Have you ever read Preacher? It’s one of those transcendent comics that ran for a few years in the mid-90s. They came in just ahead of the renaissance that brought to the fore the graphic novel, a format, in retrospect, far more natural for these odd ducks. Because they are novels, with all the literary power and capability to impel reflection that word implies; they just happen to have accompanying pictures.
Preacher is a brutal, beautiful, love letter to America, written by an Irishman and drawn by an Englishman. It’s all blood and sinew, the absolute most horrific violence and degradation a very creative pair of minds could conjure, paired without a hint of whiplash to moments so funny you’ll literally have to put the book down. Sometimes they’re even one and the same, and you’ll find yourself in that “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this but DAMN” mode. The characters are that perfect mix of mythic archetypes and detailed characterization that comics are so suited to. The villains are hate-able, the heroes stand tall, but no one is simple, and there’s some sympathy to be found in even the most hateful pieces of excrement (Of which there are plenty.)
More than any of that, though, Preacher is a meditation on America and on being an American. The hero and titular character is named Jesse Custer, a hard-drinking, hard fighting, Southern-born outlaw turned preacher turned outlaw (of a sort) again. Jesse is Clint Eastwood’s frame and laid back, predatory attitude combined with the unwavering justness of Atticus Finch. He’s that sort of violent that we would call psychopathic, if it wasn’t so unerringly directed at people who really–conveniently–deserve it. Jesse is every Western hero stereotype from Odysseus to Shane, rolled into one. He swears a lot, he’s a bit more than arrogant, and he’s always chivalrous to women, if a tad old-fashioned. His very literal Jiminy Cricket is even a spectral John Wayne.
I could spill gallons of virtual ink deconstructing Jesse Custer, or anyone else in the comic’s large, well written cast. What I want to talk about more broadly, however, is Jesse’s role as the dead center, bulls-eye ideal of the American hero. What a beautiful, contradictory, and completely unattainable idea that is.
“Don’t take shit off fools. Judge people by what’s in them, not how they look. Always do what’s right. You’ve gotta be one of the good guys, because there’s way too many of the bad.”
Those words are the raison’d’etre for Preacher, book and character alike. They are spoken to Jesse by his father, John Custer, moments before he’s gunned down, in true oater fashion. It’s excellent writing, like a Zen koan in its power and simplicity, Eastern mysticism appropriated for Western characterization. There’s nothing in the way of explanation. “Do what’s right” has no elaboration, it is simply assumed that we all possess within us an elemental understanding of exactly what those three words mean. It places a burden upon us, says we can’t hide from understanding when we’re choosing to do (or not do) what is right. Being one of the “good guys” is all on you, those words say; all they’re doing is laying out why you need to make that choice, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.
There’s such power in those words, such fundamental, nearly childish concepts of morality, that I suspect you could pluck an American male from absolutely anywhere in the nation–a man of any color, any belief, any sexual orientation, living on either coast or in the great wide middle, in a city or five hundred miles from one–and make a safe bet that he would echo the sentiment.
Let me pause a moment here to explain that I’m not speaking of American males because I believe them to be more honorable or upstanding in any way than American women, or indeed individuals of any gender. I’m sure almost anyone, American or otherwise, would find power and agreement in those words. I’m speaking now about men because the simple concept of the “American character” is so tied up in ideas of masculinity that to meditate on one is to consider the other; to be a cowboy is to be a boy on some level, for better or for worse–mostly worst. Preacher addresses this through Jesse’s rather antique attitudes to the love of his life, painting his obsessive need to keep her safe as patently ludicrous given her own, in many ways superior, capability to defend herself. He knows it’s ridiculous too, and the contradiction forms an integral part of both character’s arcs.
Why the power, then? It’s not as if the average American is a better person than someone of another country. It’s not as if we have a higher standard of moral behavior, or as if this sense of fairness, this directive that “you have to be one of the good guys”, is somehow manifest in US governance. What is it about these words that carries such a simple, straightforward power?
