Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Been re-reading the brilliant Preacher comic, and enjoying it the second time around every bit as much as the first a few years ago.

What kills me about the story is how rooted it is in classic tropes of masculinity, cowboy morality, righteous indignation, vegeance, and even chivalry, but manages to understand and re-present these tropes entirely on its own terms. The human ideal, the guiding light, the emotional support, is John Wayne, not the man himself but an amalgam of his movie characters. The Duke is an archetype, reshaped, but only slightly, to instruct loyalty, determination, and, dern it, doing the right thing and not quitting.

There's a fairly unambiguous morality of killing those who deserve to be killed, from louts who start bar fights for the wrong reasons (our heroes start plenty of their own fights, but just to blow off steam, without homicidal intent) to those who take pleasure in killing others.

One of the three central characters, Cassidy, is a vampire who (unlike in the Buffyverse) isn't an animal who lives solely for the kill but only feeds on people who've got it coming to them. The rest of the time, he orders rare steak.

The Preacher himself, Jesse Custer, kills first a serial killer then a poor relation who tormented him from childhood and shot to death both his father and the love of his life right before his eyes.

When we meet the third central character, Tulip O'Hare, she's about to put a hit on some guy who probably deserves it, but she fouls it up. Later, she kills another of Jesse's tormenters who manhandled her and called her a cooze.

More fascinating, I think, is how the book sticks to an ideal of chivalry -- something we all know finds its roots at the antipode of feminism, somewhere in the latitude of Christianity, and not too far down the street from misogyny.

The book is certainly not Christian. (I for one always have the vague sensation that God -- should He exist or care -- will smite me at any moment for reading something so deliberately and exuberantly blasphemous.) I wouldn't say the book is feminist by a long shot. Misogynist? Well, Tulip sure does get beaten up and shot at a lot. Read into that what you will; but note her companions take colossal beatings as well, and are both killed and reanimated, like her, to boot.

Jesse Custer has little time for deconstructing his masculinity and chivalrous impulses. It's not that he's unaware of or squeamish about where such deconstruction might take him. He's read Greer and Dworkin, he says. He just feels a stronger, if anti-intellectual, pull toward old-fashioned gallantry.

As he says to Tulip just before mounting a dangerous rescue:

"I dunno if it's genetic or if it's to do with what we get taught, or if it's just 'cause it's expected of us -- But it's what we do, okay? 'Cause to help a girl when she's in trouble, or stop her gettin' into trouble, is just the right goddamned thing to do. An' I know you're as smart as me, an' as capable, an' my equal at just about everything -- I know you're empowered, or whatevr the hell you call it -- But I swear, I even think of a single hair on your head gettin' harmed an' all that bullshit goes right out the fuckin' window..." ("Until the End of the World" [Vol. 2], p. 251).

For all the ingenious work Buffy did blurring it's own absolute divide between good and evil, I think we have here a more sophisticated if (could it be?) less realistic moral universe. Jesse Custer is the spit of Nietzsche's ubermensch -- a man who sets out with his own set of morals into a world of amorality and conscious unmorality. His morality may be informed by the teachings or expectations of others, but, at least if we take his word, it is undeniably his own. Moralities must have an origin and a refuge; usually that is God or a concept of God. Jesse wants to rely on something that antedates or escapes God.

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