Saturday, June 11, 2016

PREACHER. The whole goddamned thing pardner.

The Saint of Killers

Preacher: The Complete Series (1995-2000): written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Steve Dillon, Carlos Ezquerra, Richard Case, Steve Pugh, John McCrea, and Peter Snejberg; covers by Glenn Fabry; available in ten volumes, six volumes, or three Absolute editions as well as in the original comics:

Ah, Preacher. Irish-born comics writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, with whom Ennis forged many a fine John Constantine Hellblazer story prior to Preacher's debut in 1995, gave the world a comic-book series that combined splatterpunk, Westerns, dark fantasy, low comedy, satire, social commentary, and a lot of speeches. It's super. 

And 20 years after it first appeared, Preacher still has the ability to shock and amaze. It's one of a handful of truly great, epic-length fantasy comic book narratives.

There's really no point to giving too much away about the narrative. That narrative's ability to go roaring off in various unexpected directions is one of the charms of Preacher (and perhaps the occasional frustration). The world of Preacher is a nightmarish, bloody, tragic one. 

And Dillon, along with the occasional guest artist for the Preacher mini-series and one-shots that explain things outside the main narrative, renders all the horror and grace in his clear and elegant and straightforward art. It's the right take for this sort of thing: Preacher is as straightforward and straight-shooting as its titular hero Jesse Custer.

And it's one of the marks of Ennis' ability to take the piss out of himself that late in the narrative Jesse's one true love mocks the fact that he shares his initials with Jesus Christ.

But anyway, pardner...

Jesse Custer is a conflicted preacher in the small, crappy Texas town of Annville when thing begin. Something happens to give him the power to compel anyone to do anything with the power of his voice. And when he learns the truth about God, he sets out to find God.

For God has abandoned his Throne in Heaven, apparently because He fears Jesse's newly created power. And He fears Jesse's mission: to bring God to justice for all the pains and horrors God has inflicted on his Creation.

With Jesse will be the love of his life, sharp-shooting Tulip O'Hare, whom Jesse abandoned to become a preacher five years earlier to save her life from an imminent threat. But she doesn't know that when she runs into him again, so she starts off right pissed at him.

With Jesse will also be a roguish sidekick and newly met best friend, Cassidy the nearly century-old Irish vampire. Cassidy has the strength of 50 and an addictive personality to match -- not to blood, which he's not all that happy about needing, but to whiskey and beer and cigarettes and hard drugs. He comes along because Custer gives him a new sense of purpose and a chance to be a Good Guy for once. Or does her? Well, therein lies one of the threaded plots of Preacher.

Against Jesse are the hosts of Heaven and Hell. More dangerously on Earth, there is the most powerful secret organization on Earth: the Grail, dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Christ (whose death on the cross was faked) and orchestrating a global apocalypse that will put it in charge with Christ's descendant as the world's leader. Controlled and managed entirely by the Grail, of course.

Leading the Grail forces against Jesse and company will be Herr Starr, a German-born, power-mad grotesque. And there will be other grotesques arrayed against Jesse, though it's their spiritual grotesquery that's the problem. There will be innocent grotesques and heroic grotesques as well. 

Chief among the lovable grotesques will be the young man Cassidy dubs Arseface, who has a permanently disfigured face from the plastic surgery that came after his unsuccessful suicide attempt on the day Kurt Cobain died to inspire he and his more ultimately more successfully suicidal friend to kill themselves.

And there's the mysterious Saint of Killers, a seven-foot-tall cowboy whose guns bring death to anyone and anything in the universe, and whose story is a tragic one of redemption undone and Hell unleashed. Will he be Jesse's enemy or ally in the search for God and answers?

The 70+ issues of Preacher travel America, with a brief foray to France. For the most part it's the American South, and Texas in particular. Ennis has noted that he wanted to write a modern Western with some elements of the Westerns of Clint Eastwood, but with a hero who's as much John Wayne as Eastwood. All of this wrapped up in supernatural horrors, natural horrors, human horrors, and the occasional moment of Grace, too.

Are there flaws? Sure. But when the story ends, one wants more even as one is satisfied at a good story, well-told. So far, the AMC TV adaptation of Preacher seems to have thrown away everything from the comic except the names of the characters in search of its own lesser vision. But the comic is the real stuff. Highly recommended.

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