No one wants to think of themselves as the bad guy, but that’s not the same thing as thinking of yourself as a good guy. That, I think, is where the crucial difference lies between Americans and most of the rest of world. On some level the vast majority of Americans need to think that they’re the good guys, that the United States isn’t simply adding more good to the world than bad, but that it is actively ticking backwards marks in the “bad” column.
When Jesse’s father directs him–directs us–to always be one of the good guys, it’s consequently not confining; it’s freeing. It tells us the world is simple. There’s bad, there’s good, and a man’s only real responsibility is to be the latter. The defining trait of good, of course, is that it opposes bad.
Americans believe in fairness. Our disparate political philosophies don’t disagree on that point, only in the boundaries of what is fair. All the talking heads screaming themselves hoarse; all the rallies to uphold sanity or oppose sanctity; all the guns in restaurants and OSHA guidelines in break rooms; all the news networks with this bias or that bias, this agenda or counter-agenda; all the lawsuits, all the counter lawsuits; all the hate, all the anger, all the calls for involuntary deportation, all the threats of voluntary same; every bit of it is about a self-defined sense of fair play. Our problems with one another, our differences, all lie in variances of perspective on that basic idea of fairness.
Let’s shift gears a bit, and examine this odd American obsession with an unrealistically simplistic world–a fair world–from a different fictional perspective. In 2008 The Dark Knight was the biggest movie in years. Everyone seemed to love it, the movie racking in rare critical acclaim beside its crowd pleasing sensibilities, but it brought a bit of controversy in its wake. On all sides of the political spectrum there were people who saw its climax, wherein Batman turns every cellphone in Gotham City into a node in a citywide surveillance system to find the Joker, as a none too veiled endorsement of the Bush administration’s conduct in the war on terror. In this scenario Batman, I suppose, is a stand in for George Bush, whittling away some measure of the American public’s right to privacy in order to protect it from a threat that has proven beyond the capability of previous safety mechanisms. A new tactic for a new world. It wasn’t a universally accepted interpretation by any means, but it was somewhat unique in its width, individuals from left and right alike espousing this Batman-as-Bush idea, albeit coming to vastly disparate conclusions about what kind of movie that made The Dark Knight.
Putting aside for a moment the absurdity of imprinting a mythical, hyper-competent, Sherlock Holmes analog onto the actual president of the actual United States, the whole idea that Batman’s use of this surveillance tactic somehow translated to an endorsement, struck me as naive confirmation bias. Batman is, like Sherlock Holmes before him, a super man (Heh heh), not simply good at what he does, but top of the class in everything. He’s the smartest, the fastest, the strongest, the deadliest. What all of that stems from is the single fact that Batman is the Best Man.It’s only fair he get to be the best at every physical aspect of his work, because he’s also the most just, the most determined, the most unwavering in his pursuit of what is right and decent and good. When director Christopher Nolan hands the keys to the surveillance state to Batman, he’s not saying we must be ready to confront existential threats with tactics that erode our basic rights, but neither is he shying away from the fact that such tactics work, at least in the short run. What he’s saying is that only an individual such as Batman, an individual so upright as to achieve mythical status, could ever be entrusted with such power.
In a fair world only a man such as Batman would ever achieve the kind of power a United States president wields, political equivalent to Batman’s super technology and unstoppable ninja skills. But George Bush isn’t Batman, any more than Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan, or any man who’s ever sat in the White House is. No one is Batman, because Batman doesn’t exist.
