(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
First of all, I understand that it is totally unfair to read only the first two volumes in a series and then purport to have a reasonable grasp of what the series is like. My friend Keith, a crazed comics fan who has become the unofficial backseat-driver of my comics tastes, criticized Jugs & Capes for this when we read the first two volumes of Fables a few months ago. He sees this as a problematic pattern: the indie comics we're reading are all self-contained, and then we're trying to "get a taste" of mainstream comic series by reading the intro volumes to a series. But what else can we do? If you're not a die-hard comics-phile with limitless time to dedicate to seventy-plus-issue series, how else can you even get started? And listen: I get that you wouldn't try to judge an entire prose novel on the strength of its opening chapters, but you would decide whether or not you wanted to keep reading or just ditch the book and find something else. No one thinks that's unfair. So while I admit that I didn't read nearly enough to judge Preacher as a series, I do think I have the right to discuss how the first books affected me, and why I have little intention of reading any more.
The other introductory comment I'd like to make is that we were all primed for Preacher by reading reviews insisting that this series was not for the faint of heart, that there was pretty much something in here to offend everyone, that the blood and gore were horrifying, the language exaggeratedly profane, the plot obscenely sacrilegious. So though I am a bit squeamish when it comes to violence, I love cursing and hate organized religion (more on this at the end), and I was kind of pumped to see if these books really could offend me. I'll cut to the chase and let you know that it turns out they couldn't.
Preacher, in case there's anyone still reading who doesn't know, is the story of reluctant redneck preacher Jesse Custer, his sort-of girlfriend Tulip, a hitwoman and bad-ass, and Cassidy, a angry drunk vampire who travels with them. Oh, and it's also about how God has abandoned his post in Heaven, demons boning angels and spawning a scarily powerful and weird force called Genesis, Jesus as an overbearing prick, and a dirty, angry, horribly fucked world.
So as expected, the profanity didn't bother me, the blasphemy made me mostly giggle, and the violence... Well, the violence did upset me, but not how I'd thought it would. The truth is, I was more upset when the violence stopped upsetting me than I was when it did. I'm not going to do that whole "We're desensitizing our children!" hysteria, because I don't have or know any kids, but I do think that desensitizing your readers to your book's violence does a serious disservice to your book and your point. This book is supposed to be edgy and dark and devastating, but after you see a man whose flesh has been cut from his face, a disfigured failed suicide, a man with the back of his head blown off (brains visibly dripping through the hole), and dozens and dozens of shootouts and bar brawls and stabbings, it just stops being shocking, and then what's the point? I suppose I respect the fact that they kept finding new and different ways of hurting and killing people, but it was a somewhat bored admiration, a cataloguing of novelty rather than an appreciation of the intensity of the scenes. And to me, that's a failure.
And speaking of failures? Racism / homophobia. Look, I get that this story takes place in Texas, and I get that there are all kinds of closed-minded people there. But there are scenes that are just too much, like one in particular where a band of cops bat about the n-word and f-word willy-nilly. No. What's the point? It wasn't even as if it were targeted; if one of the characters had been black or gay and they'd shouted slurs at him or her, okay, maybe. But this was a different thing, this was just racism as a shortcut to characterization, which is awful. ("Ask me, I reckon it was n----rs [who burned down the church]. Martian n----rs." Or, "You tell him I see one of those media fucks, I'm gonna shove 'em up his f----t ass.") Now really, there are lots and lots of other ways to demonstrate that these men are ignorant and stupid. If this was done as an attempt to shock and push the same boundaries that the extreme violence does, that seems juvenile as well as offensive. (So maybe Preacher actually did manage to offend me.) Worse than lazy characterization, I think the racism played a part in making the overall plot more clichéd. Even though our "hero" is a gun-toting, violent semi-psychopath, our ragtag cast of "villains" are even worse--way worse. And one of the laziest ways to make a sharp distinction between the good guys and bad is to show that the bad cop is a racist homophobe who beats his crippled kid.
I felt the same kind of failure -- lack of nuance, lack of development -- in the "good" guys. Jesse and Cassidy are dangerous motherfuckers, but they seem to view violence as an itch that needs to be scratched, not a last, or even second, reactive resort. At one point they kill a dozen men in a bar because one of them denigrated Laurel & Hardy. Sorry, but that's fucking ridiculous. Especially since Jesse is meant in some ways to be a moral arbiter. He's a preacher, for goodness sake! I get that he's also a "good ol' boy," but that doesn't go far enough for me. In order to show morality, I need some gradual buildup to violence, I need to see him try to reason with people before breaking their fingers, I need to believe that he'd really rather not have to kill yet another yokel, but he will if he really has to. Otherwise he's just a nasty thug, little better than the nasty thugs he's senselessly butchering.
And now let's talk about the religious stuff. As is maybe clear, I'm a pretty staunch atheist, raised Jewish, and I tend to regard modern religions in the same way I do ancient mythology--as wild stories. Often allegorical stories, sure, but I have none of the religious hangups or residual guilt that so many modern (and especially lapsed) Christians do. So the Catholic guilt aspect of this story didn't affect me the way it likely would have if I were, say, a Catholic. I guess that means I'm missing a significant part of the impact of this story, but it also means I could treat it like a story, without bringing any emotional baggage to it.
In any case, I'm not saying Preacher was all bad; I did find the plots engaging and the dialogue punchy and believable. The art was of a type, of course, but clearly top-notch, especially the poster-quality chapter openers (which Keith informed me are the original covers of the single issues). The cursing didn't seem nearly as overdone as the violence, and the religious themes were interesting in the same way any fantasy plot would be. But look, in such a massively overcrowded media landscape, when every book I read means at least a hundred others that I never will, this one (well, these two) just didn't do it. Although of course, let's bring it back to the idea that these two books are likely just an intro, a bit of throat-clearing and balance-finding, and most likely if I were to read more of the series, I'd get more and more enmeshed in the story. But I just don't feel like it's a story I particularly care to get enmeshed in. As with all epic fantasy, I'm sure the good guys are going to win, and of course Jesse and Co. will kick a lot of motherfucking ass while doing it, probably up to an including the asses of God, Jesus, and all the angels. I'm sure it'll be an interesting (and very, very bloody) journey to watch them get there, and I hope lots of people enjoy following it. I just won't be one of them.