“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
An angel from heaven and a demon from hell share a moment of celestial passion that produces an entity—an idea—called Genesis that is so powerful it could challenge the Almighty himself. Kept incarcerated in heaven, this creature finally breaks free and heads screaming to Earth, decapitating a seraph on the way down. Looking for a human soul, it slams into a preacher in the middle of a crisis of faith, giving his Sunday sermon in a backwater town in the wastes of Texas. The impact obliterates the church, incinerates the parishioners, but leaves the preacher unharmed and with the power of the word of God. This sequence of events sets in motion Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s epic series Preacher.
Preacher was one of the landmark comic titles in the late 90’s and there are reports that it’s going have its own television series on AMC written/produced by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. The comic has been broken down into nine trade paperbacks and in this article I’m going to take a look at volume 1, “Gone to Texas”.
“Gone to Texas” includes the first two story arcs of the series and as such is a book bipolar in nature. The first arc is a masterpiece in storytelling. It has an engrossing premise and incredibly rich and dynamic characters. It brilliantly builds the story and characters on each page, driving the plot forward and keeping the reader focused, almost unable to escape the world Ennis and Dillon have constructed. The second arc is almost nothing like the first. The main thrust of the story takes a detour and grinds it to a near halt. It doesn’t seem to add anything new or interesting and seems to rely on shock rather than clever plotting to keep the reader’s interested. In the end it becomes a page turner only in the sense that I just wanted to get this part of the story over with and get back on track.
“Gone to Texas” starts in the mid 90’s with three people sitting at a typical truck stop diner somewhere in Texas. These three seemingly unremarkable, yet colorful characters are sitting in a booth having a conversation that seems more fitting in a Bible study than in a diner with a Willie Nelson playing the background. Appropriately enough, it’s Nelson’s song “Time of the Preacher.”* The trio is talking about where they can find God himself on Earth. The whole arc is told through flashbacks as the characters come to grips and recap the bizarre events that have lead them to this little diner on the side of the road.
The main protagonist is Jesse Custer, the preacher of Preacher. One night in the middle of a bottle of Jack Daniels and a crisis of faith he enters the popular local watering hole and dishes out the secrets of everyone in the bar. This earns him a pool cue to the back of the head, and the next day at church the whole town shows up to see what crazy thing Custer will do next. Just at that moment Genesis, finally escaped from his celestial prison, comes bursting through the doors and merges with Jesse, roasting the church and everyone else in it. Jesse is seemingly unharmed and is pulled from the rubble by his long estranged girl friend Tulip and a wise cracking Irishman named Cassidy, a shades wearing, smart ass who is later discovered to be a fangless vampire, both of whom are on the run after a hit that Tulip tried to carry out didn’t go so well.
Jesse soon finds out that if he speaks with enough of his will behind it, his commands are followed to the letter. To everyone who hears it, it sounds like the “Word of God.” Together these three make up the core cast of the story.
Ennis carefully unpacks his world as he introduces the rest of the cast. These characters stand out starkly against the gritty backdrop of 90’s Texas. Some are more heavenly, like the Adelphi, worker bee angels trying desperately to do damage control after the escape of Genesis, and the Seraphim, the thug boss angels of heaven. Others are more terrestrial, like the immortal and nearly indestructible Saint of Killers. He looks like the heavy from every western movie ever made and is heaven’s ultimate hit man. There are also wonderfully colorful characters like Aresface, a young man who survived a suicide attempt with a shotgun, and his outrageously racist and conspiratorial father Sheriff Root. Even the Duke, John Wayne himself, makes appearances as Jesse’s conscience.
Much like Wayne’s character from the great John Ford film “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” Ennis’ John Wayne frequently uses the word “pilgrim.” I found this connection significant because “The Man who shot Liberty Valance” was director John Ford’s most anti-John Ford Western. In it Ford turns on its head all the motifs and clichés he has spent creating over the previous two decades in the genre he is credited with defining. Ford took what had been taken for granted in the Western, twisted it and pulled the curtain back. Much the way Ford did with the western, Ennis does the same here with the Judeo-Christian tradition.
