Series Breakdown Rating:
Spoilers: Yes (and some spoilers for the television series)
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Book Three – ****
Part One: That’s a Lot of Murder
The third book rolls around with a long opening – the first four chapters, uninterrupted, detail the past of the Saint of Killers. This is the first time the series has diverged from the main characters for more than a chapter, and Tulip and Jesse don’t even appear until about halfway through the book. However, the subplot the writer chooses to explore is rich and vivid enough to hold the audience’s attention for that time.
Because this series is so fascinated by backstories, I think it’s worth exploring what makes a backstory good and how backstories contribute to the rest of a plot. The bottom line for any sidetrack into a character’s past is that it should reveal information to the audience that helps to contextualize that character’s actions in the present. It will often deal with motivation, and if done well, the information gleaned in the backstory should give weight to moments that might otherwise seem unimportant. In Inception, for instance, the backstory we see involving the protagonist’s wife infuses throwaway lines like, “I don’t like trains” with narrative significance. Beyond contribution to the plot and characters, backstory should be concise; if the necessary information can be delivered as a single line, then that’s what it should be.
I think the backstory of the Saint is ten to twenty pages longer than necessary, but the decision to separate it into several chapters is not excessive. Until a brief moment in the last book, the Saint of Killers has been something of a shambling zombie – a threat, and a dangerous one, but not really a character in his own regard. While capable of speech, his reasons for pursuing the protagonists and being so violent have been unexplained. Not every antagonist requires an explanation if their role in the story is to just be an obstacle, but the resolution of the last book involved the Saint striking a deal with Jesse, meaning that under the right circumstances, he will cooperate with other characters. These backstory chapters attempt to show when and why.
To summarize, the first chapter covers the Saint’s trek to a small Western town to retrieve medicine for his sick wife and child. He encounters a travelling caravan on the way there, and on the way back learns that butchers have slaughtered everyone in the caravan, so his compassion leads him to attack them. His horse dies in the fight, delaying his trip so that his wife and daughter are long dead by the time he gets home. The second chapter shows his abandonment of the restraint his family taught him, reverting him into amoral criminal he was before he met his wife as he seeks bloody revenge on the town for sheltering the men who killed his horse. He slaughters dozens of innocents in turn but dies before he can reach the man he deems responsible. The third chapter is about his time spent in Hell; he arrives, damned because of his past wrongs and the recent revenge killings. Left with unfinished business, the Devil and the Angel of Death – the latter of whom is sick of his job – recognize the use this man might serve them. The fourth and final backstory chapter really seems like a continuation of the previous one, as the Devil and Angel of Death give the Saint the immortality and weapons that properly turn him into the Saint of Killers. Immediately after, he turns on the Devil, kills him, and returns to the land of the living to finish his revenge quest. The perpetrators dispatched, he goes to sleep in the coffin where we meet him for the first time in the main plot.
The artists for this section are different than those who regularly draw the chapter lineart, so the style differs somewhat and gives the Saint’s history a visual flair distinct from the main characters’ backstories. I think it works overall, and while the portrayal of Hell is similar to most archetypal depictions, with flames and demons and volcanoes, the Poker game between the Devil and the Angel of Death is a fun addition. I also like that the Devil is named Nick. I’m sure someone more familiar with the Abrahamic religions could inform me whether this is a reference to something, but I just like it when all-powerful dramatic beings have unusually normal names like Bob or Doug. Anyway.
The backstory is engaging, to be sure, and I’d like to call it justified for the visuals alone, but that would be brash. I’m not sure this backstory quite fits the presence the character imposes in the modern storyline, but it does come awfully close. I can see its relevance to later story beats involving the Saint, but he appears so infrequently after this that I struggle to accept that the backstory couldn’t be cut. However, I find the points of irrationality, bleak rewards for moral behavior, and obsession to be thematically relevant, and the parallels between the Saint in his backstory hearken back at times to the three protagonists. As such, I can’t find myself really hating this part of the story, though I do think it could have managed a better delivery.
Part Two: So About the Arse in the Room…
I want to continue ignoring the book’s plot and main characters for a moment longer to talk about a subplot that reappears throughout the series: the Arseface subplot. I have racked my brain, looked through the five volumes he appears in, re-read his origin story in Book Four, and I still have no idea why this character exists or how his subplot ties into the main story, aside from a few offhand interactions between him and the main characters.
