I typically don’t pay a lot of attention to titles of trade paperbacks. They mostly feel like afterthoughts. The title of the series is the important part, the trade itself is just whatever fits the material inside. For me, I usually just refer to the volume number. For example, “Legends in Exile” is “Volume One of Fables” or “Preludes and Nocturnes” is just “Volume One of Sandman.” I think this thought experiment pans out with recent publishing trends. Every time a series gets collected in a deluxe or absolute or oversized edition, it simply gets labelled “Volume 1” or “Book 1” (or Book 2, Book 3, etc. etc.) I looked through my shelves and couldn’t find anything where this wasn’t the case with something that’s been reprinted in the last ten years or so as far as DC/Vertigo is concerned. The volume titles don’t exist because they simply don’t matter – you’re reading part of Preacher, and are expected to read all of it, so no titles in between.
However, this volume is titled “Salvation,” which I find intriguing. Will any of the characters I’ve come to loathe find salvation? Is it a metatextual reference to the series finding its soul amidst a seemingly endless trail of seemingly pointless and puerile issues thus far? Well, yes and no, to both. Mostly no, but there is a little bit of yes in there.
This arc focuses almost entirely on Jesse. He becomes the sheriff of a small town in Texas. He reunites with his long-lost-previously-thought-dead mother, he takes out some Klansmen, neo-Nazis, an actual Nazi, and a modern-day robber baron. For a series whose main antagonist so far has been God, it feels like Ennis really wanted to hit “unambiguously evil” as hard as he could with this arc.
Let’s start with the neo-Nazis, because that is just weird. It’s mostly tied to “sexual deviancy” rather than anything Naziesque, and I’m not quite sure what kind of statement Ennis is trying to make there. Bondage is for Nazis? Dominant women worship the fuhrer? I really don’t know. I should probably explain that the lawyer for the robber-baron likes to dress up in Nazi paraphernalia, tie men up, and whip them. I think Ennis himself might have some sexual hang ups he needs to work out, and the only way he knows how to do it is by portraying his villains acting out his deepest, darkest forbidden fantasies. Okay, that’s probably not true, but the “methinks thou dost protest too much” phrase crossed my mind more than once during this storyline.
Don’t think that’s it for sexual oddities either. The main antagonist has sex with a giant doll made of meat. So there’s that. Plus, the Klan! Because why not showcase every form of awfulness you can? (They didn’t do anything sexual – they’re just dicks.)
As for the real Nazi? Well, thereby hangs a tale.
I don’t know what year(s) Preacher takes place, but just for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s the late 90’s. The most unbelievable part of this story to me was that Jesse Custer, a preacher-turned-sheriff got a Nazi war criminal to hang himself with a speech. Well, I guess technically a speech and a rope, but you know what I mean. Becoming sheriff with absolutely no training or credentials? Fine. Reuniting with his mother who he didn’t know was alive and who also didn’t know who she was? Why not? Appealing to the “do-the-right-thing” (whatever that may mean to the guy) sensibilities of a man who has lived the last fifty years of his life coming to terms with his own atrocities – and clearly hasn’t killed himself in that time. No. I’m not buying it. That man is going to tell Mr. Custer to fuck off and visit him in hell when his life is done to see if he’s been able to forgive himself of his own crimes against humanity.
(Again, not trying to defend Nazi war crimes here. I’m just saying that old Nazi wasn’t about to hang himself just because some random guy he just met wouldn’t forgive him.)
Ultimately “Salvation” has the least Preacher vibe of any story arc so far. Of course, I also think it’s the best story arc so far, which probably doesn’t bode well for the series as a whole. It’s really just a modern spaghetti western where the lone gunman strolls in and cleans up a town. We’ve seen it a million times. It was a good story then and it’s a good story now. It’s just not an original story.
I’ll be honest, this is a bit weird for me. It turns out 30-year-old me loathes Preacher as much as 20-year-old me liked it. When I was 20, I thought it was a book full of badass dudes doing badass things. Now I read it and see the juvenility of it all – all machismo and bluster trying to prove its worth on a stage when it has no idea what it’s doing. I think I can say that applies to both the characters and the series as a whole.
Mostly I can’t decide if I’m being unduly harsh because rereading this reminds me of who I was a decade ago: a dumb kid who made a lot of mistakes. I wish I could talk to that kid. I wish I could tell him what the world was really like. I wish I didn’t have to rip off all of Red’s speech from The Shawshank Redemption to elucidate my point. The only other story that has made me feel this way is the movie The Boondock Saints. I loved it at 18. I hate it now. I hate it not only for its immaturity and its glorifying of violence as justice, but I also because I used to like it.
Then again, that’s what good art does, right? It elicits an emotional response that otherwise would stay dormant. Could that possibly be what Ennis was striving for here: a book that evokes different emotions in the same person depending on said person’s age and experience? It wouldn’t be unheard of. Romeo and Juliet is like that for me. I read that when I was 14 or 15 for school and thought “these kids get it.” I reread it as an adult and thought “these kids are idiots.” Was that really the goal here?
It’s an interesting thought, but I can’t really buy it, mostly because of the second-to-last issue in this story arc. The gist of it is that God tells Jesse to let it go, Jesse says, “nuh uh” by spitting in God’s face, God rips out Jesse’s eyeball with his teeth (yep), but then gets scared off by the Saint of Killers. To me, that doesn’t scream “long con of emotional genius.” It screams 20-something angry with God and unable to reconcile the long-standing beliefs of his youth with the horrors of the present-day world around him.
I’d love to be wrong. I’m pretty sure I’m not.