I decided to take a day off this week to read comics. Yeah, I know. I’ve got shit to do and the comics will wait patiently on the shelf for me to read them later. But I just really needed a day off and it was either comics or more Star Trek. I chose comics. Preacher by Garth Ennis, to be specific. Which is one of the best comic series ever EVER EVER! If you don’t know Preacher, get thee to a comic shop posthaste, friends. Because it is fantastic. So fantastic, in fact, that I’m putting off reading the final issue so as to increase the deliciousness of the conclusion. Which is sort of pointless, seeing as how I’ve read this series before. But you see where I’m coming from.
There’s too much going on to sum up the series well. But, briefly, you’ve got your alcoholic vampire, your classic love story with an angry gun-crazy woman, your crazed inbred mutants, your church-run global nuclear apocalypse conspiracy, your badass German hitman and his merry band of psychos, your immortal murderous gunslinging cowboy, your illegitimate angel/demon lovechild run amok, and your hero ex-preacher who’s been endowed with the power of the word of God and is hunting Him down to make Him answer for abandoning humanity in our time of need. It’s a smorgasbord of fucked-up, irreverent awesome. Plus, the art is amazing. Which, with so many ethereal, conceptual things going on, is pretty impressive. Steve Dillon takes the unimaginable and makes it gory and dynamic and wonderfully funny. Genius.
Like I said, I’ve read these before. But I was much younger and I think that, at the time, I liked them for different reasons. I was in high school (and maybe my first year of college – that whole period is really fuzzy), which as we all know is a tremendously weird time. Why does adolescence have to suck so much? Stupid brains, being all soaked in hormones and new sociocultural constructs and tears and shitty marijuana. Anyway. There are a lot of religious questions raised in Preacher. It’s a pretty basic good vs evil kind of story, but the sides are unclear and the players are sometimes ambivalent about which side they’re on, both to each other and to the reader. And I can’t think of another story, off the top of my head, where the author made not only the church but God himself the bad guy. Not in a bitchy, whiny way, either. It’s completely logical within the context of our hero’s morality. “I believed in you and gave you everything and you still disappeared and left us all hanging so fuck you.” But where most of us would let it go at “fuck you,” the Reverend Jesse Custer takes it upon himself to hunt the bastard down and make him answer for his behavior. Brilliant. Point is, when I first read these comics, I was having a huge crisis of mind about religion and my own beliefs. You know, like most people do at around sixteen or so. “What do I believe and why?” is a new and exciting (and occasionally painful) question at that age when we’re just learning how to ask those questions subjectively and how to stand by our answers. Sixteen is about the age when we stop just repeating what we’ve always heard or been told. Ideally. I mean, if one just keeps doing that forever, that regurgitation, one becomes a tremendous waste of space and electricity. I sympathized only with Custer’s anger at the time, whereas now I feel like I sympathize more with his logic and steadfast dedication to an ideal. It’s interesting to revisit those moral and ethical conundra as an adult. A kind of intellectual nostalgia.
Something else I find weirdly intriguing that I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of as an angry teenager: Preacher is unabashedly patriotic. Not in a hamfisted all-the-bad-guys-are-foreigners kind of way. But in subtle ways, and some really beautiful ones. Having John Wayne be Custer’s spirit guide. His leaving his father’s Congressional Medal of Honor at the Vietnam Memorial. Blowing up Monument Valley with an atomic bomb (if only to later point out that there were millions of native Americans murdered there and hundreds of atomic bomb tests happened nearby so it could’ve been worse). There are a lot of flashbacks from the characters’ lives, so their travels all over the country are also, oddly, all over time. They show the Empire State building as it’s being finished, New Orleans in several different decades, the western frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as soldiers in Vietnam and World War II. It’s a love song to America and Americans, cheesy as that may sound. And not the sort of homogenized strip-mall America where every city in every state looks exactly the same. Dillon’s done a great job of making each locale have its own personality, even if it’s as simple as changing the color of the sky or the types of trees in the background. Excellent work. And don’t even get me started on Texas. There is a drooling appreciation for Texas here that I didn’t know could exist (that is, without riding a horse through dusty streets, naked and covered in barbeque, shooting Colt revolvers into the air, and screaming “Yeehaw”). But it’s not one-sided, blind faith-type Texas love. Ennis takes great care to point out the racism, classism, redneckery, and utter madness that also make Texas the wonderfully weird place that it is. You take the good with the bad. That’s America.
The other thing that I find cool about Preacher is how well its early 90′s cultural references hold up. There’s a whole Vietnam/Desert Storm analogy between Custer’s timeline and his father’s timeline. Another character has a fucked up face because he tried to shoot himself in the head following the death of Kurt Cobain, a sad but real phenomenon that happened worldwide in ’94. There’s a group of pathetic pseudo-vampiric goth kids who hit particularly close to home for me. Bleh. I don’t want to talk about my black fingernails and heavy eyeliner phase. Double bleh. And, probably my favorite, Custer says at one point that he started out on his quest because of the death of Bill Hicks. One of the best descriptions of Hicks I’ve ever heard: “Guy kept goin’, kept performin’, with the license granted a dyin’ man to say what he likes without fear…An’ a guy who’ll tell the truth in this bullshit world, he’s worth his weight in gold.” I should really do a blog post about old Bill. I’ll do that soon. He’s amazing, and it made me really happy to see this nod to him, especially since it was done well. The 90′s may seem like a cultural wasteland to the outside observer, but to those of us who were teenagers (read: sociopaths) during that time, I think it means a lot to see the things we thought were important treated properly. That’s not just the 90′s, obviously. That’s anybody’s view on their own youth. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting to an age that demands I look back with positivity instead of angst. And I’m sure these sorts of culturally reliant things would read differently if they were written now, rather than in the thick of it, what with the wealth of irony that hindsight affords us.
So, yeah. Go check out Preacher if you haven’t already. It’s totally worth the read. I will offer a disclaimer (“disclaim”? Is that a real verb?), and tell you that if you hold religion, particularly Christianity, dear enough to say that it shouldn’t be satirized or criticized or even closely examined, this is not the comic for you. It turns dogma on its head and shakes the shit out of it. Which is fearless and hilarious and awesome, but I can see how it would offend. It’s also bloody and violent and overtly sexual (often in twisted ways) and uses a lot of fuck words. But still, awesome. I can’t recommend it highly enough to those of you with a dark sense of humor and a thick skin for controversy.