REPOST: Preacher: Dixie Fried
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 18/10/1998.
Ennis and Dillon eventually wrapped up the story of Preacher in 66 issues, collected in nine trade paperbacks (plus a rather nice volume of Glenn Fabry's cover art). Next on the agenda? Not a movie, but an HBO series, apparently.
That image of Arseface below became one of the most heavily leeched images on my old site, as I mentioned here.
In an upstairs room somewhere in New Orleans, two vampires are meeting for the first time.
Cassidy, the elder of the two, the Irishman, sensed the presence of Eccarius from ten miles away, and took a detour from his journey to New York to track him down. Now he has found Eccarius, and is astonished at what he has found.
"You're like me..." says Cassidy. "I've never met another, yeh know, another one before, except when I got bit, obviously. To tell yeh the truth, I sometimes thought I was the only one."
Eccasius smiles. "No, my friend, you are not alone in the darkness. You are like me, a lord of nightfall, piercing veins and drinking crimson, walking in the shadows of the mortal world. They fear us, and banish us to the blackness of their nightmares - yet there we flourish, and grow strong... for what are we, but the evil in their own hearts? We are a dark mirror to them, reflecting back their self-doubt and self-loathing."
"Aw, fuck me," groans Cassidy. "Yeh're a wanker, aren't yeh?"
I've mentioned elsewhere that Transmetropolitan is the third greatest comic book for grown-ups being published in the world today: well, Preacher is the greatest. (And once The Invisibles gets into its final pre-millennial stretch early in 1999, I'll fill you in on the second greatest as well.) Preacher has been running since 1995, and regular as clockwork, writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon have been churning out one issue a month, every month, without fail. The comic is so popular that the monthly issues are regularly collected into paperback format, and Dixie Fried, the volume under consideration here, is the fifth in the series.
Obviously there's a lot of backstory to be filled in here: the previous four volumes (Gone To Texas, Until The End Of The World, Proud Americans, Ancient History) have all the details, but I'll give you the bare bones to get you started. The preacher of the title is Jesse Custer, who begins the story suffering from a major crisis of faith. Drinking heavily, getting into fights with his parishoners in the small town of Annville, Texas... it doesn't look like things can get any worse. Until the Sunday morning when a spirit entity called Genesis erupts into Jesse's church and takes possession of his soul, vaporising Annville and its inhabitants in the process.
Together with his friends, gun-toting ex-lover Tulip O'Hare and the aforementioned Irish vampire Cassidy, Jesse tries to find out what's happened to him. Gradually it transpires that Genesis is a child conceived by the union of an angel and a devil. An abomination so unholy that it was held confined in Heaven, guarded by angels until its unfortunate escape. An abomination so unholy that its very Word has to be obeyed by anyone who hears it (a power subsequently passed on to Jesse). An abomination so unholy that the Lord God Himself, on hearing of its creation, quit Heaven permanently and left the angels in charge while he went into hiding. So ultimately, the plot motor driving Preacher can be summarised in one sentence: Jesse Custer Is Searching For God So That He Can Give Him A Damn Good Kicking.
These are big, dangerous ideas for a comic book to be playing around with. (If Preacher was done in a more popular medium, Southern Fundamentalists would have been baying for the blood of Ennis and Dillon long ago.) And yet, that's only the start of what this comic's about. There's a supporting cast of thousands all playing their part in the story. There's the Saint Of Killers, the brick-shithouse-dimensioned Cowboy Angel Of Death who has been charged by Heaven to eliminate both Genesis and Jesse. There are the massed forces of the Grail, led by the evil Starr, who want Jesse and his power for their own purposes, which primarily involve the one remaining descendant of the true Messiah. There's John Goddamn Wayne himself, who appears to Jesse as a spiritual adviser in times of crisis. And at some stage, we're going to have to mention Arseface over on the right there. But not yet.
Dixie Fried covers the events of issues 27-33 of the monthly comic. By this stage, Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy have been through all manner of trials in their quest for God, and are currently in New York making their plans for what to do next. Jesse and Tulip have rekindled their relationship, and Cassidy and Jesse have become the best of friends. By the end of the book, the relationships between the three of them will have changed subtly, and not for the better. Some Preacher fans complained about these issues when they were originally published, as they were lacking the slam-bang action that the comic had offered them for the previous two years. Ennis, however, is a much smarter writer than people sometimes give him credit for: the more character-based story here shows the idealised three-way partnership starting to turn sour, in preparation for a much bigger fall later.
On a suggestion from Cassidy, the trio head for New Orleans, in the hope of finding voodoo help in their search for the truth. Cassidy's earlier adventure in the Big Easy (as quoted at the top of this page) was published as a separate one-off special issue, Blood And Whiskey. In a neat piece of structuring, Blood And Whiskey was initially published after the issues containing the Dixie Fried storyline: you were aware there was some sort of historical reason why Cassidy was being chased after in New Orleans, but didn't find out the details until afterwards. In the book version, however, Blood And Whiskey comes at the beginning, setting up the backstory for what follows.
On its own, the Blood And Whiskey story is a fine piece of work in its own right. It's a neat sendup of Annie Rice and the whole Gothic fetishist movement: the vampire Eccarius has set himself up as the leader of a group of sad Goth wannabies, Les Enfants Du Sang, who loaf around in basements all day drinking blood and writing shit poetry. Cassidy's role in all of this is to rip the piss out of them mercilessly, which he does to terrific (and in one case fatal) effect. So a few years later, when he returns to New Orleans with Jesse and Tulip, Les Enfants are waiting for him. And this time they've got worse things than shit poetry to attack him with.
