Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Steve Dillon
Published by Vertigo Comics

As the inheritor of the “intelligent title” void left when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman run ended, Preacher was on my list of things probably too sacrilegious for me to engage with, must less be entertained by, when it first came out. [The list was essentially Preacher and the movie Life of Brian. I realize that this might sound like an odd stance for a horror writer to have, but, if nothing else, I’m all about freedoms. We’re free to draw moral and comfort lines for ourselves, but we shouldn’t make our personal lines the demarcation for all people. I drew my line there, but this was back in the early 1990s. Obviously, I was in a different place in my faith walk then and I have since gotten to a point where I thought that I could “handle it”.]

This also serves as my “fair warning” that this work isn’t for everyone.

Garth Ennis has always been hit and miss for me. He’s a maestro of violence and mayhem, as seen in his Punisher run, but even that can become tedious when he’s exhausted everything he has to say and the violence seems so pointless. When he’s on, he’s on (Unknown Soldier, Hitman); when he’s off, well, let’s leave it at I still haven’t forgiven him for Goddess. [For those waiting for me to comment on his Hellblazer run, I have so many feelings over that title, both good and bad, that it would require its own review.]

Joe Lansdale, a horror writer who knows a thing or two about injecting fun and mayhem into a work, says in his introduction to the first collected volume of Preacher “It’s our chance to look at the dark side without having to be a part of it.” Preacher has the feel and rhythm of a western, the language and tropes of the horror universe, and more than a dollop of a crime spree yarn tossed in. However, when all is said and done, Preacher is about one man’s search for God. That’s not me making a spiritual leap, that’s seriously the plot of the book. Jesse Custer–J.C., get it?–was a small town preacher losing his faith because what few members of the town that bothered to show up on Sundays did so to sing a few hymns and “then act like savages for the rest of the week.”

This pointed to a deeper problem to him: God had abandoned His creation.

So he decides to search for God: “I’m looking 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. He has a obligation to do right by the world He’s made an’ the folks He’s peopled it with. He quits an’ runs, He ain’t facin’ up to His responsibilities.”

“There’s two good places you can look for God: in church or at the bottom of a bottle.” Tulip O’Hare.

So with his gun-toting girlfriend, Tulip O’Hare, and a hard-drinking Irish vampire-cum-best friend, (Proinsias) Cassidy, he heads out. Now’s when I have to explain a bit of the mythology of the comic book, and it’s not nearly as simple as “a guy got bitten by a radioactive spider.” Jesse merges with the spirit of Genesis–the spawn of an angel and a demon, a mix of heaven and hell–which represents a new idea, one that God is afraid of. Genesis gives Jesse the power of the word of the Lord, the word that must be obeyed.

[God left the seraphi (warrior archangels) in charge with the adephi (lesser angels/scientists) doing all the real work. The cast of characters in the book also include the surprising beloved figure, Arsehole Face, and the Saint of Killers (the patron saint of murderers and assassins). Sample storylines include a romp through sexual perversity (“The Gomorrah People”) and Jesse’s pursuit by Herr Starr, of The Grail, a group so focused on the Apocalypse that they fool themselves into thinking that they are about God’s work.]

Still with me?

Where does all of this hate and anger come from? Sadly, a lot of people have been hurt by the church. In fact, most times people who hate church/God have been burned by the church in one way or the other. Jesse Custer had religion forced on him by his family, stemming from his grandmother. Grandma taught that “God’s special because he’s always with you, Jesse. He lives inside you, in your heart, and he sees everything you do and he knows what you’re thinking. Always. God loves you very much because he made you. And God wants you to love him, because if you love him and do good things all your life, he’ll take you away to live with him when you die.”

Let’s pause for a moment and examine her proselytizing technique. For a start, there’s the issue of “witnessing” to kids this way. We have to think about what exactly gets communicated when we use phrases like “live inside you” or “in your heart” because what we are saying might not be (or rather, might exactly be) what kids are hearing. A lot of the time, this type of religious parroting amounts to well-intentioned coercion. Then there’s the issue of whether or not this is even the heart of the Gospel message. Though there’s some truth in her statement, is this what Christ meant when he said “follow me”? Either way, this didn’t play well with young Jesse as he responds with the statement that God sounded “kind of scary” (which He is, but not everyone is ready to think about that aspect of Him).

So Grandma responds by having young Jesse put in a coffin and sunk to the bottom of the river until he accepted God. Go ye forth and make disciples … by any means necessary.

Another source for this anger is that many people feel abandoned by God, as if He has capriciously left them to their own devices in His creation. This puts me in mind of a prayer by Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

[to be continued]

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