Four-Color Flashback: ‘Preacher: Vol. 9 – Alamo’

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

Paul: It ends here.

Nine volumes. 66 issues. Five one-shot specials. A four-issue tie-in miniseries. And a tanker truck full of blood and guts. Our pissed-off preacher, gun-toting girl Friday, and blood-drinking BFF all converge, where else? Texas. The Alamo, to be precise. And things get both big and small, epic and very, very personal.

Oh, and one poorly written report gets taken out behind the woodshed and shot the fuck up.

So AJ, mi compadre, what did you think of the grand finale?

AJ: Where to begin? Perhaps it’s best to start with my one sizable complaint before moving on to everything that worked so, so well here. Last week, we talked about the watering-down of Herr Starr, of how even though he’s the series’ ostensible antagonist, his misadventures have often been treated as comic relief. Maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but I completely failed to realize that taking revenge on Jesse had supplanted bringing about Armageddon as his goal in life. So when he announced his plans to the Elite Council, I was just as confused as they were (luckily, I didn’t get murdered right after). I feel like a discussion of Starr as the series’ Big Bad could take up its own post, so I’ll just say that though I loved the vast majority of what we ended up getting, I can’t imagine what an epic ending Armageddon could have provided.

Paul: “Starr– no– DON’T– You kill the Grail– you damn the world– this is about mankind’s salvation…” “This is about my genitals. Go on to extinction, holy men.”

If you ever revisit the series, I think you’ll notice him growing progressively more and more obsessed with Jesse as each issue goes on. I don’t think it was a cheat or a cop-out in the end…but I definitely agree that he loses virtually all of his threat and gravitas by the end.

AJ: Yeah, I was wondering if it would play out better on a re-read. That’s good to hear, because though he provided a number of memorable moments, Starr is one of the most problematic aspects of the series for me right now.

So. That’s out of the way. I have to say that most everything else was extremely satisfying. Everything comes to a head at the Alamo, a fitting final destination on Ennis and Dillon’s tour of America. At the beginning, we get an homage to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, et al. It includes this bit of narration: “Are heroes nothing more than desperate men?” This is a question that could be held up to both Jesse, our righteous cowboy, and Cassidy, who proves himself a hero after all. What has driven their actions? Certainly not nobility. It’s been a desperate scramble to understand their place in this world and to hold God accountable for what he’s done to creation. Here, everything comes to its end, but not before more pain and bloodshed.

Let’s talk about the very stupid thing that Jesse does.

Paul: I told you he’d do something stupid. After promising to trust her and not run out on her again, he goes so far as to drug Tulip so he can slip away and commit suicide. As before, I completely understand why he does it, particularly this time, given that he knew it was a one-way trip. But still, I also understand Tulip’s anger when she wakes up.

AJ: You think you’ve made progress, that things have changed for the better. But sometimes, when you’re Jesse, your sense of macho manliness just gets in the way and fucks things up. Was it ultimately the right decision? Given how the action plays out…maybe. But it was still a massive breach of the trust he and Tulip had built up. The scene where he drugs her is fairly disturbing. The water bottle is in the foreground, so it’s obvious that he’s drugged her; but their silhouettes could be taken a completely different way. It almost looks like he’s strangling her.

Paul: Oh, yeah. I’d never seen it that way before. Disturbing indeed. How about we mention a much less disturbing Jesse moment from a bit earlier in the book: “Hoover, listen to me. If it truly hurts that much– Just forget it.

Among my favorite moments in the entire series.

AJ: Early on, Jesse abused the Word a couple times; I don’t think he understood the implications of Sheriff Root fucking himself, nor did he understand the severity of forcing Hoover to count three million grains of sand. For him to apologize when Hoover comes to exact revenge (something Hoover is far too decent to ever go through with), and to allow Hoover to forget it, is a huge moment for Jesse. Of course, he does drug Tulip, but hey, one step forward, one step back.

