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“I’ll love you till the goddamn stars go out” – Preacher: A Retrospective

Updated: Jul 16, 2023


(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in December 2020)


As a result of the phenomenal success of the Northamptonian curmudgeon Alan Moore’s Watchmen and his superlative run on Swamp Thing, the hirsute Midland Magus found himself the spearhead of what came to be known as the British Invasion. The 1980s saw a great many British comics creators – especially writers – go and seek their fortune abroad with DC comics, including such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis.


Jamie Delano had just finished a successful run on Hellblazer, one of DC comics more adult titles. Hellblazer – which deserves an article all to itself at some stage – told the tale of John Constantine, an occult anti-hero. Created by Alan Moore and introduced in issue #37 of his acclaimed Swamp Thing run, John is part magician, part conman and grifter, and made an ideal cynical human foil for the Guardian of the Green. In Delano’s run, the Scouse Sorcerer was tormented, haunted by the memories of an exorcism gone wrong in which he had damned the soul of an innocent girl to hell. Frequently dipping into the world of political satire, Delano was equally at ease condemning Thatcher’s Britain as he was introducing elements of environment activism. Grounding John in London as opposed to Moore’s jetsetter, Jamie’s writing was frequently about the crossover between the magical and the mundane.


Like much of the UK talent at the time, Garth Ennis had cut his teeth on 2000AD, mostly working on Judge Dredd (including the mega epic Judgement Day, basically a world-spanning tale of Judges versus Zombies). It was Ennis who introduced Ireland into the world of Dredd, sending the square-jawed lawman to the Emerald Isle, a country of laid-back Guinness-swilling Judges, singing mutated potatoes, and Spud guns (Ammo settings: Roast Potato, Chips, and Smash).


Belfast’s Ennis took over the successful Hellblazer title from Jamie Delano, hitting the ground running (and screaming, coughing, and swearing) with his storyline “Dangerous Habits”. This is still now considered one of the standout tales of the character, involving the cornered warlock’s attempts to come to terms with and attempt to cure his terminal lung cancer, a saga involving Faustian pacts and betrayal. Within the course of this first storyline, Ennis had made Hellblazer his own, bringing in elements that would be common to the writer’s future work – damaged and quirky characters, a disdain for authority, dark humour, and a lot of swearing.



Hellblazer, under the tenure of Ennis, eventually became part of DCs new Vertigo Imprint. This was introduced to allow DC to publish comics with adult content, such as drug use, swearing, nudity and violence – born of the publishers’ regular frustration at getting Swamp Thing approved by the ever-strict Comics Code Authority. Comics were growing up at an exponential rate (cue an invariable two decades of articles entitled, “Kapow! Boom! The comic grows up”), and the restrictions of the Comics Code only stifled a lot of creators.



Ennis worked on both material for Vertigo and the regular DC Comics Universe (The Demon and its successful spin off Hitman) but in the mid-nineties would produce probably his best piece of work, in which he would team up with artist Steve Dillon, an old collaborator from his 2000AD days.


Preacher.


(As an aside, there are a few titles on my bookshelves that get a regular reread. Bad Wisdom by Bill Drummond and Mark Manning is one of these honoured tomes, an insane true story of a trip to the North Pole to plant a statue of Elvis to heal the world through ley lines, and Preacher is one of the rare others).



Preacher is, at its heart, a Supernatural Horror, telling the story of a washed-up small-town pastor on a mission to find God and ask Him why He has abandoned humanity. However, it’s so much more than that – it’s equal parts road movie, buddy movie, and dark comedy.


But at its core, despite being clearly set in the modern day, it’s a Western.


The tale begins with Jesse Custer (and if that name alone isn’t defining this as a Western, I don’t know what could), offspring of a troubled upbringing, at his lowest. He’s stranded as the unappreciated preacher in a God-forsaken town, the last of his faith dwindling alongside the last dregs of his bottle of Jack Daniels. However, an entity with the power of God himself has escaped from the confines of Heaven – Genesis, the offspring of angel and demon - and takes up in Jesse’s consciousness, imbuing Jesse with a deadly power and secret.


