Preacher Ma’am: How Does ‘Until the End of the World’ 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.
If Gone to Texas was the fizzle, Until the End of the World is the bang. The second collection, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, with colors by Matt Hollingsworth, letters by Clem Robbins, and covers by Glenn Fabry, includes issues #8 through #17, and it's where Preacher truly takes off for me, all because of the lead-in story, which gives the collection its title.
Part of it is that I’m a sappy, hopeless romantic, and this is Preacher at its most romantic, even if the climax of the story does feature a senior citizen exploding. But it’s also the one where we learn what, at the heart of it all, makes macho ass-kicking perpetually-smoking bad boy Jesse Custer tick, and it’s the key to his arc with the entire series.
It’s set up with a sense of genuine dread from the end of the previous story arc, and it follows through, when the villains of the piece --- Jesse’s abusive family --- show up. Jesse, who normally takes no guff, is terrified of them from the moment they show up.
As the story progresses and a captured Tulip and Jesse await the dawn, when Tulip is going to be executed, Jesse relates the story of his upbringing and why it led to him running out on Tulip. His parents wound up imprisoned by his grandmother and his extended family, who have a very specific idea of how family should work, inspired by a twisted reading of the Bible --- and any deviation from this plan was met with severe and brutal punishment.
The idea is not a million miles removed from the series’ take on God Himself as a serial abuser, trying to manipulate people into loving him, but what makes this arc work so well is this: God Himself never hurt Jesse as much as his family did.
They torture him; they kill his dog, his best friend, and even, seemingly, his parents. And he’s too young to fight back, so he internalizes it all --- he swings between being absolutely furious at them and being in naked terror of them. He acts macho and tough (and is macho and tough), but it’s not enough against his family. It’s affected his behavior to the point where he refuses to cry.
Jesse Custer has been abused. He may reject modern psychology, but all the signs of a trauma victim are there. All the hallmarks of trying to navigate around something too big for him to fight are present. Even him running out on Tulip is because he was presented with an ultimatum: leave her, or watch Jody kill her.
At the story’s lowest ebb, it seems they’ve won, Jody makes good on that promise, as part of a twisted moral lesson by God --- who allows her to die, then brings her back to life, trying to get Tulip and Jesse to love him much like Jesse’s grandmother does.
If there’s any criticism of this story, it’s in the treatment of Tulip as a woman who’s hurt to further a man’s story, which interestingly never landed her on the Women in Refrigerators list. It’s a blemish on what is otherwise one of the best stories in Preacher. It does subvert the trope by having Tulip kill T.C. and kick Jesse’s grandmother out of her wheelchair, though, and having Tulip and Jesse work as a team even if Jesse thinks she’s gone forever, and it does play into the ongoing theme of Tulip being surrounded by people who are dismissive of her --- including Jesse and Cassidy, in different ways.
The finale of the story is about as perfect as comics get, as Jesse rallies and finds the strength to fight back, while Tulip prowls through the house armed with a shotgun. The fight with Jody is Dillon at the peak of his storytelling powers:
Jody is the first villain in a comic book I remember being actually scared of.
And the ending of the story, where all of Jesse’s tormentors are dead, Jesse and Tulip find each other, and then --- only then --- is the title of the story and the credits dropped on us like the four-color equivalent of a nuclear bomb, as against all odds, true love finds a way after all?
It's the first time a comic has ever literally made me cheer.
Compared to that, the followup storyline in the second volume, where Jesse and Tulip reunite with Cassidy, flush with rekindled passion, is almost an afterthought. Even though it introduces the series’ main antagonist and his two feckless lieutenants, “Hunters” is essentially a farce and a palette cleanser, tracking multiple stories fated to intersect at, bluntly, a giant orgy.
If "Until the End of the World" is Preacher at its leanest and meanest, this is it at its most indulgent. The multiple storylines do overlap and converge nicely in the climax (tee hee), but it all feels low-stakes, especially for a story that’s setting up one of the main antagonists of the series in the form of the Grail.
It’s not helped that a scene where Herr Starr, said main antagonist, is sexually assaulted and it's played for laughs. Yes, he’s the bad guy, and yes, he’s meant to have the worst luck in the world when it comes to being assaulted, beat up, and mutilated in various ways, including having his ear blown off by Tulip in their first meeting. It still feels like a step too far, even in a comic that lives on “a step too far.”
"Hunters" does, however, have an amazing sequence where, in the middle of an argument with Tulip that will set up one of their chief conflicts going forward, Jesse reveals that he’s read every book in the library in Annville and has a working knowledge of modern feminist theory. (All pre-Internet, no less. Again: Preacher was a long time ago.) It is out of nowhere and it’s honestly kind of ludicrous and I kind of love it.
The idea that Jesse has some idea that traditional gender roles are harmful, but hasn’t yet followed through on it all the way to a reexamination of his own machismo, is fascinating. As time goes on, men and how they treat women becomes a major theme of Preacher, and the seed is planted early of how, in his own way, Jesse is stuck in the same patterns Cassidy is, all planted there by the abuse he suffered.
All this comes to a head in the third volume, Proud Americans, where the Grail and Jesse have their first real confrontation. I’ll be covering it in two weeks’ time. See you then.