It Was the Time of Preacher By Mike Thompson. That’s how it all starts. But don’t worry, it’s not too long before the sex, violence, bloodshed, graphic bullet wounds, bestiality, blasphemy, brilliant characterization, heartbreaking moments and all around fun begin...

That’s how it all starts. But don’t worry, it’s not too long before the sex, violence, bloodshed, graphic bullet wounds, bestiality, blasphemy, brilliant characterization, heartbreaking moments and all around fun begin. Yeah, I’m talking about Preacher, one of the most outrageous comic books to find a popular audience.

Written by Garth Ennis and beautifully illustrated by Steve Dillion, Preacher explores the notion of God, loyalty and has a character named Arseface to boot (and his name’s not just for fun). It may sound ridiculous, which is good, because it is, but it’s never stupid.

Preacher is the kind of comic book that nobody expected. And at first glance it’s the kind that nobody would really want. I found Preacher after it had already been running for a year. The first trade paperback was on sale at Borders and I had heard enough about it to pick it up. I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at when I read it.

There’s a fight scene in the first trade that left me sick for days. Was this just exploitation? Is this just some writer/artist team getting off on excess? Yeah, but there was a lot more to be found under that.

Preacher is part of DC Comics’s Vertigo line. Vertigo spawned from the more adult nature that comics began to take on due to comic books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Swamp Thing. In the mid-eighties, comic books began to change as new writers came in and deconstructed the characters and the very medium itself. Superheroes became people with real problems. People became superheroes with super problems. Some comics became about people with regular problems. And being a business, DC Comics cashed in.

Lucky for us they decided not to sacrifice the art for the buck. DC’s Vertigo line has boasted some of the most talented, brilliant writers working in the comic book medium (or any medium) today. After a few years one book emerged as the flagship Vertigo title: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Sandman was a brilliant look into the world of the troubled God of Dreams. It would focus on him or on characters around him or even on characters that had only been briefly touched by him. Sandman was somber and sweet.

Pretty much everything Preacher is not.

Which is what makes it so strange (at first) that Preacher replaced Sandman as Vertigo’s flagship title when Sandman came to a close. Where Sandman was understated, Preacher is in your face. Where Sandman was subtle, Preacher is brutal. Neil Gaiman himself says you can’t say it’s an apples to oranges comparison, it’s more apples to fish.

But there is a similarity that helps makes sense of readers’ desire to get every issue. That similarity is what sets Preacher, and all good comics (or writing in general) above the rest: Character.

It’s the people in Preacher that make each issue sell out. The story itself is somewhat ridiculous and way over the top, but the characters are grounded. We care about them. Whether they’re facing God, or trying to work things out with their significant others, we follow them, with equal interest.

Preacher is the story of Jesse Custer, a young, Texas Preacher who one day, while addressing his congregation, is possessed by a being called Genesis. Genesis is the creation of an unholy union between an angel and a demon. With Genesis inside him, Jesse is given the Word of God. Whoever he uses the Word on has to do exactly what Jesse says.

With his newfound power comes knowledge and a quest. Jesse learns that God has left his post in heaven. The big man has just up and quit. Jesse finds that more than a little hard to swallow so he decides he’s going to find God, and make him pay.

Jesse is writer Garth Ennis’s notion of the true American Spirit. His father laid down the rules for him early on (before being brutally killed): “An you be a good guy. You gotta be like John Wayne: Don’t take no shit off fools, an’ you judge a person by what’s in ’em not how they look. An’ you do the right thing.”

Joining Jesse in his quest are Tulip and Cassidy. Tulip is Jesse’s longtime girlfriend. She’s smart, sexually aggressive and an expert marksman. Cassidy, on the other hand, is crude, Irish and a vampire.

There is also one other character in Jesse’s band that plays a significant part, although Jesse is the only one who can see him. The Duke—that’s right, John Wayne—appears to Jesse from time to time to help him get his act together. John Wayne is the one man that Jesse respects most in the world, and through Jesse’s journey, the Duke provides guidance and the hard truth.

Other characters include Starr, the psychotic all-father of the all-powerful Grail, who’s out to destroy Jesse for defying and defiling him. Also along for the ride is the Saint of Killers, an indestructible gunfighter, who took over for the Angel of Death. The Saint’s loyalty is to himself and his undying hate. And I would be remiss if I forgot to mention Arseface, who lives up to his name. Trying to emulate Kurt Cobain, Arseface blasted out a lot of his head, but succeeded in only turning his face into an ass. On the bright side, he did find meaning in life and, in an odd way, has become Preacher’s most positive character.

As I mentioned, Preacher’s story is ridiculous. But it works through the character. Writer Garth Ennis has created a group of different, individual people that are so interesting it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the main story, we will follow them.

Ennis is from Ireland, and as Joe R. Lansdale says in his introduction to the first Preacher collection, “Garth struggles now and then to be too Texan. But the spirit is right....” And so is the dialogue. Ennis has an ear for it and an almost overwhelming ease of bringing strong emotions out of the reader. More than once Preacher has made me laugh or brought me to tears.

While Preacher will be drawing to its almost assuredly violent and heart wrenching conclusion this summer, you can find the trade paperback collected editions at Borders and better comic stores everywhere. The first trade throws you in hard and fast and it’s tough to hold on, but if you can, the second one it will break your heart, lift you up, and have you hooked for the rest of the ride.

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