Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

The problem with Preacher (1995 – 2000)

a maxiseries of 75 issues
art by Steve Dillon

The more I read of this series, the more I found hard to enjoy. Ennis’ writing style carries a lot of frustration with it, and a lot of it is born of the series’ time. It ain’t as timeless as the classics of similar length (e.g., the Sandman), and part of why is Ennis spent too much of the ’90s channeling the voice of a million other snarky 20-somethings channeling the voice of Bill Hicks. The series repeatedly pays homage to Bill Hicks, and literally ends with a quote meant to convey the topics the series never had time to explore.

By the ‘Dixie Fried’ arc, it’s pretty clear all three of our lead characters — Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip — are dumb, self-obsessed assholes with really confused morals. That arc and vol. 4 (Ancient History*), a collection of spin-off stories, were the ones to really break it for me. Earlier, the occasional anti-feminist, anti-PC rant shared between our heroes felt like jokes poking light-hearted fun at all sides — but that feeling completely vanished in the fifth volume, Dixie Fried. Preacher would shift between light-hearted lampooning of all sides to didactic moralizing so frequently that you can’t really keep up with whether Jesse’s latest speech is genuine or farcical in its condescension. In the ‘Dixie Fried’ arc, Ennis moves to make Tulip a Strong Female Character stereotype by taking the word ‘strong’ too literally, having her pick up a gun and drop a lot of f-bombs and repeat how she doesn’t need coddling on far too many pages and for far too much of the dang story. Her shows of strength always dissolve in her emotionally breaking down because she can’t live without a strong man telling her what to do. The moralizing gets icky.

My final opinion is that Ennis’ gross characterization of Tulip as a physically-strong but mentally-weak female was likely a product of the ’90s. His message, while hopefully feminist, is ultimately gross, defined by a wealth of mansplaining condescension. (I hear the recent TV adaptation fills in the naive holes of her character, but I haven’t seen it yet.)

Glenn Fabry’s stylistic cover art showing our main characters — Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy.

It’s in this infuriating ‘Dixie Fried’ arc that Cassidy loses all personality, becoming an obsessive lovesick puppy who fawns over Tulip for literally years of this comic’s run. All the while she drags both him and herself through the dirt, creating some wretched melodramatic dialogue and action on par with Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. With literally a single line from Cassidy, the direction of the story swerves wildly away from Jesse’s powers and God — an interesting, if under-developed angle that never quite feels legitimate (that, and Ennis’ commentary on religion reads like the musings of a grumpy teenager who just discovered Bill Hicks) — towards the shallowest sort of melodrama about a few terrible people driven only by blind, unbelievable love and really stupid views on friendship and honor that were clearly filtered through small-town Texas stereotypes.

Jesse Custer also turns into the grossest sort of Mary Sue, frequently stopping to look into the reader’s eyes and twinkle out these obnoxious, didactic, stupid speeches about how the world really works (see Bill Willingham’s Fables series, or Bill Hicks yet again) — which no one ever questions, because even when a character like Jesse Custer does wrong, he’s still doing so with a good heart who wants nothing better than to save ugly or ‘dumb’ people, or — of course — sexy babes who fawn over how perfect he is.

Supporting character, Arseface, the butt of many jokes.

It’s too easy to fall into a ramble when thinking about Preacher‘s wealth of flaws. Aside from these issues and the many unsaid, the series is still fun, and I was so swept up that it only took me a couple weeks to read the whole series. It’s just too bad the poorly-written melodrama and childish philosophizing completely eclipsed what was so enjoyable after the first 15-20 issues.


reviewed August 2015, revised January 2017

* Vol. 4 is a collection of specials not connected to the main plot. The Saint of Killers four-part miniseries was actually quite a good imitation of the western myth, and the last thing I really enjoyed from Preacher; it’s just that the subsequent one-shot specials included alongside it and in later volumes are never worth anyone’s time, never add anything to the narrative world that hadn’t been said before, and sometimes even detract from established character development or plot (see most notably ‘Tall in the Saddle,’ which drags Jesse through the dirt).

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