21 Jul 2009

From The Vaults: PREACHER #59-66

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections but are always worth revisiting...


By Ian U


It’s very rare, in this day and age, for any comic book series that doesn’t feature a major franchised character like Batman or Spider-Man to clock up a decent sized run. One that lasts several years and manages to maintain a healthy readership for the duration. The number of successful books in the last 15 years that have managed it are few and far between – 100 Bullets, Sandman (and its spin-offs) and Fables all spring to mind. And, alongside those, another title which fulfils all of the above criteria: 75 issues (including the specials) over six years with a healthy following which lasted right up until the double-sized finale. That title is of course Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher.

Created by the pair shortly after completing their iconic run on Hellblazer, the book followed smalltown preacher with a dark past Jesse Custer who, following his possession by an angelic creature called Genesis, set off across America to find an absentee God. Accompanied by his ex-girlfriend turned hitwoman Tulip O’Hare and an Irish vampire called Cassidy, and pursued by the Saint Of Killers and The Grail - an ancient society dedicated to preserving the holy bloodline (God I love comics!!) - Custer crossed the USA from coast to coast, losing his memory, his girlfriend and his friend along the way before coming to a magnificent climax in the 8-part Alamo storyline.

An ambitious, epic storyline that aimed to tie up virtually every single loose end from the series while remaining a tense page-turner in its own right. For all its scale and grandeur it often felt like one of the most personal storylines of the whole run with it’s themes of friendship, romance, justice and just what it means to be a man, all familiar to anyone who has read any of Ennis’ work. It’s in the opening chapters of Alamo that this feeling of intimacy is most evident. Having formulated a plan to deal with both God and the Grail, a plan which will cost him his life, Jesse Custer attempts to make his peace with those dearest to him. He starts with Tulip and his dog, then his spirit guide for the last sixty odd issues, John Wayne(!), before moving on to Cassidy. It would be easy in these scenes to give in to over-sentimentality (and this is definitely something Ennis is guilty of in the final issue) but as Custer parts ways with John Wayne for the final time, having said his goodbyes to Tulip, and restates the core values instilled in him by his father, Ennis pitches the emotional level just right. It takes a hard heart not to be moved by a hero who fully believes he is going to his death.

As the plot begins building momentum towards the climax, Ennis breaks away somewhat to show that at least some of the remaining supporting characters, namely Arseface, Lorie and Jesse’s mother, are going to get a well deserved happy ending in the backwater town of Salvation. By contrast, the supporting characters on the opposing side, namely Featherstone and Hoover, are due anything but a happy ending. Of course, this being Garth Ennis, the author makes a great effort to humanise the characters and make them more sympathetic to the reader before setting them on the path to destruction!

And so we come to what is for many, me included, the pivotal part of the storyline – Custer vs Cassidy. During a previous arc Custer was believed dead and in his absence Cassidy had made a move on Tulip and gotten her hooked on pills. When Custer returned he began to look more closely at Cassidy’s hidden past and discovered an immoral, misogynist, violent animal beneath the man he thought he knew and trusted. As such, he had turned his back on him for good but realising that maybe everyone deserves a final chance Custer arranges to meet him in a bar in the heart of Texas. The confrontation is pure Ennis. Beginning with Cassidy reminiscing with the barman about a film, its' obviously Ennis himself speaking, as he had done throughout the series on pop culture topics as diverse as Laurel & Hardy and Eastwood vs Wayne. Upon Jesse’s arrival the scene progresses to a serious debate about the value of male friendship and whether or not Cassidy has changed over time or if he ever really can. This is immediately followed, in true Ennis style, by a barroom brawl and then, finally, the big showdown itself, Custer and Cassidy, man to man, bare knuckle on the dusty streets outside of the Alamo. Of course the big problem for Jesse is that he is only a man and Cassidy is a vampire, with the strength of 50 men. Although Custer is the better fighter, Cassidy is, ultimately, stronger and finally he has Jesse on the floor with a broken breastbone. It’s at this point that Ennis goes for the emotional punch as Cassidy begs Jesse for his help, pointing out that friendship isn’t always easy and asking him to take his hand.

