Welcome to the first part of Comics Bulletin’s group review of Preacher. As we did with our previous reviews of Sandman, our team will run these columns one per week, with articles from different authors about each volume. We hope you enjoy the series. Please share your comments and thoughts in the comments section, on twitter or on Facebook.
I have a confession to make. Though I’ve been reading comics for almost my entire life and have written millions of words about comics, I’ve never read Preacher. This famous and beloved series been a blind spot in my comics reading history since it first was released. I’m not sure why I’ve never checked it out. Maybe I’ve been afraid of the hype around this comic not living up to reality, or afraid of the intensity of the series, or just afraid that I won’t like it and thus be made fun of by all my friends.
But there’s no time like the present to fill in that blind spot. Getting a chance to be part of this wonderful team of writers gave me a great incentive to ease my way into Preacher with Volume One, Gone to Texas. I’ll share my thoughts gathered after a couple of reads of the first volume. I haven’t read beyond Texas, so I have no idea what any of the stuff that happens in this book actually means — aside from my (probably inaccurate) guesses.
Gone to Texas starts quietly, with the three lead characters having breakfast at a greasy spoon along a lonely highway within sight of a large city. The diner is called Five Ages Diner (is there a deep meaning behind the diner’s name? Chekhov’s gun dictates that there is), and its sign glows red, tempting wanderers into its warm walls. The setting of the diner is intriguing. Its location, within sight of a big city, implies that the people inside the diner are separated from the real action, or maybe distant from normal society. They’ve willingly broken themselves away from the world that most people inhabit.
As the scene in the diner proceeds, we glance three figures in a diner booth. In the foreground is a man who looks desperately lonely, with a rundown mustache and beaten jacket. Framing them on the other side is a blonde waitress who looks like she could have been pretty if life hadn’t thrown her so many bad breaks. Instead, the woman looks like she’s destroying her back running around the diner. On the extreme right of the panel is a bottle of ketchup, residue splattered on the sides of the jar, with the ketchup colored like blood. If the outside of the diner implies respite, the inside feels beaten and used up. The diner feels like a private place where people can go to hide and discuss their worries without anybody eavesdropping on them.
The first person we really glimpse in the booth is an ugly man. He has messy, spiky hair and wears sunglasses inside the restaurant. To the sunglasses-wearing man’s left is a rail-thin girl who obviously hates the man in the glasses. To the sunglasses-wearing man’s right is a figure whose back is turned to us. In the last panel he turns, with a sideways look at his companions that also seems like a wink to the readers. We can tell immediately that this man is our protagonist. His face breaks out of the panel and he delivers the climax of a conversation that the characters are having. His name is Jesse, he’s wearing a clerical collar and he wants to find a liquor store “’cause lemme tell you: it sure as hell ain’t the church.”
Right on that first page readers get a smart introduction to these characters as well as a microcosm of what I think will be presented in Preacher. It’s clear that these three people are the moral center of the book, and that their relationship will be the thread that we follow as Preacher evolves. The next two pages underline that perception as we watch their interaction between each other and begin to learn more about each of them (the woman has a foul mouth and is a vegetarian, for instance). As the sequence reaches its third page, there’s much implied that hooks the reader in, with talk of Genesis and angels and secret reasons a man becomes a preacher.
Writer Garth Ennis gives readers a safe space to gain some insight into character and future events in this short sequence, delivering a tease that illuminates (and I’m sure also will reflect back) story elements that we will be reading later. This static setting could have been a difficult scene to illustrate, but artist Steve Dillon delivers the three static masterfully, with judicious use of closeups and an attention to body language that emphasizes character. Right from the start the creators have earned the reader’s trust to be led in intriguing directions.
Ennis and Dillon then transition the reader to the preacher’s small town. We learn that all small towns have secrets — especially this tiny Texas town — and that nobody knows those secrets like the preacher man does. It’s a jolt to see the man from the intro section presented here with short, clean hair and a nicely pressed white suit. This transition gives readers the impression that the man has gone through terrible circumstances between the events in his town and the meal in the diner. We start to see what some of those circumstances might be as Custer insults and tells the town’s secrets, and gets beaten to shit by two rapist rednecks with pool cues for his boldness. Clearly Jesse Custer is a man who doesn’t mind a fight, and that fact is well in evidence here.
So far as a first time reader I can track every event clearly as it happens. It all feels logical and fulfills expectations. I have a basis in the real world to grasp all that’s going on, or at least enough to have a reasonable idea. This all feels very grounded and could be happening outside my window, if I lived in small-town America.