Jesse, possessed by Genesis, finds himself armed with the Word of God itself, the ability to force any who listen to obey without question, but also learns of a secret that the powers of Heaven have tried to keep quiet.


God is missing, having abandoned both the Angels and humanity.


So follows a trip across the seedy underbelly of America as our titular hero searches for God for long-sought-out answers. He’s accompanied by Tulip, an ex-lover turned hitman, and Cassidy, a century-old Irish vampire. On their journey, they’ll run into Jesse’s hideous adoptive family and the Grail – a two-millennia old military and religious order dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Jesus Christ.


On their journey – culminating at the Alamo at San Antonio, Texas – will see them encounter serial killers, perverted private investigators, angels, demons, and clans of pretentious vampires.


All the time pursued by the Saint of Killers.



The Saint of Killers is a formidable creation. Reawakened by the Angels from his grave at Boot Hill (where else?) solely to hunt down Jesse, He’s Schwarzenegger’s Terminator with spurs, a grimmer-than-grim Lee Marvin/Clint Eastwood made immortal. He’s the living embodiment of every Western villain and anti-hero there ever was, an unkillable force of nature. He’s the Grim Reaper, albeit one not wielding a scythe but armed with a pair of Colt 1847 Walkers that will never miss their target.


So far, so good. But nothing that particularly stands out in writing, other than a very brave move in daring to criticise religion to a primarily American audience.

So, why do I feel that Preacher stands out?


It’s a morality tale


Jesse, despite all his flaws – he’s rather fond of drinking and fighting – is at heart, a good person. Despite his twisted adoptive family, the story constantly drums home that he picked up his morality from his mother and father who were, themselves, good people. It’s quite interesting to note that even before Genesis begins to live rent-free in Jesse’s head, before any element of the supernatural enters his life, there’s the recurring motif of a guardian angel figure in his life.


Taking the form of John Wayne, this figure is a constant at Jesse’s side. It’s not clear whether he’s imaginary, or an actual supernatural force such as a ghost, but I’d like to side with the former. He’s like a father figure in the absence of a real one, Jesse’s dad taken from him at an early age. He dispenses advice, and the two are even known to bicker about the right course of action.



It’s reminiscent of the scenes of Clarence (Christian Slater) from True Romance where he converses with Elvis – the iconic star almost takes on the role of spirit animal. In an interview with Ennis, Garth speaks about why he chose John Wayne for this role, and it’s because of the concept of Wayne being the hero who would do the right thing, far separated from the flawed real man behind the character.


Jesse’s quest to find God is less about revenge, more about getting God to own up to his responsibilities. In the same way that Superman expects the best out of mankind, Jesse isn’t angry – he’s just disappointed.


“Ya gotta be one of the good guys...'cause there's too many of the bad”


An appropriate mantra for us all, these days.

It’s not about the superpowers

Considering the astounding power that Jesse is gifted/cursed with – the Word of God, no less – the story is never about that. You’d be forgiven for going entire issues and having forgotten about the power at all – indeed, there’s one moment where Jesse himself comes out of a fight having forgotten he has them himself.


Much like The God of this story, the power is not infallible. It also makes him a target for organisations that would see to exploit it to their own end.


Thankfully, Preacher never lapses into superhero territory; the power being used sparingly. And it’s clear Jesse has been following Uncle Ben’s advice, because these great powers are used with great responsibility.


Mostly.



It’s about the characters


Garth Ennis has a knack for creating memorable supporting characters – his excellent work on Punisher and The Boys and the roster of Hitman’s Section 8 are proof of that – and Preacher is no exception.


Aside from the aforementioned Saint of Killers – a character so fascinating he features in the best Preacher spin-off – the story introduced us to a cornucopia of standout heroes and villains, and I’ll mention just a few of the more memorable here.


No mention of the Preacher comic would be complete without mention of Arseface. The disfigured victim of a shotgun suicide gone wrong, attempting to die in the same manner as his idol Kurt Cobain, Arseface features throughout the entirety of the sixty-six-issue run.