Custer tells him that all he ever had to do was ask and shakes his hand. Hooray! Happy ending right? Nope, this is Garth Ennis remember! Cassidy lays Jesse out with one punch and reveals his secret plan. He turns to face the rising sun, revealing that all he ever wanted was for Jesse to forgive him and with that burns and explodes in the sunlight. Talk about ending on a downer eh? But, no Ennis isn’t finished yet… Herr Starr, leader of the Grail, gives the order to his hidden troops to fire and a sniper shoots Custer through the head! A heavily armed Tulip who has come looking for Jesse then slaughters the remaining Grail troops and Starr himself before the issue closes with a full page shot of her crouching over Jesse’s lifeless body. It’s one of Ennis’ greatest comic book moments - “And that’s how they killed him, covered in the ashes of his dearest friend”.

Of course Ennis still isn't done with the twists and turns and pulls one final rabbit out of the hat with the epilogue – Jesse and Cassidy aren’t dead. It transpires that Cassidy made a deal with God before meeting Jesse in the bar and both were resurrected immediately upon their respective deaths. Unfortunately for God this still plays perfectly into Jesse’s plan. God returns to Heaven, thinking himself safe as Jesse’s death has severed his connection to the Genesis being, and finds the Saint Of Killers waiting….

And so Preacher ends, with an exhausted Saint finding peace slumped on the throne of Heaven with the bodies of God and the Heavenly host around him, while on Earth Jesse and Tulip ride off into the sunset and Cassidy rides off into the night. Each one getting and ending both richly deserved and perhaps longed for by character and reader alike. Jesse’s finale resonates with iconic Western imagery, riding into the sunset on horseback with his girl (you can almost hear the Ennio Moriconne score), while Cassidy’s reminds the reader of the modern 20th century vampire myth (Near Dark, Lost Boys et al) as he drives off into the desert night in a pickup truck.

Overall Preacher as a whole is a fantastic read, as fine a modern comic book as you can find, but I think that even this small part is eminently readable on it’s own. This may well be testament to Ennis’ background in British weekly comics and the writing style fostered there. The idea that “every issue is someone’s first so make it accessible” was drummed into virtually all Fleetway/DC Thompson writers, Ennis included. Pick any Ennis story and, while perhaps the individual issues may not be so welcoming, every complete tale he writes can be read and enjoyed on its own. Alamo is definitely no exception to this rule. Although the epilogue may feel slightly flat to new readers, apart from the almost cinematic scenes of the Saint Of Killers slaughtering the Heavenly Host, large parts of the story here come in the form of letters from one character to another. These scenes are by no means impenetrable but the emotion inherent within them will only really hit home if you have followed these characters for the past six years. That said I still cannot recommend Alamo highly enough and my very brief summary here does not do it justice – there’s a lot more to experience if you seek it out for yourself. And if you like what you’ve read then go back, start at the beginning with Gone To Texas and read the entire thing. By the time you get to Alamo again it will be like reading a whole new story.

Custer, his name reverberates like the clang of a sword.
Evan S Connell, Son Of The Morning Star quoted by Garth Ennis, Preacher: Alamo Chapter 7.


Matt Clark said...

Preacher was the first Vertigo book I picked up after previously steering clear of the line because of the 'magic' tag (yes, yes, I know Rob N - it's contemporary fantasy!) but I was addicted from the very first issue I bought (can't remember what it was now). Absolutely classic stuff and well worth revisiting soon methinks.

Anonymous said...

Preacher issue one/two is the point where I started shopping at Paradox. Issue one had just come out and sold out. I hadn't bought comics in a long while - several years in fact - but there was a monthly comics 'newspaper/magazine' on sale in Smiths that I picked up and read for old times sake. It featured an article on the new Preacher series that I thought sounded interesting. I found Paradox upstairs in the old Indoor Market in Poole when I was browsing through the second hand record stall. Walked in and picked up the (current at the time) issue two of Preacher (plus five other Vertigo titles for old times sake) and a young and enthusiastic shop keeper chap behind the counter asked me whether I had bought issue one. Upon hearing that I'd failed to find it anywhere he said, "well I put a few copies by under the counter for Vertigo fans..." he then added, "I do standing orders by the way - 10% discount," and the rest is history! So in a way you could say that Preacher was indirectly responsible for me reading comics again - Rob N

Ian said...

"a young and enthusiastic shop keeper chap" -wow, that was a long time ago then! ;-)

Anonymous said...

1995, according to the Wikki Preacher entry... have I really been shopping at Paradox for 14 years? Apparently so... :) - Rob N

Ian said...

Blimey! I've been with Andy longer than I've been with my wife!

Matt Clark said...

Is your wife aware of this relationship??