Friday, April 16, 2010

Comics: Preacher (*/****)

Title: Preacher
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Dillon
Letterer: Clem Robins
Colorists: Matt Hollingsworth and Pamela Rambo

I have spent the last three weeks plodding through the Preacher series - or, well, I spent one week plodding through a few issues, one week skimming the rest, and the last one trying to decide what the hell I was going to say about it.

After much thought, my feelings can be summarized as such: no seriously, can we just pack all the main characters (and most of the minor ones, too) into a crate and drop a nuke on them? Never have I ever read so much of a story in which I not only didn't care about the supposed protagonists, I came to actively dislike them as the story progressed. The only one of 'em worth a damn was Cassidy, and look how that turned out.

The technical specs can't be blamed: Dillon occasionally wrestles with the dreaded Same Face Syndrome -- he's overly fond of furrowed brows, all of the lawmen have the same squinty-eyed sneer, and Lori is Tulip with one eye -- but other than that his work is solid. Letterist Clem Robins was excellent, and the comic looks pretty damn gorgeous. The story and the characters are another matter.

The first time we meet Reverend Jesse Custer, he's drunkenly staggering through town, insulting members of his flock before collapsing in a pool of his own vomit. Throughout the series he's shown to be extremely violent, breaking limbs and permanently disfiguring people with little provocation. Early on, Custer gets possessed by an angel/demon hybrid called Genesis; when he questions an errant angel about why, the angel admits that they don't know anything because God has left His post in Heaven. Which...causes Jesse to basically declare war on God. And that's our hero.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for an anti-hero marathon of epic proportions. It's just that Ennis then inserts The Hero into the narrative: John Wayne, the anti-anti-hero, appears as Jesse's spiritual advisor. It's unclear whether he's a stand-in for the spirit possessing Jesse, a representation of Jesse's murdered father, or some other kind of manifestation. I think we're supposed to look at Jesse as a new John Wayne -- he even rides off into the sunset with a girl on a horse at the end -- but the juxtaposition between them has the opposite effect. Jesse's swift decision to blame God makes very little sense at that point in the narrative, and doesn't until much, much later when his super-religious, batshit-crazy family appears. And then it comes across as the psychopathic flailings of an abuse-twisted soul, acting out against his abusers and their belief system.

Of course then the series goes on to justify Jesse's vendetta against God, turning the Almighty into a love-needy kid with an ant farm, poking us tunnels or burning us with a magnifying glass at His whim. Which, again: could have been a compelling and interesting story. But by then, Ennis had lost me. Through his possession Jesse winds up with powers that rival God's, and he wields them just as haphazardly, with as little regard for consequences.

If this is our alternative to both God and The Duke, then we're screwed.

I do give Preacher credit for a few things, most notably the character of Tulip O'Hare, Jesse's gun-toting girlfriend. Tulip is a crack shot, can hold her own in a fight, and rails against Jesse's old-fashioned chivalry, particularly when he tries to leave her behind for her own protection. Tulip has a startling amount of agency for a female comic book character, let alone one in a psuedo-Western, and the series never punishes her for her independence, abilities, or her healthy sexuality. Jesse even refrains from the temptation of using his mind-whammy abilities for sexual favors from Tulip, a moral stance that I commend Ennis for taking; tragically few male writers would have recognized that as outright rape. Preacher has several other strong female characters and manages to pass the Bechdel Test on occasion. The series also takes on racism, particularly in the "Salvation" arc, and manages to condemn it without coming across as, ahem, preachy. It acknowledges that there are degrees to prejudice, while never excusing it in any form. Deputy Cindy Dagget, Jesse's ally in Salvation, looks a bit like Grace Jones and is full boss; I woulda read a whole series based on her.

I wish I could say that this precious bloom of progressive thought extends to all parts of the comic. Unfortunately, Ennis' slavvish devotion to the Western ideal of masculinity and to the good ole boy friendship between Jesse and Cassidy, an Irish vampire, translates into bountiful amounts of homophobia. "Faggots" abound; John Wayne even gets one in when Jesse's having a crisis of the soul. In one issue a tough-ass cop takes on New York City's toughest criminals with ruthless effeciency, until he figures out that he's a repressed homosexual. Then he quits the force, despite being well-respected and universally admired by his peers, because obviously faggots can't be cops.

Somewhere, John Cooper of the tv show Southland is rolling his eyes so hard and doesn't even know why.

Despite all my misgivings, I kept trying to slog through the series. I really shouldn't have -- just thinking about the pages of violence and gore leave me with a queasy stomach. And this is a girl who loves zombie movies. It's my firm belief, though, that violence should serve a purpose in a narrative; otherwise I might as well watch an autopsy video. Considered by some to be the bloodiest comic ever, the violence in Preacher is plentiful, lovingly detailed, and utterly ridiculous. Bullets blow massive holes in their targets, faces are cut off, and horses are cut in half with a band saw. Volume 4: Ancient History is literally page after page of gruesome killings. It was like reading the script for a three-hour long snuff film.

And what did I get at the end of all that slogging? What slam-bang ending awaited my long-suffering readership? A completely pointless climax and a quite-literal deus ex machina. Jessie's possession by Genesis amounts to exactly nothing, he sacrifices himself but is immediately revived for a happy ending, and God is killed because -- oh, who knows. After all that sound and fury, Preacher had nothing even resembling a point. I calmly and firmly set the book aside.

There's still a dent where it hit the wall.

The nine volumes sat on my living room floor for a week while I pondered how to qualify my distaste for a such a universally-acclaimed series, until my buddy Charles dropped by to visit. Prodding the pile of slick tradebacks with his foot, Friend Charles correctly picked up volume 1 based solely on the cover (so pat yourself on the back, cover artist Glenn Fabry) and started to read the first few pages. And dear readers, cleans the palatte like an ironic audio rendition. All of the angels (whom Friend Charles identified as James Maynard Keenan fans) suddenly had the twangy Southern accents while Jesse and his friends developed posh British dialects, complete with interjections of "I say!"

The reading left me in stitches, but it also helped me get a handle on what bugs me the most about the Preacher series: if it's meant to be a top-to-bottom examination of "America" (the idea, not the reality), then Ennis seems to believe, like Sarah Palin, that the True America is small-town and Southern - not those big-city intellectual Commie faggots. (Curious, as Ennis himself hails from Northern Ireland. I would speculate that underneath all the xenophobic Americana mystique is a critical satire of said mystique, but that's probably too complex a read for the material.) Perhaps this attitude was avante garde when Ennis wrote the series in the politically-correct, Clinton-era 90's; these days, though, the idea of ultra-violent vigilante Southern justice makes one's head spin with images of bloodthirsty Teabaggers.

Now obviously Ennis can't be held responsible for predicting where the culture wars would lead us in a post-boom, post-9/11, "post-racism" world. But the fact remains: 10 years after he completed the series, the American mystique ain't what it used to be, Pilgrim, and neither is Preacher.

1 comment:

  1. First of all - LOLZ.
    Second, I got here by accident, read the first few lines out of boredom, then quickly read the whole thing in one go, came up gasping for air, and re-read. good on you for the critique (for the most part i agree), and kudos for the articulation.