Four-Color Flashback: ‘Preacher: Vol. 1 – Gone to Texas’

Last summer, I started a column entitled Four-Color Flashback, wherein I went through and discussed/analyzed a legendary run of comic books I’d never read. In that case, it was Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men (read the first part here). It was a fun experience, and toward the end of the column, I stated the desire to return to the concept “some time in the next century.” That time is now!

Unlike last year, which was just me rambling on endlessly by myself, this summer, I’m joined by Paul to discuss Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s notorious Preacher. Paul is a huge fan, and I’ve never read a single issue, so we’re both bringing different perspectives to the table. The series lasted for 66 issues from 1995 to 2000, and has subsequently been collected in nine trade paperbacks. We’ll be going through them one at a time, starting this week with Preacher: Vol. 1 – Gone to Texas, collecting the series’ first seven issues.

So pull up a chair, do your best John Wayne impression, and enjoy.

(That was me commanding you with the Word.)

Paul: In 1995, I was a rabid comics reader, desperately trying to survive the syphilis that was the Image revolution. My manna from heaven for almost a decade had been Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece, The Sandman. Sadly, that series was gearing up for its epic conclusion, just a few short months away, and so I faced a bleak future of pouches and shoulder pads and enough cross-hatching to choke a (Dark) Horse.

And then came Preacher.

Garth Ennis, the mad Irishman, introduced us to Jesse Custer, a good ol’ boy from Texas with a heart of gold, a spine of steel, and the Word of God in his mouth. Along with his hitgirl ex and hard (blood)drinking best friend, he led me on a brutal, brilliant ride through Hell to find the Hosts of Heaven. With more gore, profanity, sacrilege, and goddamn heart than any ten comics before it, Preacher was my four-color salvation.

AJ: Prior to reading the first volume of Preacher this afternoon, my only exposure to Garth Ennis had been a few issues of both Punisher MAX for Marvel and his current Dynamite series The Boys. It’s been too long for me to say what I thought of Punisher, but I remember reading the first couple issues of The Boys when they came out in 2006. I was shocked by the extreme violence and mean-spiritedness. I had never encountered anything that nihilistic in comics before, and dropped the book like a stone. I can’t recall any real specifics and haven’t revisited it since, so I don’t mean to judge that series as a whole, but I certainly had a visceral reaction to it.

So when I cracked open Preacher, I expected the violence, the profanity, its whole general fucked-up vibe. What surprised me was how much I came to care about the characters and how much I enjoyed the first volume as a whole. Yeah, it’s violent–violent as hell–but it didn’t make my skin crawl like The Boys did. Jesse Custer, Tulip, and especially Cassidy are all interesting and likable characters. There are moments over the course of these seven issues that did feel extreme for extreme’s sake (we’ll get to those in a second), but overall, I was pleasantly surprised.

Paul: No question Preacher is violent. But what separates it from everything else I’ve read by Ennis in the years since is its genuine heart. And fun. I haven’t read everything he’s written since Preacher wrapped, but based on what I have sampled, I agree with your assessment: nihilistic, mean-spirited, and not much fun. I’ve kind of felt like his subsequent stuff has been an effort to live up to the reputation he earned from Preacher, and to usually up the ante.

AJ: I’m really glad to hear you feel the same way about his post-Preacher work. This book may be chock full of people being shot to bloody bits and having their faces torn off, but already there’s a sense that the story is heading somewhere, like we’re just setting out on an epic adventure. Before we get into what I really liked about Gone to Texas, I want to bring up the elements that didn’t work for me. There are only two that truly bothered me, and while both aren’t super important to Vol. 1, they’re important enough to talk about.

