Series Breakdown Rating:
Spoilers: Yes (and some spoilers for the television series)
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
This series is not for everyone. It is gory and violent and crass, and at times it has a strange obsession with bodily fluids that are objectively excessive. It is openly sacrilegious, often puerile, occasionally unclear about what it wants to be, and oh yeah, it has a fucking love triangle.
More importantly, it deals with abuse and trauma. I don’t often give trigger warnings, and something like Game of Thrones is probably more deserving of one than this series, but I think it’s important to know going in because this is one of the most engaging graphic novel series I’ve ever come across. It’s got humor, depth, stellar artwork, terrific characters, a ridiculous plot, and the kind of bonkers madness that will immensely satisfy those who can tolerate everything else it has to throw at them. Be aware that I’m among those people.
Book One – ****
Part One: That Escalated Quickly
I did not read the Preacher comics in order the first time through. In fact, I technically started with the first season of the show, being late as I am to pick up most series, then jumped straight into the Book Three of the graphic novels, followed by books two through five, then finally the first in the series.
By the way, for those who are curious, you can’t use the show to try to figure out what’s going on in the comics, nor vice-versa. Even if you think you can piece together the continuity by jumping back and forth, even if you’re pretty sure you know what’s going on, you can’t. At that point, you’re hopelessly lost and reading a different series altogether. It’s fun.
I won’t harp much more on the show until I get to that review, but to demonstrate the clusterfuck that is the opening of the comics, think about this: the first season of the show is about, among other things, the three main characters coming together, inadvertently destroying a small town’s entire church and congregation (i.e., the entire town), then setting off to find God in what could be one of the most gripping fictional renditions of Hide-and-Seek.
The comics accomplish this in roughly forty pages. In fact, technically the events of the first season of the show conclude roughly where the first comic (the first chapter in the graphic novels) starts. Alongside seemingly extraneous banter, this chapter has to separately introduce all three main characters, establish the magical and supernatural elements of the world, kickstart the plot with the inciting incident, reveal the first minor and major antagonists, reunite long-lost lovers, kill off a bunch of extras, destroy literally fucking everything, and, of course, get at least one character into a bar fight. It manages all of this and still has time for a quiche recipe.
I’m dead serious about that quiche.
The first chapter sets the tone for, well, most of the series. It slows down somewhat, but to be completely honest, the first third of this book is a bit packed for my liking. That’s not to say that it doesn’t take time to let the characters breathe every once in a while – much of that first chapter is just the main characters talking over a meal, often sidetracking away from the plot. The audience wants to spend time with these people. They’re complex, well-defined, and above all, intriguing – how could they not be when one of them starts the day by accidentally blowing up a church, another fails an assassination and carjacking, and the third decides to tag along with the other two for the fun of it? However, it’s not until the middle third of the book, when they figure out that the Abrahamic God is behind all of the weird goings-on (well, some of the goings-on, anyway), that the pace slows and the audience gets time to digest.
Reflecting upon the first third, this is what we know: the A-plot is about an angel-demon-baby thing that’s escaped from Heaven and violently possessed the body of a Texas preacher (Jesse), giving him the power to force people to obey his commands. Jesse stumbles upon his former girlfriend (Tulip) and a random Irishman she tried to carjack (Cassidy), and soon all three of them are being pursued by the local law enforcement and an angry immortal cowboy.
The cowboy, or the Saint of Killers as he’s called, has been sent to destroy the angel-demon-baby, and by extension, the preacher it’s possessing. By the end of the first third of the book, the characters more or less subdue the pursuing antagonists and learn in the process that God has gone AWOL. Jesse, despite not being a particularly religious preacher or perhaps because of it, decides that God has fucked up and needs to be punished. Thus starts the adventure and the attempt to find, then discipline, God.
Would you believe me if I told you that this is arguably the more restrained of the two versions of this story?
Part Two: In Which There Is More Chemistry Between the Guys than the Breeding Pair
Somewhat unusual for a comic series this long, the rest of Preacher turns into a single epic punctuated by brief sidetracks but continuous from book to book. The first one, however, feels considerably more episodic than the others. It’s written almost like the series was originally intended to connect every couple of issues to each other in sort of mini-arcs. As such, this one breaks away from all of the chaos of the opening as the characters travel to New York City for a lead on the search for God. Cassidy, a former resident of the city, has a friend there with access to a computer (1994 was wild, you guys), so they send the plot device out to research God sightings. Meanwhile, Cassidy takes Jesse out to see the city and they bond over man stuff like clothes, philosophy, and bar fights (the latter of which, as you will quickly realize, is a recurring theme). As it turns out, Cassidy’s friend is actually a serial killer, which seems like it should be more surprising than it is, but after a merry BDSM mix-up, that whole issue is more or less resolved.
