With the fairly recent announcement that the Vertigo line will be ending, I thought I’d take a moment today to talk about one the the Vertigo titles that I’ve enjoyed over the years in Garth Ennis’ “Preacher”.
The first Vertigo book I ever read was “Preacher”, based off of some online recommendations. Discovering a book full of gratuitous violence, swear words, nudity, and frequent Author Soapboxing about Garth Ennis’ own views of the world, I found it AWESOME! This is pretty much what the Iron Age of comics SHOULD have been, but ended up being a bunch of pointless stuff.
“Preacher” has FUN with it’s violent storytelling. The fact that Ennis goes balls-out with blasphemy and inspires a generation of comic book writers at the same time is just icing on the cake.
The story is about a drunken Preacher named Jesse Custer, forced into preaching by his evil grandmother. He soon becomes possessed by the child of an Angel and a Demon, bestowing upon him tremendous power (the ability to command others with the sound of his voice). Upon discovering that God has abandoned his post, Jesse teams up with his gun-toting ex-girlfriend Tulip, and a hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy, on a mission to confront God for making such a crappy world, and abandoning the people who worship Him.
Then The Grail, an ancient organization devoted to protecting the descendants of Jesus Christ, gets involved, as does The Saint of Killers (the successor to The Angel of Death), and it turns into this hilarious mix of Superhero Story (super-powered guys against super-powered guys), Cowboy Story (Jesse is obsessed with John Wayne enough that the man still communicates with him, and westerns in general are referred to), and criticism on our entire culture.
What’s nice is that Ennis picks targets from every walk of life. Greedy corporations, addicts, musicians, Neil Gaiman, religions, and both sides of the political spectrum are given the full breadth of Ennis’ hate. There’s a brilliant recurring bit with a Stereotypical Ring-Nosed Whiny-Ass Feminist Bleeding Heart-Liberal and a Bill O’Reilly-esque Big Fat Hillbilly Southerner Warmonger Conservative, where they’re on some talk show debating the stories of the day, and spewing out the most IDIOTIC drivel imaginable. So rather than using Political Strawmen to make his point (like it’s DC’s “Hawk & Dove” or something), Ennis takes the South Park/Jabroniville point of view and says that everybody is a bunch of idiots. I can appreciate that :).
Ennis uses one of his favorite storytelling tropes, “The Deformed, Depraved Villain” very often. Herr Starr is a permanently-bald, scarred menace who needs “regular, sordid sex” to unwind from his high-pressure job, and eventually becomes obsessed with sodomy after being raped by a Cockney Sexual Detective (“It’s Buggering Time!” should have been the catchphrase of the century, dammit!).
Allfather D’Aronique is a repulsive, torture-loving bulimic who’s so fat that he regularly-destroys his personal airplane.
Odin Quincannon is a diminutive, goggle-glasses wearing, big-nosed racist KKK-leader who has a sexual fetish for a gigantic woman made out of meat.
Jesse’s Grandma is a ragged, saggy old woman with major hair-loss and possibly the most evil personality of a comic book full of racists, rapists and murderers.
There’s also some cannibal hillbillies, a child-beating Sheriff, a vampire who gets all of his personality traits from Anne Rice (much to Cassidy’s consternation), and more.
The side characters are a real hoot. One of my favorites is a guy who got booted out of NASA’s Astronaut program for being too small & weak, and so he longs for the day when some proud-ass guy in outer space looks down at the desert and sees his message to them- “F*** YOU” written in gigantic letters via dynamite. There’s also Jesse’s parents, a rock-star teenager who was disfigured after trying to copy Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Tulip’s childhood best friend, and others. Even the side-villains are hilarious, with Featherstone & Hoover having a great relationship with the constantly-angry Herr Starr.
But overall, this book is FUNNY. Just random moments are utterly hilarious, beyond even just the descriptions of the characters like Arseface or the Buggering Sexual Detective. There’s the moment where the three heroes try to listen to each other’s music on a long road trip (Tulip’s gangsta rap freaks out the other two), and everyone hates everyone else’s taste, and the next panel has them going “WHAT A FEELING- NA-NA NANANA- IS BELIEVING NA-NA NANANA!” to IRENE CARA’s “What a Feeling”, and it freaking rules. Some of the casual dialogue is hilarious, too. Garth Ennis can really turn a phrase here- much better than even “Hitman”.
The human element and relationships are big draws, as well. You REALLY feel it when Jesse & Cassidy become Hetero Life Partners, and feel it again when “Ol’ Cass” reveals his true nature, and Jesse & Tulip have to deal with it. The endless Author Tracts of Garth Ennis are amusing, and rarely get tiring because of how entertaining he is as a writer, and you don’t get as much of a “wah wah this is how *I* think the world should be!” feeling from it, because it’s usually the characters just whining, and they often get poked fun at when they go on these rants (like when Jesse goes on a rant to himself about how everyone demands people act Politically Correct and how stupid that is, then adds “… I really need to get laid”).
There are, of course, a handful of flaws. Ennis‘ obsession with filthy humor goes far enough that it becomes the focus of entire arcs. The worst case is in the Odin Quincannon story, which essentially ends up being “huh huh this guy is MESSED UP” and doesn’t really go anywhere (it’s more or less a stop-gap until the Main Story keeps up again).
The main villain Herr Starr eventually just gets more and more crazy until his entire Motivation shifts into silliness.
God is depicted as being such a worthless nothing that you never get the sense of “The Villain Thinks He’s Right” with him. He basically acts like the most petulant version of the Old Testament God you’ve ever seen.
But overall, it’s iconic, hilarious Vertigo (so many later Vertigo books follow the lead of “swearing, sex, nudity & gore”, but in a more mature & adult way than, say, Image Comics did it in the early ’90s).
Full recommendation, even if some of the arcs drag.