Preacher Ma’am: How Does ‘War in the Sun’ 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 War In The Sun, written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Steve Dillon and Peter Snejbjerg, everything changes forever. It's a promise that means nothing in most comics, but when Preacher says it, it follows all the way through. While Preacher is a lot like a superhero comic, it has one key difference: things change, and change greatly, and stay changed.
Back in the early 1990s, with Image still in its infancy, the manga boom just over the horizon, and Vertigo getting off the ground, this was actually a rarity in comics. You had a few runs here and there with a definite ending in mind, but only a few. Most everything was geared towards the never-ending eternal franchise that readers come back for month after month.
Nowadays, independent comics that don’t have an endpoint in mind are the exception, not the rule, so that part of Preacher feels less unique. At the time, to this fan in her early 20s, it was a revelation.
War in the Sun’s featured one-shot is One Man’s War, a chronicle of Starr’s rise to the top of the Grail, and a foretelling of his fall. He is defined here as a man whose petty, venal side --- the side that bears a grudge, that decided to kill his superior the moment his superior sees fit to humiliate him --- is destined, as the series goes on, to undercut his ambition and his ruthlessness. He could rule the world, if only he could let one single slight go.
His origin story even involves him going bald and being mad at a superpowered all-American. Like I said: a lot like a superhero comic.
Way back in Proud Americans Custer flatly tells him that he’s not interested in a confrontation, and Starr forces it anyways. Starr’s war is a war purely of choice, trying to swat a fly with a bazooka. Sadly, this idea more relevant to us today than ever, with the concept of asymmetrical warfare destined to be with us for a long, long time yet. Peter Snejbjerg’s art is a perfect fit here, because Snejbjerg is capable of rendering a pitiless world, with little sense of humor to distract from the horror of people torn apart by machinegun fire.
What stands out about War in the Sun itself is that the trade is the best that Pamela Rambo’s colors ever got. All of the wide-open vistas are shaded with warm yellows and tans, with dazzling blue skies. Everything feels big and warm and inviting, the heart of Jesse Custer’s America. There are genuinely beautiful vistas in this comic, which are exactly what Jesse talked about when he said how much he missed the South.
It all gets scoured of life by a nuke, which is treated in a somewhat unfortunate matter, because we’re informed that thousands of Navajo are going to die of radiation poisoning, but they’re not centered in the story, so their deaths feel cheap --- ancillary to the main narrative. They’re part of a discussion between Jesse and Cassidy about what it means to truly embrace idealism, and that’s it. They get fridged (a nuked fridge, no less, over a decade before that phrase meant anything.)
But said conversation is also the last time that Jesse and Cassidy truly talk as friends, before the nuke falls --- and on another level, it works, because it would have to be an unrestrained strike at the very heart of Jesse’s concept of America that does the damage it does. Starr doesn’t kill the Saint, and Jesse only appears to be dead --- but his quest dies, because of what happens next.
What happens next is a dramatic shift --- again, in colors, as a world where Tulip and Cassidy think Jesse is dead has all the joy bled out of it. Everything is sickly and grey, with even the color inside the hotel they stay in all languid and pallid. The world looks like a corpse. It looks like Cassidy’s world instead of Jesse’s.
What happens between Tulip and Cassidy, as difficult as it is to stomach --- and it gets more and more uncomfortable with every reread --- is a good example of how sexual assaults can happen even if on the outside everything looks fine. When Jesse sees Tulip and Cassidy kiss, he doesn’t know any of the context behind it. It looks 100% consensual. It isn’t.
Yes, Cassidy and Tulip were both drunk the first time --- but she was also on Vicodin, in a worse state than he was, and she is like that constantly, whereas he is sober often enough to know better. Even if it was consensual the first time, all that needs to be true for it to be sexual assault is for it to be non-consensual even once. And to skip ahead a little to the very end of the series, when Jesse calls out Cassidy on what happened, Cassidy only seems to realize then and there what all of this actually meant.
Everything Steve Morris wrote here about Cassidy 100% rings true. I wish this was something that had aged poorly and we lived in a more enlightened time about consent and what constitutes sexual assault, but sadly we don’t --- I saw Thelma & Louise for the first time recently and it could have been made today. Probably nothing indicates this so much as Preacher itself, which, for all of its gory violence and cussing and “they went there” humor, never seems to commit to calling this out as sexual assault.
As Jesse shrugs off losing an eye with “ah, it’s fine,” he heads out on the road to find Tulip and Cassidy, and on the way launches into a legendary, profanity-laden tirade against political correctness, the kind of thing that is a) incredibly quotable, due to the lyrical beauty of Ennis’ dialogue, and b) the kind of thing that, right now, makes me go, “Oh, I hope Jesse doesn’t vote.”
Now, Jesse by now has been established --- firmly --- as a flawed man with some bad ideas about many things, and no deeper insights into psychology deeper than “just walk it off.” His realization that he has to change is his entire arc. But the climax of that arc is issue #66, and between that and the beginning, there are 65 issues of him being as charismatic about his questionable ideals as he is about his noble ones.
With so much of Cassidy’s betrayal tied up in how charismatic he is, and in getting us to let our guard down, I have to ask if Jesse isn’t in a similar spot --- if his charm, as a damaged victim of childhood abuse, is meant to read as how a man is supposed to behave, rather than as a manifestation of a coping mechanism. Yet character arcs are a necessary storytelling tool, and if the characters weren’t charismatic, the comic wouldn’t be as good or as much fun to read. In order to become a better man, he has to at one point be depicted as a lesser one. If that depiction is of a charming man, does the charisma make it a problem where it otherwise wouldn't be?
There’s no real easy answer to all of this, other than, “Keep a sense of perspective about what you read” --- especially in books as skewed as Preacher, where an offhand comment by cheese-enthusiast cannibals to Herr Starr gives away the final fate of Jimmy Hoffa.
With the love of his life seemingly having moved on, Jesse turns around and walks in the other direction, and I have something of a fan theory about that. In this very arc, Jesse finally tells the Saint how he was pushed onto the path he took; how the Lord manipulated events behind the scenes and knew where all the dominoes would fall if they were knocked over in the right spot.
I think about how Jesse would have had to walk up at that exact moment, that precise time, to have seen what he did. A minute earlier, and he and Tulip would be back together again. A minute later, and he’d have missed them. Jesse was on the road a lot of the time, surely running into inclement --- or strangely perfect --- weather, or meeting other obstacles. And after this, he is seriously tempted to give up his quest.
Surely the hand behind those circumstances was not God’s?
In the next arc, we see Jesse walk away from his quest for a while, in what’s probably Preacher’s most controversial arc, and one that people either love or hate. Is the series still good without two of its three leads?
We’ll explore that in two weeks’ time. See you then.