Paul: True. Jesse is, if nothing else, a morally complex protagonist.

AJ: Speaking of huge moments…Jesse and Cassidy meet up at Hondo’s and have the conversation/fight of their lives.

Paul: That was the epic and the personal. In terms of cinematic moments in this series, the final Jesse/Cassidy “showdown” is the emotional equivalent of the bomb in Monument Valley.

AJ: Good call.

The conversation at Hondo’s is essentially a dressing-down of Cassidy, as he and Jesse go over all of the sins he’s committed. Jesse is prickly throughout as Cassidy discusses second chances and how you can’t go around feeling damned all the time, no matter what you’ve done. It’s powerful stuff, and you can understand both points of view. Cassidy’s arguments are largely understandable–his business with Tulip is pretty indefensible, though there is the matter of the curse from way back in Dixie Fried–but as Jesse says, “Way you make it sound, you had alla that done to you. ‘Steada you bein’ the one that did it.” Not even Cassidy can argue with that. He acts the victim, but he’s not nearly as much of one as he thinks he is.

Paul: Can I say something that will doubtless be controversial?

AJ: Do you ever say anything else?

Paul: Point.

I think some of the “hit a woman and be eternally damned to the deepest pits of Hell, never to be forgiven or redeemed” stuff was just the slightest bit over-the-top.

AJ: It’s a very masculine, perhaps stereotypical idea, but given that Preacher has trafficked in the exploration of stereotypical masculine ideas, I buy it. I mean, Cassidy came from a Catholic background before becoming fanged. Do you think he wouldn’t regard hitting a woman as a life sentence to Hell?

Paul: No, I understand it’s part of the language of the series. And I fully appreciate that both characters are all puffed up with manliness (though I think Cass probably adopts a stronger attitude about it in Jesse’s presence). But that whole ideal has always kind of tweaked me just a bit, and it’s blown up out of all proportion here…which is perfectly in keeping with the out of all proportion-ness of this series.

Back to the showdown, though. A lot of dialogue, a lot of judgement and condemnation, and then Cass is left to presumably make his peace with getting his Irish ass handed to him by Jesse the next morning. But that’s not really what happens, is it? Not exactly. Jesse ain’t the only one that can make deals.

AJ: Indeed.

When Jesse says that he wants to beat the shit ouf of Cassidy then never see him again, Cass protests, saying that he’s “as strong as fifty men,” but Jesse doesn’t care. “When the time comes, boy– You better fight like hell.” Then they join one another in knocking out some bar thugs, one last communal act before meeting up at the Alamo for their big showdown.

I adore how, when Jesse strikes the first blow, it’s just a splash page with the Evan S. Connell quote, “…Custer! His name reverberates like the clang of a sword.” That’s the kind of stuff that comics can do that other mediums can’t, really: it freeze-frames the action for as long as the reader wants it to, pairing that quote and the blow in a way that’s, and I’m about to get all hyperbolic here, sublime.

Paul: Well said. I can picture Tarantino trying to capture a uniquely comic book moment like that on film, and perhaps he could pull it off. But this really is the strength of the comics medium. The magical time flow that the series of static images strung together creates.

AJ: Of course, Jesse knocks Cassidy’s sunglasses off, and we finally get to see what’s behind them: some red goddamn eyes. I was kind of hoping for more of a reveal than that, but I’ll take it. “That some kinda side effect, or you just been jerkin’ off the past hundred years?”

Paul: Every time I read this series, I get to that shot and think, “That’s it? His big secret is that he needs Visine?

AJ: Their fight is long and bloody, with Jesse gaining the upper hand almost immediately. The way it plays out, we’re supposed to believe that even though Jesse isn’t nearly as physically strong as Cass is, he actually knows how to fight and Cassidy doesn’t: “Fella taught me to fight was the same piece of shit shot my daddy dead in fronta my eyes. That’ll tend to focus your concentration.”

