Four-Color Flashback: ‘Preacher: Vol. 4 – Ancient History’

Welcome to week 4 of 9 in our analysis of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. Read the past installments here, here, and here.

AJ: After three volumes of mayhem, destruction, bloodshed, blasphemy, and a heapin’ helpin’ of profanity, the Preacher TPBs take a breather with…well, “breather” might be the wrong word. “Diversion” is more like it. Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are out of the picture this time as Garth Ennis and a couple guest artists flesh out the backstories of the Saint of Killers, Arseface, and Jody ‘n T.C. Last week, you called this collection “inessential.” Having re-read it, do you still feel the same?

Paul: I’m afraid I actually feel it even more strongly than I remembered. This won’t happen very often at all over the course of these discussions, but I’m going to say that the stories this time around are just not very good. I mean, getting the backstory of the Saint of Killers (or more accurately, a version of his backstory) is cool and interesting. But it also takes the exaggeration and clichés of the main story and really turns them up to 11. And while both Steve Pugh and Carlos Ezquerra have done pretty great stuff elsewhere over the years, here I think they really suffer from being “fill-in” artists for Steve Dillon.

The Arseface and Jody & T.C. stories are straight up pointless.

AJ: I felt like the Saint of Killers mini-series was the only part of the collection I really needed to read. I mean, the main story of Preacher would have been completely fine without it, so I guess in that regard it’s not necessary, but I really enjoyed finding out what led to his becoming this legendary badass leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. I particularly liked how the first half of the mini is a straight-up Western with no supernatural flourishes, just Old West savagery. He never thought he needed anyone but himself, and when he brings his wife and eventually their child into his life, they end up dying because he can’t bring them the medicine they need in time. Then he dies, goes to Hell, kills the Devil, and takes the Angel of Death’s job. It doesn’t reach the levels of brilliance that I already know Preacher is capable of, but it is a fun time.

Paul: Well, let’s talk about the Saint’s story a bit. First of all, do you think any of that was actually true? I imagine a series of supposed origin stories, as an ever-changing cast of tale spinners relate what they heard about the real Saint of Killers.

AJ: That’s possible. There’s the framing device with the pizza shop owner telling a young wiseguy the story. At the end, there’s a caption that reads, “So the old man finished the version he knew, of the story that’s just been told.” To me, that means that though there are various permutations out there, the story we’ve just read is the real one. It’s open to interpretation, though.

Paul: Yeah, I suppose. I never interpreted it that way. But you’re right, it could definitely be saying we saw the true story, while Goomba #1 told some version of it “off screen.”

AJ: I have to say, I thought Pugh’s art on the Saint story was pretty damn great. Though I’ve grown to appreciate Dillon more than I did when we started, I like Pugh’s style better. I don’t know how it would work within a regular Preacher story, but he drew some pretty pictures here. The scene where the Saint kills McCready is glorious. First, you see his fucking spine get blown to pieces. Then: “There ain’t worse than me in all of Hell. Go an’ look!” That is a terrifying page. The Saint almost looks like a super pissed-off Gremlin.

Paul: Obvious parallels between the Saint’s origin and the main story of Jesse et al.? There’s a preacher in both. A woman that makes a bad man better himself. Umm…McCready, a mad Irishman?

AJ: When the preacher was introduced, I was like, Hey! Preacher! That’s the name of this comic book! I didn’t make the other connections because as you can see, I’m not very smart.

The only one I think you could argue actually constitutes a meaningful connection is the woman who makes the bad man less bad. That’s something that the Saint has very much in common with Jesse. However, I don’t see any correlations between this preacher and our good Rev. Custer, nor between that psychotic prick McCready and the lovable Cassidy. It makes for a fun “What’s it all mean?!” fanwank-type deal, but I don’t think it really means anything.

Paul: How about the notion that higher powers (divine or profane) are guiding events and lives for their own purposes?

“A dozen worthless sons of bitches: And whoever sent the storm that turned them from their course, surely the hand that caused such woeful misdirection was not God’s.” It was. And don’t call me Shirley.

AJ: Do you think that implies that God sent McCready and his men to ensure that the Saint would become, well, the Saint?

Paul: I do.

AJ: Hmm. That’s an intriguing thought, one that honestly didn’t occur to me while I was reading. It certainly fits with what we know about God, specifically that he’s an awful bastard. He was the one who made sure Jesse wound up back in Angelville in Until the End of the World. Hell, he let Tulip die and get resurrected just to prove a point. It would make sense, especially if God already knows that he’s got an Angel of Death who’s not exactly enthusiastic about the gig.

Paul: Precisely. He’s a right wanker.

Any other thoughts on this one? Do you think this will color how you read the character going forward in the main story?

AJ: Knowing his tragic backstory and that it left him bereft of any emotion other than hate is probably going to inform my opinion of his further appearances. Also, killing the Devil? That makes an impact.