Jesse Custer and Batman share much. They are hard-eyed men of action, tough as nails and without hesitancy in their opposition to evil. They are individualistic, self-made men, who have overcome shattering tragedies in childhood, and subsequently earned a touch of self-righteousness. They use violence when they must to achieve their aims of always doing what is right. They are, in terms of how they act upon the world, the very embodiment of the core values of the American right, the same cowboy morality which George Bush cloaked himself in to conduct his War on Terror, now more often depicted with the piano keyboard smile of Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Yet both of these figures, JC and BC, straddle a line; their righteous violence typifies the American right no less than their moral rectitude embodies the ideals of the left. Batman is a billionaire whose wealth and influence is directed unerringly at helping Gotham’s most vulnerable citizens, both through Bruce Wayne’s endless charity events–just about all he ever seems to do as Wayne–and Batman’s multi-million dollar crime fighting toys. Jesse Custer is an agnostic intellectual who never judges people by what they look like or believe, only by how they treat others. The villains opposing both heroes are a never-ending tide of powerful men (mostly men, mostly white) with the potential to be great forces of good–brilliant soldiers, genius doctors, immortal beings–who instead shirk their responsibilities to society and wage selfish war upon it.
The typical example of the American left considers himself a fair-minded individual who abhors injustice and pointless conflict. He views his counterpart on the right as a vengeful brute, conducting his life more or less as his prejudices direct, probably cloaking it all behind a thirty-five hundred year old book of Jewish fairy tales. That counterpart, meanwhile, views the liberal as a wimpy professor type, more concerned with not offending anyone than actually taking action to make the world a better, more just place. Both have a point, and both are simultaneously wildly wrong in their broad generalization. Both view the needs of the world in similar terms–justice must prevail, evil must be fought–yet they consider the other as a threat to that end result.
So why do we all love Batman? Why do we all find something stirring in Jesse’s directive that he has to be a good guy? What is it about two inarguably violent men with mythically powerful moral compasses, that we can all find something to project our own beliefs on to?
I believe it’s because our heroes live in a constant state of last resort. The American hero as a rule doesn’t want to be violent, he’s compelled to it. The world around him is one of such evil, of unjust, terrible men doing terrible things to innocent people, that a good man is left with no choice but to enact violence against them. As directed by John Custer, Jesse “can’t take shit off fools”, and he must “always do what’s right”;unfortunately for all involved, he lives in a world of never-ending shit from unrepentant fools, where the “what’s right” to be done is necessary violence.
We all like that. We on the left like that our hero has kept the faith of moral rectitude, is protecting people and doing what’s right. We understand that he’s committing violence not because he desires it, but because he has no other recourse in keeping faith to his ideals. Those on the right like that the hero isn’t taking shit, that his guns are blazing and evil is being purged from the world by a man with a code, no complex questions paralyzing him to inaction.
Really, then, what we all like is that moral relativism has disappeared. All options are exhausted; it’s last resort time.
And that’s why it’s fiction. Because that’s not the real world. So at its most basic level, and here is where I’m going to offend some people, this becomes a question of distinguishing fantasy from reality. I believe that those with a leftist bent, while far from immune to magical thinking and self-projection, are vastly better at this than their counterparts on the right. Chalk it up to not being as tied to that aforementioned book of millenia old folk tales.
Fiction has cosmic good and evil. Reality has a myriad of good and bad actions, like threads woven by each of us into a tapestry of unimaginable complexity. The idea of a crusader, capable of brandishing titanic levels of force, yet so morally unimpeachable we know we never need second guess him, is an alluring one to very nearly all of us. Such a man is, essentially, a god. But gods don’t exist. By expecting, by wanting, our reality to conform to our ideas of satisfying narrative, we make the world a falser place, a less fair place, and all in all a more dangerous one to live in for everyone. Simplicity breeds horror.
But it’s not hopeless. Like gods of all traditions, like the holy books we want to think they wrote, there is something to be gleaned from our heroes. Jesse Custer’s dedication to “always do what’s right” might be an ultimately unachievable goal, but that doesn’t rob the struggle to emulate it as best we can any less noble. By doing so, even when what is right or good or true isn’t always, or even usually, clear, simply by struggling to do it, we are ultimately fulfilling the final, and most important, of Preacher‘s guidelines.
Maybe you can’t always be a good man, not in the real world, but you can damn well avoid being one of the way too many bad.
As always, remember; words matter.