Wednesday, August 19, 2015

'Preacher' and John Wayne

The TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon is a month-long event corresponding with the Turner Classic Movies annual presentation, in which each day in August is devoted to the films of a different classic film star. The blogathon is hosted by Journeys in Classic Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site.

Preacher was one of the greatest comic book series of the 1990s, acclaimed by a wide variety of pop culture critics and one of the titles that firmly established the fledgling DC Comics imprint Vertigo - home of Sandman, Hellblazer, and many other edgy genre books - into an industry powerhouse that is to comics what HBO is to television. With the recent news that AMC will adapt Preacher into a TV series, it's poised to capture a similar audience as AMC's other series adapted from a comic book, The Walking Dead.


Classic film fans have a reason to be aware of this book as well: John Wayne, the legendary hero of many cinematic Westerns over a career that spanned half a century, plays a prominent role as a character within the comic. I talked about this once before, when I wrote about the movie The Searchers, but now I want to go into a little more detail about how the Duke figures into the book. 

First, though, I feel I should issue a disclaimer: Preacher is absolutely not for everyone. Given the success of recent TV shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, which feature morally questionable lead characters (to say the least) and much more adult themes, perhaps mass audiences are ready for a Preacher TV show. We'll find out soon enough - but even so, Preacher really pushes the boundaries. It casts a harsh and sharply critical eye on organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and it does not pull any punches. In addition, there are copious amounts of sex and violence and severely twisted imagery. It's not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Still, if you approach it with an open mind, a willingness to re-examine certain beliefs long held up as truisms, and most importantly of all, a sense of humor, you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking adventure story unlike anything since the likes of Watchmen.

I will attempt to avoid too many spoilers, but it won't always be possible, so if you think you may want to read this someday (maybe before the series airs), consider yourself warned: some key plot points will be brought up here.


Garth Ennis (l), writer, and Steve Dillon (r), artist
A brief word about the creators. Writer Garth Ennis is Irish, and artist Steve Dillon is British. Both of them worked in the UK comics industry for a number of years, particularly on the popular anthology 2000 AD. The two first collaborated in 1991 on the DC Comics title Hellblazer (before it became part of the Vertigo imprint), featuring the character John Constantine, who you may know from the Keanu Reeves movie and the short-lived TV series. Their chemistry was so good that it led to the creation of Preacher in 1995. Since then, they've worked on a wide variety of material, both solo and together, for Marvel, DC and other comics publishers.


Preacher is written in the spirit of a modern-day Western, despite the fantastic elements. An omnipotent yet unstable entity called Genesis, the offspring of an angel and a demon, has escaped its confinement in Heaven and come to Earth, possessing the body of Jesse Custer, a small-town reverend from Texas. It gives him the ability to control the wills of anyone he comes across, making them do whatever he tells them to do. Through a subsequent series of events, Jesse learns that God has abandoned Heaven as a direct result of Genesis' creation, and now wanders the earth, a nomad. Jesse decides to search for God, in order to get Him to explain why the world is the way it is and force Him to re-assume His responsibility for humanity. He's accompanied by his once and future girlfriend Tulip, a sharpshooter and failed assassin, and Cassidy, an Irish vampire nearly a century old.

Wayne appears in Preacher as a kind of guide to Jesse. It's not entirely clear what is Wayne's true nature: is he the actual ghost of the dead actor? Is he some unconscious manifestation of Genesis, perhaps? Is he a figment of Jesse's imagination? We never find out for certain and ultimately, it doesn't matter. He's real to Jesse, and that's what counts. His is what could be considered the standard John Wayne appearance: cowboy hat, neckerchief, vest, button-down shirt, jeans and boots - the way he looked in many of his Westerns. His face, however, is perpetually in shadow. I have a theory as to why that is, which I'll get to later.