Paul: Indeed.

So, Arseface. Wha-hey?

AJ: I would hesitate to call his story “pointless” (and I like how the one-shot is actually called The Story of You-Know-Who) because it provides kinda sympathetic context for a character who previously just seemed like a jab at disabled kids. Arseface, before the whole “face like an arse” thing, is just a misguided teenager looking for someone to believe in. He sure as hell can’t believe in his asshole father or his valium-taking mom, so instead he looks up to Kurt Cobain and the kid who introduced him to Nirvana, Craig (or, uh, Pube). Neither of those are great choices. Cobain shoots himself in the face, and when Arseface attempts to move in with Pube, he finds out that Pube is just a 16-year-old who, as Pube’s sister says, “has a certain…intensity about him that–well, that might be mistaken for maturity.” He’s so lost that he tries to follow in the footsteps of both his idols by attempting and failing to kill himself.

I thought all of that stuff was good. What follows…eh, not so much. I understand that Arseface might want to take a radically different approach to life after such a traumatic incident, but the enormous adoration for his father, enough so that he wants to avenge his death? I didn’t buy it. He’s not a bright kid to begin with, but after the shotgun blast, it seems like he’s a cartoon.

Paul: Well, personally, I think the whole origin story is just a bit cartoonish. But his story does continue in the main book, and it does have a pay-off eventually. I can’t promise how satisfying it will be, but I think you may find him slightly more interesting by the end. Maybe.

But yeah, aside from the metaphor of hero worship and faith, there’s not all that much to this that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Seattle (and Cobain’s actual hometown of Aberdeen) as that whole thing was happening, but I feel like its all kind of cartoonish here.

AJ: Here and in Arseface’s appearances in Gone to Texas, it does feel like Ennis is making fun of the many kids who were actually devastated by Cobain’s suicide. On the one hand, it’s a valid subject to critique; on the other, it also just feels mean-spirited. Then again, if I had been old enough in 1994, I would have been one of those mourning Cobain’s death. There’s a whole set of messy, conflicting ideas surrounding Arseface that I really don’t think the book needs him.

Paul: I don’t have a lot to say about Arseface. So let’s head into the ridiculous third act of this volume, The Good Old Boys.

Jody was the meanest, most disturbing redneck piece of shit this side of Deliverance. He was brilliantly evil in Until the End of the World, but here he’s that c-word again. That’d be cartoonish.

AJ: Obviously, I am not an expert on Garth Ennis, but I feel like The Good Old Boys is basically the definition of Bad Ennis. Pointless violence, outrageousness, and nihilism. I mean, it has characters who actually say things like, “Hey, don’t mess with me, lady! I’m a cop on the edge!” and “I’m a supermodel-turned-lawyer with a dangerous secret!” I get that the story is supposed to be like a macho ’90s action thriller mashed up with backwoods sadism, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything besides some obvious gags about erectile dysfunction. There is no reason for this story to exist.

(This story also made me feel that Garth Ennis would probably think those Bitch Hunter gags with Will Ferrell on 30 Rock would actually be a good idea for a TV show.)

Paul: Yeah, I really don’t think I would’ve re-read this if not for this column. It’s bottom of the barrel Ennis, no doubt about it.

AJ: The only other comics writer who makes me feel like Ennis is Mark Millar. They’re both willing to go so far that it’s conceivable they could cross the line between “audacious” and “irredeemable” at any second. Millar’s crossed that line several times, and here Ennis trips over it and then faceplants.

Paul: That’s a great comparison. I feel like I favor Ennis, but that’s almost entirely due to Preacher. I’ve read more examples of Millar’s work, but think Ennis’ stuff is better.

AJ: I too have read more examples of Millar’s work than Ennis’, but that’s still not saying a whole lot. I’ll say that I loved the first run of The Ultimates, was a big fan of Kick-Ass, hated Nemesis, and have been put off by a lot of other things he’s written.

I have just discovered that Mark Millar wrote a fucking Sonic the Hedgehog comic book in the U.K. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Preacher, but the word must get out. Mind blown.

Paul: Sounds like a future FCF column to me.

AJ: Well, I have to say that was an underwhelming break from the main storyline, Saint of Killers mini notwithstanding. What’s on tap for our return to the real Preacher, Paul?

Paul: Next up, we’re gonna get a little Dixie fried with some Tulip payback, an awkward confession, voodoo, vampires, and some of the worst wigs and hairpieces you’ve ever seen.

AJ: They can’t be any worse than yours, my friend.

Paul: Don’t judge. They were sick when you saw them.

Next week: Preacher: Vol. 5 – Dixie Fried, collecting Preacher Special: Cassidy – Blood and Whiskey and issues #27-33 of the series proper.

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