3P Reviews: Preacher (graphic novel series)
Book Six – *****
Spoilers: Yes (and some spoilers for the television series)
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Part One: Of Course It Would End with a Bar Fight
This fucking book. How do you even begin to try to talk about it?
The final piece of any narrative will do two things unless it thinks it’s edgy. First, it will address the tension and anticipation that has built up over the rest of the series, pulling characters and plot points not only from the latest developments, but from everywhere in the story. This is the last moment the narrative has to give its all, so it will throw as much of itself into the climax as possible. If it is a good narrative, it will do so without feeling cluttered. The second thing the ending will do is cauterize all lingering story threads not tied up in the climax. Again, the quality of the narrative will determine whether the falling action ends these threads cleanly or lets them bleed out. As long as one of these story components is solid, the audience will usually let the other slide a little. Most series opt to invest in the climax rather than the conclusion.
In some ways, Preacher’s climax feels like it falls in the fourth book. The battle at Monument Valley is the turning point in the series where the focus shifts from one major plot – finding God, the A-Plot – to a completely different one – resolving the golden trio’s interpersonal drama, the B-Plot. By the time this book rolls around, the Grail is a laughing stock and all that’s left in dealing with God is Jesse putting a trap in place. The A-Plot is all but finished; Jesse has met God, figured out his weakness, and devised a more or less foolproof way to catch him. Those looking for an adrenaline-filled action-adventure gunfight climax with tanks, magic, and explosions already got that two books ago, and will find themselves disappointed here if they expect more of the same. Preacher is not really about action. It’s active, it uses action tropes, it paints itself with the furnishings of an action series, but by this time it has shown where its interests lie: in the characters. This book exists for the climax of the B-Plot.
Jesse and Tulip are back together, both of them pissed off at Cassidy, and the latter is presumably pissed off at Tulip and still unaware that Jesse is alive. Starr has returned to the Grail as Allfather after his run-in with the cannibal hillbillies and is almost ready to begin Armageddon. The Saint of Killers is angry at God, but has made peace with Jesse. And not only does Jesse have newfound resolve to end his antagonism with God, but thanks to his peyote trip, he finally knows how. Naturally, then, the book should start with a flashback about horse thieves and cowboys.
While this is clearly the least necessary part of this book – and mind you, this book even ties up the Johnny Wombat subplot – it provides some indication of how far Jesse and to a lesser extent Tulip have come as characters, and hints at some of the faults we’ve come to recognize in them. Tulip’s adventure-seeking is frivolous. She’s willing to go way too far for her boyfriend, and her misplaced trust in him lands her in bad situations. Jesse has a firmer drive behind his similar thrill-seeking endeavors, but this drive is romanticized and based in a sort of hero’s fantasy. He risks his friends’ lives to free some stolen horses, killing people and getting people killed in the process. He hangs the horse thief — an act that hearkens back to Jody — citing that stealing horses used to be punishable by death back when horses were crucial transportation. Jesse views this as an act of justice, even though these horses are purely sentimental and he’s probably doing this more to get revenge on the people the horse thief and his men have killed — people who very well might not have died had Jesse not agreed to save the horses in the first place. It’s a brief aside, but if nothing else, it sets the restrained pace of the first two-thirds of the book and implores the audience to reflect on who these characters say they are, and who they demonstrate themselves to be.
Managing character in a narrative is considerably more difficult than managing plot, but it’s character that the audience craves. The characters are the ones we have an emotional investment in, and unlike plot, you can’t really speed up their development beyond a certain point, especially with pre-established characters. The first half of the book builds tension with internal dilemma and introspection, particularly through Jesse. He spends the first third of the book in New York, mulling over the news that his best friend is a backstabbing monster and searching for an explanation for how his perception of Cassidy could have been so off. His investigation leads him to Sally, an old friend of Cassidy’s who now lives on the streets. She fills in the gaps of the backstory we got in Book Two, this time with heroin, wife abuse, depravity, and long list of people Cassidy has semi-inadvertently fucked over. Like Xavier, Sally explains to him that it’s just who the guy is — he gets you to drop your guard, he gets you to care for him, he gets you to be willing to give anything for him, and then he hurts you. When he’s screwed up one person’s life so badly they leave, he moves on to a new victim.