Arseface starts as a pitiable character – and somewhat of a cheap joke – and at first feels as though Ennis isn’t quite sure what to do with him once he’s been introduced. However, as the comic hurtles towards the end, Arseface gets a redemption arc of his very own, Ennis using him as an excuse to parody the fickle fate of success and fame.


Any story is only as good as its villain, and the true power behind the throne is introduced just over a year into the comic’s run. Herr Starr is the head of The Grail, an organisation formed back after the death of Christ by His disciple Thaddeus. Since that the organisation has grown in strength, manipulating events on a global scale to prepare for their own manufactured Second Coming. Jesse ends up being an invaluable part of their plans.


Starr is that best of things, a villain you love to hate. He’s thoroughly captivating and his scenes are amongst some of the highlights of the entire epic. When the spotlight works just as well when focused on the villains as it does on the protagonists, you’ve got something right. Starr’s downfall is a delight to behold, the man ending up (physically) less of a human and more unhinged with every thwarted plan.


It’s not what you expect


There was a great amount of interest about the final issue of Preacher, excitement only helped by the fact that the double sized issue #66 was slightly delayed. We’d all discussed how we’d envisaged it ending, and it was with some nervous apprehension that I opened the final issue.

And we’d all been completely wrong. It subverted the genre by not even showing the “final battle”, as it were, just the aftermath. And when one character reads a handwritten note from another, a note in which it reads


“Isn’t it funny when you think your story’s going one way, and it turns out it was going another way all along?”


Preacher was never really about the quest for God. Epochal as such an objective might sound, that was never really the aim. It was about redemption; it was about forgiveness, and what friendship and love means.


And of course, it ends with the hero riding off into the sunset. How could it ever have ended any other way?


And, if any of those reasons don’t make it worthy of a regular revisit, I’d also add that it includes one of the single best panels in comics since Ozymandias announced he wasn’t a Republic Serial Villain, or when Judge Dredd smashed his glove through Judge Fear’s face.



That good enough for you?


(As a closing note, Preacher was made into a 4 season TV series, which aired its final episode back in 2019. Despite initial high hopes, a promising start, and an impressive cast, I didn’t really rate the TV adaptation. My Dublin wife would cite Joe Gilgun’s Irish accent (as Cassidy) as one of her problems with the series, but my ill-trained ears found it perfectly adequate. My big problem with the television series was that the core of the comic was always about Jesse and Tulip’s love for one another, but in the TV series this never came across. Whereas the strength of say, The Boys, lies in the fact it deviates from the comic, this is a failing of the TV series. I’d have liked very much to see some of the better Preacher storylines up there on screen, but it never felt like my Preacher.)


But, in closing, the wise words of Herr Starr that sum up much of Preacher’s long and incredible run.


“Oh, well let me see: We had an angel, a whore, an eunuch, several dozen idiots, an unkillable mick, a one-man holocaust in a duster coat, the occasional twenty-course banquet for the mother of all fat fuckers, inbreeding, family feuds, bulimia, a retarded child (always good for a laugh), and the utter destruction of our most sacred shrine and secret retreat in the detonation of a fifty-ton bomb.”



Further reading/viewing:


Dead or Alive – the Collected Covers: It’s incredibly rare to have a creator team so dedicated that they can last uninterrupted for an entire sixty-six issue run, but this is what Garth and Steve achieved with Preacher. However, even more remarkable, was that every single issue of the run had a fully painted cover by the same artist. Dead or Alive is a complete collection of every single one of Glenn Fabry’s Preacher covers along with comments by the artist (and occasionally interjections by Garth).


The Spin Offs – Saint of Killers / The Story of You-Know-Who / The Good Old Boys / Cassidy: Blood and Whiskey / One Man’s War / Tall in the Saddle: Rare that spin-offs are worth mentioning, but in the case of Preacher, they’re a worthwhile read. The standout is Saint of Killers, being the origin of the titular character, but they’re all written by Grant and worthy additions to the saga. It’s also worth mentioning that the art of sadly missed Carlos Ezquerra features in two of these collections – Saint of Killers and The Good Old Boys.


Steve Dillon, artist of Preacher, sadly died back in 2016. The Guardian did an excellent obituary to the sadly missed talent, which can be read here.

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