Four-Color Flashback: ‘Preacher: Vol. 8 – All Hell’s A-Coming’

Welcome to week 8 of 9 in our discussion of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. For more, read weeks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

AJ: Here we are. The penultimate volume of Preacher. Given the title and the fact that we’re very near the end, I thought there would be a lot more violence and bloodshed. Instead, All Hell’s A-Coming turns its focus inward, with a lot to say about our heroes and their pasts. The past is a big theme here, not only because of the extended flashbacks but also because people and things from long ago keep coming back to add wrinkles to the story.

Speaking of those extended flashbacks, where should we start: Tulip or Cassidy?

Paul: I say we take it in order, so Tulip.

AJ: The beginning of this volume is all kinds of heartbreaking. A listless Tulip dragging herself out of bed, trying and failing to find the drugs she’s felt she’s needed for these past months. Last we saw Cassidy, we were beginning to realize that he might not have been the fundamentally decent person we thought he was. That continues in the opening scene, as he tells Tulip that everything’s all right, she only needs her medicine, and “Don’t make me take that fuckin’ guy away from you.” Followed immediately by Tulip blasting him into the sunlight. Tulip flees the hell that Cassidy has made for her, then we learn all about how she became who she is.

We’ve mentioned Mark Millar in relation to Garth Ennis before, and I would not be at all surprised to learn that he got the inspiration for Big Daddy and Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass from Tulip and her papa. One of the issues is even called “Even Hitgirls Get the Blues”! Jake and Tulip O’Hare aren’t as demented and over-the-top as Millar’s father-daughter team, but he still teaches her all about guns and encourages her to participate in “boy” activities. I love what he says to one of her teachers, who urges him to involve Tulip in “more feminine pursuits”: “Well, Mrs. Carlyle, no disrespect intended to your point of view, ma’am…but I always figured it was best to encourage her in what she liked.”

Then we learn how Tulip went from a little girl who loved playing with guns to a big girl who hated them: Jake is accidentally shot by fellow hunters during a trip. He doesn’t even get to keep his dignity, pulling an Elvis by dying while relieving himself.

Paul: I’ll tell ya, even though I’ve been sort of warning you from the start about this turn in Cassidy’s character, I’ve never really bought into the “he’s an amoral monster” bit quite as thoroughly as Ennis perhaps would like me to. I mean yes, Cassidy is something of an amoral monster, or has been at points in his life. But in some respects I don’t find the evils he’s shown committing that much more distasteful than some of Jesse’s hardcore judgement and moral superiority.

But, we’re talking about Tulip now. I think it’s significant that Tulip’s past is shown to be the most “realistic” and mundanely human of any of the main characters. Of course there’s still plenty of OTT craziness, like her daddy losing a hand teaching her how to shark fish, and her John Badham-esque guns blazing rescue of Amy from the poor little rich boy rapists. But taken as part of this particular series, her childhood comes out as the one most readily identifiable to the audience. I think that says a lot about her as a character and her role in the larger story. Whether it was altogether intentional on Ennis’ part or not.

AJ: That’s a good point. Jesse came from a twisted and (literally) tortured background, while Cassidy was a naive soldier who got turned into something else entirely. Tulip, on the other hand, grew up learning how to shoot, watching Kelley’s Heroes, and missing her dad. She’s caught between our two male protagonists, and while that could have been one groaner of a cliché, Ennis avoids such a pitfall by making her a strong, independent character who also grounds most of the saga.

Paul: I also think the Tulip/Amy relationship is as close as the series gets to the female equivalent of the Jesse/Cassidy relationship. Only, again, more “realistic.” Mostly. And also like the boys, I think you could read some minor hints of a more-than-just-friends sort of attraction between the two, at least from Amy’s side of it.

AJ: There’s that moment, as Jesse and Tulip leave her apartment, very much in love with one another: “I wish I was one of you. Either one.”

Paul: Yes! I love that moment, though it breaks my heart.

