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November 24, 2009

Comics Are My Religion: Preacher

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Written by: Jeff
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Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialogue about religion in this column. Be warned, if you haven’t read the series discussed below, you might want to go read it and come back, as this column may contain spoilers!

“The way I hear it, there are two good places you can look for God: in church, or in the bottom of a bottle.”

“Maybe I’ll go find a liquor store then… ’cause lemme tell you: it sure as hell ain’t the church.”

This second line is among the first out of the mouth of the Reverend Jesse Custer, the protagonist in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, first published in 1995 by Vertigo Comics. And thus begins the journey of a man of the cloth who is desperately searching for God, but not in the way you might think.

Custer is the preacher of a rural Texas congregation. Only Custer is not your everyday religious figure. His closet is full of dark skeletons, including a family full of unspeakable abuse and dysfunction, a past full of crime, and a relationship with Tulip O’Hare full of misunderstanding. He eventually finds redemption and becomes the minister of a church, but everything changes when the offspring of an angel and a demon imbues him with a tremendous power called the Word of God, which causes him to destroy his whole congregation, and sends him on a journey to find God. With the help of his aforementioned girlfriend Tulip, and an ancient Irish Vampire named Cassidy, Custer takes on all the forces of evil in order to fulfill his mission.

I only got to read the first two trade paperbacks of Preacher, which covers the first 17 issues. The first trade is the introduction of these characters and their initial adventures. We discover that God has called it quits and has left God’s post on high. The unholy consummation between an angel and demon create the entity known as Genesis, who attaches itself to Custer, giving him powers to speak and make people do whatever he wants. Custer is given the task of finding God and making God answer for leaving. Along the way, Custer, Cassidy, and Tulip run across a serial killer on the loose; an ancient religious group called the Grail, who want to use Custer for their own purposes; and even Custer’s demented family, reminiscent of  the one in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They are also followed by the heavenly-sent Saint of Killers, who is bent on destroying Custer and Genesis.

While Preacher is perhaps one of the most disturbing and graphic comics ever created, it is the story of a journey. Most people tend to think that faith is about a moment in time where we are “redeemed” or “saved” or “enlightened.” However, faith is always about the journey one must take to make sense of a broken world. Jesse Custer is no different. As someone who came from a childhood of extreme emotional and physical abuse, Jesse’s whole journey is formed and shaped by this. Therefore, his theology is also shaped by this. To Jesse, God is an abandoning parental figure, who leaves him all alone. As a child, Jesse is punished by being locked in a coffin and sunk in the bottom of a lake for weeks at a time on numerous occasions. This is related to his own grandmother’s perversion of faith and ideas of God, which Jesse certainly absorbs. Therefore it’s understandable why Jesse would feel an absence of God, both in the spiritual world and physical, and thus goes to search for God to make God answer for all the brokenness in the world.

When life is as cruel as it is to Jesse, most people stop believing in God altogether, and rightfully so. In the world of Preacher, it’s no wonder that God is gone. Many people wouldn’t bother to even search for God. However, despite Jesse’s many scars and rough edges, despite his oft-abused use of power, he symbolizes each one of us, desperately looking for God to answer for the horrible things this world has to offer. Jesse’s journey becomes our journey, as we all have had dark and ugly realities thrown at us. The question is, where is God in those times? Does God abandon us, leaving us to the wolves of the world? Does God give up on humanity while we stew in our own depravity? For many, the answer is yes, and I certainly cannot judge them for that point of view, especially if they have had harrowing pasts like Jesse.

Jesse is not alone, however. First, he has the love of his friends, who not only support him, but join him on his journey. Tulip and Cassidy have no real reason to follow Jesse other than that they love him. They walk the road with him. Tulip dies for being associated with Jesse at one point, only to be resurrected in the next issue. Cassidy literally takes the place of Jesse, impersonating him while he is captured by the Grail. These are the marks of true friends. They may not be morally perfect, but they choose to walk the journey with Jesse.

Secondly, perhaps the true avatar of God is Jesse’s imaginary friend, the Duke. When Jesse is locked in the coffin as a child, he begins to hear the voice of John Wayne, developed from his father’s love of Wayne’s movies. Whether or not the Duke is a representation of Jesse’s father or God is not clear; however, it is a reminder to Jesse that he is not alone in his personal hell. The Duke becomes another companion on the way for Jesse.

Many folks might read Preacher as a blasphemous commentary on religion, however I think it allows for a realistic commentary on the utter absence of God some people feel when they experience great trauma. However, at least in the two volumes I read, there are signs of hope for Jesse Custer. He is not perfect by any means, nor are any of us; yet when we surround ourselves with people who know us and love us unconditionally, the load of life is easier to bear. Life is all about searching for God when God seems absent. Yet we may also find the key to our redemption, and perhaps even the key to helping us realize God’s presence all along is surrounding us in the people who walk the journey with us.

Faith is about community, and for Jesse Custer, community is found more in the liquor store than in the church. This may seem odd to many people, however I find that at least in my own life, God tends to show up in unexpected places. I find that when I search for God in what I think is God’s absence, I end up realizing that God was there all along, even joining me in my own times of hell.

Preacher will burn images into your mind that you may not want there, so be advised. However, it is also a parable for all of us to not be naive in our respective faiths; that when God seems absent, we must seek God all the more. We will certainly find strange and troubled companions as we search, who, if we’re lucky, will remind us that we’re never alone on the journey of faith.

Jeff Jackson



  1. Kristin

    Nice column, Jeff. I’ve been told to read this one, but I didn’t actually know what it was about.
    I think I’d be more inclined to say that it’s the people who are absent from God, and not God who is absent.

  2. Jeff, you’ve really got to finish this series at some point, especially given your profession; whether you have to buy them or read them in a Barnes and Noble- definitely read this one to its conclusion.

    I always wondered this about Christians; why is it when something wrong happens, it’s generally associated to man abusing his free will, but when something great or good happens, it’s typically associated with happening because ‘God’ is blessing us or smiling down on us? Can man do no good on his own?

  3. billy

    Books like this fascinate me. It asks questions that are not your typical “comic book” questions.

  4. Jeff Jackson

    That is a great question, Andy!

    Speaking as one Christian, the way I see it is when good things happens, it is the result of human goodness. But I also believe that the source of all goodness is God. Therefore, when good things happen, I give credit to God, from whom all blessings flow. I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen, though, so when bad things do happen, I think it’s because of human choices, or the brokenness of creation (in terms of natural disaster).

    However, in college, I wrote a paper arguing that God had a dual nature of good and evil. It drove my fundamentalist professor crazy. It was fun to explore that notion.

  5. Yeah, l don’t get it.


  6. Jeff Jackson

    *Scratches noggin*

    Neither do I sometimes. Haha.

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