But suddenly this issue gets very weird.
Cut to Heaven. In Heaven we see a kind of pipe or tunnel system with a giant cylindrical section at its center and straight tunnels leading off in the sides. In one of the tunnels there’s a giant hole, and in the hole are three men, apparently part of the Heavenly Host, pondering the causes of the hole. As we flip the page, we find an angry angel holding a beheaded member of his brethren. He says, “This used to be my brother. An hour ago we were circling in the stratosphere when your entity came charging down out of the rising sun and did this to him.”
All the angels then discuss Genesis, which is some sort of escaped all-powerful force that can kill angels and destroy heavenly walls. That entity will bond with a human soul and could destroy the world. There’s only one way to stop that spirit from being embedded in a human: by using the Saint of Killers.
Well fuck me. As a first time reader this scene leaves me utterly confused and utterly intrigued. The juxtaposition from shithole small town to the imperfect perfection of Heaven is strange enough, but these events in Heaven are bizarre, intriguing and impossible to understand unless I read further in the story. This is exactly what I was hoping to get from reading this first issue: I was hoping to become hooked on an idea machine that connected high and low, the American myth of itself and our great cosmic complexity, and so far Ennis and Dillon are delivering it.
Returning to Earth from Heaven, we learn more about the woman from the opening few pages. Her name is Tulip and for reasons readers don’t understand yet, Tulip is an attempted murderer. She charges up to a man who she seems to hate and fear – “that’s him. It’s really him. Oh shit, I really gotta do this –“ and in a fit of fury pulls out her gun and tries to kill the man. She misses. She shoots one of his man’s henchmen instead, causing his jaw to explode in blood and detritus.
As Tulip is running away, the leader mumbles, “you think that was supposed to be a hit?” Tulip finds the sunglass-wearing guy from the opening scene in his pickup and begs the guy, first at gunpoint but soon by asking, to get her away from the crime scene. The henchmen charge after Tulip with homicidal fury in their eyes. One catches up to the pair as Tulip enters the man’s truck. The man in the sunglasses gets shot square in the head and only smiles.
Sunglasses guy drives away. And we readers are left wondering what the fuck is happening.
Cut, again, to yet another strange place. It’s a cave of some sort, where skulls surround a coffin that contains a snake on its lid. A member of the Heavenly Host wanders in to the cave, flaming torch in his hand. The angel lifts the lid of the coffin. As it opens, the angel gets shot through the eye and his face gets blown out. A man emerges from the coffin, maybe more a shape than a man, or maybe more a force of nature. We soon learn that this man is the Saint of Killers, and his mission will be to track down Genesis. As the man says, “It holds a power like unto God Almighty. It seeks to join with the spirit of mortal man: if it succeeds, the two together will know the secret ways of paradise as no other mortal has done. Together they could end us all.”
And suddenly the central theme of this series is exposed for all to see.
Cut once again to Custer’s story as he’s holding church services the day after he was beaten to hell by the townspeople. His church is full – word has gotten out about Jesse’s loud mouth from the day before, and the parishioners want to witness more histrionics.
Suddenly as Custer starts to speak, a bolt of energy with a face flies through the church walls and into him. He flies off the ground and explodes energy from his body. The churchgoers are instantly atomized down to their skeletons and Jesse has a moment of ecstatic, excruciating pain as his body is electrified. In a spectacular full-page panel we see Jesse overlayed on a terrifying creature that is half angel and half devil. Readers instantly realize that creature was Genesis and that Custer is in deep, deep shit.
This is a dizzying, intense first issue that leaves many questions for readers, but it isn’t over yet. After Tulip and Cassidy drive to the church to dig Custer out of the rubble, the local sheriff, named Sheriff Root, shows up to investigate, mumbling about “Martian niggers” and Area 51 conspiracies. Root sounds like a lunatic, but with everything else that happens in this book, for all we readers know, the sheriff could be correct about what he says.
Back to Custer, who impulsively kisses Tulip before revealing that the force is inside him was born of sex between an angel and devil, “and something massive behind it all, something no one’s supposed to know… but whatever it tells me, whatever it says, it sounds like – it sounds like the voice of God.”
