Preacher Ma’am: How Does ‘Salvation’ 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.
In this installment, Preacher faces controversy, and not for the usual reasons – but rather, because everyone argues over whether this arc truly serves the story. Salvation, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, with colors by Pamela Rambo and letters by Clem Robbins, is often considered the runt of the Preacher litter of trade paperbacks. Is it a misstep for the series, a needed divergence, or something else entirely?
Craftwise it’s as on-point as ever --- Ennis and Dillon only grow as master collaborators, their storytelling as beautiful as ever, with Rambo’s colors fully a part of the series now and depicting the allure of small-town life for Jesse Custer, the newly appointed sheriff of Salvation, Texas.
But the story also takes a turn into territory that writes out two of the three main cast, and many people understandably balk at that considering how important strong characterization has been to the book. The plot seems to have little to do with the forward momentum of the book; the plotline with Cassidy’s nature being revealed is put on hold and so is the quest for God. If the goal is to show how thrown for a loop Jesse is, mission accomplished, but still, nine issues is a lot of comic to do that with.
And yet, if you dig a little, it’s actually a very illuminating story about who Jesse is, when you strip him away from everything that gives him context.
The world of Preacher is full of cartoon violence and the kind of borderline-superhero morality where problems can be solved if the hero lays out enough fools and miscreants. If Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy faced any kind of legal repercussions for their actions, the rest of this series would be set inside a maximum security prison where Jesse would be ordering people to just give him a damn cigarette already. But they don’t, because that’s just not how the story works. Jesse punching and killing his way through a lineup of his enemies is how the story works.
So he shows up in Salvation…
... and that no longer applies.
Jesse’s shifted genres. He’s no longer a cowboy righting wrongs and smiting the wicked --- now he’s in the kind of story where the hero finally finds the peace he has sought and settles down. I still feel this is intentional on the part of God; giving Jesse the perfect town to belong to.
Everything is there. His mother is there. The closest thing to a childhood best friend is there. A woman who is much like Tulip in a lot of ways, but is an officer of the law, is there to nudge him onto the straight and narrow, ceding his independence to serve a greater calling (only instead of God, it’s the law). He has a villain who would twirl his mustache if he could grow one, and is such an utter pushover that his arm snaps in half when he tries to fire a pistol. It’s the perfect place for Jesse to rest.
Jesse Custer is meant to literally be an analogue for a Secret Jesus (plug the name into an anagram generator) so this story is, as my friend Tom Foss on Twitter called it, “The Last Temptation of Jesse Custer.” The last tug away from the path of righteousness, not into wickedness (although the comparison with the Saint is made)...
...so much as into comforting apathy. To let evil triumph because good men are content.
The temptation fails, in part because Preacher is romantic, if not necessarily a romance, and there’s only one girl for Jesse. But it also fails because Jesse is reminded that the world is still wicked, when the truth of one of Salvation’s pillars --- nice, kind Gunther, believer in the American dream, waxing eloquent of it over beer --- turns out to not be the "nice, safe sort of ex-Nazi' he claims to be.
This is honestly one of the most disturbing moments in the book for me, because Jesse has beaten a lot of fools and miscreants, but he damns Gunther. He casts him down with nothing more than words and a prop noose. Most disturbing of all is how Jesse seems to keep Gunther’s secret to himself, not telling his own mother how a man she fancied was secretly a war criminal before he committed suicide.
Jesse represents not just Gunther’s redemption, but Gunther’s only shot at redemption, and Jesse refuses to give it to him, even when Gunther is in tears and begging for it, his words destined to be repeated out of another man’s mouth before long.
Jesse’s condemnation is unilateral, beholden to no-one but himself --- much like God’s. And he refuses. And arguably, he’s not wrong to do so --- but the fact that he is held up as the only man who can grant it is itself, troubling, much like having all forgiveness and condemnation in the hands of God is unsettling.
The heart of Salvation, however, is Jesse’s reunion with his aforementioned long-lost mother, which is a fair-play Chekov’s gun that’s been on the mantle ever since Until the End of the World. This is comics, after all --- no body means no death. Christina Custer telling her story is a highlight, portraying a woman who has been hurt so badly that she spends decades struggling to think her way around a traumatic brain injury that’s taken about all there is to take.
What makes Jesse compelling to me is how everything about how he carries himself and acts points back to the patterns seared into his life by the abuse he suffered, and the man he felt he had to become to endure it. To see another side of this --- to see how Jesse’s family wounded and killed every good thing it touched --- is a welcome and heartfelt thing.
The truth behind Gunther angers Jesse, but the truth behind Jodie, AKA Christina, reassures him, and is the number one reason he’d be so tempted to stay. But in the end, he resumes his quest.
The last two issues in this collection feature Jesse unlocking his memories with a peyote trip, confronting his own internalized misogyny and his subconscious judgement of Tulip...
... as well as his confrontation with a version of God who is the ultimate abuser, shouting the divine equivalent of, "Why you gotta make me hit ya?" In a nice touch, all of Dillon’s craggy panel borders are present, but left hollow and without inks; a subtle, but effective way of denoting what is a flashback and what is the present day.
The final issue, the landmark #50 --- an increasingly rare landmark in the modern comics landscape --- is a flashback to the Vietnam War, telling how Jesse’s father earned the Medal of Honor. Despite mostly featuring two irregular characters --- one dead, one appearing only twice in 66 issues --- it’s a nice encapsulation of the series, depicting a war that is fundamentally violent and absurd, just like Preacher itself.
... as well as how friendship sees them through it all, even though that friendship is tested on the path back home. It’s a little questionable to portray John Custer’s internalized racism as on par with Spaceman’s contempt for white people from the South --- one has the weight of generations of institutionalized discrimination against it and the other does not.
But it’s forgivable, considering how bluntly honest Spaceman is about said institutions and how embedded in America they are, earlier in this very issue. And it’s a moment of lost faith while on the path --- much like what Jesse went through --- before they pushed on through to the end of their quest.
Jesse nears the end of his own quest, and there are two reunions coming --- one pleasant, one decidedly less so --- coming up in the next and penultimate collection, All Hell’s A’Comin’. All in two weeks’ time. See you then.