There is also, of course, Genesis itself. Little is really told about the creature, referred to as a “new idea” a number of times. It is the offspring of a demon and angel and for some reason merged with Jesse, imbuing him with the “Word of God.” Past that, it is still unclear what other effects it has on Jesse, at least has far as what is explained in volume one.
The plot is even and well paced. Most of this arc is an “on the run” type of story. Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy spend most, if not all, of their time running and hiding from the cops, Sheriff Root, and the Saint of Killers until the final dramatic confrontation in a motel parking lot. It is here that the true nature of the world the trio has been thrown into is revealed. Jesse confronts one of the Adelphi and uses the word of God to force him to tell Jesse that God has, for lack of a better term, quit and is hiding on earth, leaving the Seraphim in charge of heaven and mankind to fend for themselves. The only clue is that, according to the Adelphi, God quit the moment Genesis was born.
The theme of God forsaking man is as old as religion itself and has been tackled many times over. Mark Twain summed up the idea nicely almost a century earlier: “The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that…” Ennis and Dillon bring freshness to this theme both in execution and medium. With the Adelphi’s revelation, Jesse finds his purpose: he is going to hunt down God and make him answer for his abandonment of his creation and mankind.
At the end of the arc there is a nice bit of foreshadowing as four different groups all seemingly with their own agenda are taking stock of the events in Texas. The last panel of the page is a mysterious image of six men either removing or placing a body in a mountainside tomb, with a big boulder. The story arc comes full circle as the trio enters the same diner they started in at the beginning.
After all of that, the second half of “Gone to Texas” seems to violate everything set up in the first half. The trio is still on the run and has chosen to hide in New York City. Cassidy thinks one of his long time friends, a man named Si Coltrane, might have a lead on how to find the hiding Almighty. Si is a journalist who covers the strange and unusual from creepy serial killers to UFO sightings. He is kind of like a beat reporter version of Art Bell, if Art Bell kidnapped people, tortured them, and mailed their squishy bits to their loved ones. (More on that later.)
This arc also adds two new characters in a concurrent–and later converging–story line about the NYPD detectives on the hunt for said serial killer who is chopping up and mailing his victims’ squishy bits. One is Det. John Tool, who narrates much of the story. He is a klutz cop with the worst luck in the world. His partner Det. Paul Bridges is a ”tough, smart, successful,” self-hating, closeted homosexual, super cop.
Unfortunately their story really adds up to little more than filler for much of the book even though it does have its humorous moments. Not much different can be said about the plot of the main trio either. Jesse bonds a bit more with Cassidy and also works on repairing his relationship with Tulip, who is still dying to know why he disappeared five years earlier. However, most of what the trio is doing doesn’t build on anything that was set up in Texas. The Adelphi, the Seraphim, and the Saint of Killers make no appearance. The New York arc concludes with Si’s supposed lead about God turning out to be a front for his cockamamie plan to kill Tulip, Jesse, and the two detectives, all while framing Cassidy for his murders. The plan falls apart when Jesse tells Si to “@!#&ing die” with the word of God and he does! Cassidy departs the trio and Jesse and Tulip must head back south to tie up some loose ends. I was relieved that this arc was over with and hopeful that the story would get back on track in the next book.
What was consistent throughout the book was Garth Ennis’s fantastic dialogue. Ennis has a talent for creating brash, smart ass characters, each with their own unique voice and talent for creative insults. Even with the supernatural and religious theme, the book is grounded by the realistic, deep, multi-layered, and boldly human interactions. It is the intelligence of the writing that gives Preacher its legitimacy. In equal standing with Ennis’s writing is the art of Steve Dillon and Matt Hollingsworth. The world they give us is faded and colored in mostly grays, beige, light blues, and greens. It matches the subject matter perfectly. The back grounds are often mono-colored, which allows the reader to focus squarely on the expressive faces of the characters, much like a Leone western. Dillon’s art is the force behind Ennis’s sharp words.
Despite spinning its wheels in the second half, “Gone to Texas” is a fantastic read. It is smart, funny, dark, and tackles the age old topics of love, forgiveness, loyalty, justice and the nature of the relationship of Humanity with its God(s).
* In three places Ennis has song lyric bubbles that are indicating background music or a character that is singing a song to themselves. Here they are in order of appearance:
3.5 out of 5 Death Stars.
by Joseph De Paul