This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on February 24, 2016.
Mark Stack: I want to start by saying that I was reading this book again recently for what was perhaps the first time since I was 15 or 16. I was reading this book, really vibing on it, up until I reached a panel with the word “faggot” that stopped me dead in my tracks. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the word itself that bothered me. I’m not gay, I have no history of the word being used on me by bullies. My emotional connection to it is nil. But reading that word being used as an insult, as an insult meant to be so damning that it spurs a serious moment for the character on the receiving end, I was faced with the truth about the ugliness within Preacher that had so enthralled me when I first read it.
People I know whose opinions I value told me that they had serious issues with the book and I didn’t understand why. It was so transgressive, the book didn’t mean any of the bad things it would occasionally say! That’s just thecharacters being bad! That panel put a bad taste in my mouth and would have been reason enough to stop reading the book. This book and the Garth Ennis who wrote it had a serious homophobia problem (among others) and that can’t go unaddressed. When this same book features a male character being raped, somehow the book finds a way to be even more offensive than just using rape as a punchline; it’s “funny” that this man is being fucked by another man. That’s meant to be the humiliation. And goddamn if that isn’t just the fucking worst. For whatever I still love about this book, I’m honestly fucking sorry I recommended it to so many people.
The book’s treatment of women is a bit more complicated. It’s not great. A woman’s death only happens so we can see how a man feels about; you won’t even see that woman’s face as she dies because there’s a man to look at. But it tries. Garth Ennis tries. This book proclaims, “A woman’s value is more than her ability to breed! You shouldn’t hang out with dudes your girlfriend is uncomfortable with because she knows scummy dudes better than you!” But goddamn if that isn’t undercut by saying that woman is worth something because a man loves her anyway or that friend is only bad for letting his buddy down rather than for preying on people. It’s all about how men feel. Women are still bargaining chips in men’s development even if someone like Tulip is colored in and gets to express herself more. There are noble goals. There are seeds of a long term arc leading to the eventual fallout between the protagonists that could still be presented to great acclaim today if it could just get away from the heavy male focus.
But that’s asking the book to be something that it isn’t. This is a comic for teenage boys. There are attempts at messages that I know greatly affected my life for the better even if the actual work failed in the delivery and mostly just paid lip service. You’re encouraged to take the words of Jesse and Tulip as the absolute truth of the universe and they say just about as many worthwhile things as they do bad. It’s a bit of a wash, man.
I would have felt so much better about reading this second volume again if it was just the “Until the End of the World” arc. No Herr Starr, no deviant sex parties, and no sexual detectives to ruin my fucking night. That arc that opens up this collection is… Well, it’s fun. It’s ugly and mean-spirited but also fucking hilarious. Garth Ennis has a way with language and his dialogue always sings. The poetry of cacophony Ennis writes couldn’t be mistaken for real speech. It’s stylized within an inch of its life, beating David Milch (Deadwood) in establishing the “cocksucker soliloquy” style that influence an entire generation of good and mostly bad writers.
Ennis goes all in on the tale of Jesse’s horribly abusive childhood, injecting it with enough heart and humor to carry it as it descends further and further into the absurd. I still lost my air laughing at the infamous (to me, at least) caption: “Things proceeded on, as they normally do, until the day that T.C. fucked the chicken.” You know some horrible things are about to happen, least of all being the chicken that’s about to be fucked, but that deadpan delivery after such a sincere moment makes you remember that Garth Ennis could write good, vulgar comedy when he wasn’t falling back on lame gags about homosexuality that damn well should have gotten more than side-eye when they were published.
The story of Jesse’s childhood and how that culminates in the present is still damn impressive to me as a writer. In a few issues, Ennis gives readers everything there is to know with humor and economy while creating set-ups that immediately start to pay off. The relationship between Jesse and Jody (essentially his abusive “uncle”) is damn complex and upsetting, a real example of humanity in what is essentially a cartoon. Jesse hates that man with all his heart but he’s the man who taught him most of the things he knows how to do. Every moment of his life was in opposition to that man but damn if that didn’t teach him who he was from an early age. When Jody has the fucking gall to tell Jesse he’s proud of him, it’s believable that Jesse would snap at that moment and strangle the man who told him he’d never be anything worthwhile his whole life. The book makes Jody a character. Pure evil but damn if you don’t know his thoughts/feelings and reasons for everything he does.
