With all the recent talk around DC Comics characters slowly but, seemingly, surely making their way to the big and small screens, from John Constantine and Sandman to The Flash and Batman Vs Superman, I thought I’d take a look back at one of their Vertigo imprint titles that I had particularly enjoyed, Preacher.
Across nine ‘trade paperbacks’, some 75 issues including one-shot specials and spin-off mini series, Preacher tells the story of Jesse Custer, a Texan small town reverend and his adventures as he becomes possessed by an angel-demon hybrid and fights off Armageddon while hunting down an absent alpha-and-omega.
Along the way he encounters everyone from conspirators bent on ending the world through the second coming to hideously deformed rock stars to vampire wannabes, all while flanked, for better or worse, by his on/off girlfriend Tulip and an Irish vampire called Cassidy.
While a lot of this sounds not that out of the ordinary for a comic book series, particularly one put out by Vertigo, what does set it apart is the framework within which Ennis places his story, that of a western. In this western Custer is the Man With No Name like hero, riding into town to save the day while doing his utmost to battle his own, in this case literal, demons.
Jesse Custer and Tulip
It’s this view of the western and the epic myth of America that really is the underlying theme of the whole series and it is something that, much like the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s can really only come from outside the USA and Ennis, being Northern Irish, fits the bill to add to this thematic history.
So we get a lot of stereotypical touchstones, from New York City to The Alamo via Monument Valley, but, on top of this, rather than Clint Eastwood riding in, we get Ennis’ misfit band.
Mixed in with this is something of Kerouac’s mythic America, as seen in On The Road as well. The presence of Cassidy being something of an obvious reference and otherwise in the road trip sense that the whole series has as well.
What marks them out from much of what has gone before is a few things. First is the time period, this is very much a millennial tale set in the late 1990s, but general with a sense of the vague (again mythic) now.
Second is the humour which is the kind of thing you could see Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson come up with if teamed with the writers of Viz and let lose without any restrictions. And thirdly is the level of sheer ultra-violence that ties all this together with liberal doses of blood and a whole hell of a lot of killing.
Another thing that sets its apart is the characters as well as the excellent lead, Jesse Custer, and his aforementioned entourage, we get a supporting cast that really are both fascinating and, at times, truly demented.
High up among them is the Saint Of Killers. An ex-legendary gun fighter now taking on the role of the Angel of Death and seemingly one of the few beings even the almighty fears. In some hands The Saint, a seven-foot cowboy with ever loaded pistols that never jam and never miss, could be a dull super human presence but Ennis provides him with a back story that makes this being hell-bent on destroying all in his path genuinely sympathetic.
In the villain department Herr Starr of The Grail starts off as a something of a hyper-devout Christian zealot and grows into a genuine monster who, in the tradition of much action adventure fiction, becomes more physically deformed as he becomes more evil – much like the rest of the comic it may not be politically correct but it makes for a compelling story.
The Saint Of Killers
Then there is the ever-present side story of Arseface that frankly has to be seen to be believed.
It being a comic seeing, of course, is as much a part of things as the story and it is here that any disappointment really comes.
While Steve Dillon’s artwork gives a good sense of the characters and the places it is, at best, perfunctory with a style that is often very flat, though in this it does let the story and the words work their magic.
The cover art by Glenn Fabry, however, is a totally different story. With a depth that sometimes goes too far it is here that we find the striking images that would normally come as splash pages in the comics and, if these are kept in mind while reading, serve to expand what is actually show on the page.
How (and if) anyone ever manages to translate the sprawling story of Jesse Custer and co to the screen remains to be seen, but, before that happens I would urge anyone to check out the comics, but don’t go in unless your prepared for some at times harsh, brutal and funny in the most wrong of ways action all wrapped up in an epic Western context.