Friday, August 8, 2014

Comic reviews - Preacher

I first was introduced to Preacher around 2001 by a guy I was dating.  I purchased volume 1, he purchased volume 2, then I got volume 3.  We read them together, but the relationship fizzled and I never ended up purchasing any of the other volumes to read.  As I sorted through G's collection, I discovered he had from volume 5 onward along with the special Tall in the Saddle so I figured it was time to read it all the way through.

The concept of Preacher fascinated me from the beginning - a preacher who has lost his faith is merged with an entity that is the child of an angel and a demon, called Genesis, who gives him the power of the Word of God.  When he speaks in that voice, people have to do what he tells them.  He also finds out that shortly after Genesis' birth God abandoned his post and is hiding out on earth, so he wants to find him and make him answer for walking out on all of us.

To me, that's a very interesting concept.  While it's pretty obviously a set up designed to ruffle some feathers and offend people, I still think it has potential as a story regardless.   Those of faith often wonder why God allows bad things to happen, and the answer we often get is "God works in mysterious ways." But what if you could force an answer out of him?

The series is also appealing in that writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon have created an interesting core cast of characters to frame the story around.  Our preacher, Jesse Custer, is a man who was forced into his position by his abusive and twisted grandmother, so while not truly a man of faith, he does have a strong sense of morality thanks to his much more loving parents.  He's very much a good old boy from Texas, who has taken his father's pleadings to be a good man and to judge people by their actions and not their looks seriously.  I have some issues with his character, but overall he's likable and that's pretty important in a main character.

His girlfriend is Tulip O'Hare, and she's definitely my favorite character.  Tulip was raised by her father and had a strong interest in things that everyone else besides her dad told her boys should only be into.  But he supported her in doing whatever she liked, and she became a strong woman and a hell of a sharpshooter because of it.  Tulip has her flaws like anyone else, but she's the most level headed of the trio of main characters and I like her a lot.

Last there is Cassidy, a vampire who was born in Ireland at the turn of the century and headed to America to escape being recognized by those who knew him when he was alive.  Cassidy starts out seeming very likable, but slowly but surely you start to see that he's a pretty messed up guy.  It's handled pretty well, in that you start to feel betrayed by him at the same time that Tulip and Jesse do.  He also ends up getting used as a bit of a mouthpiece to make fun of Anne Rice's version of vampires that were very popular when this series was being published.

As you would expect there's also a revolving cast of villains, and this is where Preacher turns me off a bit.  It seems that with the exception of the Saint of Killers, who is a stoic killing machine who served as God's executioner before he realized that God had killed his family in order to put him in that position, every other villain in this story has to be a disgusting sexual deviant on top of their normal evil machinations.  And sometimes that sexual deviance doesn't come down to much more than "he's secretly gay!" because this was a time period when that was enough.  Other times it's just blatantly stupid, like when Odin Quincannon is revealed to ritually make love to a giant woman form he shaped from meat.

Even when it's not sexual, it's just disgusting and offensive for the sake of it.  The leader of The Grail, a secret order who is planning the apocalypse to reveal the second coming of Christ, is a morbidly obese man who vomits all over himself in order to make room for dessert.  The "second coming" they are orchestrating is actually the descendant of Jesus, and in order to keep the bloodline pure, they've been mating siblings together for years, and the boy is mentally challenged which is of course presented as a big joke.  If I felt like any of these story devices truly held some kind of purpose, I'd be more okay with it, but ultimately a lot of them just don't seem to have any other purpose than to say "Isn't this gross?"

Starr, the man who takes over The Grail after killing the morbidly obese leader (by dropping him from a helicopter directly onto the Christ descendant) also makes for a fairly uninteresting lead villain of the piece.  He's bald, and Jesse ends up cutting a slit down the middle of his head.  So he gets mad because he thinks his head now looks like a giant penis.  I swear I didn't even think that until the character said it himself, and it's such a stupid childish reason to want revenge on someone that I can't even take him seriously.  He's mean and ruthless and cruel, but there's nothing interesting about him to make him a compelling villain for me.