The first third of the book concludes with Cassidy coming by Amy’s apartment looking for Tulip. He finds Jesse there, and after Tulip and Amy shoving pistols in his face and Jesse mentions talking to Sally, he pleads with Jesse to let him explain himself. This sets up a meeting between him and Jesse at a bar outside the Alamo, with the obvious implication that Jesse intends to beat the crap out of him. The rest of the book until that meeting is spent preparing for the inevitable.
The fight at the Alamo is actually two parts Jesse works into his plan to get rid of God. Dealing with Cassidy is a personal matter, but in the weeks leading up to this, he also gives a tip to the Grail that he’ll be in San Antonio. Jesse realizes after talking with some defected angels that the only place he knows he can catch God is Heaven, and that God will only go back once Genesis (which he has deduced to be God’s failed kinky experiment) is dead. The plan is a suicide mission, with the Saint waiting to kill God as he enters the pearly gates, and Jesse counting on either Cassidy or the Grail killing him at some point.
Naturally, this plan involves not telling Tulip any of the plan. Amy has ensured that she’s armed with full riot gear and grenade launchers and the like, regardless of what happens, and while waiting for Jesse to deal with his own matters, Tulip begins to suspect that Jesse has somehow involved all of the major players in this event. She gets a confirmation that Starr is in the area when one of his henchmen tries to hold her and Jesse at gunpoint over Jesse making him count out three million sand grains on a beach back in Book Two. She begins to suspect that Jesse’s intent is to leave her out of the plan entirely like he did in France — an apt observation because of course that’s what he fucking does. He’s still not over losing her, now perhaps more than ever, so on the eve of battle, he drugs her and leaves another note. This time, however, Tulip will not be left out of the castle storming. She wakes up, finds the note, and channels her inner hulk, going on the joyous rampage through town we always knew she could, destroying everything Grail-related in her sight.
The climactic fight is twofold, one part between Jesse and Cassidy and the other between Starr’s forces and Tulip.
Both of these happen simultaneously, though both are really more of skirmishes than full-on battles. In fact, the Grail sort of puts Armageddon on hold in favor of killing Jesse exclusively. Starr has lost everything dear to him (namely his penis), and is hell-bent on revenge, trying to bring all of his power down to crush Jesse. As it turns out, most of the power he personal wielded was blown up on one of two previous occasions, and as Starr descends into madness, his supporters start to dwindle. Eventually, it comes down to a one-on-one gunfight between him and Tulip, and given Tulip’s current attitude toward assholes, you can imagine how that goes.
The Tulip versus Starr portion of the conflict is short-lived, but tense; the Jesse versus Cassidy portion is longer, and as far as the story is concerned, more important. One of the things I love about this particular book is that it draws several parallels between these two characters, from their framing in the panels to their decisions and personality. It’s not a coincidence that Jesse drugs Tulip’s water when he abandons her, instead of waiting for her to fall asleep like before. However, it also clarifies the differences between the two of them that matter. Jesse remains faithful to Tulip despite his stated interest in Amy, he doesn’t resort to physical abuse, he lies for what he believes to be the good of other people rather than himself. That what he tells himself, anyway. Ultimately, it comes down to Jesse being the better of the two, not because he is necessarily such a good person (they’re both assholes, really), but because he is stronger in character.