Of course, that’s not really what’s happening. The fight gets to a very emotional place, where Jesse begins beating down on Cassidy, “Goddamn you!! You asshole!! WHY THE FUCK DID YOU LET ME DOWN SO BAD!!!” In return, Cassidy shouts that he needs help and that sometimes you need to stand by your friends even if they are on the road to Hell. He gets Jesse to take his hand…then uses his free hand for a sucker punch, breaking Jesse’s breastbone.

Paul: As Jesse and Cass work out their UST, they’re being watched. Starr and his posse are perched on rooftops around them, waiting to take Jesse out with sniper fire. But Starr, ever the sadist, wants to enjoy the spectacle of “[t]wo good and dear friends … fighting like animals. Trading love and honor and respect for hatred. Throwing every cherished moment of their friendship down the toilet.”

He’s secretly a really sweet guy.

And he unceremoniously takes out two of his pathetic, pitiable underlings, Featherstone and poor, poor Hoover. But at least Hoover finally says “motherfucker.”

AJ: Those poor kids. Featherstone finally has a moment of clarity when she realizes that Starr could never be the savior she wants to love and tries to take him out, but Starr’s too quick for her. Then Hoover tries to avenge Featherstone’s death, only to be put down just as quickly. But yeah, at least he says “motherfucker.”

Paul: Then we get to Jesse begging Cassidy not to walk into the sun, his desperation and fear and pain at the thought of it ending like this…*sniff*

But I’ve wondered why he wouldn’t just use the Word to command Cass to stop. Could he not because his chest was caved in? Was he just to panicked to do it? Was God preventing it? (Don’t think it’s the last one.)

AJ: I’m leaning toward him being too panic-stricken to think to use the Word, but maybe he realized it wasn’t his decision to make? That’s totally just speculation, though. I don’t know how well that gibes with Jesse’s characterization.

Paul: “Hello there. Yeh big blonde bitch.”

And with that…Starr orders one of his men to shoot Jesse, and no more Genesis. Then everybody starts shooting everybody else.

AJ: I really like that Tulip is the one who caps Starr. As we talked about last week, she is in many ways the one who grounds the series, and it seems only right that she would arrive on the scene without the knowledge of either of our male heroes to assassinate Starr. Her whole adventure sneaking around Starr’s forces is brilliant, the moment when she blows his brains out triumphant. Starr killed Jesse and Tulip killed Starr. Of course, her discovery of Jesse’s body is heartbreaking.

“And that was how they killed him, covered in the ashes of his dearest friend.”

Paul: And I originally read this as it came out, issue by issue, month by month. Had to wait 30 days to see what happened next.

AJ: I really thought he was dead, done for, never to live again. The fact that the final issue opens up with solemn quotes from Larry McMurtry, The Cowboy’s Lament, and Bill Hicks, followed by a two-page spread of the letter Jesse wrote to Tulip after he drugged her, reinforced that idea even more. Ennis allows you a little period of mourning.

Paul: “And so of course he came back to life, just as she had–and just as she had, he felt…”

“Less.”

AJ: It was a shock to see Jesse without that eyepatch. I had really grown accustomed to it. Anyway, Jesse’s back, but Genesis didn’t come back with him. He doesn’t have the Word and he has no idea how things ended up with God or the Saint of Killers (we didn’t mention the issue where Jesse recruits the Saint, which I thought was pretty damn powerful). And that’s how he ends the story; he truly has no idea how anything ended up in the greater scheme of things or why he’s alive. After all of this, those things weren’t for him to know; what matters is what he took from the journey, and what he does with what he’s learned.

Paul: I confess it took me a couple of readings originally to truly appreciate that end to Jesse’s journey. What ultimately happens, the way things end, it’s all due to Jesse’s actions, to the pendulum he began swinging. But it’s a bittersweet end in that he doesn’t have any idea how all of his sacrifices have changed the world, the universe, all of creation.

Plus, he ends the series believing Cassidy is still dead.