And you know what? I didn’t appreciate Steve Dillion nearly enough the first time I read this comic. He kills. He commits to the ugliness of his characters and the world they inhabit. Every face tells a story, every page is packed with panels that sequence so damn well, and the guy knows well enough to leave some white space on the page rather than filling them up all the damn time. The secret to success might just be to get Steve Dillon to draw your comics. There’s an astonishing page, a silent page, where Dillon illustrates the second meeting between Jesse’s parents. The first panel is large and takes up a full tier. It invites the reader to hold on it and take in the scene. The second tier has three panels, picking up the pace. The bottom tier is composed of four panels and reads much faster as Jesse’s father catches up with his future wife, ending in an embrace. That page is one whole story. All on its own. Which is not to say that the lettering isn’t hugely important to this comic. Clem Robins’s lettering on this comic might be my favorite lettering ever as I’ve finally noticed the way this “invisible” art sells the tone and setting with all the grit and grime of a Steve Dillon panel.
I still love Preacher. Garth Ennis’s writing is what drew me in and got me to fall head over heels but… There are problems, serious ones, that can not be ignored for however much I like the rest of it. Steve Dillon got better. Clem Robin got better. There’s a lot to like here for me as someone who read this book before I learned a lot of things. I can divorce what I know now from myself as I re-experience this book as the 13-year-old I was the first time. Until a slur is used and it feels like a bean bag to the gut. Or a woman’s murder is made all about a man. There are things you can’t turn off.
This book is not one thing and that can be hard to reckon with. It’s funny, smart, and beautiful. But it’s also ugly and homophobic. You can not divorce these elements from each other. They make the book what it is. People looking to maybe check this book out after hearing about the upcoming TV show, I hope they’re prepared for a confrontational experience. And I hope they just stop reading it if they hit that wall rather than listening to someone telling them to “push through it” like I said before I revisited it. There are other books out there to read.
Chase Magnett: Of course there are always other books out there to read. Nothing is for everyone and nothing should aspire to be. I’ve don’t believe in telling anyone to “push through” anything because everyone’s taste and priorities are different. If you don’t want to work through Faulkner or Twain (two other creators interested in examining American mythology) because you find the language archaic, that’s fine. I’d recommend both of those writers and many of their works because there’s a lot of value, but that doesn’t mean they will appeal to all readers or that no readers will find something objectionable. We can look back at plenty of works, like the films of Sam Peckinpah (another man fascinated with the legend of America) and find plenty that’s offensive, but does this make his works any less great or recommendable? I’m going to say no.
This isn’t to deride the objections that some readers will raise today. I know some comics critics find the use of the word “faggot” to be almost entirely unacceptable, just take a look at the outcry that surfaced when one of the teen girls in Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Papergirls used it last year to dismiss a pack of bullies. The arguments made against the use of that word came from a personal place and one I will never understand being like you a very privileged straight, white man. However, I thought those arguments either missed or were unsatisfied with the context of that particular moment. The moment in question being a young woman raised in an impoverished family in the 80s using a common slur with the purpose to demean male masculinity. It was ugly and confrontational; it also fit within the scene and informed readers about this character. What I would argue was more out of place was her friend objecting to her use of the term in a manner far more similar to teen culture today than that of the late 80s. That’s what took me out of the story.
Looking at the context of this specific moment in Preacher, I’m inclined to shrug. Maybe that makes me the bad guy, but I think reading that scene as simply being a moment of thoughtless homophobia doesn’t give Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, or Preacher nearly enough credit. As a general rule, I like to assume that art is purposeful and worth deep consideration. So let’s dig into this very small moment in a much larger story.
We are witnessing the Reverend Jesse Custer accept the role his grandmother planned for him and go to become a preacher. This is the woman who ordered his father killed when he was just a boy and, he believes, killed his mother as well. He has existed in a world where everything he loves has been systematically taken away from him by this woman, not only his parents, but his dog and only friend too. In the wake of this destructive childhood the only person he had left to rely on was a Hobbes-like imaginary friend in the form of John Wayne. So as Wayne watches Jesse be put to heel by his truly horrific grandmother, he only has one word to say to him: Faggot.
Everything about this moment in Preacher is ugly and mean. It’s not just that Jesse has been wrung through an abattoir of awfulness to land at this lowest of low points, but that his constant companion is rejecting him. He is truly alone for the first time in his life. The choice of John Wayne’s action and speech in this moment isn’t accidental. It is supposed to be hurtful. You could accomplish that with a variety of other words as well, like “pussy” or “bitch”, both of which raise other issues, or a simple “sonuvabitch”.