Arseface is a minor character who appears in Book One as the son of minor antagonist Sheriff Root. His face looks like a butt. We get an early explanation that he looks this way because of a failed suicide attempt, and his backstory chapter in Book Four (because, yes, Arseface gets an origin story too) is appropriately haunting. You have to feel sorry for the guy on a few levels – his name is intentionally excluded from the series and he goes by the nickname Arseface (courtesy of Cassidy, of course) without even knowing what an arse is.
In this book, he sets about trying to kill Jesse, who accidentally killed his minor antagonist father in Book One. Meeting the protagonists and realizing he can’t really hold muster with any of them, he gives up his vendetta to become a singer. Over the course of the next few books, he rises to fame, becomes an unwitting subject of controversy, is completely screwed over by his record company, and finds love. Exactly zero of this subplot has any bearing on the main story or other subplots, and while at least the character’s backstory is somewhat interesting, I find his subplot one of the more perplexing parts of this series (and by this point, you should know I do not say that lightly). It’s just sort of weird.
While it doesn’t take up much time in this particular book, I wanted to put my thoughts on the table so I don’t have to address this subplot again. It is not entirely bad, but it’s definitely not necessary.
Part Three: You Shoved That in to Keep People from Thinking Your Male Characters Were Gay, Didn’t You? I’m Still Not Buying It.
Based on what I’ve said so far, this book should not have a four-star rating. While the first third is interesting but not especially relevant to the plot, the other two thirds swing to extremes, presenting some of the best and worst material in the series so far.
Let’s get the fucking love triangle out of the way. The audience knows from the first book that Jesse and Tulip are love interests, and that Cassidy is friends with both of them but especially good friends with Jesse. Tulip has had all of about two moments alone with Cassidy, neither of which were especially charged, so obviously when Tulip ties Jesse to the bed as punishment for abandoning her in France, it only makes sense that Cassidy should immediately come on to her. As with the Arseface subplot, I have no explanation.
Love triangles are irritating for many reasons, not the least of which is because they detract from the story and often simplify character development into a game of will-they-won’t-they? Character-driven stories use emotions and gradual change within a character’s decision-making process to propel the plot. While sometimes these emotions and decisions are tied to romantic or erotic subplots and moments of physicality, the physicality itself isn’t really what most audience members care about. Some people are titillated by sex scenes and that’s fine, but excessive or pointless sex scenes become disengaging in stories that aren’t tailored for them (something Game of Thrones is only now figuring out). Love triangles in particular have the drawback of limiting character development on top of promising unasked for physicality as a reward for the audience once it’s complete. This is fine in a romance, where the character development and appeal are in-line with the love triangle’s structure. Unless the triangle is very carefully fit to the story, however, it can be a tension-killer for any other genre. Often the characters become so fixated on the love triangle that little else happens to their development over the course of the story until the triangle is resolved. Once they make their decision, that moment might contribute to their development, but it’s rarely enough to make up for the development that otherwise could have built up in the meantime. Besides this major flaw, love triangles are a cliché to which other clichés like to attach.
In all fairness, Preacher kind of adopts less of a traditional love triangle subplot and more of a dysfunctional love fishing pole where the reel is duct-taped to the wrong end. The function of this subplot is not to be a functioning love triangle, but rather to demonstrate how much of an asshole Cassidy is. The love triangle is resolved from the outset: Tulip chooses Jesse. No question, no melodrama. Cassidy’s actions come out of nowhere and the way he goes about trying to get Tulip to admit her nonexistent feelings for him is unsettling right down to the way these panels are lit. The audience’s response to the love triangle subplot’s introduction is not, “Ooh, who will she pick?” but rather, “Oh shit, get the fuck out of there!”