AJ: Tulip understandably wants nothing to do with Jesse, given that he’s now betrayed her trust the same way twice. But Jesse has a realization: that what would truly render everything he’s gone through pointless is to not try and go after her. So he rides up to her car on horseback, as grand a romantic gesture as this series has seen. And he convinces her that even though it makes no sense for them to be together, it makes even less sense for them not to be together. “Now take my hand an’ I swear I’ll love you ’til the goddamn stars go out.” And then..then, Jesse Custer cries.

Paul: The final three images of the entire thing, after everything…

1) Jesse and Tulip riding into the sunset (with Skeeter.)

2) The Saint sinking into his final rest on the Throne of Heaven.

3) A human Cassidy, sans sunglasses, riding off into the night, deciding to act like a man.

Oh, and of course the old snapshot of our heroes back in better times.

AJ: Perfect. They’re all perfect.

I’ve mentioned before that Preacher rarely uses two-page spreads, so when it does, they feel big. We get two in a row in the final issue, as Jesse and Tulip ride into the sunset. I don’t know if this was intentional, or if you’ve ever noticed it, but in the last spread of Jesse and Tulip, the way they’re positioned in silhouette, it looks like they’re one person. Tulip’s hair actually makes it look like Davy Crockett riding off wearing his coonskin cap. With the empty horizon ahead of them, it’s a very Old West-style finish.

Paul: Well well, nice catch.

AJ: I am clearly the silhouette whisperer.

I can’t imagine a better final scene. Cassidy, having made a deal with God to rid the world of Genesis only if both he and Jesse can live, watches the sunset. Then he throws away his sunglasses. “I think yeh were right, Jesse. I think I’ll try actin’ like a man.” It feels right, oddly enough, that our cocksure hero doesn’t get to know how everything ends up but that our other hero, the one whose flaws were painted in a much more negative light almost to the point of being looked at as a villain, is the one who ensured that everything turned out all right.

Paul: I’ve spent years comparing Cassidy to Spike. What say you?

AJ: Oh, absolutely. I absolutely, completely agree. Both were punks hiding sensitive sides. Both were accused at various points of being evil, soulless things. Both burned up in the sun to make sure that the person they loved would survive. Both desperately wanted to be “real” men. They both achieved it. They are also both the best characters in their respective sagas.

Paul: Amen, brotha.

We could certainly discuss the ultimate journey of our heroes in more detail, but we’ve skipped over one other character’s wrap-up entirely. How do you feel about the complete story of Arseface?

AJ: The complete story of Arseface is…a thing? That happened? That’s giving it too little credit, as there was some great stuff to be mined from his journey, but it’s hard to reconcile as a whole. As we’ve pointed out before, he’s a commentary on infatuation with shallow media stars, but I’m not entirely sure what could be gleaned from his arc overall. That whole bit with the arsefaced paradise back in War in the Sun seems especially pointless right now. I’m at least glad that his story brought us back to Salvation, where we see that Christina’s still alive and well, that Cindy is still sheriff, that Hector can now make jokes about the crackers in town, and that Odin Quincannon’s benevolent brother Conan came to save the day. And Arseface ends up with Lorie! I totally called the moment where she sees him as if he’s Luke Perry, but it was still sweet.

Paul: Yeeeeeeeah. There you have it. I’ve wondered before if it would have been a more compelling or interesting story if it had stood on its own and not been part of this particular series. As it is, though there were some thematic connections, it really just doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant to anything.

AJ: Before we start wrapping everything up, the last major character I want to discuss is the Saint of Killers. Here, he effectively becomes God. God returns home, boastful of how loving he is, blah blah blah, and there’s the Saint standing in front of his throne, surrounded by the corpses of murdered angels. “You.” “Me.” Fuck yes. I think creation now has a ruler who’s not going to fuck it over.

Paul: Does it? I’ve read his fate two completely different ways at various revisits. Either he takes the Throne and, in effect, becomes Lord of Creation. Or he kills God and so finally earns the eternal rest he’s craved, sinking into the Throne to die himself.