After an argument and a drink at the bar, they step outside and begin punching each other, as they’re wont to do. The fight starts off with a lovely little framing device: Jesse punching off Cassidy’s sunglasses. Up until this point, he has always made a point to keep them on, and on the occasions when his glasses have come off, forcefully or otherwise, the panels have never showed his eyes, except in part of his backstory chapter. Now we learn why – they’re wrinkled and bloodshot, showing every year of his addiction and age. He’s laid out bare, exposed in physicality and character, so that Jesse, and the audience, can see him for what he truly is. And yet, despite all that, despite the fact that Cassidy is quite literally, in all manner of the word, a monster – he is still also Jesse’s friend. He’s a terrible friend, but Jesse’s resolve fails him and when Cassidy asks for help — something Sally even warned him he would do — Jesse wants to give it. Cassidy, meanwhile, has no misconceptions about what he is. Jesse finding out his past crimes and spitting them back into his face has somehow gotten through to Cassidy, and in a bizarre twist of fate, he kills himself to stop Jesse from forgiving him. Then Starr kills Jesse.
Part Two: Checkerboards
A while back that Jesse and Cassidy’s relationship was one of the more stable in the series. In some ways, that still holds true even in this book. It’s not a healthy relationship, for sure (whether it ever was is somewhat debatable), but it bears a lot of similarity to long-term stable relationships people have in real life. Deep friendships and the love that comes with them can be immensely difficult to understand — they are often irrational, involuntary, and can be contradictory. If you’ve ever had a old friend or family member who could sometimes be a terrible person, the sort of person you would never willingly associate with if they were a stranger, yet whom you love all the same for their better qualities, you might relate.
A lot of this book is about forgiveness, namely whether Jesse will forgive Cassidy, or whether he can, or whether he even has a choice in the matter. The way the climax paints it, he kind of doesn’t. We let characters get away with a lot in fiction, far more than we would real people. Real life is complicated, but fiction has always had this simplicity to it that makes morality feel easy. If a character does something we know to be social reprehensible, they’re either forgivable, or they aren’t, and the degree of forgivability is usually based on the intensity of the crime. Lying is a personality trait. Stealing is a quirk. Killing, especially in American fictional media, is usually something we don’t care about as long as the people being killed were probably bad guys. Characters we don’t like might do these things, but it’s usually not going to stop us liking characters we already enjoy.
Abuse, however, is different. In most stories with some sort of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, the perpetrator is usually a wholly bad person with no redeeming qualities and no appeal to the audience after said abuse is performed or revealed. While some bad romances and dramas will try to paint abusive actions in a forgivable light, it’s still something most people can see right through and will find unsettling or outright detestable, no matter how it’s spun. Audiences might be able to enjoy the machinations of a murderous villain, but you’ve ended up in the wrong part of the internet if you find an audience that enjoys villains being abusive.
Preacher doesn’t take a middle-ground stance on the matter; abuse is unforgivable here like it is in any rational series. The theme of forgiveness and redemption is not over whether Jesse will forgive Cassidy for months of sexually and emotionally abusing Tulip. Not only is that something unforgivable, but it’s not Jesse’s thing to forgive — and Tulip makes it pretty fucking clear that she doesn’t forgive Cassidy for anything. The main thing Jesse is concerned about is Cassidy taking “his girl,” but more than that, he’s upset that Cassidy would lie to him. He’s upset that he’s fallen into the same trap that so many other people have of trusting this person only to find out he didn’t know the person he was trusting.
Cassidy doesn’t just lie — he kind of is a lie. We learn in his expanded backstory that everything about him is tailored in some way, probably subconsciously, but still tailored. Sally depicts him as a charismatic fuck-up who draws all manner of people into his inner circle. He ruins them for his own gain, using them, manipulating them, saying all the right things to make people like him, and to make people want to forgive him no matter what he does. This is the person he is, and this is his existence. His appearance, his mannerisms, the way he talks, and what he says — all of it’s there for the purpose of getting people to care about him so he can do with them what he wants.
This happens over and over again, and the audience has seen this happen, not just on the other main characters, but also, we now know, on audience itself. Remember, Cassidy is supposed to be the comic relief character — whether you liked him or not at the beginning (and you definitely fucking did, don’t delude yourself), a comic relief character is supposed to be likable. If somewhere in a story there’s a plot twist where someone reveals their dramatic history and turns into a world-destroying balrog, it sure as fuck isn’t going to be the comic relief character, and if for some ungodly reason it is, that character sure as fuck does not remain the comic relief character.