AJ: Amy also gets a sweet/disturbing subplot of her own, as she wanders into a bar with Skeeter while Jesse and Tulip have passionate, neverending reunion sex. She mistakes the bartender’s question about her romantic life for flirtation, but he assures her that isn’t the case; he was chemically castrated by accident. I’m not sure what this little detour has to do with the greater story, but I do like how afterward, Amy says, “Meanwhile the nicest guy I’ve met in about five years has had his scrotum chemically disintegrated. There’s fucking irony for you.”

Paul: Do you think it’s significant that in one flashback scene Tulip is read Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree?

AJ: McCarthy has written some of my favorite books, but I must admit that I haven’t read Suttree. So, learned Paul, what do you think?

Paul: I’ve never read it, but apparently it’s unique among McCarthy’s works for its heavy use of flashbacks, point of view narrative, and fragmented structure.

AJ: Then I would say it’s a definite hat-tip from Ennis, if nothing else.

Paul: It also seems to have a character that has sex with watermelons…known as (what else?) the “midnight melonmounter.”

AJ: Brilliant. That even sounds like something out of Preacher.

Paul: All right, so before we get to the joy of sex reunion that’s coming (pun intended), we have to endure issue #53, “Too Dumb For New York City and Too Ugly For L.A.” Weirdest, most random, pointless road trip ever. Except for, “Why, Mister Hauer, imagine meetin’ you all the way out here…”

AJ: I’m not sure it’s pointless, exactly. Ennis clearly raises further questions about the American Dream, and the sex investigators are even allowed to be just a teensy tiny bit endearing when one of them discusses coming to the country as an outsider. It’s like Cassidy’s tale of immigrating from Ireland, if Cassidy had said things like “big lit-oop dildo.” I enjoyed Jesse’s call to the radio show, as well. The punchline is pretty obvious, but it shows those seemingly philosophical debates for the pointless bouts of sloganeering they are.

Paul: I suppose. I mean, yeah, I see all of that. I just feel like that’s all a big roadblock in the middle of our story. It’s the same issue I have with all the Arseface stuff at this point. It makes sense within the larger themes of Preacher, but it’s all so blunt and inelegant.

(I can’t believe I’m complaining about the inelegance of something in Preacher.)

AJ: I can’t disagree with your points, but I loved the “nighttime drive” vibe.

Paul: The Hitcher reference was the highlight of it for me. Though I agree, as much as I hate driving anymore, there is something zen about driving at night and listening to crazy talk radio programs.

I think the problems I have with this chapter could be summed up by the clumsy (and unnecessary) reminder Jesse gives us of just who Bob And Freddy were. We already knew that, and having Jesse remember it, and then prattle on for three panels about it, but have it make no difference to him or his journey at all…? I don’t know, just seemed very pointless. Like literary stalling tactics to prolong the inevitable.

But of course no worshipful dissection of the Myth of America could possibly be complete without the still-very-much-alive Mr. Presley.

AJ: Oh my fucking God. Time and again in these columns, I have proven my idiocy and general incompetence. But this…this takes the cake. As someone who has been fed the music of Elvis Presley from the moment of my birth, I completely did not realize the shadowy, slurring figure was the King. NOT EVEN WITH THE TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS REFERENCE. Christ.

So. Um. Anyway.

Now we talk about Cassidy. This was a rough volume. Earlier, you said you don’t necessarily think of Cassidy as a 100% “amoral monster,” and I would agree. But he presented himself to Jesse (and therefore us) as someone much different than he actually is, to the point that my stomach started turning. When you learn that your tried-and-true best friend forever, a thoroughly good and upstanding guy, is actually a serial destroyer of women’s lives, it feels like a violation of your trust. The fact that I felt these emotions almost as strongly as Jesse is a testament to the long-form character development Ennis has been going for. It’s kind of masterful.

