Now Is The Start: Preacher "Gone to Texas"

Critically acclaimed books are crawling through the comics industry like those little black scarab things in The Mummy (remember those? Ugh) and they’re now amassed into a giant swarm which look to be utterly impenetrable.
Until right now. Because every Friday I’ll be writing about an acclaimed title right here over in T’Vanguard, and I’ll be starting at the very beginning. I’m going to take on a number of books which you’ve been recommended for years, and read their first trade. Is it a good start? Is it worth picking up? What does it suggest about where the book headed after, and should you make what could be the first in a series of investments in the story?
That’s what I hope to be answering for you. Now Is The Start! NITS!
This week I’ll be reviewing the first trade of….

Preacher, by Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Matt Hollingsworth and Clem Robins. 

Preacher is commonly felt as being one of a new wave of comics which pushed a little anarchy back into the medium as a whole. Ennis and Dillon are a much-respected creative team, and their tale of deep trouble in the deep South is one of the most popular Vertigo titles to ever be made. It lasted 66 issues and paved a way for a punkish, bad-taste aesthetic in comics which was picked up by a number of subsequent creators and publishers.
First published in 1995, the first story is collected in trade as ‘Gone to Texas’.
More than any other comic I think I’ve read, Preacher is a piece of work which knows exactly what it is from the very first issue. From the first scene, set a short way through the series and quickly heading into a flashback, Preacher has the characters down, the setting locked, and the humour and tone under a thumbnail. This is a dark, silly, could-only-work-in-comics piece of work, and it’s all anchored by a surprising note of sentimentality.
It wants to be thought of as cruel, brutal, anarchic and unpredictable – and it is all of those things, at times. But there’s also a softness in Garth Ennis’ writing which comes out openly every so often, but sits as a foundation for all the things that the characters do in this first trade. Although he’s clearly sat down with a notepad and written a list of all the things he wants to mock in turn – sexuality, religion, racism, and so on – he’s also put an incredible amount of thought into the three central characters.
And as a result even I like Preacher, despite being somebody who usually leans away from the things which Preacher rejoices in. The series focuses on Jesse Custer, a small-time preacher with a past who gets imbued with the spirit and recklessness of a divine spirit. This gives him the power to speak the Word of God, and also sets a whole heap of celestial misfits, human oddities and downright deformities against him. Once that central premise is established – anything goes.

So this first trade is a bit of a whirlwind, as Ennis sets his sights on the first parts of his list whilst establishing the characters and the threat coming towards Custer and his gang. As a result the western feel of the series takes a precedence, with the story slowly blocking out the expansive world(s) where the cast hail from so they can ultimately be set against each other. What’s surprising about this first trade is how quickly he manages this.
The pacing of the first few issues of Preacher reads more like a mini-series than the first part of a 60-odd ongoing storyline. Through cutting between past and present, Ennis filters out everything apart from the most energetic sections of his story – not the most important, but the most vigorous and fast-moving – in order to propel the story forwards at a rate of knots. Each character is established in his head already, so he just needs to get the salient bits onto the page in order to get the story up and running.
The main three characters are old pals within the first two pages of the story, and we’ve gathered their relationships to one another and that something big has happened to them all. From there onwards, the supporting cast are reconciled into the world view of those first two pages and established from only a few words. One of the dominant voices of the first arc (this trade collects the first two arcs) is that of Sheriff Root, whose entire worldview is established in his first seven words. Once we’ve gathered the sort of man he is, Ennis doesn’t need to do anything more than continue him along those lines and throw him into the story at whatever angle he chooses.

Heaven is also explored briskly, and efficiently:

The violence in the series, as well, is brisk as to serve a purpose. Artist Steve Dillon draws notable violence in that he seems more concerned with reaction than in action – the violence happens, but the expression on the eyes of the victims is where Dillon draws his notability as an artist. In the first issue somebody has half their jaw shot off – just half, on the right hand side – and both Ennis and Dillon focus on his reaction AFTER this, rather than on the act itself. The act of violence is part of a routine formula which the world has seen a thousand times before. The poor guy’s face once it happens is the importance.
One of the important ideas of Preacher is where and how violence is wielded, and how that brings power to people. Whilst Ennis has a strong handle on this himself, shifting power at whim over the first two arcs, it’s with Dillon that the series powers through on that premise. He draws two types of characters: distinctive ones, and disposable ones. Every so often when some kind of violence breaks out, you’ll notice that there are characters he draws attentions to and other characters who all look the same as each other. The indistinctive ones are the ones who tend to die.
So eventually, as each arc draws to a close, only the interesting-looking characters are left standing. Dillon builds you up to each climax through his detailing, whittling away all the identikit people until only those with a stranger world-view are left. In doing so, he allows Ennis to populate the world with freaks and kill off the dullards. This is the key to Preacher, underneath the violence and the swearing and drinking and sex. That in the end, Ennis wants to celebrate the freakiness that sits inside humanity as a concept and society.

So there is a sense here that the creative team really want to make the main characters endearing, and bond you to them and their fate. The second arc here is a great representation of that desire, in fact, as the characters are relocated across to New York so they can interact within a more urban environment. What comes across immediately is that the creative team don’t want for the characters to change because of their environment – quite the opposite, in fact, they’re looking to bring the Texas spirit into NYC.

And when you throw the simplicity of the three main characters – their agenda is simple, I mean, because they don’t particularly have one – up against the secretive nature of urbanites, the reader starts to choose a side. If you can pick either the double-dealing, two-faced characters populating Ennis’ New York of our three protagonists, who have a single-focused ideal for life, readers inevitably pick the three leads. We get one arc to know who they are and where their anarchic road trip is leading them, and another arc to show why they deserve to win once they get there.
Something like that, anyway. I thoroughly enjoy this first arc of Preacher, for all that Ennis and Dillon try to throw in front of the reader. The violence, the bad taste, the language, all of it – it’s a front for a study of people in society. As the series goes on, the main characters get put in front of a whole new heap of freaks and monsters, and it’s their earnest fight-back against everything that comes their way which makes them so interesting and entertaining.
Ennis and Dillon fit each other, creatively, from the first page onwards. They seem to know exactly where Preacher should be heading, and how long it’ll take, and what readers should see along the way. And because of that, this first trade is some of the strongest work in mainstream comics.

NEXT WEEK: EMPOWERED

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