I want to point out three big examples (and a few smaller ones) of Wayne's presence within Preacher. The first involves Jesse's encounter with his grandmother Marie. She's a hardcore religious fundamentalist, the mother of Jesse's mother. Marie had Jesse's parents killed and raised him to be a preacher. To ensure his obedience, she would do things such as lock him in a coffin and drop him in a lake for days, with only tubes connected to the surface to keep him breathing. And though Jesse ran away from home as a teen (which is how he first met Tulip), Marie's redneck henchmen, Jody and TC, caught him and dragged him back home. Eventually, Jesse became a preacher.

Marie learns of his possession by Genesis, and in order to get Jesse to return to the pulpit, she sends Jody and TC to capture Jesse and Tulip. Tulip appears to die at their hands (she gets better), and as a result, Jesse's spirit is as close to defeated as possible when Wayne comes to him.



As a child, Jesse would watch Wayne movies with his father John, who held up Wayne as an exemplar of manly virtue, and we see young Jesse befriending Wayne, who promises to look out for him and to be his "pardner." Wayne is as much a manifestation shaped by Jesse's memories of his father as anything else, as we see in this flashback scene, set the night before John dies:



Wayne's unique brand of tough love pulls Jesse back from the jaws of despair, fulfilling the vow he made to him as a child:
Wayne: Yer gran'ma's got ya broke like ya were a headstrong bronco. Knows when ta... give ya rope and when ta pull ya in - an' she knows exactly when ta kick ya when yer down. Yeah, life's turned out rough on ya - but that ain't no surprise. Yer daddy told ya that. Said ya gotta be one of the good guys -  
Jesse: 'Cause there's way too many of the bad. 
[pause] 
Jesse: You're right. I let 'em beat me. I quit on my dad an' I quit on you. I don't know why you didn't just do the same. 
Wayne: Dern it, pilgrim.  
[puts his hand on Jesse's shoulder]  
Wayne: It's 'cause we're pardners.
Later, we learn that John, while he served in Vietnam as a Marine, met Wayne. In a flashback scene, we see Wayne step off a helicopter, dressed in military fatigues, greeting a procession of Marines, including John, who's trying his best not to freak out at the sight of seeing his hero in the flesh. Wayne gives a brief speech and hands out presents to the soldiers: cigarette lighters with the inscription "Fuck communism" on them. John has the honor of lighting Wayne's cigar with it:
Wayne [to John]: Got a light, Marine?
[John lights his cigar] 
Wayne: Mm - Thank you, son. What's your name? 
John: Custer, sir. Private J. 
Wayne: J for what? 
John [sweating]: For John, sir. 
Wayne [grinning]: Well that's a hell of a name.
Jody steals it from John, but Jesse steals it back when he defeats Marie and all her minions.

The second major example of Wayne's role in Preacher comes when Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy visit New Orleans. Jesse has learned that he needs to access the memories of the entity Genesis, locked up within his head, in order to learn more about God's abdication of Heaven and how to find him. Xavier, an estranged friend of Cassidy's, suggests using certain voodoo techniques he knows in order to get at that knowledge. While under the voodoo spell, Wayne appears to Jesse as a vision in an unusual, yet familiar, setting.



Wayne somehow knows certain things about the events related to Genesis, both in Heaven and on Earth. For instance, earlier in the story, he warns Jesse about a supernatural assassin sent by the angels in Heaven to search for Genesis, and by extension, Jesse. Again, how Wayne knows information like this is unclear, but it doesn't matter. As Jesse's "pardner," he's able to help Jesse when he needs it most, though he stops just short of full-on intervention. That, it seems, is beyond his power.