This moment of Preacher isn’t simply about Jesse being laid though, Ennis has a lot on his mind and it speaks to one of the core themes of the series: the deconstruction of the American West. Jesse’s mental construct of John Wayne is based on the actor’s classic Westerns and in the circumstances of his own setting. Wayne could be both a sonuvabitch in real life and in his films. We’re both well aware of Wayne’s involvement with HUAC and how he helped to champion “The Blacklist” in Hollywood and promote Hawk-ish values. This interpretation of the man is based primarily in his movies though. Consider his appearance in classic films like True Grit and The Searchers. In both instances he is a hardened loner who uses coarse language. His concept of masculinity is both old fashioned and clear. There is an ugliness to it and it’s an ugliness Ennis interrogates throughout Preacher. As much as Ennis may enjoy these stories, he also recognizes that they are flawed and often cruel. Just look at the ending of The Searchers in which Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards is left outside at the conclusion unable to become part of the homestead and society being built. He contains a necessary evil in that story (one that attempts to kill his own niece at one point), but an evil nonetheless.
Jesse’s own path leads him to a place where is mule-like stubbornness must give way to accepting change in his final victorious moment of the series, as he puts Wayne and his oath to “The Duke” behind him. That’s a ways down the road yet though. Here we simply see Wayne being cruel to Jesse, and it’s an action that fits the context of the scene and Wayne’s own character in Preacher. The callous manner in which he insults Jesse doesn’t just make sense, it’s a layered part of character and theme in this story.
I’m not about to defend Preacher as a 100% thoughtful narrative either. It engages Ennis and Dillon’s shared love of juvenile humor and ultraviolence for their own sake. Whatever themes may wade into Arseface’s story eventually, that’s still a story stemming from the gag of a young man whose face looks like an asshole. This is a comic that appealed to me, and I suppose to you as well, when we were teenagers because it’s fun to laugh and dick and fart jokes and gawk at terrible things being done to terrible people. It’s an ugly book (and that’s no insult to Dillon’s art, which I think you rightly praise), but more often than not that ugliness is purposeful. “Until the End of the World” certainly has plenty of that ugliness on display, but I think it’s also the story where Preacher is its most poignant and thoughtful before its conclusion.
This is Jesse’s origin story, where we discover what made him the man he is in Preacher, for better or worse. That’s important because all of the themes of Preacher are focused through his character. There may be three main characters, but even Cassidy’s redemption is only made possible through his friendship with Jesse and Jesse’s own actions. Ultimately, understanding what Ennis and Dillon are saying in Preacher is all about understanding Jesse Custer.
All of the most important parts of Jesse are on display here and each one of them is a significant theme of the series. Jesse is a small town boy from an abusive family with values based in the myth of the West and an inflexible sense of devotion to his loved ones. This is the lens through which the deconstructs the myth of the West (both praising and criticizing it), examines the trauma found in religion and small town America, and admires male friendship and devotional romantic love. It comes from the heightened, but surprisingly relatable, location of Angelville where Jesse was raised.
Without getting into personal biography, Jesse’s history with small town values and abuse is a narrative I understand and relate to. It’s something that appealed to me upon my very first reading of “Until the End of the World” and still appeals to me more than a decade later. Ennis and Dillon have amplified the ideology and crimes to the point of being cartoonish, but there’s a truth that underlies them and makes them every bit as frightening as a story steeped in realism.
The story is all about contrasting Jesse’s current state of being with where he comes from in order to both understand and lionize him. Ennis and Dillon don’t view him as an ideal hero, always treating Tulip as the most upstanding character and her criticisms of Jesse as valid, but as someone admirable simply for evolving so far beyond the influence of Angelville. His greatest positive influences, his own father and John Wayne, may not be perfect either, but they are the source through which Jesse is empowered to put an end to the evil that begot him and do some good in the world.
For all of the nastiness and ugliness found in “Until the End of the World”, it’s a triumphant story and one that emphasize the positive values to be found in the myth of the West. They are what allow Jesse to both overcome his grandmother and her minions and continue to do good throughout the rest of the story. That set of values is best summarized by Jesse’s father in a brief speech he gives to his son before he is murdered later the same night:
“Don’t take no shit off fools. An’ you judge a person by what’s in ’em, not how they look. An’ you do the right thing. You gotta be one of the good guys, son: ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.”
It’s simplistic and forthright, but it’s also the sort of simple strength that is necessary to move beyond this sort of monstrous origin. There’s not a lot of nuance in that advice, but the story surrounding it adds the layers of gray not available in Jesse’s worldview.