The middle third of the book is an odd duck that I kind of feel is the most significant part in relation to the rest of the series, yet is also the least cohesive and relevant. This contradicting dichotomy can be resolved by viewing the middle chapters as a blend of two stories: one involving a serial killer, and one involving the interpersonal relationships between the main characters. The serial killer character comes up maybe once after this encounter, then gets whisked away to the annals of one-use antagonists. There are no consequences to his actions for the story, or few enough that you’re unlikely to notice them. The parts that concern character relationships, however, set the foundation upon which the rest of the series develops. That trend is common throughout the series as a whole; the introduction sets out the A-plot of finding God, but the B-plot – the one involving romance, bromance, betrayal, and forgiveness – is really the more important one. The A-plot is practically a red herring to allow the B-plot to develop unobtrusively.
I’ll discuss the side characters more in the review for Book Two, but given how important character relationships seem, it’s worth noting that Cassidy fucks off for the whole last third of this book. That would seem an odd choice for one of three main characters in a series, and, well, it is. I could not for the love of me figure why the story cut out this character, who by this point is set to be the comic relief and best friend to the primary protagonist. I could see the argument that he might not have originally been intended as a main character and rather a side piece that the writer decided to make much more important as the series progressed. The paneling is especially deliberate in this section of the book, though, paralleling Jesse and Cassidy and illustrating their similarities – the reason they hit it off so well despite having no real justifiable reason to keep travelling together.
Speaking of abandoned love interests, let’s talk about Tulip. She spends much of the middle of the book lounging at home and taking showers, but her being part of the main group in the first place confuses me somewhat. I’m not going to lie, I find the scenes where Jesse continues to hit on her and tease them having sex again disturbing. Tulip is a dynamic character throughout the series, even in this book where she’s given little to actively do. Essentially, she’s the badass sexy girlfriend archetype given a brain, personality, ideals, and interests, and played less like a prize for the men to win and more like a human being. In this regard, she should not be remarkable, except that fiction, especially anything in the action genre, tends to struggle when it comes to female characters. I appreciate that this series presents Tulip as a character first, not solely a romantic interest. She doesn’t put up with Jesse’s creepy comments, and he gets his comeuppance in later books for treating her how male characters in so many other action series are allowed.
I wouldn’t even necessarily put her in the category of “strong female characters” even though she is that, because she’s also effeminate, funny, resourceful and more than just a trope or a response to a trope. She gets captured and imperiled, yes, but that happens to all of the protagonists on multiple occasions, and it honestly seems to happen far less to her than to either of the other two. She’s a character at least as much as the other two protagonists, and on the few occasions when she’s treated like a sexy lamp, it’s by sexist characters in the story, not by the story itself. That alone is worth recognition, I think.
I wanted to bring those points up because I feel this book struggles more than any of the others in portraying her character. I normally don’t get especially worked up about romantic relationships in stories, but for whatever reason, I find this one fascinating. Tulip makes mistakes. She sticks with Jesse throughout the series, calling him out on his bullshit, but forgiving him for it all the same, often sooner than is probably healthy for her. That’s right there is one of the themes of the series (along with bar fights, I suppose). It’s part of what makes the final ending so conflicting, and, in my opinion, so good.
The idea at the start of the series is that Jesse abandoned her in the middle of Phoenix years ago after a short but intense Romeo and Juliet-style relationship – and I do mean Romeo and Juliet in every sense of the phrase. They were horny, careless, ignorant, and so deluded by their hormones that all caution went out the window. People died, as we eventually learn, and reality caught up with them. At some point, Jesse got kidnapped by his terrifying hillbilly family, leaving Tulip to feel the sting of what from her angle was an asshole boyfriend running off for something more interesting. Aside from being just generally disinterested in romantic subplots (with the exception of the wake of turmoil — that part’s fun), my main gripe with Tulip’s portrayal in this book is that as soon as she learns the truth, she practically jumps into Jesse’s arms, all sins forgiven. While that may be logical given he wasn’t kidnapped of his own accord, that’s not how people work. An apology and an excuse shouldn’t make up for five years of thinking her boyfriend ditched her and then him showing up and acting like she’s his property. As the series progresses, Tulip’s willingness to give Jesse the benefit of the doubt becomes more and more strained and shifts into self-destruction rather than normal human behavior. But that still doesn’t make it palatable when it’s introduced like so many predatory romances that fictional series rarely treat as such.
