hellblazer run doesn’t fully coalesce until Fabry comes aboard, even though – presumably – he had nothing to do with the interior creative process. (And, not coincidentally, Steve Dillon took over as interior artist around the same time.) Whatever the magic formula was, Fabry clicked with Ennis seamlessly, and his covers jumped off the shelves, practically begging readers to buy the book. Fabry’s is a singular style; If I had to pick a term to best describe it, I’d have to go with “beautifully grotesque.” Here are a few samples:
There’s something vaguely sinister about Fabry’s art, but also exuberantly fun and irreverent when the occasion calls for it. He can effortlessly shift into the sublime or even the beautiful, too, though the end result is always recognizable as his unique work. In a lot of ways, he’s the anti-Alex Ross. Equally distinctive, though: you know a Glenn Fabry cover the second you see it. It’s a shame we don’t see nearly as much of his work anymore.
As for the interiors, Ennis brought his Hellblazer collaborator Steve Dillon with him. After knocking it out of the park with their previous book together, why break up the band? Dillon had been in the trade for a few years too, almost as long as Fabry, and had mostly done below-the-radar, unmemorable superhero fluff. Nothing major, just a fill-in issue or one-shot here and there. But he and Ennis had become friends, and realized they had very similar visions for what comics could be, instead of restricting themselves to tights and flights. Presumably, this friendship lead to Dillon landing his initial Hellblazer gig.
In a lot of ways, Dillon’s art style is diametrically opposite of Fabry’s. His linework is smooth and unfussy; men and women are realistically proportioned; the worlds in his panels look real and lived-in rather than fantastical. Put him on a book like Conan or Amethyst, and he’d be the dead wrong choice. Put him on Preacher or Punisher, however, and he sings. It’s also worth noting that nobody before or since has developed a style quite like Dillon’s. Pick up a comic he’s drawn, and you’ll immediately know it’s his work.
His style was a bit more over-rendered in Preacher’s earliest issues: he favored heavier inks, and displayed a tendency toward cross-hatching that would more or less disappear a year or so into the book’s run. Throughout the course of the series, Dillon inked his own work, so to look at the book from start to finish, you can see an artist learning, growing, and evolving. He also in the earlier issues had an occasional tendency to draw characters’ eyes a bit too big for their face; this tendency quickly faded away after the book’s first year as well.
Some fans would occasionally criticize Dillon for drawing the same faces over and over again. There’s some truth to this – his background characters or various cannon fodder-types do have certain uniform similarities to them. But when it came to the core characters – not just in Preacher, but in any book he worked on – nobody else can quite nail that misleadingly simple look. Others have tried, but Jesse and company don’t quite look right in anyone else’s hands. Dillon was also a master of body language and facial expression. His characters didn’t just stand around filling up space. They lived and breathed and had internal lives that he had the power to convey with simple little things like an arched eyebrow or the slight drop of the head. He was a master of his craft who left the world far too soon in 2016 at only age fifty-four of complications from a burst appendix. The industry lost a true master of the craft, and to be certain, despite his large body of work, Preacher is his legacy.
Meanwhile, in New York City…
The story picks up with the gang already in New York, and about to meet Cassidy’s friend Si, a freelance journalist with a penchant for the weird: UFO sightings, Bigfoot, and the like, but most especially religious phenomena. Tulip, true to form, isn’t too keen on raising their profile too high, since it stands to reason that Jesse is probably a wanted man after being the sole survivor of the Annville massacre. Not to worry: Cassidy will make up some nonsense for Si’s benefit so he think’s it’s actually a favor for him instead.
When we first meet Si, he’s a pretty fun, genial character. Paunchy and in about his mid-‘40s, he fearlessly dons a fedora and there isn’t a conspiracy theory he hasn’t heard of. In another Ennis blow to the classical take on vampires, Si reveals he first met Cassidy at Woodstock, who talked him down from the worst trip of his life. (“Don’t take the brown acid!”) Through Si, we continue to solidify the idea of who Cassidy is and what he’s about a little better: he’s the life of the party, who always knows the most interesting people and there’s always a wild story to tell or shenanigan to get into. This more or less proves true throughout the remainder of the series to varying degrees, although what being the life of the party actually means takes a far darker turn later on.
As written by Ennis, Cassidy and Si’s friendship feels very real, with a ton of history to back it up. Every the master of dialogue, Ennis has them perpetually indulging in nostalgia and telling funny stories about one another or casually taking the piss as only the best of friends do. Their initial reunion, in issue five, immediately starts as an extended joke between them about mothers, fathers, and the dirt-cheap price of fellatio. They then call each other every four-letter word in the book, turning the air blue in that way that, to paraphrase Jesse, only guys do. Instantly, readers feel like they know Si, or at least like him enough to have a beer with him.