I think I understand now why I never ended up finishing this series originally.  This time around, it was the three core characters that kept me moving through it, and the desire to see how he was going to wrap  up the story with God, but a lot of the subplots along the way simply didn't interest me at all.  The one exception would be when a bomb is dropped in Monument Valley, mostly because it was not a place I truly expected the series to go.  It also managed to really shake things up and add a whole new dimension to the story.

But even Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy have their problems that make it a little hard for me to truly enjoy them.  There's this whole subplot of Cassidy in New Orleans that I would probably be okay with if I didn't live here.  Because you know, the moment he shows up on Bourbon Street there's a woman showing her tits for beads, even though it's not Mardi Gras.  And then the other vampire leads him to a cellar in the Quarter, and I'm shouting at the book because you can't have cellars and basements in New Orleans, we're too far under sea level, do some freaking research!

Even beyond that, as I said, it's largely an excuse to mock Anne Rice's vampires, with their romanticism and despair over their overly long lives.  It reminds me so much of the common man's mockery of Twilight these days, demanding that vampires be evil and enjoy themselves and aren't pretty little creatures who try to be good.  It's ridiculous because Dracula is the father of all romantic vampires for one, and because I can't help but think that all it really comes down to is "Ew, girls are liking vampires now, that's not fair!"

Which gets me down to the treatment of Tulip in the series.  Twice, Jesse drugs her in order to make an escape and make a showdown without her because "he can't bear to see her hurt."  She gets angry with him for treating her that way, and we see again and again in the series that she's perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and he even acknowledges that fact, but yet he still does it to her the second time.  And every time she says she's going to leave him, that it's over, she lets him back in anyway.  I feel like Ennis is sending this really mixed message here, that yes women can be strong and capable and do things, but they also really need a man.  It may be that I'm projecting too much, that's he's simply writing Jesse as the more traditional type who would act like this regardless, and that Tulip really does love him too much to just walk away, and none of this is meant to be a representation of men and women as a whole.  But it's hard to not see it that way when we see it done again and again in the story.

As far as the big concept that I kept waiting to see the end for, I have to say for me it was quite the disappointment.  Anti-climatic is probably the best way to describe it.  I can't say I can think of a satisfying ending myself, and maybe that's the problem - sometimes you can come up with great questions for the subject of debate that don't really have any one "true" answer that will feel real.  But unless you leave the series open ended, you have to choose one of them.

Wow.  Looking at all I've written, it sure seems like I didn't like this story much at all.  I guess it does have quite a few flaws that keep me from enjoying it fully.  When I was younger, I didn't have as much of a problem with all the offensiveness - in a lot of ways, enjoying stuff like that felt a bit like rebellion from the Catholic upbringing I had.  These days offending people doesn't seem so appealing to me.  That said, there are a lot of great small moments in the story, and its sense of humor is pretty great when it's not going too far over the top.

If you've read the series, you're probably sitting here going, "You've written all this and not said a word about Arseface?"

Arseface is a teenager who tried to shoot himself in the face to be like his hero, Kurt Cobain.  Unfortunately for him, the shotgun blast didn't kill him.  It just horribly scarred his face so that it looks like.. well.  He's another decent spot of humor throughout the series, as he talks in muffled gibberish because of his injuries, and we don't always get subtitles to explain what he's saying.  He ends up getting a record deal and kids start shooting themselves to try to be like him.  It's a story set very much in the 90s, at a time when rock music was still very controversial and the Parental Advisory board was in effect.  It's amusing to me because I was a teenager then too, and that stuff seemed super important to me.  Even now, I think it's still relevant to a degree, because celebrities will always be controversial in one form or another.  But his journey is fairly predictable, all things considered, and while his path crosses with Jesse and the others, it ultimately isn't related to their story.

As you might imagine, I have a hard time recommending the series.  There's some good to be found here, but it also has a lot of flaws.  At this point I'm a little more interested in the future television series.  Airing on AMC, it seems to me that a lot of the things that bothered me should have to be toned down, and with any luck the time that has passed will also mean that some of the more problematic choices may be changed.  I still expect it to be offensive, but I'm hoping they'll find a better balance for the material.

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