The Preacher comics are some of the best of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s powerful creative partnership.
“I’m lookin’ for the Lord ‘cause I figure he’s deserted his creation. I aim to bring him to book for that little transgression: to confront him and hear his answer to that charge.” – Preacher: Gone to Texas
At first glance, Preacher was a blood-soaked story of brutal violence and obscenity that trampled religious taboos in the dirt. But pay attention to the graphic novel that is Preacher and you find something more. This is a richly philosophical exploration of morality, friendship, and faith, a book that delves deep into the guts of what it means to be human.
At the core of Preacher are three characters. Jesse Custer, a preacher from small-town Texas whose past is littered with sins. Tulip O’Hare, a gun-toting criminal and Jesse’s ex-girlfriend. Cassidy, an Irish vampire with a heart soaked in whiskey, cigarette smoke, and blood. When a creature called Genesis escapes from Heaven and bonds with Jesse, he gains the power to command others. This sets the three of them on a dangerous journey into the heart of America and the nature of faith.
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon were a formidable creative partnership. Ennis’s fast flowing, darkly humorous dialogue and ever-twisting story hooked their claws into readers’ brains. Dillon’s artwork combined grounded solidity with rich details to make the story feel real even when it involved angels, demons, and the cowboy Saint of Killers. Together, they created a huge cast of fascinating characters, from the falling angels Deblanc and Fiore to the horribly deformed but always well-intentioned Arseface. Ranging from the grotesque to the sympathetic, often with a single character’s arc, these were people who showed that no-one was ever perfectly right or wrong.
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Friends and Lovers in the Preacher Comics
Still, those three central characters in Preacher – Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy – were the ones who kept readers coming back month after month. They were the tools with which Ennis explored the nature of friendship.
From the start, these three characters were bound together in complicated ways. Cassidy’s roguish charm created a close friendship with Jesse, despite the sickening shock of Cassidy’s vampiric nature. Jesse and Tulip were passionately drawn to each other but driven apart by their past. Friendship with Jesse created a different bond between Tulip and Cassidy, a relationship built around a mutual friend.
These friendships weren’t just a background detail or an excuse to keep the characters together. They were fundamental to the story. Like real friendships, they changed over time. There were tender moments and deep arguments. Friends became lovers or enemies before returning to the fold. Friendship was shown as never perfect but always powerful.
In Ennis’s story, friendship was the place where people could express their deepest selves and expose the parts of their nature they had to hide elsewhere. Friends changed each other, but without friends, people couldn’t become themselves. Jesse and Cassidy, in particular, showed how experiences, good and bad, bonded people together and made them happier in themselves. Even the weirdest and most imbalanced friendships could have value.
Religion in the Preacher Comics
Having grown up in Northern Ireland, it’s hardly surprising that Garth Ennis should see religion in dark and blood-soaked terms. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the province was torn apart by sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. Some people were polarized by the experience, lining up with one camp or the other. Ennis instead took a critical view of the whole business, and from his first published comic story Troubled Souls he delved into religion with a dark and thoughtful twinkle in his eye.
Religion in the Preacher comics is Ennis’s ultimate exploration of this theme. Divine power has been unleashed, causing chaos in the world. God is nowhere to be seen, but everyone is willing to speak on his behalf if it gives them authority. Jesse Custer is carrying out the ultimate act of metaphysical rebellion, hunting God down so that he can challenge him for his failings. Meanwhile, the Saint of Killers stalks his heels, an Old Testament angel of vengeance dressed like Clint Eastwood.
Ennis uses his characters to point at the flaws in religion. The human institutions upholding it are corruptible, letting bad people use good ones to sordid and selfish ends. This is most clearly shown in the Grail, a religious order supposedly protecting Christ’s bloodline, ruined by ambition and inbreeding.
The flaws in thoughtlessly following strict rules are highlighted, as is the terrible harshness of Old Testament ways. This is religion as something cruel.
Yet Preacher is not an outright rejection of religious faith. Ennis tries to square the circle of modern attitudes to religion, in which many people want something to believe in but can’t bring themselves to believe in what they’re given. Genesis, as carried inside Custer, becomes the ultimate embodiment of personal revelation, of finding faith from within.
It’s a view of religion reminiscent of the ancient gnostics. Ennis sees humans, like Genesis, as a combination of good and bad, Heaven and Hell. We are at our best when we embrace both parts rather than following strict rules that force us to reject a part of ourselves.
The story’s confrontation with God becomes about our confrontation with old school religion.
The Humanism of the Preacher Comics
Together, these explorations of friendship and religion make Preacher an inspiringly humanist story. It says that our destinies are our own to make. We don’t need to obey the tenets of religion or the expectations of society. The things that make us great are other people. They are our friends.
For all its darkness, Preacher is deeply hopeful. There is humor even in the grimmest moments. Anyone can be saved if they choose to be. Because everyone is flawed, no-one is condemned for their failings. Everyone gets a second chance.
It’s in this way that Preacher honors and builds on the Christian tradition that it criticizes. Ennis remains fascinated and moved by that tradition. He offers a vision of humanity in which everyone can be saved if we make the right choices, and in which those choices are ours to make.
It’s a powerful message from a powerful and endlessly entertaining book.
Featured Image: Steve Dillon / Vertigo Comics