The first is Arseface. I kind of get what Ennis is going for–here’s a kid who rebelled so strongly against his militant father (Sheriff Root, a real son of a bitch) that he began to idolize his dad’s exact opposite, namely Kurt Cobain. His idolatry was so overwhelming that when Cobain blew his brains out, the kid tried to do the same. Only it didn’t work, and now he’s stuck with a face that looks like an arse. It’s a comment on blind loyalty to media heroes, but it’s maybe the one element present here that felt mean-spirited. After Jesse commands Root to go fuck himself, Root literally does so, and kills himself. Arseface then gets a whole superhero moment where he kneels on the ground and proclaims (in his unintelligible speech), “If I have a face like an arse–so be it! I will become Arseface!” For right now, it just seems like mocking a disabled kid.

The other element didn’t bug me as much, but it did feel a little tiresome: Detective Bridges, the macho man super cop, is a raging homophobe who also turns out to be a raging homosexual. I saw that coming a mile off, and his seemingly less efficient but far more likable partner Detective Tool walking in on a group BDSM session felt really unnecessary.

Paul: Well, the first collection serves rather like the first season of a TV series, and suffers from the same kind of “finding it’s footing” that most shows do. I can’t promise that Ennis never again indulges in lazy stereotypes for a crude laugh, but I never allowed it to distract me from the larger story or themes. Arseface has a continuing presence in the book, but his “arc” sort of goes it’s own way, so if it doesn’t work for you, you can pretty much just ignore it.

AJ: I expected that it would take some time to finds it footing, but again, that’s good to hear. Two other Vertigo series that you and I both love–The Sandman and Fables–also had to do some foot-finding in their opening arcs. At this point, I’m more on board with Preacher than I was with Fables after its first trade paperback, and look how well that turned out. (Radically different series, but still.) Besides Arseface and Detective Bridges, Ennis’ sheer audacity is refreshing in the classic Vertigo mold. I mean, really, what other comic would revolve around its hero being joined with a mystical being, Genesis, that’s the offspring of an angel and a demon? Or take place in a world where God just up and quit Heaven after Genesis’ birth? That brings to mind Lucifer giving up Hell in Sandman, but I don’t know, the idea that God would give up on creation seems even more shocking. I know that Ennis is a devout atheist, but I like that our main character here is a preacher literally in search of God.

Paul: In a series that is packed to the gills with blatant, in-your-face grotesquery and what-you-see-is-what-you-get, it’s significant to point out that it rides on the whole metaphor of a preacher that has literally lost his faith and now is on a literal search for God.

AJ: Yeah, I love that even though God clearly exists in the world of Preacher and even though Jesse meets actual supernatural beings, he can still experience a loss of faith. Just because God exists doesn’t mean that you have to have faith in him. Jesus, this thing would be controversial now–I can only imagine how it was received in the ’90s. Do you remember what the reception was like? Did anyone in the mainstream media actually pay attention to this obscure comic book?

Paul: I genuinely don’t recall any major ballyhoo over it. I mean, I remember individual people bitching about it, but I don’t have any memory of the mainstream media paying that much attention to it.

AJ: Ah well, I suppose that’s to be expected (and given the comic’s incendiary nature, probably for the best).

Let’s talk characters. As we’ve already alluded to, Jesse Custer is an interesting figure. He broke up with Tulip five years ago, and now that they’ve crossed paths again, they’re both doing things the other finds surprising. Even though Tulip hated guns, she’s now a hitwoman; and Tulip seems very surprised that Jesse took up the collar. There’s a history between the two of them that’s only been hinted at, and I’ll be interested to learn more about it.

Paul: It’s one of those classic star-cross’d love kinda things. They’re both incredibly stubborn and headstrong, but the love between them defies the war between Heaven and Hell. You’ll get more on their history as we go.