And yet, this book very much wants both Jesse and the audience to still kinda like Cassidy at the end of the day. Whether either Jesse or the audience should still like him is not an easy question to answer. Well, actually, no, it’s a very easy question to answer: No, no you should not. Nobody should.
But then again, do you have a choice in the matter? You still love Great Aunt Helga even though she watches Fox News and thinks dinosaurs were made up by Communists. Great Aunt Helga still sends you hand-knit socks in your favorite color and homemade cookies for your birthday. Are you going to throw those cookies in the garbage? Do you have the will to throw those cookies in the garbage?
Jesse’s is defined largely by his sense of morality. He’s the only character of the main trio who has a set definition of what a good person is, and he’s driven by this definition. It’s what leads him to chase God for being an asshole. While the other two recognize morality in their own right, for them it’s either unstated (as with Tulip’s “no unprovoked murder” policy) or unenforced (as with Cassidy repenting a a crime and then committing it again). Until now, Jesse has defined his world in terms of good people and bad people — much like we define morality in popular fiction. Cassidy has done unquestionably bad things, so Jesse’s inclination is to treat him like an absolutely bad person, just as he did his grandmother, Jody, T.C., Si, Starr, Quincannon, Gunther, and anyone else he felt deserved a just punishment. But unlike those other characters, Jesse likes Cassidy. They have a history together and Jesse knows that in addition to the unquestionably bad things he’s done, Cassidy has also done unquestionably good things. Not as many, not as prominent, and not in any way significant enough to offset the pain and suffering he’s caused, but enough that Jesse recognizes them. Jesse can’t easily place him into a “good” or “bad” box without some measure of injustice either way.
The story never tries to redeem Cassidy for what he’s done to Tulip and other people throughout the series, but it does ask the question, can a person who has done truly horrible things still be capable of good?
This isn’t a question I hear often. I don’t think I’m one to give this topic a fair assessment, but I appreciate from a literary perspective that the book at least brings up the discussion. I think in the modern age especially, we tend to lean too heavily into judging people we don’t know on a gradient of “good” to “bad.” Real people can be both simultaneously, and we don’t always have a consistent way to deal with that. At the very least, we can consider these subjects through the relatively confined lens of fictional media to better understand our responses when they arise in real life. While the book series clearly has a certain way it intends to present morality, it leaves the final judgement of what that means to the audience.
Part Three: Damn
As with every aspect of this series, this book is not perfect. It has pacing issues, the first chapter is kind of silly, and some of the side resolutions, particularly Starr’s and the Grail’s more generally, disappoint a little. However, the best parts of this book are easily the best parts in the series, and there are more of them here than in any of the others. Even if it leaves you uncomfortable or unsettled in some way, this book still gives you with something to contemplate. In fact, one of the questions you mind be pondering after you put the book down is why you feel unsettled when it has a happy ending.
The last forty pages of the book — the last chapter and the last edition of the comic — are, to some extent, unnecessary. The series is in the unusual position of having the survival of its main characters be entirely optional. The series could have ended with Shoot Straight, You Bastards, all drama resolved, all tension cut loose. The only lingering subplot, oddly enough, is the A-Plot. Jesse’s dead, meaning Genesis is too, but we only know what happens to God through the earlier explanation of Jesse’s plan. By this point, though, we don’t really care that much about the A-Plot. What would continuing the series do?
Well, as we know, this series doesn’t particularly like to kill off its main characters, so of course Jesse and Cassidy come back to life. However, their deaths still have meaning. Jesse is revived, just like Tulip was, but everything leading up to that point remains unchanged. He still pulled the same trick on her as in France, and he still willingly sacrificed himself without telling her, knowing full well the state his unexpected death put her in before. Back alive, he admits it was a flawed move, but it isn’t something either of them can readily excuse. The actions make sense for his character, as does Tulip’s response to abandon him. Despite this, Jesse still apologizes and Tulip still forgives him, and they ride off into the sunset on a fucking horse.