Paul: See, I think we just view Cassidy’s “evil” in different ways. I think of him as weak and childish, meaning immature, or more accurately, not fully mature. He did terrible things, and I don’t mean to make light of them. But I think it had more to do with weakness and addiction than with any genuine, intentional “evil.” And as for the way he presented himself to Jesse? I’m not ready to accept that he was willfully deceiving anyone. Or actually, he was deceiving himself, about himself, about what he’s done and the likelihood that he’ll do it again. I don’t think he set out to deliberately keep the “truth” about himself a secret.

He’s a vampire who’s lived for ages but never grew up. He doesn’t recognize, or refuses to acknowledge, that he’s still the frightened, misguided young boy, looking for a big brother to show him how to be a man.

AJ: I don’t think it’s evil either. In fact, I agree with most everything you just said. He is lying to himself, and perhaps he didn’t willfully deceive anyone, but there’s also a big disconnect between who we thought Cassidy was and who Cassidy actually is. He hasn’t gotten the chance to speak for himself yet, and I look forward to that when he and Jesse meet up at Hondo’s, but right now I feel like I’ve been lied to. If not directly, then certainly by omission.

Paul: Fair enough. And there is still character revelation and development to come. But I’ll say no more on that, you sneaky spoiler hunter.

AJ: One thing I admire about this storyline is that Ennis shows just how much a junkie is willing to degrade themselves for a fix. Cassidy’s addiction to heroin ruins the lives of all the women around him. He even sucks off the one dealer, only to be told that he’s all out tonight. I think the moments directly following that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cass isn’t evil: after he lashes out at Joan, he says a very small, “…Help me.” It’s very, very sad. Then the skeletal, rat-eating Cassidy which Sally happens upon after the fact…terrifying.

Paul: One of my…favorite?…images from the series.

So now Jesse knows about the sins of Cass’ past. How do you feel about what little of his reaction we got to see in this volume?

AJ: It’s very Jesse. He judges him at first in silence, then says one of the most hurtful things he’s ever uttered: “You’re a animal thinks it’s a man.” Cassidy tries to punch him, but Jesse stops the punch…while also breaking every single bone in his hand. Like you said, Jesse is a very judgmental person, which can be one of his strengths–I don’t think you can be a hero in the context of stories like these without judging people to some extent–but also one of his major weaknesses. The conclusion to Gunther’s story from the last volume still sticks in my craw. At the same time, there’s a small sense of fairness; Jesse’s going to allow Cass to speak his piece, even if he’s going to make him wait two months. In short, I think Jesse’s just really, really wounded by this whole thing, and this is how he shows it.

One little detail I loved: after Cassidy sees Jesse alive for the first time since Monument Valley, Jesse just stares at him stone-faced. Then there’s the panel where Cass begins arching his eyebrows and says, “D’yeh mind not lookin’ at me like that…?” Since Cass wears sunglasses all the time, Dillon has become quite adept at showing his emotions using only his eyebrows. It’s very effective.

Paul: That line you quoted is particularly harsh and hurtful considering how badly they both felt way back in volume one when Jesse called Cass a “fucking abomination.” Also worth noting, later in that same volume, Jesse says this:

“Aw hell, Tulip. I’m kinda regrettin’ what I said to him, y’know? ‘Abomination’… Shit, I never stood in judgment like that on a fella before.”

AJ: Seems like, for better or worse, he’s growing into the role his Genesis-assisted powers have afforded him.

Paul: Okay, so I think there are one or two other characters and storylines we should mention before we wrap this up. But first, is there anything else about our main motley crew we need to discuss?

AJ: I loved Tulip hitting Jesse in the face with a snowball to show that you can enjoy what you have instead of brooding on your pain.

Paul: And her talk to him about how he broods and tortures himself. Good stuff.

