Preacher Ma’am: How Does ‘Proud Americans’ Hold Up Today?
As someone who thought she was a dude in the late 1990s, Preacher was the comic I looked forward to every month more than any other. As someone who knows she isn’t a dude in the mid-2010s, I’m looking back on this series and examining what still works, what doesn’t work, and what its lasting legacy is.
This week, we look at the stories collected in the third volume, Proud Americans, courtesy of writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, colorist Matt Hollingsworth, letterer Clem Robbins, and editor Axel Alonso, with covers by Glenn Fabry. These stories are all thematically tied together by reconciling what seems to be with the way things are --- the myth versus the reality --- although in one case, we may not know it yet…
Garth Ennis would probably explode with rage at me for saying it, but there is a little bit of the superhero in Preacher.
Not a lot --- superheroes usually don’t cuss this much, although in the past few decades they’ve definitely gotten as bloody as this comic gets. And unlike superheroes, Preacher has an ending, with no rumblings of a sequel. But Jesse Custer definitely has a superpower and he definitely wears an iconic outfit, and he definitely roams the land and smites the wicked.
There is a grandeur to Preacher, especially early in the series, a sense that its heroes are a minimum of six feet tall. This is the arc that exemplifies that, as Jesse Custer fights for the life of his best friend, against an army that’s very keen on color coordination: the Grail, the super-powerful church that is the recurring, larger-than-life adversary for the larger-than-life preacher mad at his God.
It’s kicked off with a one-shot where Jesse meets Bill Baker, his father’s best friend from Vietnam, and Bill tells Jesse the story of how his father got a lighter that says “F--- Communism” from John Wayne. Early in the story, Bill and John Custer (or “The Spaceman and Texas” as they’re nicknamed) meet the Duke, who exemplifies America the myth, which is then contrasted against the realities of warfare in Vietnam that get harsher as the story goes on.
This contrast --- what the mythical nature of America seems to be, versus the mess that it so frequently is --- is an ongoing one in the series. Not just with America, either; what something seems to be versus what it actually is, is the entire arc with Cassidy, and it applies to the Grail as well.
What’s interesting about the Grail is that it’s formally introduced with the knowledge that it’s being subverted. We meet Herr Starr and find out that he’s plotting a conspiracy within the conspiracy before we even fully learn what the conspiracy is. Nothing’s more '90s than a conspiracy within a conspiracy, but this plot element has aged surprisingly well, because what the Grail wants is relatively straightforward, and what Starr wants is also.
It’s not hard to see a conspiracy within a conspiracy developing; any group of people skilled enough to hide from the whole world will adopt secrecy as their default modus operandi, and will take on that posture within the confines of the secret itself. The Grail is a secret institution, but it’s still an institution --- it’s the institution, running all the world’s governments, and just as vulnerable to institutional rot. It’s a perfect mirror for the series’ take on God; the God of Preacher wants everyone to love Him and know who He is, whereas the Grail operates entirely in secrecy, and all their foibles arise from these two different approaches.
What’s especially interesting about the conspiracy within the conspiracy is that it’s basically a quibble over a detail that’s been blown up into the kind of feud that acquires a bodycount. D’aronique and Starr both want the world to brush close to Armaggedon, then be saved by a Messiah figure; the difference is that the Grail has every hope that the product of two thousand years of inbreeding within the bloodline of Jesus Christ is going to save the day, and Starr thinks Jesse Custer --- a man with an actual, proven superpower, may be a better fit.
But both of them have committed and are planning to commit great atrocities, and D’aronique brings the weight of the Grail to bear on Jesse Custer for a personal slight, as Starr will later on when he successfully initiates his coup by dropping an 800-pound man onto an inbred Messiah (which is about a 9.1 on the Garth Ennis Problematic Fave scale.) They’re really not that different, when judged for their actions.
Starr is a non-believer --- in the sense that he takes nothing on faith, to the point he needs to interrogate an angel to find out if God is real --- and he is just as capable of doing as much damage to the world as any faith-embracing zealot. It’s not the faith; it’s the institution, and it’s the plan the institution has. This aspect of Preacher remains sadly relevant in our era of unresponsive institutions, where the growing acceptance of non-believers has been paired with the realization that they can keep up just fine when it comes to advocating for the killing of people unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong country.
Into the middle of this walks Jesse Custer, the least secretive man on the planet, who blows it all to hell. He doesn’t care about the internal politics of the Grail; he’s just here to stand by his friend. He winds up doing Tulip a wrong turn in the process, knowing it’s the wrong thing to do but unable to get past both his own machismo and the trauma that inspired it. As the series goes on, the Grail winds up diminished as a foe, and the internal arcs between Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy start to take center stage --- the seeds of which are planted this far back.
The trade ends with a freshly rescued Cassidy telling Jesse the story of how he became a vampire, and then how he became an American, bookending the collection with flashback stories. But while Bill Baker’s story is about how Vietnam forced John Custer to do terrible things, we later learn that Cassidy is telling the truth, but not the whole truth. All the good bits, and just enough of the bad that you don't ask why there isn't more.
Cassidy’s romanticising of America is much like the romanticism he holds towards himself; refusing to see the bad as well as the good. (There’s a reason he’s always wearing dark glasses from the moment he ends up in America. I wonder if Matt Hollingsworth took the day off after realizing they should be rose-tinted.)
The flashbacks don’t stop, as the next collection, Ancient History, is all about the backgrounds of various Preacher characters; Jody & T.C., Arseface, and the Saint of Killers. I’ll be covering it in two weeks’ time. See you then.