To lay my bias on the table right off the bat, I believe Preacher is the best series Vertigo has published.
Some might argue for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, IGN puts it at #3 on their list of the best Vertigo titles (behind the Sandman and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, which was grandfathered into the Vertigo line). But for my fist full of dollars, it is Preacher, hands down.
“Now the preachin’ is over
And the lesson’s begun.”
–Willie Nelson/Drunk Jesse Custer
Jesse Custer was meant to be a cowboy. But the dark forces in his life put him on the path of the preacher. Until one day, he escaped and fell in love with Tulip O’Hare. Unfortunately, their relationship is short lived, as Jesse is pulled back into the darkness of God’s love and forced to abandon Tulip, who is devastated, ignorant of Jesse’s reasons. For five years, Jesse is broken, serving as the preacher in Annville, TX, which is populated by Middle-American white trash. But finally, salvation comes in the form of Genesis, a half-angel, half-demon “comet with the face of a baby.” Bound at the soul to the all-powerful entity, Jesse is joined by Cassidy, the Irish Vampire, and reunited with Tulip. Together, they set off on a quest to have God confess his sins to humanity.
Preacher is a dissection of manhood, in the wake of the American Cowboy. Ennis presents men who are forged in service of something greater than themselves. From Cassidy self-destruction in search of the next good time to Arseface blowing off his face because of Kurt Cobain to the slow mutilation of Herr Starr as a consequence of his terrible deeds, the men of this book are defined by what they do, often physically if not metaphorically.
The women of Preacher are often time stronger than the men. Christina Custer not only survives the attempt on her life, but builds a completely new life afterwards. Deputy Cindy Dagget is the force that keeps Jesse honest as he clears out Salvation, TX, eventually becoming the Sheriff herself. And the series’ most horrific villain is Miss Marie L’Angelle, an impressive feat considering the scum and filth that Team Preacher comes across.
But all these women’s strength pale in comparison to Tulip O’Hare. One of her most defining moments is also T.C.’s final one. His brains dribbling out of his nose and a shotgun in his face, T.C. becomes every little boy who said girls can’t play with guns. Tulip shouts in his face.
“Do you remember when we first met, T.C.? Do you remember what you called me?
Well, the cooze does have a name. It’s Tulip.”
Tulip, for all intents and purposes, is the most normal of the main characters. Cassidy is a vampire and even if Jesse wasn’t powered by Genesis, his past might as well be the twisted prequel to Deliverance. Tulip doesn’t have any of that, which is what makes her the strongest, a point that Ennis is all too aware of throughout the series. Whenever we are given a chance to see the story from Tulip’s perspective, we see a woman of incredible strength.
When Jesse tells the story of how they first met, it is of Tulip being drawn to Jesse; instant attraction, a magnetic pull from Jesse that Tulip could not ignore. But when we see the story from Tulip’s side in issue 52, she took Jesse. Not only that, she also straight beat the hell out of Zoe, Jesse’s previous date.
The heroine of the story, continually mistreated as a damsel in distress by Jesse and the other male cast, is the one who lays waste to the elite Samson team and ultimately, Herr Starr himself, blowing his load all over the rooftop.
Herr Starr is the classic Western villain. By that I mean, he is a bad man with the law on his side. In fact, it is the ultimate Law, as he leads the Grail, the protectors of Christ’s bloodline. Here is a man who acknowledges that he is a monster, this story’s villain. Though, unlike the villains John Wayne and Clint Eastwood face, Starr is literally a dick head. Starr is initially driven to save the world, however inhumane his methods. Then, over the course of the series, he is slowly taken apart until he loses his genitals and pees out of a tube.
“GAZE ON THE FACE OF WAR!!”
– Herr Starr (Re: His Pee Tube)
Preacher is a deep look into modern manhood. Decorated in the motifs of an old Western with shades of war movies, the series deconstructs the masculine identity of the heroes portrayed by John Wayne. Both in person and in spirit, the shadow of Wayne hangs heavy over Preacher. Towards the end of the series, Jesse even looks like a young version of Rooster, John Wayne’s classic hero from True Grit, the first Wayne film Jesse saw.
The spirit of The Duke appears to Jesse a few years before the death of the real John Wayne (but right after the death of John Custer). His origins, whether or not he even IS John Wayne, are never explained; he acts as Jesse’s spiritual advisor, an embodiment of the kind of man John Custer told his son to be.
“You gotta be one of the good guys, son; ‘cause there’s way too many of the bad.”
– John Custer
But ultimately, Jesse Custer, and Ennis by extension, rejects the notions of manhood that John Wayne embodied. In one of the series most poignant moments, The Duke leaves Jesse. It’s the end of the adventure and he is just a “…broke-down, wore-out ol’ cowboy…” It is no longer his time, the world needs a new kind of man, especially for the new kind of woman.
“Where does all that macho bullshit really get you, Jesse?”
Gone are the times where a man can just take a woman; only the cowboy hero can act on his passions. But in Preacher, Jesse Custer has to fight for Tulip and give up the final piece of John Wayne machismo: the vow he made the day his father was killed. Jesse’s mark of transformation is when he cries for Tulip during the final few pages. His love for Tulip is stronger than true grit.
At the center of Preacher, deeper than the profanity, blasphemy, and excess, is a beautiful love story. Ain’t never been two people more meant for each other than Tulip and Jesse, a love that transcended both of their deaths and resurrections.
They are reunited by the explosive arrival of Genesis, through their first encounter with the Saint; surviving the Reaver Cleaver, only for Tulip to die by Jody’s hand and be resurrected by God’s. It is only after all of that, on the final page of issue 12 as Jesse’s horrific past burns to the ground, he and Tulip kiss for the first time in the series. Make no mistake, this is a romance story.
There is a tendency for the series to be misremembered as some crude, horror-comedy series that aimed to be obscene over insightful.
Readers focus on the sexual perversion of Odin Quincannon (who made love to a meat woman), but miss the heartbreaking reunion between Jesse and his mother, Christina, previously thought dead. The Grail gives us a horrific parade of monsters, but also the sad tragedies that are the lives of Featherstone and Hoover. Ennis even makes the word “motherfucker” heartbreaking, as Hoover finally swears after Featherstone is murdered by Starr.
But to be lost in the deviant underbelly that Preacher inhabits means missing the big, beating heart at its center.
“Isn’t it funny when you think your story’s going one way,
And it turns out it was going another way all along?”