AJ: In addition to the very emotional stuff revolving around Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip, there’s some…less emotional stuff going on around the edges. First and foremost, there are the continuing adventures of Herr Starr. It turns out that Le Saint Marie has sent Eisenstein, the short but deadly man who initiated Starr into the Grail, to investigate the Monument Valley incident. This leads to a sequence of failed assassination attempts on Eisenstein. It’s funny stuff, as most things to do with Starr are, but it also brings up another point. Starr is supposed to be the series’ chief adversary. God is Jesse’s Moby Dick, but Starr is the flesh-and-blood enemy who drives a good deal of the action. If he is constantly reduced to looking like a buffoon–and he ends All Hell’s A-Coming with a dog eating his junk–then how effective of an adversary is he, really?

Paul: Yeah, if the series has one major failing, it’s that the antagonist sort of waffles back and forth between various bad guys. Starr goes from being a genuinely terrifying threat at the beginning to, as you say, a buffoon, and back. And now, back to buffoon again. Won’t say how he ends the series, but you’re right to notice the watering down of his threat level.

AJ: Also, I was confused: did he kill Eisenstein or only Eisenstein’s Spetsnaz thug? He seemed pretty confident in his victory over the little fucker, but I didn’t see a body.

Paul: Well, the art was a bit vague, but he booted the little terror runt over the edge of the building.

AJ: Oh, I see it now. There’s Eisenstein’s cane falling through the air.

Paul: Two returning characters we haven’t even said a word about yet: Johnny Lee Wombat and Hoover.

“THREE MILLION!”

AJ: I was glad to see Hoover back, the poor guy. He’s crushing on Featherstone pretty hard, too. Unfortunately, Featherstone has the hots for Starr. I liked the scene with their thought bubbles. Hoover’s is “H + F,” Featherstone’s is “F + S,” and Starr’s is a steaming turd.

I also liked Johnny Lee Wombat’s return, especially since it framed the issue which featured the Jesse/Cassidy conflict, Starr’s defeat of Eisenstein, and Jesse and Tulip leaving Amy’s apartment. Sometimes all you wanna do is say fuck you to the world.

Paul: Indeed. *fassbendervoice

Also, the rise and fall of Arseface. That happened. What did you think?

AJ: The Arseface stuff…hmm. I honestly don’t feel like I can say anything about his storyline until the series is over. It seems completely disconnected from everything else.

Paul: Yeah. So, alrighty then. Last thing in the volume…yet another one-shot. I have no truck with this story, so any commentary is gonna have to come from you.

AJ: You don’t have any thoughts on it at all?

Paul: I kinda hate it.

AJ: Ouch. Why’s that?

Paul: Well, there’s the obvious. But beyond that, I feel like it’s too big and bloody a story to have taken place before the events of the main series. The fact that Jesse, Tulip, and even Amy had already been involved in something as bloody and filled with death as that doesn’t sit right with my impression of them from the earliest issues. Then again, there was the whole Angelville nightmare…

Still, it just seemed out of place or proportion somehow. Not sure I can explain it. Maybe it’s really just the subject matter.

AJ: I thought it had its problems, chiefly Vichy, who is just too much of a French caricature (though I did like his pleas to be less French when Jesse’s about to hang him). I don’t think one of its problems is the amount of violence and gore, though; earlier in the volume, Amy said that it was “guns and car chases” from the moment Jesse and Tulip met. I liked getting to see their early days and I found Tall in the Saddle to be generally pretty enjoyable. The best scene, however, is the one where Jesse and Amy almost kiss. It felt very much like a comment on the current Jesse/Tulip/Cassidy drama.

Paul: Yes, I was going to mention that scene as a favorite. Despite her relatively small role in the series, I really like Amy quite a bit.

AJ: Also, Preacher very rarely opts for two-page spreads, so it’s effective when it does. See: Tall in the Saddle‘s stampede.

Well, Paul. We’re almost done with this series. How about that? Any hints you can drop about what to expect in the final volume?

Paul: “Life without genitalia, day fifty-one.” Someone is a serious grammar Nazi. A deal is made. Someone may or may not find true love. Jesse does a very dumb thing. Someone else does a very brave thing. Oh, and there may be a gunshot or two.

Next: Preacher: Vol. 9 – Alamo, collecting issues #59-66.

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