Preacher: Dead or Alive, by Glenn Fabry (DC Comics/Vertigo, 2000)

Imagine you’re an artist, and you’ve been given a very unusual task. Create eye-catching, evocative comic book covers, month in and month out for a new series. The main characters include a hitwoman, a vampire, a preacher possessed by the Word of God, an unstoppable killing machine fueled by divine wrath and mortal hate, a conspiracy to take over the world, and God Himself.

You’re working in conjunction with a mad British writer who seems to possess an unending supply of mad ideas and bizarre genius, who asks the impossible over and over.

Congratulations! You’re Glenn Fabry, and this is your book.

Preacher was a series that ran for 66 regular issues, plus assorted one-shots and miniseries. The main character, Jesse Custer, was a reverend on the run from his past who was inexplicably possessed by a power neither divine nor infernal. His girlfriend and love of his life was Tulip, on the run from a failed hit. Their friend and constant companion was Cassidy, a hard-drinking Irish vampire. Jesse’s quest: to find the AWOL God and make Him account for the state of life as we know it. But there were a few snags.

Jesse’s evil grandmother. The unstoppable seven-foot-tall killing machine known as the Saint of Killers, straight out of a Wild West that never was. Herr Starr and the Grail, a secret organization dedicated to controlling the world through the last of Christ’s bloodline, now horribly inbred. Angels, demons, and God Himself.

And they persevered through all manner of bizarre things, until the final bloody end, where almost no one got out alive.

Throughout all this, Gleen Fabry provided uniquely fitting, often disturbing, always fantastical cover paintings. No matter what the challenge, he rose to it. Over the run of Preacher, he turned out dozens of memorable, powerful covers to depict the mythic quest of a man in search of his creator, and a man in search of redemption. Jesse Custer remains powerfully rugged, a hero inspired by the myth of the Wild West. Tulip is strong and independent, beautiful but not gorgeous. Cassidy ranges from devilish to seductive as he personifies all the dark, sometimes romantic, aspects of being a vampire. The Saint of Killers, who’s like a Wild West campfire nightmare come to life, is never anything less than unrelentingly scary.

The cover for the last issue of the series is especially beautiful, depicting a man about to “slap leather” gunfighter style, standing off against the entire Hosts of Heaven in a high noon showdown like none other. The shot of Jesse reflected against the black marble of the Vietnam Memorial is also quite striking. The painting of Cassidy throwing himself carelessly, joyfully, from the Empire State Building has a certain devil-may-care aspect to it.

Sometimes inspired, sometimes blasphemous, sometimes as twisted as a Hieronymous Bosch painting, each cover is lovingly reproduced in this handsome hardback collection from DC Comics, which previously gave the same treatment for Sandman cover artist Dave McKean. Each one is accompanied by commentary by Glenn Fabry, as well as series writer Garth Ennis, as they explain what they were going for, and how it worked, or didn’t work. There’re reproductions for every cover of every issue in the series, including the one-shots and miniseries, as well as unused covers, initial design sketches, and promo pieces.

At $29.95, it’s a bit steep for a hardcover art book, but it’s well worth it in my opinion. Like Dave McKean, Glenn Fabry was called upon to interpret and redesign a whole host of mythic characters. Preacher is one of those series that is destined to be remembered for a long time to come, and Preacher: Dead or Alive celebrates the visual aspects of this, quite gleefully. It may not be to everyone’s liking, especially as some of the art is quite … twisted, though never obscene, and the language is definitely for mature audiences only. But as collections of this sort go, the production values are extremely high, and the material strange and mythic enough to warrant attention.

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