I didn’t know very much about comics when I bought Gone to Texas, the first volume of collected issues of Preacher. Until then, I used to occasionally buy random armfuls of assorted single issues for 50˘ a pop from the second hand bookstore in Lucky Plaza – just anything with art that I liked and wanted to copy. If it was pretty enough, and could jumpstart an idea in my head, I’d pick it up and keep it in a pile that I reached for whenever my brain was blanking. It was rubbish, mostly, and I never bought them for, you know, reading – just poses and expressions and drawing reference. But there was something about the Glenn Fabry cover for Gone to Texas that stuck in my head, along with the phrase “hard-drinking Irish vampire”. I still don’t know very much about comics – but I know I never really read one properly until Preacher.
The original Preacher run, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon, ended in July 2000 and consisted of 66 monthly issues, which are now available from DC’s Vertigo in 9 trade editions. Entertaining introductions from the likes of Kevin Smith and Penn Jillette, and beautiful reproductions of Fabry’s individual issue covers give each volume charm and character. Starting from Gone to Texas and ending with All Hells A’Coming and Alamo, this is the modern Western epic on steroids, channeling deep anti-establishment hostility and frothing at the mouth with profane, blasphemous wisdom.
Summed up, (and things like Preacher really shouldn’t be summed up) it’s about a small-town Texas preacher, Jesse Custer, who suddenly acquires the power of the Word of God. As it turns out, God has abandoned his post in heaven and left the world to its own woefully inadequate devices. Jesse—along with girlfriend Tulip and sidekick Cassidy—decides to hunt God down and make him pay for his sins. Along for the ride are a multitude of malcontents and malingerers, including but not limited to, a boy called Arseface, the last descendant of Christ, the Saint of Killers, and the shadowy Grail organization. It’s an epic that starts in Texas, visits both Heaven and Hell, crawls up the darkest alleyways of America and Europe, and ends explosively in Nevada and at the Alamo. But Preacher is still so much more than that – that’s just the premise, just an excuse for the mayhem that Ennis and Dillon unleash.
It’s not easy to pin down exactly what it is about this series that makes me rave about it so rabidly. I don’t like Dillon’s art all that much – it’s almost workmanlike – gets the job done, with some flair showing here and there, but rarely rising above “above-average”. Fabry’s covers are superb, but that’s no reason to buy an entire series. The occasional guest artists added some variety to Dillon’s plain lines and somewhat repetitive faces, but no, the art wasn’t the point.
It’s not the themes. Irreverence is an awfully overused broad-stroke brush, and considering the attitudes of almost every character in the series, you’d imagine one would get a little tired of it. But the sarcastic, cynical takes on organized religion and its associated conspiracies manage to stay fresh and engaging. Racism, corporate evil, French nuclear testing, horsethieves, the music industry and more – they all get a figurative steel-toed boot in the ass. But while many of the concepts and hooks may appear decidedly original at first glance, they’re sometimes really a combination patchwork of reasonably well trodden ground. It’s just that it’s woven so fine and entertainingly that we don’t notice.
It’s not the rawness and profanity. For a masterclass in skull-cracking, bile-dripping, entrail-extracting, bowel-disrupting ideas, storylines and speeches, grab Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and a barf-bag. Preacher is a different animal altogether. Sure, its raw, but it’s not that raw. Sure, its shocking, but it’s not that shocking. Although Billy-bob (Jesse’s childhood friend) and his single eye-socket may not entirely agree with me.
What it comes down to, I think, are the characters. What a fucked up bunch of misfits and misanthropes. An alcoholic, smack-addicted, vampiric Irishman with the most original character arc I’ve seen in any medium, for a very long time. The remorseless, relentless spirit of vengeance, Death in a dark brown duster. A God that seems more human than any of the humans in the story, and a Devil you don’t know whether to fear or pity. A bald, scarred, Starred megalomaniac who loses limbs and “appendages” at an alarming rate as the story progresses. An overalls-clad Southern good ol’ boy that will screw anything with legs (actually he’s not particular about that – birthday cakes and the aforementioned eye-socket are just a few of the notches on his inbred belt). A rockstar with a face like, well, like an arse. A meat-plant owner with revolting raw meat fetishes. Just a non-stop gallery of sick, twisted buggers and buggerers whose only connection is that each one is marginally more messed up than the last. I mean, you have to wonder about the disturbed psyche that comes up with a guy who is contemplating an armadillo because he has screwed his way through an entire zoo.
And the way they talk. Ennis writes just psychotically funny dialogue. Although, every now and then the characters swing wildly from thoroughly likable cynical bastards to judgmental, morally superior wankers – and there’s a lot of cowboy honour, when-men-were-men, yay-yay-USA-type stuff that doesn’t sound altogether authentic if you know that Ennis is Irish. But apart from that, it’s really ripping stuff, some in flashes, some in long unwavering stretches of twisted brilliance. From the “Damn martian niggers” and “humperdumperdidos” to Cassidy’s blood-soaked grinning “How’re yeh?”, it can’t be faulted for lack of originality.
In the end, that’s the sort of thing that’s most memorable about Preacher. Months after tearing through the entire series, I was listening to Bodycount and was suddenly reminded of Jesse’s meeting with the Klan in Salvation. “Where the fuck is your chin?!?”. And I swear I laughed myself into a near-fatal prolapse.
Preacher (Trade Editions, Volumes 1 to 9) (1996 – 2001)
by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Publisher: Vertigo/DC Comics
Format: Graphic Novel – Trade Editions