Preacher vol. 4: Ancient History (SC edition) – Garth Ennis

3 out of 5

If ever there was an embarrassing example of “I liked this when I was younger,” it might be the side series collected in this Preacher volume.  I remember really being blown away by the intensity of these comics over a decade ago, or whenever I first read them (late teens, early twenties); and some of that remains: The brutality of The Saint of Killers downfall; the true-to-life desperation of Arseface’s origin; the jaw-droppingly blunt taking-the-piss-out-of-the-hero-stereotype in The Good Ole Boys one shot – but in rereading it now, while some of that effect remains, and I got some chuckles from the funny bits, ‘Ancieny History’ unfortunately compresses one of the central problems with a lot of Garth’s writing: That it celebrates the same thing it vilifies.

Besides the overt religion conversation prompted by Preacher, kicking around in its wake is very often a contemplation on masculinity, and violence as a solution… not to mention how those two crossover.  There’s definitely some very purposeful and smart irony regarding those concepts and how they’re applied, and where it’s not ironic, on the whole Preacher makes it work thanks to the way its humanized its characters.  The writerly flaws are thus shared by its fictional character outlets; the writer’s potential flaws are human ones, expressed, in Preacher, by humans.

But Ancient History is lacking Jesse, or Cassidy, or Tulip.  And when you take out that context, along with it goes the irony.  And so Saint’s revenge wants to show the outcome of a life of violence while seeing it as a cool, badass way to shoot first and ask questions never, and our good ol’ boys are deplorable characters for whom we’re intended to cheer fuk yeah when they demean the manly man and bed the broad.

Arseface’s oneshot escapes these criticisms: It ends up being one of Garth’s better works, digging deep into a character type – the teen loser – we might universally look down upon, and making his travails equally tragic, touching, stupid, and hilarious.  ‘Thereby hangs a tale’ gets me every time.  Sandwiched between the uneven SOK four parter and the frustratingly ignorant Jody and T.C. oneshot is what makes this collection average out to three stars.

And now, in brief:

History covers how the Saint of Killers became just that, as: He was once a man.  This is the centerpiece of the collection, taking up half the trade, and is appropriately what Ennis dedicated his intro to: To stating that this is his chance to do the epic Western, a la Unforgiven.  And he gets there, mostly.  Steve Pugh’s grizzled artwork takes us through the characters downfall – especially effective is the final bullet that damns him – and then Carlos Ezquerra steps in for an issue where the Saint is sent to Hell.  And that’s where the book becomes a bit shaky.  It’s entertaining, without a doubt, but Ennis takes the opportunity to switch into jokey Ennis format, and it undercuts the intensity if the story severely.  Not to mention that when it lets loose again, the violence feels comic book (including bright, bright red blood) and not at all the savagery more rightfully associated with the character.  When Pugh returns for the last issue, and the Saint’s initial outlet back on terra firma, the strip looks rushed: streamlined to glory shots of non-sensical violence.  A valid intro, but it would’ve been interesting to see Garth stick to its viciousness throughout.

Next, Richard Case illustrates Araeface’s origin – ‘The Tale of You-Know-Who’ – from a Nirvana-obsessed slacker teen to botched-suicide medical miracle.  As told in the main Preacher series, Arse’s shotgun mishap is a gag; here, Ennis ratchets the abusive Dad stereotype up to a million, and paints Arseface – whom I believe remains nameless, a subtley effective choice – into a hopeless corner.  We get it.  We get that he has no options, no real support.  That it ends on a happy go lucky note is genius, and an example of when Garth’s particular love/hate with fate produces the right balance of depravity and smarts.

And lastly, the tale I’ve derided: The Good Old Boys, again by Ezquerra.  I’ve already picked this apart above, but let me clarify one thing: The story is hilarious.  Ennis essentially tosses the worst people on Earth in the middle of a B action movie and then lets it explode apart around them.  A scene around a campfire with T.C. and a dog must’ve made Garth giggle for hours when he dreamed it up.  And without context, this would read like Ennis’ Rifle Brigade adventures: Unawares and offensive goofballs up to all sorts of nonsense.  But, again, there is the context, of Preacher; using this particular duo in this humorous fashion just doesn’t sit well with the emotions they represent in the book.  Which is unfair, I guess, since the story is funny otherwise, but that feeling is what kept me from settling in to the story.

I would never deny the Preacher experience of any comic reader.  But I’m glad that my tastes have expanded, exposing the misguidedness of several aspects in the story, which are especially highlighted in this collection.