My initial impression was that this scene was fan service. The people want their happy ending, themes and shit be damned! Except, what is it that just happened, exactly? They got back together, yes, but is that really what the people want? If there’s one thing the characters have been throughout this series, it’s consistent, and that means that no small act of crying is likely to change their personalities. While Jesse has asserted several times that he can learn and change, he still repeats many of the same fundamental mistakes that have damaged his life and relationships before. Tulip even goes so far as to say that he’s going to end up doing something to hurt her again, and he more of less agrees. He asserts a hopeful idea that despite what seems like an inevitable trend of them drifting apart and then back together in perpetuity, he can at least try to break that cycle and change for the better. But, we’ve heard that before, and we know it’s not fucking true. These two ending up together is what they want, but for the purposes of their character growth, it’s exactly the opposite of what they need. They need to grow up, to move on with their lives and stop living in this fantasy where them being fuckbuddies is ever a good idea. But they don’t do any of that. They come close, and yeah, seeing characters you like getting what they want is satisfying, but them riding off into the sunset is a direct callback to the first chapter of this book, suggesting they’ve really only returned to where they started in the first place.
Cassidy’s send-off is only three pages, and suggests a more complete character arc, but it’s also very bittersweet. He’s also been revived, unbeknownst to the other two, apparently as a human this time. He throws away his sunglasses as he no longer needs them, tapes a picture of the three of them to his car mirror, declares that he will “try actin’ like a man,” and drives off. This ending also appears to be something hopeful, with the character’s disposal of his sunglasses suggesting he aims to be more forthright and less duplicitous. However, as with the other two, he basically ends up exactly where he started, with a fucking pickup and everything. And, did we not just go through, like, an entire story arc about how if there’s one character in this series that has a habit of backsliding, it’s this one? Wasn’t that entire climax about how this character should not be given second chances? Didn’t he even come to that conclusion?
I love this fucking ending. So much.
Before I end this review, I think it’s also worth mentioning the Saint of Killers’ ending, because this is unsurprisingly resolved in the last chapter. As per the plan, God arrives in Heaven after Jesse is killed and explains a deal he made with Cassidy to bring him and Jesse back, and discovers that the Saint has already butchered his way through the pearly gates. This series clearly has some things to say about religion and faith, and going with the series’ take on that theme, God dies.
The Saint doesn’t become a new god, and no one is left to tend to Heaven, or Hell, or anywhere else that might exist in the broader non-earth universe. In essence, by the end of the series, all of the supernatural elements within its established world are destroyed one way or another. Jesse mentions to Tulip at one point in this last chapter that they don’t need God to shape the world for them. I imagine most of the devoutly by-the-book religious crowd, if they ever picked this series up, has long since abandoned it, but the philosophy it presents is still interesting. It takes the stance that supernatural or fantastical elements are sometimes necessary to fuel a story – they kick things into gear, and serve to contextualize the characters – but they’re not what the story is about. Whether or not the fantastical things are real is irrelevant; the important things in stories, or life, are people.
This series is not about a preacher with the power to will people to do as he says, or the search for a God that has abandoned his world. This series is about characters, major and minor, and their relationships, their complexities, and at times their simplicities. I found the series through the show, so my introduction to it is inevitably different than that of fans who read the comics as they were released. I wasn’t even aware of the series until a few years ago, and I’ve yet to talk about it with other people, so I’m not sure how much my reading overlaps with the one of more common fans.
Regardless, this is a well-crafted, beautiful little series that knows exactly what it wants to say and how to say it. If, for whatever reason, you’ve gotten through reading my entire take on Preacher but haven’t gotten your hands on the books themselves, I implore you to try. Like I said at the beginning, it’s not for everyone, but you just might enjoy it.
Series Breakdown Rating: