The heavenly throne is empty; God has wandered off. Angels see to the day-to-day running of heaven, but the rest of creation has to make do without a deity.
A disillusioned priest finds himself taking up some of the slack – an escapee from heaven gives him the Word of God – any command he gives will be followed by those who hear it. There is, apparently, no limit to the commands – “burn” works as well as “stop”.
With his ex-girlfriend and a vampire in tow, the preacher sets off to find God, intending to call him to account. Everyone else, from law enforcement to the patron saint of murderers, tries to stop them.
I love the concept – the Word of God is a great power, with all sorts of interesting narrative possibilities. I’m also always interested in priests as protagonists – they don’t get the spotlight very often, and that too opens up neglected avenues in story telling. On the face of it, this was a graphic novel that ticked a lot of boxes for me. Regrettably though, I felt that Preacher didn’t quite live up to this promise.
One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of Preacher is the tone – from the first page, the comic aims for dark, for gritty, for edgy. Preacher is violent and explicit, filled with sex and slaughter. To be entirely honest, it’s all a bit much.
I’m not against violence in fiction, at all – it’s absolutely necessary for all sorts of stories, and authors should not pull their punches with it when needed. The issue I have with Preacher is that I don’t think it is needed. Preacher is a work that constantly shoves depravity in your face; every single character is a grotesque, every back story involves something sordid.
It is perfectly possible to argue that this is a deliberate choice – after all, Preacher presents a world in which God has abandoned Creation; without the summum bonum, you’d expect there to be very few moments of lightness and innocence in the series.
But I have two issues with that interpretation. The first is that the world of Preacher is one without a god, but it’s made quite clear that the god wasn’t all that great in the first place. It isn’t that God has left, and taken away all the goodness and hope, but that there was very little of it around even when the deity was in residence. Angels are swaggering bullies, heaven is a sparse bureaucratic tedium, and so on.
Secondly, even if that is what the writer was aiming for, presenting a grimy world to show either an abandoned creation or a flawed one, it doesn’t quite come off. Preacher comes across as gratuitous, as edgy for the sake of edgy. There are multiple characters and scenes (“arse-face” being the most egregious) that illustrate no theme, illuminate no aspect of the narrative, but seem to exist solely to shock and to beat the reader over the head with the idea that this is dark and gritty.
That’s a shame, because once you get past all the edge, Preacher has some strong positives. Certain characters are very well-constructed, showing – even when featured only briefly – complexity and moments of pathos. It’s the side characters here who are the real strength; they provide glimpses of humanity against a cynical backdrop, giving weight to the story.
The Word of God is used enough to be relevant, but not overly much – it can be a problem with magic and similar things that they become a deus ex machina, fixing problems out of nowhere with the explanation hand-waved away. The Word of God in one sense is, of course, exactly that – it genuinely is a god solving problems in the narrative. But it isn’t used without caution. The preacher can’t always access it, it doesn’t solve problems as directly as it could, and so on. It’s powerful, but not unrestricted.
The narrative of Preacher is not amazingly strong. It isn’t helped by all of the characters spending the first half even more confused than the reader, but even once everyone is clear on the big ideas, there’s not much of a driving force. It’s a problem caused, I think, by the medium; each issue of the comic needs to have something of an arc, and that ends up creating a disjointed hole, full of side-plots that seem a little out of place, or rushed resolutions (Hellblazer, a rather similar work, had a similar problem). In addition to hunting down God, there’s a serial killer on the loose and a troubled family history and a lot of backstory on characters that doesn’t help the main thrust of the work.
As this is a graphic novel, I should mention the art at some point, though that really isn’t my area of expertise. The art is consistent and understands how to suggest action through discrete images without labouring the point too much. One aspect I particularly liked was the use of colour – scenes tend to use limited palettes that vary on a theme, subtly building atmosphere and setting. Red features prominently throughout the book, used for emphasis as much as blood.
“Graphic novel” is a phrase that comes with a particular cachet, in much the same way that I understand some people in the US use “film” to describe something distinct from and different to movies. Preacher is a series that wants to be seen as a graphic novel, not “just” a comic, and that, I think, is the seed that pulls the entire thing down. It makes the book self-conscious, focused on seeming serious and hard-hitting rather than just telling its story as well as it can.
Preacher is a good idea buried under a lot of clutter and a lot of needless shock value, so that the things it does well only shine through occasionally. A lot of time is spent on establishing the world, which slows the pace of the narrative. It all suffers from a desire to prove itself challenging and gritty, which often comes across as adolescent and needless – it’s a clear weakness, and one that could be easily remedied. I’m hoping that the next book, absent the teething troubles, is stronger overall.