It took a lot of time, but eventually I tracked down and read all of the Sandman comics - that series from the 90s that everyone loves. Now I could say I’ve read all the big comics out there, right? Wrong. There was still Preacher.
Whenever I’d ask about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher I was greeted with a tilted head and a searching gaze. “Uh, well… I’m not sure you’d like it.” Okay, but what does that mean exactly? The clearest answer I got was that there was a lot of swearing. Not really the craziest thing out there.
There are several reasons why people have a hard time describing this book. There’s a natural reluctance to pin down and describe this kind of material to someone when you don’t know how they’ll react, and Preacher, with its rampant gore, gross-out moments and not-so-old-fashioned blasphemy is certainly that kind of material. I’m sure at least subconsciously these guys are worried I’ll judge them harshly for enjoying Preacher. Thankfully, I’m a bit more open minded than that. And alright, maybe it isn’t always easy to nail down this book.
In the broadest sense it could be described as a modern day western, fitting in honour, a self-sufficient spirit and the willingness to just beat down the bad guys into the mix.
I’d like to relate to you a few of the things that struck me as I read the series:
Tulip O’Hare is the girlfriend of the protagonist Jesse Custer, and I was really impressed by the fact that with her, the reader gets a leading female character that wasn’t a stereotypical comic book beauty - she was really tired-looking when she first arrived in the story, and I thought it added some dimension to her. It wasn’t until much later that I realized she was written as though she was that stereotyped vision - the artist Steve Dillon just didn’t manage to get the look right.
While I’m on the subject of Tulip, I may as well bring up something that really bothered me: each time Jesse left her behind to go save the day she got really offended. Irritatingly offended. For whatever reason, after Jesse would explain that he was just scared to death of her getting hurt - in what were immensely dangerous situations no matter how good with a pistol you are - it would somehow equate in Tulip’s mind with Jesse not trusting her, and Jesse would quickly agree that he has no excuses for what he did. Being scared for someone does not equate to a lack of trust. But the characters act as though that is the case because if they didn’t, Jesse and Tulip wouldn’t have been manoeuvred into the proper situations to facilitate the plot.
Unfortunately this is an example of really forced writing that can be found throughout the run of Preacher. But hold on, if that’s the case, why is Preacher so popular?
Well, there’s the shock value for one. Graphic violence is appealing for the wish fulfillment of those with darker appetites, and Preacher certainly delivers on that score. But it would mean nothing if we didn’t want to see some violence, see some retribution done. It’s necessary then that the Preacher Jesse Custer be really good and the bad guys really bad.
In fact the differentiation between the good guys and the bad guys is so stark, so black and white, as to render the characterization as unduly simplistic.
Jesse always knows the right thing to do. He may not want to do it, but he knows what he needs to do. Even when that action is convincing an old man to kill himself for the crimes he committed in his youth. Whether or not death was the suitable punishment for his crime isn’t important, but that Jesse could just decide right away that someone was beyond redemption. That takes either the greatest arrogance or the good fortune of being a cartoon character whose every action is scripted to get the best result. Luckily Jesse is a cartoon.
The bad guy comes off even worse. Starting off as an impressive, intimidating foe with lofty goals, he degenerates to the point that everything about him is stripped away (the guy even loses an ear, leg, and genitals through the course of the story) and he becomes the poster child for the Saturday morning television villain, devolving to the point where all he cares about is revenge. He will happily shout from the rooftops that he is the villain of the piece.
So what is Preacher? It’s anti-intellectual pop entertainment. Maybe that sounds pretty bad to you, but you know there’s something to be said for a nice break from a heavy read. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, root for the good guys, and remember to relax: it’s just another story. I’ll try and do the same.