Part Three: I Haven’t Even Mentioned the Coffin Yet
So, about that hillbilly family. Once Jesse and Tulip are alone, they catch up and try to resolve some other petty A-plot gripe about Tulip’s mob boss. They’ve barely started talking to him when, whoops, Jesse’s hillbilly family burst in, kills the guy, and kidnaps the two active main characters. This is the third time they’ve done this, as we learn when Jesse starts hemorrhaging backstory. I make that sound like a bad thing, but this section kind of might be my favorite part of the book. I mean, there’s tragic backstory, and then there’s this: a finely-tuned mix of a nearly normal childhood and one filled with nothing but abuse and torment, in a place that slowly grinds away what little remains of the protagonist’s will to live. In some ways, Angelville, Jesse’s childhood home, is the most horrific sort of place.
Nothing demonstrates that horror quite like the Coffin. It’s simple – something you could easily imagine existing in real life, and not inherently gruesome. The Coffin is a torture device Jesse’s totalitarian grandmother used to punish him, and as its name suggests, it’s basically a wooden box. It’s designed to punish, not to kill, so it has tubes attached through which food and air are supplied, and it’s watertight, so it can be lowered into a swamp or lake without physically injuring the occupant. That doesn’t sound so bad until you realize a person could be locked in this thing, in complete darkness, with no stimulation, no human contact, barely able to move, being force-fed, with the weight of water pushing down around them, for a potentially indefinite period of time. I mean, Jesus Fucking Christ, the creators of this series found a way to combine a fear of drowning and being buried alive, which itself includes elements of claustrophobia, fear of isolation, fear of the dark, and fear of suffocation, into one simple thing that almost looks innocuous. If you aren’t just a little afraid of characters who would not only invent but regularly use such a device, then congratulations: you fear nothing.
The characters behind the former plantation turned (or more accurately, remained) haven for backwoods torture racists are the beloved family of protagonist Jesse. More accurately, they consist of his Grandmother and her goons, the two cruelest of which served as Jesse’s father/older brother figures during his youth. All three of the Angelville main antagonists are in some ways stereotypes – the villainous old invalid, the bumpkin pervert, and the violent redneck who views beating people to death as a sport (all three racist, sexist, and deeply religious, of course) – but as with much in this series, these antagonists are hardly just those archetypes. Like with the coffin, it’s their plausibility that makes them so terrifying; they’re caricatures on one level, but at the same time, they’re caricatures that remind you of people you know. They’re not just faceless bad guys who can be offed and forgotten, as later moments in the series show. Jesse loathes all of these people to his core, but his history with them has left him scarred and traumatized, and these are the people, more so even than his parents, that shaped him as a child. He even readily admits that the most violent of the bunch, Jody, is the one who taught him how to fight, shoot, and ride horses. He inevitably emulates them to some degree.
Which makes it somewhat perplexing that all of them die at the end of this book. Despite the chilling atmosphere of Angelville and the antagonists’ pertinence to Jesse, none of these people serve as recurring antagonists. That’s the unfortunate point where this part of the book starts to break down for me, because after some admittedly chilling moments, like when Jesse’s power to command people stops working, or when he describes the coffin to Tulip, and when, oh yeah, Tulip fucking dies (it’s okay, she gets better) – the Angelville characters are just sort of killed and the influence they have on later events suddenly feels indirect.
The buildup to the characters themselves is admittedly minor – one panel after the introduction alludes to the grandmother, and Jesse constantly avoids questions about where he’s been since he and Tulip last saw each other, but there’s nothing explicit about who these people are. This itself causes some problems for the story structure, as the first thing that happens after the Angelville characters storm the plot is that Jesse conveniently loses his powers. He himself later suggests that this is a matter of his own self-confidence rather than divine intervention, despite his Grandmother being in cahoots with God. However, him losing his powers comes out of nowhere seemingly just to make the Angelville characters a threat. The influence these antagonists hold is intense while they’re in the story, but that intensity only lasts until they’re dead.
Reading the series out of order as I did, I picked up on little of their impact on the plot. At no point until I got to the fifth book did I suspect Jesse had a traumatic childhood at all. The impact the Angelville subplot has on the character is there, but it’s easily overlooked and not especially tied to these specific antagonists, despite their prominent designs. If you cut out Jesse’s backstory chapters but kept the Angelville characters, I suspect they would be easily forgotten in the shuffle of bizarre villains that fill this series. They’re well-crafted and would stand out in almost any other series, but they’re just too peripheral to the plot for the audience to invest much interest in them. Still, the moments they do get are breathtaking demonstrations in narrative tension.