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Preaching to the choir and hitting all the right notes

By Mike Riga

Section: Arts

September 21, 2007

I'm a sucker for classic western movies. I like the idea of the Lone Ranger. I like the idea of a whole culture of men living by their own moral code, and I love the climactic showdowns that tend to resolve the conflict in these films.

The showdown is a staple of Western movies, whether it features two men ready to draw upon each other or a more explosive scene, like in The Wild Bunch where four men do battle with an entire Mexican town.

Most people say the Western is dead. Movies like that just don't exist anymore. This may be true, but in the past decade there has been one medium, and one series in particular, that has captured, albeit indirectly, the grandeur and epic feel of classic westerns, along with its themes and attitude, and molded it into something completely unique and original. I am referring to the epic comic series Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

Preacher has it all. Simply put, Preacher is the story of Reverend Jesse Custer and his quest to track down God and hold him responsible for what Custer feels are the world's wrongs.

Sound like an impossible task? Well, Jesse Custer has help. He is possessed by the Genesis, an offspring of unlikely parents: one angel and one demon. This allows the preacher to speak with the Word of God, and control the actions of others.

So that's the basic superhero setup, but the real fun in Preacher is all the side characters, villains, and story-lines lurking at every turn. And let's get one thing straight: this is one of the most foul-mouthed, bloody, obscene, funny, and – most importantly entertaining pieces of literature I've ever read.

Ennis fills Jesse Custer's voyage with colorful types like Proinsias Cassidy, an ill-tempered and misogynistic Irish vampire and enemies like the one-eyed German Herr Starr or perhaps the most frightening comic book villain in ages, The Saint of Killers.

In addition to the adventures of Custer on his search for God, over the course of the series' 66 issues, we delve deep into the back-stories of both Custer and Cassidy, creating two extremely well-crafted characters. We understand their actions and motivations all the more.

We follow the exploits of particularly amusing side characters, which would have been forgotten at the hands of a lesser writer, like the aptly named “Arse-face” or the disgusting businessman Odin Quincannon.

Over the events of Preacher, as tension builds and new challenges emerge for Custer, all slowly leading to his inevitable conflict with Heaven itself, more than just a story is told.

Ennis deftly fills his stories will subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle examinations of Americana, homelessness, feminism, the nature of media, and most prominently, religion.

Certainly the comic has drawn its fair share of criticism for its depiction of the Christian god, and those who operate around and in service of him.

However, that being said, if you don't feel too offended by what is entirely a work of fiction, the series tears apart your notions of taste and will make you laugh as Jesse Custer and his group encounter crazy rednecks, perverts, vampires, killers, secret government groups, racists, and more bar fights than you can count.

But beyond all the fireworks and crude humor is real human emotion. Jesse Custer is a man that has faced a great deal of hardship in his life (you should meet his family!), but he is a classic hero. He never quits despite continuous threats and mounting dangers. He's not afraid to put his own life at risk to do what he feels is right. And most importantly, he will stop at nothing to protect those he loves.

In that way, Jesse Custer is the archetypal Western hero. He lives by a strict moral code that may be a little off, but he believes in it. On several occasions when all Custer has to do to get out of a potentially dangerous situation is use his power, he declines and faces his enemies head-on.

It's that kind of moralistic nerve that endears Custer. You can swear your brains out in front of him, and that's fine, but if you insult his girl, there will be all hell to pay.
The idea of the lone man out for justice, even if that means causing a great deal of destruction and upsetting the balance of the world around him, is the stuff classic Westerns are made of. (We also can't forget the occasional heart-to-hearts Jesse Custer has with the spirit of John Wayne).

Also forging a lasting impression is the Saint of Killers, Custer's undead arch-nemesis, who is all kinds of evil. He himself comes from the 19th Century West, and he is a dark, albeit indestructible, version of the gunslinger-gone-to-evil character, in many ways similar to Clint Eastwood's icon in Unforgiven (an obvious reference point for Ennis).

So there you have it. Preacher is a bloody, offensive, hilarious epic. For a story with such searing criticism of religion and a constant conviction that the more disgusting and profane a situation is, the better, Preacher has a shocking moral core. The individuals in this book are committed to doing what is right, no matter the cost.
The comic's fiercely independent characters (check out Jesse's girlfriend, Tulip one of the toughest chicks out there) rage against many of the offenses of our time, and throughout the various story-lines and diversions, the objective is never lost.

Jesse Custer is an iconic and classic hero in a thoroughly modern story, encompassing all that is great about modern comics. It's funny than Ennis, an Irishman, has so brilliantly summed up, satirized and glorified many aspects of what it means to be American. I recommend this epic story for anyone willing to give it a shot. You'll be enthralled from the first page onwards.

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