As Custer, Tulip and Cassidy start to drive away, one more event happens that reveals more of Custer’s new existence: when Roof confronts him, Jesse’s eyes glow red and everybody obeys him. Jesse apparently now has the power to control minds, and that revelation makes for one of the spookier moments in the book. He orders the sheriff and his men to let Jesse and his friends go free. It works. Jesse and his companions drive away, and shortly the Saint of Killers strides up, looking for all the world like a desperado from the old west: with a putted, aged face that looks like it’s been through some soul-searing events, with a tall lanky body and a pair of six-guns on his hip. You can imagine the Saint having the voice of Sam Elliott with a laconic attitude to match. He also looks completely terrifying.
This was an almost perfect first issue. Preacher #1 does everything a first issue should do. It introduces me to interesting, unique characters and establishes relationships between those characters. It sets up intriguing conflicts. It takes me places as a reader that I’ve never been before. It opens up many questions in my mind. Ennis and Dillon deliver a comic that sticks in the head and doesn’t let go. And it makes me anxious to come back for issue #2.
The rest of this first arc is equally as strong in terms of its storytelling and scene-setting. As issue #2 begins we see the astonishingly deadly powers of the Saint, as we witness him systematically kill most of the sheriff’s deputies with calm, deliberate force. This is another statement scene: this will be a violent series and if that bothers you, this is not the comic book for you.
Arms are shot off, deputies are shot in the eye, brains spewn all over the ground, and at the center of all that carnage is a being — a force for nature if you will — who just keeps shooting and shooting and shooting. The scene at the bottom of page 57 of the trade, which shows the Saint with a look of pure fury on his face walking out of a blazing fire and towards Custer, is one of the most powerful comics images ever published. Dillon composes the scene brilliantly. Every line is in the perfect place to emphasize the horror of the moment but the reader doesn’t notice the storytelling. We feed off the emotion, and that is the important part.
Speaking of emotions, we quickly are introduced to another character who seems he will be important in this series: the teenage boy who tried to kill himself because he idolized Kurt Cobain but failed in his suicide attempts. I know we’ll soon call him Arseface, but I have no idea at this point what will happen to the boy. I do know that the scenes in issue #2 of him are deeply sweet and deeply upsetting. Arseface seems like a good boy but it’s obvious that he’s so alone in the world, so desperately regretful of his actions, that he could become anything in the future. I know Arseface becomes a prominent character in the series and I’m intrigued to understand how that plays out.
After a scene in which we revisit the fact that Custer believes the ghost of John Wayne is speaking to him (is that real or not? I suspect it’s Custer’s imagination but with everything else we’ve read in this story it wouldn’t surprise me if this John Wayne was a mystical entity or something), Custer and Cassidy get in a bar fight. During the fight we realize why Cassidy doesn’t come out in the daytime: he’s a vampire.
I’m not sure why it seems strange to introduce a vampire to this storyline on top of everything else we’ve experienced here, but this revelation is a bit too much for this story to bear. There’s a common truism among science fiction writers that the best sf introduces one element of strangeness and the writer should leave the rest of the story as normal as possible. The theory holds that too many unpredictable elements can take away from the reader’s focus and make them wonder too much about the world that the creator is trying to depict. I hope that won’t happen here and that the vampirism will make sense in the context of this story. At this point I’m a bit nervous about this how this will play out.
Issue #3 is a bit of a transitional issue, with a sense that the characters are getting themselves in place for the fourth issue climax. The Heavenly Host declare that “the kingdom of heaven is fucked”; Jesse orders Cassidy to stop sucking blood in front of him and Cassidy storms off; the Saint of Killers tracks Custer; we get another sweetly sad scene with Arseface and his dad; Jesse shows he still loves Tulip; Cassidy confronts Saint of Killers and is shot. Seemingly significantly, the Saint drops a coin next to Cassidy as he walks away. The coin is from 1878. What does that mean? Ennis gives us readers yet another hook to keep us reading.
As the issue ends, the sheriff confronts Jesse and Tulip and puts a gun to Jesse’s head. Meanwhile the Heavenly Host are freaked out again. “Custer knows about the Saint! We’re in the shit!”
Ennis does a very skilful job of keeping the reader anxious to learn the next thing that happens next. Not only do he and Dillon depict unexpected actions happening in unexpected ways, but he also shows the reactions to those actions. Steve Dillon draws those reactions in ways that emphasize the terror of what has happened, giving the comic a stunning amount of energy as it moves ahead.
In chapter four, everything we’ve read so far comes together and soon flies apart again. We learn first of the strange connection Jesse feels for John Wayne (alluded to earlier) then are pulled back to the confrontation between Sheriff Roof and Jesse and Tulip. For a moment the scene feels like the standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or another classic Western, but soon the Saint of Killers shows up, in a moment that also feeds from our knowledge of Eastwood and Wayne. That moment has deep power. When the Saint stares down the sheriff and persuades the man to drop his gun, it shows the Saint’s terrifying abilities.