At one point, Jesse's road trip leads him through Monument Valley, which, of course, was the site of many of Wayne's greatest films. Wayne confirms to Jesse that this place feels like home to him. Even the bad guys acknowledge the site's significance: there's a brief moment involving Starr, member of the international, Illuminati-like religious organization called the Grail, who are also hunting Jesse for purposes of their own, and his assistant Featherstone, as they, too, talk about Wayne and Monument Valley:
Featherstone: Where they shot the Westerns? 
Starr: What? 
Featherstone: Stagecoach, The Searchers... You know, John Wayne? 
Starr: Typical American hero. Brash, loud, crudely simplistic approach to any given situation... 
Featherstone [smiling]: Always wins... 
Starr: A detail, Featherstone.
At Monument Valley, the Grail catches up with Jesse and a lot of bad things happen. The net result is that Jesse gets separated from Tulip and Cassidy, both of whom think he's dead. For a time, Jesse abandons his quest and settles in a small Texas town called Salvation, and this leads to our third major example of Wayne's part in Preacher. There are things Jesse saw during the events of Monument Valley and afterward, some of which he remembers, others he can't, and part of the reason he chooses to settle down in Salvation, however temporarily, is to put them behind him for awhile. Once again, Wayne comes to Jesse when his faith in himself is dangerously low (note how Jesse looks like Wayne in True Grit):



And once again, Wayne's no-nonsense tough love cuts through Jesse's self-doubt, both in the beginning of this section...
Jesse: This what I get? Try to be a good guy, try to do right by folks - is this my fuckin' reward? 
Wayne: Well now, pilgrim... I don't recall nobody sayin' nothin' about no ree-ward. 
Jesse: Point.
...and later on, when he gets caught up in events that threaten the town's survival:
Wayne: Pilgrim, there's things a man's just gotta... choke down whether they stick in his craw or not. Things ya can't hide from nor put behind ya. I thought ya knew that.... ya been doin' just what ya gotta an' not one inch more. Ya been treadin' water. An' that ain't what I expect from ya! 
[...] 
Jesse: Well, that sure is a harsh judgment. 
Wayne: Hell, pilgrim. Ya know any other kind worth a damn?
Eventually, Jesse leaves Salvation and reunites with Tulip, though his relationship with Cassidy has changed. Just before the story's climax, in which the Grail finally have Jesse where they want him, Wayne comes to him for the last time to tell him he can accompany Jesse no further:
Wayne [heading for the door]: I guess I'm... burnin' daylight... 
Jesse: Hey. 
[sticks out his hand] 
Jesse: I wanna thank you. 
Wayne [shaking hands]: Thank me fer what? 
Jesse: For being a goddamned hero. 
[Wayne grins slightly] 
Wayne: Hell, pilgrim, I'm just a... broke-down, wore-out ol' cowboy... but this broke-down, wore-out ol' cowboy wanted ya ta know: 
[walks out the door into white light in a direct Searchers homage] 
Wayne: He's prouda ya.
So why do we never see Wayne's face clearly? There are other famous people depicted in Preacher whose faces are shown - comedian Bill Hicks, poet Brendan Behan, and Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, among others - but those are cameos. None of them are as crucial to the story as Wayne. 

Now, it says in the Bible that to look upon the face of God is not for mortal man. Why do you think He appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, for example? And there is something about Wayne in Preacher that suggests something divine - the way he comes and goes at will, out of nowhere; the way he knows things Jesse doesn't or couldn't possibly know, if he were merely a figment of Jesse's imagination; and his limitless patience with and - dare I say it? - love for Jesse through thick and thin, sticking with him even in,  especially in, his lowest moments. And throughout the entire story, for all the talk of God, the Devil, angels and demons, etc., there is one person who is conspicuous by his absence.



I think John Wayne is Jesus Christ in disguise. Honestly, as many times as I've read and reread Preacher, this possibility never occurred to me until I prepared this post. I'm not even completely certain about this theory, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. So if any of you out there have read it and figured this out long ago, spare me the gloating, okay?

So like I said, Preacher is not for everyone, but there's a great deal to love and appreciate about it for those willing to take a chance on what it has to offer. For old Hollywood fans, it's also a loving tribute to the Western genre, as well as its greatest icon. (There's also a brief appreciation of Laurel & Hardy, too!)

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Previous Summer Under the Stars posts:
Sidney Poitier
James Cagney
Jeanette MacDonald
Catherine Deneuve
Hattie McDaniel

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