“Proud Americans” is a difficult collection to re-read, particularly if you’re doing so (at least) a good 15 years later. It is, in part, difficult because I know more now than I did then, about comics, about storytelling, about being a human being. It’s also difficult because it’s almost impossible to review a portion of this series without considering the entire thing.
I’m also preoccupied by the title of this collection, although it’s my understanding that the creators don’t always have a say in what a trade paperback is called. It seems like such a strange title for a series of stories that mostly involved people not of this country in locations not in this country. But Jesse and Tulip are Americans, and perhaps that’s why this book has its title, because there’s a certain degree of hubris in the actions of anyone affiliated with this country, although it’s hubris born from some ridiculous actions.
The first issue in this collection is easily the best and is the kind of story people generally point to with regards to Preacher being a great series. I could probably write an entire column just on Preacher #18.
Jesse Custer is at JFK airport, waiting for a connecting flight. That’s the extent of what we know about his situation at this point, which makes this story all the better; it could be any time in the series, it could be a flashback or a flash forward, but it doesn’t matter. This story exists outside of time, outside of comic book continuity. It stands perfectly on its own.
Jesse is sitting at a bar and sets down his lighter (dating this comic, as he’s smoking IN an airport) just as the man sitting next to him sets down his lighter: both lighters have “Fuck Communism” written on them. The man sitting next to him looks at Jesse and says “John?”
The man in question is Billy “Space” Baker, who served with Jesse’s dad, John, in Vietnam.
Jesse’s father was killed when Jesse was only four. Space asks him if he’d like to hear a story about his father in Vietnam and what follows is a simply heartbreaking final panel on this page from Steve Dillon:
If there’s one thing to be said for this series, it’s that it wears its heart on its sleeve when it comes to fathers and sons. Truly, if you’re a straight white guy, you’ll have no problems finding aspects of Preacher that speak to you, even if they’re buried deep down. And that’s what makes Preacher so difficult to dissect, because there are important bits inside these stories, it’s just that the awfulness that surrounds it does not age well. But more on that in a bit.
Space tells Jesse the story of how he and Jesse’s dad got their lighters from John Wayne himself when the Duke came to visit them in Vietnam. He goes on to tell Jesse about his father’s time in country and it runs the gamut from touching to juvenile to horrible. But the key to the story is that it’s all new to Jesse. He never knew his father and everything that Space tells him is building an idea that barely existed before now.
Jesse Custer needs a dad. It is perhaps the second greatest overarching theme of the series and is ultimately the explanation behind everything Jesse does.
The issue ends with Space telling Jesse to keep the picture of him and John Custer so that Jesse can think of his father as a man. And perhaps that’s where Proud Americans fits in. Perhaps there’s nothing more American than the imagined ideal of what a man is and how that ideal gets imprinted upon each generation of men.
This all makes sense when you consider the bulk of this collection, a six issue story called “Crusaders.”
Cassidy has been taken by The Grail, who believed him to be Jesse. Jesse and Tulip are determined to get him back — well, Jesse is, and Tulip is going along with it. They aren’t so determined that they don’t take their sweet time about it, though, which was the first thing that struck me upon re-reading this. While they’re stealing cars and having sex and going to nice dinners, Cassidy is being tortured, which I would probably feel worse about if I didn’t know how the rest of this series went. Still, Jesse is living the dream, complete with gun toting, sexy girlfriend.
That dream includes being an action hero. The Grail sends a squad of assassins after Jesse and Tulip and the two of them manage to dispatch the entire squad in a manner that would make you suspect that this is a DCU comic, not something from Vertigo. It’s completely ridiculous, but Jesse is a badass, so we’re just supposed to accept it.
Meanwhile, Herr Starr is having no luck torturing Cassidy, so he brings in Frankie the Eunuch, a mob enforcer who has no dick. And, really, if we’re looking at examples of proud Americans you can’t get more on the nose than a penisless Mafioso. Frankie is the ultimate example of all hat and no cattle, as the saying goes. He’s the perfect example of American bravado backed by nothing at all.
He also loves guns (of course). He tells how much he loves guns, particularly old guns, as he shoots Cassidy with a Lee-Enfield rifle. This isn’t a randomly chosen gun. It was made famous by the British military in the first half of the 20th century. Frankie is using an old British gun to shoot an old Irish guy.