Immediately, though, we see how deep the Saint’s power really is, as Cassidy crashes his truck into the Saint – and destroys the truck. The Saint doesn’t even move as thousands of pounds of energy crash into him. He truly is a primal force unmoved by the machinations of mankind (or vampirekind) and we finally have a true sense of how terrible the Saint of Killers is.
The Saint is about to kill the sheriff when poor sad Arseface runs in. “Don’t kill my dad!” the captions scream, translating Arseface’s mangled language. In a stunning eight-panel sequence we see closeups of faces and hands reaching for guns. Something’s about to happen. Shit’s about to get real. The tension is at an almost unbearable level. Finally Custer screams, in his controlling voice, “ENOUGH!” and orders the Saint to holster his gun. Close up on each man’s eyes – and finally the Saint puts his guns away, the Saint towering over Custer as he glares and says (I imagine in a terrifyingly calm voice) “I’m gonna kill you.”
Custer talks Saint of Killers into backing off when an angel appears, and he brings the news that seems to give a hook for this whole series. “The Lord our God… He quit,” says the Angel. That leads to a short, nice sequence from Custer where he announces that “I’m gonna find Him. And I’m gonna make Him tell His people what I’ve done.”
And from there, after a nasty bit of business about Sheriff Roof “fucking himself”, which causes Arseface to freak out, as you might guess, the quest begins. Jesse, Tulip and Cassady are going to find God. And as the last page reveals to readers, they’ll have a hell of a lot to deal with along the way.
The second half of the collection of “Gone to Texas” is a three-part serial killer story set in New York, and this story is frankly terrible. The serial killer tale is full of twists and turns that seem calibrated to shock, along with some scenes of terrible violence that are a relentless aspect of Ennis’s approach to the work. Though there’s some bite in some satirical cuteness in the portrayal of an inept cop who partnered with an apparent supercop, the twists feel predictable and the story never holds together for me.
This sequence does add depth to the stories of our three lead characters, which at least makes the issues worth reading. We get to see Jesse as a country rube in a big city, full of joy at looking at the skyscrapers. We get to see Cassidy and the friendships he makes. We get some more hints about Tulip and the murder she attempted to commit in Dallas. And most importantly of all, we start to see the relationship grow between Tulip and Jesse, giving us the next steps in our exploration of their love story that apparently is at the center of this series.
After reading this first graphic novel I’m sorry to say that I just don’t understand why everybody is so crazy about Preacher. The first segment of this graphic novel is extremely well created, with outstanding storytelling choices by Dillon and a brilliant story flow from Ennis. This is a comic by a team of professionals who know how to tell a comic book story extraordinarily well and build interest in their characters. From a production standpoint, their work is impeccable.
From a nearly every other standpoint, though, I really disliked this graphic novel. The biggest problem for me comes from the fact that I found nearly all the characters in the book to be completely unlikable. As with most Ennis comics, the leads are a bit macho, a bit full of themselves, and a bit broken. In many comics that would be a reason to like them, but here that swagger feels more like posturing than character-building. There’s some allusion to the characters having depth, but they still seem more a collection of tics than fully fledged characters. I especially was frustrated by the character of Cassidy, who is amoral and self-centered, inconsiderate and often impossible to get along with. I didn’t feel any sympathy for Cassidy when he was trapped by the serial killer during book two. In fact, I frankly found myself more hoping he would die.
And then there’s the violence. Violence is another hallmark of Ennis comics, but his love for violence has never been as intense as it is here. From nearly the first pages of this comic, ears and eyes and limbs get shot off, people get atomized, faces are ripped from muscles, and on and on. The comic is a virtual love letter to violence. I don’t mind a bit of violence in my fiction, especially since the comic page gives readers so much distance from the violence that is drawn, but the endless stream of blood and guts becomes exhausting and desensitizing. It may be part of Ennis’s point that everybody becomes desensitized to violence in the end, but all of this viciousness is so over the top and intense that I found it all a bit repulsive.
I realize I sound like sound fainting flower in this essay, unable to handle something that’s even a bit over the top. But that’s not the real problem for me. I enjoy stories with violence if they feature compelling characters having compelling stories. Preacher for me is an endless parade of grotesqueries with very little redeeming joy.
I admire the work from a technical standpoint, but this is one of the worst horror stories I’ve ever read.
Please preach to me about why I’m wrong about Preacher!