Mark Stack: It occurs to me that we might be arriving at the same place from a different direction when it comes to the ugliness of Preacher. Everything that occurs within the book isn’t the result of carelessness on the writer’s part. When The Duke calls Jesse “faggot,” it’s effective. That beat works because the reader understands Jesse’s concept of what masculinity should be and John Wayne, the symbol of masculinity Jesse emulates, says that to demean him. It’s a word Jesse definitely heard from Jody and T.C. growing up. But, as our friend and critic J.A. Micheline is fond of reminding me, that is a choice and it’s one made multiple times throughout the book.
We’ve talked before, I think, about how much I like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I find it much easier to recommend that book from a historical standpoint even with the repeated use of slurs. The distance from the time period as well as the book’s progressive-at-the-time message makes it easier for me (again, a white guy so take this all with a huge grain of salt) to enjoy the the humor that made Mark Twain one of the definitive American authors. I don’t think we’re quite there yet in the continued evolution of the human rights discussion to where Preacher can be entirely read and divorced from our present day context. As always, discussions of this book is going to be surrounded by some qualifiers and some warnings for readers about the sort of content they’re in for.
There is something in this volume, though, that struck me timely considering the proliferation of it in media lately. There’s a scene in the first issue after Angelville where Jesse talks about wanting to go see Cassidy and Tulip tells him that she doesn’t really like him that much. Jesse presses her to tell him why but (maybe due to shame or not wanting to upset her boyfriend) Tulip stops short of telling Jesse that his “friend” made a drunken pass at her when they were in New York and she doesn’t feel comfortable around him. Jesse doesn’t notice. And he doesn’t notice later when Tulip recoils at Cassidy’s touch and leaves early so she doesn’t have to spend time with him. There’s a lot here in this book about men ignoring predators because they’re so invested in the foundation of male friendship and don’t believe women.
That’s the book in a nutshell. When you strip out all of the crude humor, the fantasy plot, and the conspiracy stuff this is a book about deconstructing and rebuilding a better vision of masculinity. The seeds are planted here with Jesse’s origin and how he had to turn to the John Wayne he-man persona in order to survive after years of abuse that sought to strip him of his freedom. Cassidy of all characters actually calls Jesse out on his anger when relating the story of when a gay man hit on him by telling him that maybe now he has an idea of how it feels to be a woman on the receiving end of unwanted advances. While a predator, Cassidy isn’t invested in the concept of masculinity and serves as a counterpoint to Jesse; in that scene, he seems to understand that it’s all a performance.
But, just like with Tulip, Jesse doesn’t seem to pick up on what Cassidy means yet. He’s still got a ways to go.
Chase Magnett: I think that need for examination and questioning isn’t just something that’s required of Jesse or a theme of Preacher; I think it’s something the series itself is long overdue. For a long time, perhaps since it reached its final issue in 2000, it has been treated as a piece of comics canon. If you walked into most comic stores and tried to ask for a non-capes recommendation, this would surface alongside its stalwart Vertigo companionSandman. But as both you and I have noticed in regards to that series, questioning the merit of a classic often raises valuable discussion and valid points.
As you point out, we’re addressing a key aesthetic and thematic element of the series, its ugliness, from multiple points of view and discovering a great deal of nuance and range of ideas contained in only a single panel. Whatever your feelings regarding that panel or the work as a whole, I think that points to the complexity of the work and the wealth of discussion to be had about it even almost 20 years after it reached its conclusion.
There’s a lot that occurs over the course of Preacher’s 66 issues and various mini-series and one-shots. “Until The End of The World” may be the series as its best, but that doesn’t preclude other installments like the truly horrific, ongoing gag about buggering that falls on both sides of this story. Whereas I can find a great deal of value in Ennis’ choice to use the word “faggot” here, I’m appalled at how often he uses the prospect of male-on-male rape as both a joke and ultimate threat. Preacher is certainly interested in poking holes in this conception of masculinity, but it is not quite above it either.
If there’s one section of the series that I find most commendable and recommendable though, it’s the one that evoked this discussion, which was about the series as a whole as this singular plotline. Much of the more detrimental ugliness is swept away in order to allow for Ennis and Dillon to focus on the heart of the series. That heart lies both in the frightful deconstruction of myths surrounding masculinity and America, and the appraisal of both these things at their best. For every slur from “The Duke”, there’s a transcendent moment of paternal wisdom. It’s a strange balance and one I hope we continue to question.