What’s your reading of it?

AJ: I was thinking that he would automatically become a god of sorts, but perhaps your second reading is correct. I like that better, actually. Not only does he earn his eternal rest, humanity can now act without the self-righteous leader it doesn’t need. Looking at it like that, it seems a very Preacher sentiment.

Paul: At this particular moment, that’s my reading of it. It will probably change the next time I re-read it.

AJ: Any final thoughts on the series? Anything you want to say before we earn our eternal rest?

Paul: Well, there was that business of me teasing my ideal dream cast for the film (or better yet HBO series) version, should it ever happen. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

AJ: I knew you’d ask me something along those lines. I really have no idea who I’d want to see play Jesse Custer in a film or TV series. I almost feel like it’s one of those parts that only an unknown could knock out of the park. Of course, I believe you have different ideas…

Paul Smith: Indeed. (That’s a hint.)

My absolute, unconditional, accept-no-substitutes must-have is…

Walton Goggins as Jesse Custer!

I also think Katee Sackhoff could play Tulip O’Hare, and Michael Fassbender would make a killer Cassidy. Everyone and their dog thinks only Colin Farrell should play Cassidy, but that’s too obvious.

And of course only Clint motherfucking Eastwood could ever play the Saint of Killers. (Though I’ve heard both Sam Elliott and Ron Pearlman suggested.)

AJ: Dude, Sackhoff and Fassbender. Great, great choices. I like Farrell quite a bit, especially in things like In Bruges, but I think you’re right, that’s too obvious. Of course, obviousness only helps the choice of Eastwood. He really is the only one who could embody the Saint of Killers, the Spirit of the West himself.

As for Goggins, I think he’s a great actor, but I’m almost exclusively familiar with him as Detective Shane Vendrell on The Shield, where he played a dirty cop. It’s a brilliant performance, and Shane is one of my favorite characters on that show, but I don’t really see him as Jesse. At least not yet; I still haven’t watched past the pilot episode of Justified (soon, Paul!).

Paul: His performance (and look) on Justified is what sold me on this idea.

So, I think we both may have some words to say about Glenn Fabry?

AJ: One of the series’ unsung heroes. His covers, photorealistic but grotesque and sometimes surreal, set the mood for each issue. He’s done beautiful work throughout–the Tulip cover in Salvation is one of the prettiest things mine eyes have ever seen–but he outdid himself for this final run. His covers for most of the issues collected in this volume are giant close-ups of the cast accentuated with small details about their current place in the story. And the cover to the last issue, a Spaghetti Western shot of the Saint’s holster as angels come flying at him, is a thing of beauty. These are some of the best covers I’ve ever seen.

Paul: Over the years, I’ve seen a few of the Fabry covers presented as full-size posters, but it’s been a while. Just about any of them would be awesome, but the ones in this collection are particularly beautiful. And you called it, the final one, pistol vs. Heavenly Host is made of win.

AJ: You know what? I…I think we’re done. Paul, I want to thank you for suggesting this for my second (and your first) Four-Color Flashback installment. And of course, we must thank Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon for giving us something to pore over and analyze that was also really damn entertaining. Preacher is not a perfect series, but then, I wouldn’t want it to be. Its flaws and imperfections make it what it is: a gleefully profane, gloriously bloody, occasionally silly, and very emotional story of a man coming to terms with his country and himself.

Paul: Can we rest now, Jesse? Can we rest?

AJ: I’d also like to thank anyone who took this journey with us or will take it with us in the future (hello from the past, future people!). We’ve got some ideas up our sleeves as to what the next installment will be; stay tuned. For now, we’re saddling up and riding into the sunset. Where, hopefully, neither of us will burn to a cinder.

It was the time of the preacher in the year of oh one
Now the preachin’ is over and the lesson’s begun

– Willie Nelson, “Time of the Preacher”

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