Si also clues the gang into the latest story he’s working on: a serial killer named the Reaver-Cleaver, who’s been butchering people throughout the city in terrifyingly gruesome and sadistic ways. Without revealing his face or identity, we actually meet the Reaver-Cleaver in the previous scene, in which he’s removed a man’s face and proceeds to nail it back on. The Reaver-Cleaver’s M.O. is to mail identifying body parts to his victims’ family members as some form of sick game. Heading up the NYPD’s task force – such as it is – to bring the killer to justice are Detectives Paulie Bridges and John Tool, two very different cops who take the Lethal Weapon buddy-cop dynamic and crank it up to eleven.
As he’s introduced, John Tool is the world’s unluckiest cop. Middle-aged, overweight, and balding, he bumbles through every situation, whether it’s coming up out of ammo at the exact wrong time or slipping at the exact wrong other time. He’s a good-natured guy who wants to do the right thing, but can’t help but be his own worst enemy. Fortunately for him, he’s partnered with supercop Paulie Bridges, who’s so over the top in his zeal for law enforcement that he could be an outright parody if he were played for laughs. Instead, Bridges is the ultimate straight man, and any laughs readers might have along the way are purely incidental. Take, for example, his interrogation technique for an uncooperative gang member: he slams the gang member’s face down on the copy machine, and makes copies until the blindingly bright light results in one of his eyes nudging inward. Tool can’t stand Bridges’ actions, but any time he meekly tries to speak up, Bridges calls him things like “pussy” and gently chides him. Despite this toxic relationship, though, there are hints of genuine affection between the two of them, adding depth to what could otherwise be two throw-away characters.
Bridges, especially, reeks of what today we refer to as toxic masculinity, although he has a deep, dark secret that brings even him to his knees (in a manner of speaking). But he’s also a caricature of the ‘80s action movie supercop; one fellow officer describes him as being played by Schwarzenegger in the inevitable movie about his life. Paulie Bridges, as he’s presented, is the embodiment of that platonic ideal taken to its utmost extreme; Tool, by contrast, is his antithesis by an equally-extreme measure. There’s no way either of these men would make it as law officers in real life – especially not today, but not even by the mid-‘90s, either.
With that, though, all the players are in place for the next three issues. What follows is a series of interlocking scenes alternating between Bridges and Tool’s search for the Reaver-Cleaver, and some more quiet, introspective and character-driven (dare I say, even quiet) moments between the leads. It’s a solid play for Ennis after the explosive events of Preacher’s first arc: pull back a bit from the wanton carnage, change the scenery, let the characters breathe and play off of each other a bit, and in doing so, continue to build them into three-dimensional human beings.
And do that he does: one of the things that blew my mind most when I first read Preacher was how realistic the characters were, even if they had a face that looked like an arse. The level of craft put into these characters, to make readers care about them right from the start, and to see them interact with one another on a basic human level was something I’d never seen in superhero comics, even the best ones. It spoke to a maturity of the format I’d been searching for; before too much longer, I would all but abandon superhero comics for a few years and focus exclusively on the works of Ennis, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and any other writer who plied their trade in such a grown-up manner. No more kids’ stuff, this was the future. To say I became a little snobby might be a bit of an overstatement, but I was definitely following comics based on writers rather than characters, which was a complete paradigm shift compared to how I had previously approached them. It would be a few years more before I began to integrate back into the world of capes and tights, and it would take writers of this caliber bringing their level of skill and style to those superhero comics to get me there.
That said, there’s a little bit of a feeling of a comedown in these issues, especially after the mind-blowing pyrotechnics of Preacher’s opening volley. The stakes are quite a bit lower, as is fitting of this very different kind of story – but it creates a bit of separation for the reader from the previous arc and the expectations it created. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although I think it’s safe to assume Ennis knew what he was doing in keeping this story to a mere three issues in length. It’s not a filler story, exactly, but it’s definitely a chance to exhale before the next major storyline. And even though I notated in last week’s column that I feel confident that Ennis had the entirety of his epic pretty well mapped out from start to finish, there’s a bit of a feeling here that he – like the characters themselves – don’t quite know where to go. Again, though, keeping the story at just three issues nips any of these very minor qualms in the bud. And that potential sense of directionlessness is buoyed by the extremely sturdy character work at play throughout.
