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preacher: gone to texas

26 october 2013

Preacher, the now-classic 1990s comic, is a little bit Cormac McCarthy, a little bit Robert Heinlein, some Ed McBain, dash of Philip Pullman, plus mafia, vampires, serial killers, torture porn, S&M, I'm probably forgetting several other genres, even though I just finished reading the first trade volume Gone to Texas. Eclectic, in other words. Your basic comic entertainment.

When I was a lad, DC Comics featured a little seal on the front from the Comics Code Authority, which I always assumed was a panel of self-sacrificing moral authorities, but may just have been DC Comics themselves. There's no Comics Code Authority seal on Preacher, and in fact if anything exemplifies the changes in American public discourse in my lifetime, it's how DC has gone from Aquaman and Wonder Woman of the 1960s to Preacher in the 1990s. I guess the veneer was always thin; it was just very hard to see through. Once punctured, it's gone forever.

Preacher is both relentlessly obscene and completely captivating. You want to see just how far Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon will go with something, and just how much they will engage your sympathies with their central characters – the most likeable of whom is a profane Irish vampire who rationalizes his predations by noting that his victims would have died soon anyway, or deserved to die, or whatever.

Yet one does like Cassidy the vampire quite a lot. You like his resourcefulness in staying out of the daylight: unlike the positively sun-worshiping crowd in Twilight, there are serious consequences if Cassidy gets struck by a ray of sun. One likes all the "good" characters in Preacher: the sadistic title character Jesse Custer, who finds himself inhabited by a rogue hybrid of angels and devils; the volatile hitwoman Tulip, Jesse's for-sure never-again maybe girlfriend; the hapless Detective Tool; and of course John Wayne.

A good aesthetic principle, I've always held, is to make sure that you don't go halfway in abandoning inhibitions. Nothing grates or dates quite like halfhearted raunch. Preacher isn't halfhearted about anything. You can barely read a single panel of it to anyone under the age of 18, or anyone over who hasn't signed a waiver. The art is usually oblique enough (thank God) but occasionally upsets the reader more cognitively than viscerally (the worst image, for my money, involves the skin flayed from someone's face and a box of nails).

Preacher would go on for a long run, but eventually conclude; it's more self-contained than other comics cycles, and has relatively shorter story arcs. I am really impressed by Gone to Texas, the first trade volume, because it's so mysterious. The second, Until the End of the World, immediately explains too much, clarifying and then cleaning up most of the backstory so that the characters can proceed to new adventures. I suppose if series don't engage in periodic exposition, they run the Twin Peaks risk of never making sense at all. But my favorite episodes of serial art are usually the opening ones, where we have to make our own sense.

Ennis, Garth (writer) and Steve Dillon (artist). Preacher: Gone to Texas. [Preacher 1-7, 1995.] New York: Vertigo [DC Comics], 1996.

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