That still doesn’t justify its existence. One of this series’ biggest flaws is in linking transitions in the plot together. For instance, the Angelville characters erupt from out of nowhere with little buildup. The Grail, likewise, appear for the first time in the second book to kidnap the main characters. Even events that have some technical order to them, like Jesse and Tulip reconciling or Jesse abandoning Tulip in France, feel stilted within the flow of the rest of the piece. Despite that, even the worst chapters of the series, when taken out of context with no preconceived notions of characters or events, are still well-done. Part of this, I imagine, might come from the original serial release of the comics, but that’s not enough to explain why the series falters on certain major subplots while retaining continuity pretty much everywhere else. I think it really just boils down to new subplots overestimating their presence in previous chapters, and perhaps getting ahead of themselves knowing what they’ll eventually become. The love triangle subplot, irritating as it is, leads directly into the final climax and becomes the crux of the most important character moments in the whole series. You couldn’t cut it without cutting more important material as well, but like with the Saint of Killers backstory, I feel it could have been restructured for a smoother impact.
Thankfully, the love triangle subplot is restricted to a few conversations and then mostly ignored. Fitting in the theme of Cassidy being a bigger asshole than previously anticipated, we see a more recent backstory chapter. This isn’t one the character recounts to anyone so we might take it as an unedited tale, and it fits our expectations of the character better than the chapters at the end of the previous book. A few years before the start of the main plot, Cassidy runs into another vampire, Eccarius, in New Orleans. After spending a fair bit of time correcting Eccarius’ romanticized ideas of what vampires should be like, Cassidy catches him drinking a young woman dry and kills him for it, citing bad memories of his own.
Back in the present, Tulip mulls things over with Jesse and one of their friends from back in the day, Amy. The search for God back on, Cassidy suggests they visit another one of his friends who can put Jesse in a voodoo trance to talk to Genesis. In the previous book, Jesse learned that he needed to find a way to gain information from Genesis directly in order to track down God and fulfill his promise to the Saint of Killers to figure out the full story of the Saint’s family’s deaths. Cassidy’s friend lives in, surprise surprise, New Orleans, so the crew head back to Louisiana.
There, a group of pretentious twenty-somethings called Les Infants du Sangre – a goth poetry club of wannabe vampires associated with Eccarius – learns that Cassidy is back. Cassidy, who has conveniently forgotten all about them, dicks around with Jesse and Arseface while his friend, Xavier, prepares the voodoo hypnosis materials, so it’s Tulip who gets ambushed by Les Infants. The vampire fanclub proves to be as formidable as one might expect them to be, so by the time Tulip figures out who they are and what they want, two of them are dead, one of them is down by three fingers, and most of the rest are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. She’s understandably not too happy about having to deal with more of Cassidy’s crap so soon after he’s tried to get into her pants, so she confronts him and Jesse about it, but Jesse, ignorant about the love fishing pole, insists on continuing with the trance. The hypnosis goes as planned, revealing to Jesse information about the Saint’s family and that he needs to take peyote to talk to Genesis more completely. Unsurprisingly, Les Infants attack while Jesse is in the trance, this time armed with machine guns and a samurai sword, decapitating Cassidy and killing Xavier’s wife. Jesse awakens from the trance, he and Tulip push back the remaining members of Les Infants, and Xavier is left emotionally ruined. The main trio stick around to clean up the mess in what ways they can, which is a first for them so far. Xavier warns Tulip about Cassidy, telling her that this is the sort of thing that happens around him. Cassidy, meanwhile, hearing that Xavier’s wife was friends with a bartender he knew from his previous visit from the town, drops by to tell her the news. We’ve seen the girl, Dee, trying to get revenge on Cassidy via one of Xavier’s rituals over the course of the book, and in this sequence we learn that Cassidy knocked her eye out when they were together. She’s terrified of him and also furious, and indicates that whatever remorse he might claim for his mistakes, he continues to make them all the same.
If the A-Plot is the only consideration, this book is perhaps unnecessary. However, this is the first time the characters are front-and-center as their own antagonists, causing problems for each other and themselves without much of an outside force required to incite conflict. The latter portion of this book and the first portion of the next are really the last times we get to see all three protagonists engaged in conversation, which is something of a pity because these moments tend to be some of the best in the series. The dialogue between them is sharp and witty, and all of their personalities work well off one another to turn any subject entertaining. The B-Plot that has to do with the characters and their interrelationships comes to prominence here, and will come to dictate the main plot from here on out. I could do without the love fishing pole, but the other impactful moments for Tulip and Cassidy on their own are basically enough to make up for it for me, and it’s nice to have a book where Jesse spends most of it incapacitated for once.