AJ: The clear stand-out to me is Cassidy, a vampire hailing from Ennis’ native Ireland. Much like Edgar Wright never used the word “zombie” in Shaun of the Dead, I don’t think Ennis ever actually calls Cassidy a vampire here; Cassidy says he’s “the V word,” but that’s it. I was drawn to him from page one. He’s at a diner, sitting in between Jesse and Tulip, both of whom look pretty damn normal against that backdrop. But there’s Cassidy, with wild hair, sunglasses, and a vest jacket. He just gets more fascinating from there, as we learn that he’s actually a good person and only kills those who have it coming to them. When he drives by one of the Saint of Killers’ massacres, he confronts him and asks, “What the fuck d’you do this for?” He’s kind of like Buffy‘s Spike, post-soul. Little bit.

Paul: I’ve spent years telling people Cassidy is the Spike of Preacher. He has quite a journey ahead of him. It has more than a few Spikey moments. Also, speaking of the opening scene, that reminds me that dialogue is one of the greatest strengths of the series. There’s a rhythm to the language that’s not exactly “realistic,” but kind of a heightened realism. And I love the way it uses the lyrics from Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher.”

AJ: You know, the only song I think I recognized here was “Stand by Your Man.” Cassidy humming the tune was hilarious.

Getting back to Jesse for a second: one of the weirder aspects in a book brimming with weird aspects was the spirit (?) of John Wayne appearing to Jesse. Seems that the ol’ Duke has been making himself known to Jesse ever since Jesse was a small child watching McLintock! on TV. Very bizarre, but I have faith it’ll make sense at some point.

Paul: Well, it’ll make something like sense.

One of the things I love the most about this series is the relationship between Jesse and Cassidy. I mean, Ennis certainly creates an epic love story with Jesse and Tulip, but in many respects, Preacher is just as much a blokes’ tale. Maybe even more so. Jesse has an obsession with being a hero, a stand-up guy, living by a manly man’s code of honor and some twisted form of chivalry. It makes him both charming and maddening. As for Jesse and the Word, he does some very interesting things with it. It represents in part that old chestnut of ultimate power that does…something. It’s temptation. It’s the serpent and the apple.

Cassidy is, for the most part, just a guy looking to be accepted. Much like Spike. And like Spike, he has made himself into something that doesn’t necessarily display who and what he really is. Every one of the characters in this series are to some extent tragic figures. They’re all “good,” but deeply flawed. And those flaws cause a lot of problems. Probably none more than Cassidy.


AJ: The conversation between Jesse and Cassidy atop the Empire State Building was great. And Jesse says that if he was to become corrupted by his newfound power to make people do whatever he says, the “first absolutely corrupt goddamn thing [he] would do” would be to force Tulip to have sex with him. He notes that he would rightly burn in hell for such an act and that he has no intention of doing so, but that was another moment that took me aback.

Then there’s the Saint of Killers. So far, I think he’s a major badass. A major badass who’s been sent to retrieve Genesis and kill our hero, but a major badass nevertheless. He seems to come from the old school gunslinger mold, and I love that. There are already a lot of forces at play in Preacher, from all sorts of realms and locales (and we get a hint as to what’s coming next toward the end of this volume), but the story starts in Dallas, and the Saint epitomizes its Western elements thus far.

Paul: The Saint of Killers is the Myth-with-a-capital-M of the gunslinger. He is the Man With No Name crossed with the Terminator. He’s what the hell-born love child of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood would be…if he had been caught in a gamma bomb blast and Hulked out.

AJ: Mmm. Gamma-irradiated Eastwood.

Paul: You haven’t even begun to see how much of a badass he really is.

Any favorite scenes, moments, bits of dialogue?

AJ: One of my favorite moments is when the Saint of Killers finally comes face-to-face with Jesse. We’ve seen the Saint leave a whole mess o’ corpses in his wake, but when he pulls his revolver on Jesse, all Jesse has to say is, “Back in the holster, fucker!” The Saint tries to resist, and Jesse says, “Oh yeah. You heard.” All the Saint can do is follow orders and make some empty (for now) threats. No other moment in Vol. 1 illustrates Jesse’s newfound power more potently.

