The “Preacher” Book Review

October 21, 2008

“Preacher” is not an easy story for most people. It’s offensive and vile at times. The British comic scribe Garth Ennis writes it, and Ennis as a writer is cocky, sarcastic and rebellious, and he’s built a career on pushing ideas to their point-of-tension…the shock ending, the curve-ball twist, the sudden eruption of shock and gore are all somewhat common comic techniques today, but Ennis played such methods in original and ground breaking ways. Many great and newer comic writers owe Ennis credit for being the inspiration for their work. Ennis has attempted many times to shock and thrill readers on the surface while expressing much deeper and realer underlying meanings, themes and emotions. “Preacher” is the moment when Ennis nails his style most effectively. His work also tends to be best when his writing is partnered with the art of Steve Dillon, and Dillon pencils the entire series. Dillon’s art isn’t flashy–it’s straightforward and basic, yet compelling and effective. His characters look real and un-exaggerated. He brilliantly conveys Ennis’s intentions, and does what many artists often fail to do; he gives each character a unique and defined appearance and allows their facial expressions to convey their emotions accurately. To top it all off, artist Glen Fabry graces each issue with a cover of his original work. Fabry’s art is grotesquely beautiful. His pencils and paints look like classic Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s prose sounds–macabre and ugly yet oddly graceful and pretty at the same time. Lucky for readers, each cover is reprinted in the trades, placed before each issue is that issue’s respective cover. Speaking of the trades, “Preacher” works well in collected form. The entire 66 issue run (plus all of the one-shot specials) are collected in a 9 volume set. Each individual comic works as a chapter, each volume collects a full storyline, and the overall tale sprawls out over the entire 9 volume set.
“Preacher” focuses on Jesse Custer, his ex-assassin girlfriend Tulip and their new friend Cassidy a vampire that’s overly fond of alcohol. Jessie is on his way to find God in a very literal sense of the phrase. God has abandoned his post in Heaven, and as such no one is watching over the world and things are getting progressively worse. Custer plans to track down God and persuade him to resume his post and heavenly duties in Heaven.
I suppose it’s a very secular humanist type of philosophy coming through in Preacher. Most religions hold that ultimately our strength, drive and purpose come from God. Frankly, many people do what good they do in their lives because of their faith in God. In the world of “Preacher” that reason and source is removed– God exists, but in a form that has rejected the real role of God.
Despite the negative factors, this isn’t a faithless or nihilistic story. Social and Religious institutions are broken down. Custer and Tulip have no faith in the church, the government, their family or modern American society. They don’t trust most of those that cross their path, and a betrayal or two down the road shake them even more. But Jesse and Tulip love each other deeply and spiritually. The faith they lose in all that surrounds them is reinvested in each other. Their love for each other, physically, emotionally and spiritually helps them survive through the weirdest and worst types of scenarios. At times this love manifests itself in metaphysical and miraculous ways.
And there’s also great strength of character on display. Jesse is driven, dedicated and strongly believes in taking responsibility for his actions, doing his job and keeping his word. He’s a proud Texan, believes in American ideals, freedom of speech, equality and choice. He’s a chain-smoking Clint Eastwood Archetype, but he owes just as much to his briefly mentioned idol, late Texas comedian Bill Hicks– not for his sense of humor, but for the way he carries himself and speaks what he knows to be truth.
I think the early volumes are the best; volume 1, “Gone to Texas,” is such a strong start. It introduces the central characters, lays out the basic plot, and everything seems so wild and unpredictable that a complete air of mystery hangs over all of it causing you to wonder where this story will possibly go. Volume 2, “Until the End of Time,” is my personal favorite part of the series. We meet Jessie Custer’s family and see what made him, and it’s completely terrifying. It’s while reading this volume you really see that this story is going to lead to totally unexpected places. In many comic review articles it’s volume 3 that earns top ranking, “Proud Americans.” As Ennis pens a detailed history of the Church and it’s multiple-centuries long conspiracy and true mission…well, the church leader and the Christ descendant will be what make you abandon this series as offensive if you are going to at any time. If you can make it through that, nothing until the last page of volume 9 will truly shock you. Well, except for a scene in which a Marquis de Sade character may or may not be eating Chocolate ice cream…
“Preacher” can only be enjoyed by those of us with a strong interest in religion and spirituality if we just shrug and take it for what it is–shock value and over the top entertainment. The “God” and his followers in this story are not the real God and his true followers, they’re merely intentionally offensive fictional characters created by a brilliant writer to express very real and satisfying concepts, but more importantly they’re just trappings used to tell a great, shocking, wild action story that deals with literally EVERYTHING on an epic scale.
It’s funny, because “Preacher” seems to be interpreted by everyone to fit their own needs. Kevin Smith in his guest introduction to volume 1 says it reaffirms his Catholic faith. Penn Jillete in his guest intro to volume 3 says it re-affirms his vehement atheism and states that his only fear is that someday someone will unearth a copy of Preacher and mistake what was meant to be a fun and exciting fictional story for a holy book and start a religion (a claim he makes for the original Bible).
So pick it up if it sounds like something you can dig. I think that after reading this review you know enough to decide whether this book is for you or not. If you like Ennis and Dillon, try their run on Marvel Max’s “The Punisher,” which is as mainstream as Ennis gets yet still very provocative. Try the current Ennis series, “The Boys” which aims to completely deconstruct superhero comics a bit more crudely than Watchmen, or “Crossed” which Ennis claims to be his most over-the-top work yet.

(Note: The illustration at the top of this article isn’t by “Preacher” cover artist Glen Fabry or interior artist Steve Dillon, I just liked it an had never seen it before. Below is the cover of volume I, illustrated by Fabry.)



2 Responses to “The “Preacher” Book Review”

  1. Alissa said

    You have me convinced – I’m going to the comic book shop on Monday and buying the first volume. 🙂

  2. […] religious parallels can be found in the work of Gaiman, Moore, Ennis, and the like– read my Preacher book review for a stab at that. No, this is continuity-traversing, in-universe superhero comics […]

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