And as if that wasn't enough, there's the return of Arseface. Garth Ennis is notorious for being a writer who can create extraordinary characters, but Sheriff Hugo Root's teenage son is some sort of career best even for him: a kid so stupid that when he tried to blow his brains out with a shotgun in imitation of his hero Kurt Cobain, he missed. Still took a major chunk of his head off, though... hence the name, bestowed on him by Cassidy during an early confrontation in the series which left Arseface's father both dead and biologically humiliated. (Jesse's last words to Hugo, using his Word Of God power, were "Go fuck yourself.") Arseface swore there and then that he would have vengeance on Jesse Custer. Unfortunately, due to his facial reconstruction surgery, what he actually said was "Uh wuh huh vuhhyuh uh Juhh Cuhh", but luckily all his dialogue is subtitled.
That was in issue 4. It wasn't until issue 29, two years later, that Ennis brought Arseface back. (This is a man who knows he's got six years to tell a story and can pace it any damn way he likes.) After an enormous buildup, we finally get to see the long-awaited confrontation between Jesse and Arseface... and Ennis brilliantly takes it in a direction we wouldn't expect. We start to look at Arseface less as a figure of fun and more as an actual human being: in a subtle touch, we stop getting subtitles for his dialogue and are forced to actually read what he says and work it out for ourselves. And when he gets up on stage with a bar band, puts his hands behind his back and sings "Tuhduh, uh guhyuh buhyuh duh thuh thuh guhyuh thuhyuh buhguh yuh / Suhmuh, yuh shuyuh buh nuh rulluh whuh yuh guhyuh duh / Uh cuh buhluv uh uyuhbuhyuh fuh uh wuhyuh duh abuh yuh nuh", the buzz you get when you work it out is second to none. (Technically, that second line should start "Buh nuh yuh shuyuh suhmuh," but we'll let that pass.)
So, violence, blasphemy, swearing, sex (which I haven't mentioned here, although Jesse and Tulip get to do a hell of a lot of it, and I still have nightmares about what happened to the armadillo in issue 13), cruelty to the disabled... you want more reasons to read this? Well, the two main reasons have to be the creative team behind Preacher. Writer Garth Ennis, as has been stated repeatedly over the last couple of years, is basically the closest thing that comics have to Quentin Tarantino: he wants it all - comedy, action, horror, romance, cracking dialogue - and all within the same issue where at all possible. As with all the best writers of American comics, he's a Brit (actually, he's from Belfast), and his outsider's view of American people and culture has been filtered through TV and movies rather like Tarantino's has.
But with all the outrageous action, it's easy to miss how much of the series is character- and dialogue-driven, particularly in this volume. Almost an entire issue is taken up with a girls' night out featuring Tulip and an old friend. A large proportion of another one comprises Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy sitting round a diner table discussing the enormity of their task, and the sheer impossibility of punishing God. And best of all, at one point the story stops dead for around five pages or so to allow Jesse to pay tribute to the late great comic Bill Hicks.
Whenever people discuss Preacher, they tend to concentrate on Ennis' writing at the expense of the guy who actually draws all this stuff, Steve Dillon (another Brit, this time from Luton). This is basically because Dillon's art is so good as to be virtually invisible. Most comics have at least a couple of pages where the artist can cut loose and show off a bit. Preacher is notable for rarely doing that. Dillon's artistry is entirely dedicated to getting the story across in the clearest form possible, and his tremendous control of facial expression and framing means that even issues that consist almost entirely of three people talking around a table are a joy to read, giving Ennis' dialogue the setting it deserves. There's nothing necessarily wrong with artists who show off, however, and no discussion of Preacher would be complete without a mention of cover artist Glenn Fabry, whose lush painted covers for both the individual issues and the paperback collections scream BUY ME! from any comic shop shelf they sit on.
As is generally the case with successful comic series, Hollywood has come sniffing around, and a movie version of Preacher is currently being considered by Rachel Talalay, the director who made a complete Eli Wallachs of the adaptation of Tank Girl a couple of years ago. So as with Transmetropolitan, I'd advise you to go back to the source and check out the original comics, rather than wait for a substandard and inevitably toned-down film version. You'll be rewarded with the best storytelling in comics today, and a whole batch of laughs, thrills, scares and even a couple of philosophical insights. And don't forget that thanks to collections such as Dixie Fried, you can buy all this material in proper bookshops, not just those smelly little comic shops full of guys in anoraks wearing glasses held together with Elastoplast. Not that I'd put myself in that category, of course. Being a monkey, and all.
DC Comics, and their Vertigo imprint in particular, should have an official Preacher page but don't. Tsk. But Direct Currents [dead link] is good for publication dates and info on future issues for all DC's output.
Preacher's Divinity is the best of the unofficial fan pages out there, with lots of news, downloadable pictures, and a discussion forum.
The World According To Garth [dead link] is a comprehensive fan site dedicated to all things Ennisian, run by Pope Steffi Jane I of...
The First Church Of Garth [dead link] (motto: Futue te ipsum et caballum tuum). A group of comics fangirls who, like me, consider Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis (writer of Transmetropolitan) and Grant Morrison (writer of The Invisibles) to be the three best people working in comics today.. but for different reasons. To quote Warren Ellis, "I believe the way it works is that Garth is clean-cut and gentlemanly, and I am snarling and 'orrible. But it's Grant they want to fuck."
Sequential Tart, a splendid new comics webzine with an all-female staff, have scooped themselves an exclusive interview with Ennis and Dillon in which they drop a few hints as to where Preacher will be heading on the way to its planned conclusion late in 2000.