Paul: I know, I love that “Oh yeah. You heard.” I also love Cassidy talking himself into going back to “save” Jesse. And, “Then behold, o mortals, the glory of the Heavenly Host.” “Cut the shit, will you?” “…Right.”

AJ: Haha, a Whedonesque moment before Whedonesque moments existed.

Paul: Were you surprised by anything? Maybe by Cassidy taking a bite out of shitkicker boy? Or the knife through the hand?

AJ: I think my biggest surprise–besides the whole revelation that God quit–was Si being the Reaver Cleaver. It seems so obvious in hindsight, but he was so immediately likable and I was so intrigued by his decades-long friendship with Cassidy (they met at Woodstock!) that it didn’t even occur to me. I also loved how upset Cassidy was about being lied to by one of the few people he felt he could trust, and of how the following chat with Jesse bolters his trust in their friendship.

Paul: Exactly. “Can’t all be fuckers, can they?”

AJ: Poetical.

Paul: Seriously, the relationship between Jesse and Cassidy is the real love story of this book.

AJ: Aww. Bromance. (I just said “bromance,” command me to go fuck myself.)

So we’ve talked about Garth Ennis so long that the cows are now home. What do you think of Steve Dillon’s art?

Paul: Personally, I think Dillon is one of the most underappreciated modern masters. But again, as with Ennis and his various follow-up projects, I think Dillon’s best work is here, and everything that follows is kind of a pale shadow. Over the course of this series, Dillon is called upon to render some of the most vile, graphic, disturbing things ever put on a page. And it all has a simple beauty to it.

AJ: My experience with Dillon is confined solely to some of his more recent work for Marvel, specifically Wolverine: Origins from a few years ago. I didn’t mind his work there, though it never particularly stood out to me, and the same is pretty true here. His work here is better, but it’s very…’90s. Not Image ’90s, and thank God for that, but it definitely feels of a piece with artwork from other Vertigo series of the same time. And as much as I love Vertigo, they haven’t always had the prettiest art. I don’t really see any beauty here, simple or otherwise, but it’s not bad. It works.

Paul: Perhaps my love of it stems from years of familiarity with the series as a whole. He is the primary artist for the entire run. And he does get better as he goes. But I think some of the beauty comes from how every character is recognizable, and feels absolutely solid and real.

AJ: I love Glenn Fabry’s covers, especially the one featuring a grinning Cassidy, blood splattered all over him. Also, the one showing a cop (Bridges?) in a gimp suit? HIGH OCTANE NIGHTMARE FUEL OF THE HIGHEST ORDER.

Paul: Heh. Yeah, Fabry does some amazing things. The bloody, smiling Cassidy has long been a favorite of mine. I used to have it as a huge framed poster in my bedroom. (I have issues.)

AJ: You want to make love to a viscera-soaked vampire. We all do, really.

Paul: I know this will be a little early to play this game, but I wanna ask you if you have any preliminary casting ideas at this point?

AJ: Glad you asked! Tim Roth would be a great Cassidy. Not sure if he’s too old now, but he was the first person who came to mind.

Paul: I’ve thought of Tim Roth and Robert Carlyle before, but I think both are too old now.

AJ: Well, that’s lame. I know there’s a certain casting idea you’ve been harping about on Twitter for what seems like forever. Care to share it?

Paul: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

AJ: Well, you go ahead and be coy all you want, but we shall return to that matter at some point. So, being that you’re fully aware of what comes next…any hints for what horrors await us newbies?

Paul: Hints of horrors. Horrific hints. You will never, ever be able to prepare yourself for the true horror of Jesse’s family and childhood. Try and imagine what the term “sex detectives” could possibly mean (you’ll be wrong, but just try).

AJ: I’m imagining a couple of Comic-Con booth babes cosplaying as Sherlock and Dr. Watson, sexily investigating sexy crimes.

Paul: And lastly, three words: Not enough gun.

Next week: Preacher: Vol. 2 – Until the End of the World, collecting issues #8-17.

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