Herr Starr would like to use The Grail for his own purposes, but he has to deal with the group’s leader, D’aronique, a morbidly obese man with bulimia.
I could comment on that last bit, but what could I possibly add?
The other issue is the messiah, the child of the blood line of Jesus of Nazareth. The Grail sought to keep the essence of Jesus within the family by keeping the bloodline pure, which means generations of inbreeding, which led to a child who has some problems:
So that’s what Herr Starr is dealing with, aside from also trying to invent better strap ons for the hookers he hires. Our alpha male, Jesse, has decided to yet again ditch his true love so as to keep her from harm and makes his way to the Grail’s base, or one of them, at least. He’s got the Word, which means he doesn’t really need any back up. He doesn’t realize that he has it in the form of the Saint of Killers, who is gunning for Jesse, but will kill whoever gets in his way.
Jesse comes face to face with D’Aronique, during which the head of The Grail refers to Jesse as “man of God.” He is, after all, the titular preacher.
If there’s one aspect of this series that is hard to completely buy into, it’s the idea that Jesse would actually be a “man of God.” You can, to a certain extent, see how he would be pushed to that point (see the excellent overview of the last arc), but Jesse buying into a life as a preacher seems a bit much. In fact, it’s not even particularly necessary. The Word going to a Preacher might sound nice thematically, but there’s nothing specific about Jesse’s role that make the story work. Everyone is looking for God. The fact that Jesse supposedly committed his life to the Lord doesn’t make him any different.
Why, then, is Jesse a minister? I think this question is actually directly connected to the issue of Jesse’s nationality. Why is he an American? Neither Ennis nor Dillon is. Why make the hero a character whose experiences are going to be so essential to the story, yet very different from your own?
I think this is a case of Ennis and Dillon hedging their bets. By making Jesse a minister and an American, it allows them to attack both religion and America, but gives them an out when called on it. “Yes, but our HERO is a minister and an American! From the South, even!” Because aside from New York, America gets regularly abused in the pages of Preacher. And organized religion of any kind doesn’t fare much better.
“Crusaders” is ultimately meant to a) address The Grail and set up Herr Starr’s future, b) solidify the bromance between Jesse and Cassidy (as Jesse finally rescues his vampire buddy), and c) set the Saint of Killers on the path to hunting down God. There’s lots of bloodshed and juvenile humor and at a certain point I began to think that leaving Tulip behind was entirely so she wouldn’t get in the way of all things manly.
When the boys return to New York, we finally get Cassidy’s origin story. He tells Jesse about how he fought in the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, or at least tried to, as he wasn’t much in the way of fighting pre-vampire. His brother saved his life on more than one occasion, but couldn’t stop Cassidy from being bitten by a vampire and dropped into the river. Everyone in Ireland assumed he was dead, so Cassidy went to America.
This is the lead in story to the Cassidy story in volume one and also serves as set up for the last edition in this collection, the Cassidy: Blood and Whiskey one shot.
It’s impossible to separate Preacher from the time at which it was published; it is very much a product of the 90s. Cassidy finding another vampire that happens to live in New Orleans and also happens to have taken the whole gothic creature of the night thing to heart may seem trite now, but it was taking the piss out of something fairly ubiquitous at the time. Vampires were still Anne Rice territory; even Buffy had been on the air for less than a year when this issue came out. There was no such thing as nuance when it came to the evil dead, not in mainstream popular culture. As with most things in this series, Cassidy seemed to be Ennis and Dillon’s response to what they saw around them.
Aside from setting Cassidy up as a relatively good person, the one shot is little more than an attempt to have some fun at Anne Rice’s expense, and in that regard it succeeds. It’s exactly what anyone sick to death of melodramatic vampire stories wanted to see happen and Cassidy is, if nothing else, the perfect character to undermine dramatic tropes.
In many ways, “Proud American” feels like half a story because while it’s supposedly bringing the story of Herr Starr and the Grail to some sort of climax, it’s really just setting things up for a larger story down the line. It’s also building up what will be one of the most important stories in the series, that of the relationship between Jesse and Cassidy. What comes later wouldn’t have the impact that it does if not for these stories. That makes this collection essential.
It’s just hard to see that when taken on its own.
More on Preacher from Comics Bulletin: