Until the End of the World: Celebrating The Beautiful Blasphemy of ‘Preacher’
It's hard to find a more succinct summary of the series, which ran for 66 regular issues, plus a few specials and a Saint of Killers mini-series, all starting with the first issue on February 28, 1995. Yet there was a lot more to it: an enduring love story, a handful of shocking twists, John Wayne's words of wisdom, a takedown of entrenched power structures, and a very dark sense of humor.
Preacher debuted on the heels of Ennis and Dillon's collaboration on Hellblazer. Dillon drew several arcs throughout Ennis' lengthy run on the title, from the early to mid 1990s. Several of the story themes that would become key to Preacher --- a protagonist dealing with a life change that spurs a crisis, fallen angels, and a cruel, violent society --- were present in Ennis' Hellblazer stories.
The first Preacher story arc, "Gone to Texas," establishes the big threads: Pastor Jesse Custer is possessed by Genesis, the offspring of a demon and an angel, killing his congregation and imbuing him with the "Word of God," an ability to force anyone to do anything he says. This ability is depicted using red lettering, similar to the red text used to denote the words of Christ in some Bibles. Jesse was already suffering a crisis of faith at this point, so along with his ex-girlfiend Tulip, a hired hitwoman, and his friend Cassidy, an Irish vampire, he sets out to find God and force Him to do his job.
The series does a deep dive into its three lead characters, digging into Jesse's parentage and his crisis of faith; examining Cassidy's long life as a vampire (including his participation in the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland); and offering a complex arc for Tulip, who falls into drug addiction after a surprising betrayal. Though the series is ostensibly a satirical religious farce, the story of Tulip and Jesse's relationship forms the heart of the book. After all, Jesse's answer to Tulip's, "Do you love me?" is one of the series' most memorable quotes, and the title of the second trade paperback; "I'll love you until the end of the world."
Over the course of the series, the group would find themselves pursued by the mercenary Herr Starr, an agent of a group called The Grail, which aims to bring about the Second Coming through a deeply inbred descendant of Jesus. They are also pursued by The Saint of Killers, who has been sent to Earth to retrieve Genesis. Throughout the series, the group encounters numerous other colorful antagonists; mostly dogmatic leaders with entrenched power. Yet Starr and The Saint of Killers are present through most of the series. Starr endures a string of humiliations before coming to a showdown with Jesse and Tulip; the Saint remains an enigma until the end of the story.
Perhaps the best example of the series' dark sense of humor is the character Arseface, a teenager who failed in a suicide attempt and was left badly scarred and unable to speak in anything but muffled words. While the character could have been little more than a cruel depiction of someone with physical and emotional scars (and some have criticized the series for that), the creators do treat the character as more than a punchline.
Even before the series ended in 2000, rumors swirled about a possible adaptation. Ennis quickly sold the rights to the story, but funding was hard to come by because of the potential for religious offense. Plans for a movie adaptation started and stopped for more than a decade, but in 2013, AMC picked up the property and announced it was shooting a TV adaptation with a pilot by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The first 10-episode season of the series is set to premiere in mid 2016.
Ennis told The Irish Times that Preacher undoubtedly had an impact on his and Dillon's careers: "Neither Steve Dillon nor I could have known it, but it really did put us both up a level; it got us to a place in the business through notoriety, or whatever you want to call it, that made us hard to forget."
That's one way to put it. Preacher is certainly hard to forget.