Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Are there any comics with explicitly religious themes that have really affected you?
It’s probably a bit odd that my gut reaction to this question was “probably not”.
Religion is a major theme in every medium of art and there are doubtless plenty of comics featuring those religious themes that I love or respond to. That wasn’t how I read your question though. I read it as one that impacted my personal beliefs and understanding of religion. There is a big difference between appreciating an idea and having an idea really affect you. As someone who has not believed in a higher power for quite some time, since pretty much the time when my infatuation with comics kicked into high gear, it wasn’t easy to think of a comic that affected me in this way.
Well, that was true right up until it wasn’t.
Like I said, I discovered comics in the same set of years when I started to separate myself from the Catholic Church. It wasn’t uncommon to find myself on the outside of a confirmation class reading a copy of Sandman or Transmetropolitan instead of thinking about what I had just said. There’s some comics from that period I still find amusing, Transmetropolitan #6 featuring the religion convention is a great example. Most rested on a sophomoric takedown of religion though or one that I wasn’t quite ready for outside of some lewd humor. So to say that much of this fare affected me would be going too far.
There is one particular series from this diet of beloved Vertigo titles and the “good” superhero comics that so many adolescent boys plow through that really did affect me. It’s the obvious one. It’s Preacher.
Steve Dillon (raise a glass) and Garth Ennis’ Preacher is a comic that features plenty of sophomoric takedowns and lewd humor; it’s not typically a wise discussion of religion, even if it is capable of being a biting one. That’s not how the series affected me though. The way in which this comic really hit me wasn’t with its disdain, but with its heart.
Here’s the thing about losing your religion, at least me losing my religion, it’s an intensely painful process. It has taken a good decade to realize it, but the Catholic Church provided me with a lot of values I’m proud to retain and helped shaped many of my better angels (and less bad demons). My sense of social justice and the importance of standing up for what is right is founded in my childhood in the Church. Losing that sort of institution in your life isn’t an easy thing, and the notion of suppressing your doubts in order to belong and rediscover the comfortable is overwhelming. This is even more difficult when both of your parents are devout in their beliefs leaving you without your reliable support network at home.
What Preacher did was give me the bravery I needed to keep asking questions and continue my journey away from the Church. While it’s difficult to argue that its problems with organized religion or the concept of divinity offer much, if anything, new, what it did bring to the table was a unique attitude. It’s an attitude that appealed to me a great deal at that time and still does to a lesser degree. The way it proposed its problems not only simplified some of the complex ideas I was grappling with, but phrased them in a way that made the task seem worthwhile.
Let’s examine the problem of evil to pick out one example. I’d have to write papers on this and work through logic models years later in college, but this issue never made more sense to me than when I was reading about Jesse Custer or the Saint of Killers. This is the philosophical core of Jesse Custer’s quest to find God in Preacher. Jesse knows the world is filled with terrible events and people, so when he learns that there is a person who knows about it all, could stop it all, but has decided to take a hike instead… Well, there’s a reckoning to be had.
This argument was something I was never able to reconcile one I started to think about it and no teacher or role model in my life could ever offer an answer that felt half-satisfactory or altogether sincere. Having a problem isn’t the same as acting on it though. The easier path would still have been to ignore the issue and blame it all on free will or some other notion that didn’t really cover the topic.
And then the characters of Preacher made it look downright heroic to quest after an answer to this question. How could you know about something evil, be capable of stopping something evil, and then refuse to do anything while still considering yourself to be good? They were three idjits ready to speak truth to power and demand answers from those who could help but refused. That’s a consistent theme throughout the book too. Even at its lowest points with villains like Jesus De Sade, the greatest evil in Preacher is those with power choosing to inflict or ignore harm.
Ennis and Dillon framed the question of evil in the form of a Western and gave the questioners the gusto and forthrightness of the very best cowboys. In the form of The Saint of Killers they created a man who had seen innocents suffer and die and been turned away from goodness forever by it, a man truly deserving his reckoning with God. Yet his story wasn’t particularly unique or legendary, it was just the brutal sort of tragedy that faces thousands, if not millions, of human beings on a daily basis. His dour grimace juxtaposed against God’s glowing form transformed the Lord almighty into the same sort of petty villain as Little Bill Daggett.
There are better essays and fiction exploring the question of evil than Preacher; I would read many of them later as I continued on this journey. Nothing I’ve found has quite the same heart as this comic when it comes to issues like this. It finds a way to place issues in grandiose Western terms to offer a thrilling story founded in this sort of questioning. That’s what I needed when I was 13 and looking for something to give me some comfort and to help me feel brave when I didn’t think I could talk to anyone else.
It’s why I’ll never stop loving Preacher.