As Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Vertigo epic makes its televised debut, now is the perfect time to go back to genesis and see what came crashing down on AMC Sunday night…
“In the Beginning…”-Genesis 1:1
Published starting in 1995 by DC’s Vertigo imprint, which had wrought such works as Enigma, Sandman and Kid Eternity; Preacher is the story of the reverend Jesse Custer and his friends going out into the world to find God and hold him accountable for its ills. Jesse, having a divine entity bonded to his soul with the power to force any who hear him to obey his commands, intends to use this power to learn why the almighty abandoned his creation and left the throne of Heaven unattended. His past and one-true love Tulip O’Hare and a century-old Irish vampire named Cassidy, sensing a grand adventure ahead of them, join Jesse in his quest. This is the premise of Preacher, but doesn’t begin to describe its depths of depravity or heights of literary resplendence.
As the trio travel searching for answers, a secret religious sect called the Grail who has been orchestrating Armageddon to occur in 2000, puts them in the crosshairs of the Grail’s most deadly agent Herr Starr. Herr Starr, appearing first as a devoted follower in the Grail’s mission to end the world and use the mentally-retarded descendent of Jesus Christ to lock down control in a New World Order, turns out to be more interested in using Jesse Custer and his Word of God to control the World and bring an end to the chaos that runs rampant. As he tries and fails in his own mission, he loses body parts and dignity which only harden his grudge against Jesse and those who follow him.
It probably wouldn’t elicit much argument to say Preacher is Ennis’ best work. The comics that proceeded it had lacked the critical acclaim and seem to be based more on shock value than engaging plot. Although Preacher has plenty of the latter, there is also plenty of the former. It’s taken me years to finish this series, as it is one of the filthiest comics I’ve ever read and offends my sensibilities on several levels. Why did I finally finish it? It is a damned fine piece of work, deserving of a place in the greatest hits of Vertigo’s heyday. Even accounting for the rape, incest, mutilation, gallows humor, more incest, sexual deviancy, yet more incest (George R.R Martin would blush reading this series), it’s a story about friends using the thematic structure of the American Western. Somehow an angry Irishman wrote 75 issues that speak about the quintessential American experience and history.
“If your right hand offends thee…” –Matthew 5:30
By his side is artist Steve Dillion, who dutifully drew those 75 issues. Not the most high-profile of comics artists, his storytelling and style are indisputable. He draws these characters with both a cartoonish look but also human realism that feels so lifelike. Switching between idealic human form to monstrous deformity to the stark reality that everyday people suffer in, Dillion’s skill proves on every page and every panel, that only he could bring Ennis’ vision to life. The preamble to every issue is Glenn Fabry’s covers, having a Salvador Dali meets Grant Wood style that convey the horror and absurdity of Preacher’s plot.
Although it’s decidedly un-politically correct, and iffy on issues concerning white privilege and radical feminism, the story is composed of stalwart concepts of literature. If Swamp Thing is about the search for humanity, Sandman about the human condition, Preacher is a series about the questions of life that begin with “Why?” Such questions lead down dark paths without the certainty of answers, but an angry and determined Texas man will ask them anyway.
“Never plan an act of violence, Cindy. Just let it happen naturally.”-Jesse Custer
Even the villains of Preacher are constructed in such a way that the term “villain” feels like too vague a word. They follow their own morality, often abusing authority and those around them in disgusting ways, but still act in ways that feel all too human. Herr Starr is a prime example of this, portraying almost every human folly that exists to his own demise. While their actions are shocking and more than a little gross, Ennis’ teases them out and makes them part of the antagonists instead of the point of them. Fittingly, God himself is maybe the only one who lacks such depth or humanizing narrative as he is the true villain of the series.
It is both of its time yet also timely as the messages in its stories ring even truer at present than they will in a few years to come. Messages of the abuse of power by World leaders, the dangers of blindly following them and edicts that have no logical reasoning, what happens when you pursue revenge repeatedly and the way men use women in various ways. Penn Juillette, of the Penn & Teller magician TV duo, wrote in a foreword to an early volume that Preacher could be what the Bible was meant to be without the faulty teachings that resulted from it. From one outspoken atheist discussing another’s work that is telling praise, but helps to explain why I can’t help but adore this series. Preacher has everything in it, but isn’t for everyone.
When I had finally completed the final volume, I couldn’t help but think “maybe Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are the right guys to bring this to television.” The material is bound to offend people, as it should. People need offending every now and then, to remind them that the world doesn’t sway to their whims and feelings. That what they think ain’t the be all end all for how other people need to act. Sometimes it takes a drastic vision to get people’s heads out of their collective asses.
That’s the power of a Preacher, man. To lead you to what you already know, so you can do for yourself.
Go on and do unto others as you would they unto you…