One of Ennis’ favorite tricks as a writer is to assemble a group of disparate characters, drop them in a given situation, and watch them go as they play off of one another. Sometimes, it works very, very well – as is the case here, and other times, not so much as he either extends himself too far or puts too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, and someone or another winds up getting short-changed in the grand scheme of things. But with the core trio, plus Si, the Reaver-Cleaver, Bridges, and Tool, the character-to-story balance is just right, and by the end, everything snaps together in a logical, consistent manner.
Twenty-five-year-old spoiler warning: Si winds up being the Reaver-Cleaver. He sets Cassidy up to take the fall for him, phoning in a SWAT team to corner the vampire in his house while he’s out taking Jesse to meet “the big man,” who will be able to help him on his search for the Almighty. “The big man” winds up being Detective Paulie Bridges, who, when Jesse enters the room in a ratty old tenement building, is playing sub – in full-on S&M gear – to a burly gay man who has him bent over and is giving him the business like there’s no tomorrow. Bridges, whose aforementioned dark secret brought him to shameful tears earlier in the story, is openly spouting derogatory, homophobic slurs toward himself, disgusted with what he is and how it flies in the face of his conceptions of manhood and masculinity.
And here’s where this story becomes perceptually problematic in a modern context. The scene is somewhat played for laughs – “Oh, the big macho cop is actually gay!” – and in function, Ennis is using this plot twist to further puncture the ‘80s action hero and all the tropes that go with it. But by “othering” homosexuals, Ennis plays into a nasty stereotype that has largely been discarded today – that there’s something wrong or at least unnatural about being gay. I don’t think Ennis had any malicious intent behind this twist, and by ‘90s standards, it wasn’t really that big of a deal. This was an era when the “squealing fag” stereotype was the general perception of what it meant to be gay (as perpetuated in pop culture), so in that particular zeitgeist, it at least makes a certain amount of sense. Bottom line, though – the scene hasn’t aged very well, and is anachronistic as well as offensive. It does, however, lead to Bridges having a complete mental breakdown, unable to reconcile who he is with who he perceives himself to be, and Bridges cursing for the first time in his life:
Si quickly makes the scene, having trapped Tulip in his car by impaling her hand to the dashboard with a hunting knife. His plan was to lead Jesse to Bridges, and frame him for the Reaver-Cleaver killings. That plan goes south pretty quick, though, when Jesse simultaneously punches him while telling him to “FUCKIN’ DIE!” with the Word, which of course instantly kills him. Jesse then uses Tool’s gun and shoot’s Si’s corpse in the head, which allows Tool to become the hero of the tale despite himself. The story concludes with no easy answers, and Jesse no closer to finding God. But the stage is set for Jesse and Tulip’s big reunion, as they depart back to Texas to deal with the criminal for whom she botched the hit.
This arc is rife with outstanding character work, like I said. But there are two major moments as issue seven closes out that will have major repercussions. First and foremost, Jesse is informed by Tool – who used his newfound clout within the NYPD to report to the FBI that the body of one Reverend Jesse Custer was fished out of the Hudson River, and he is now officially dead. That gets any law enforcement heat off of Jesse, leaving him far more free to search for God. But much, much more importantly, Tool relays that his FBI contact said Jesse’s grandmother called looking for him – a comment that leaves Jesse white as a sheet, and sweating in fear. We’ve never seen him look like this before, so unsure, so frightened – and starting next issue, readers will start to know why.
Secondly, and much more importantly to the long game Ennis was playing with Preacher, is a speech Cassidy gives to Jesse, seething from Si’s betrayal: “You think you’ve got a good friend, right? Someone you can rely on, they’re always gonna be there for you… An’ they get right in here [points at his heart], but that’s all right because you think you’ve got them the same way… An’ then it turns out they’re just another fucker.” Remember this little speech and burn it into your memory, friend, because it becomes VERY relevant toward the end of the series.
Cassidy decides to part ways from Jesse and Tulip after Si’s betrayal, and heads west to sort himself out (read: party like there’s no tomorrow) after everything that happened. It’s a deliberate attempt by Ennis to naturally remove Cassidy from the book temporarily, as the next arc doesn’t work with him in it. Besides, the next arc is Jesse and Tulip’s story, and who’d want to have an Irish vampire in the middle of that…?
Next: Jesse’s past is at last revealed, and if you think your family is bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ ‘til you’ve met Gran’ma and Jody. Plus: buggering around the barnyard with T.C.!
THE PREACHER DIARIES, Part 3: A City So Nice, They Named It Twice
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