The first time I read Preacher, I was 20 years old on the other side of the world.

My year abroad at Oxford was coming to an end – and about time, too, because for this socially awkward kid from Hawaii with extremely working-class parents, the Oxbridge milieu was confounding. Before coming to England I’d spent two years of undergrad in the midwestern US, so figured I could handle another cultural adjustment.

Ha ha.

The academic system was different from anything I’d ever experienced. The sociocultural codes bordered on the downright inscrutable. The tutors expected us to know all about subjects we’d barely even touched upon in our previous education (here’s a note for any Oxford lecturers reading this: American schools don’t use the English Civil War as a primary historical touchpoint).

And in the midst of the incomprehension and fear, I discovered Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

The Borders bookstore near campus – I remember how surprising it was that Oxford had a Borders – stocked most of the trade paperbacks in their comics section. Luckily, its employees were either too oblivious or too apathetic to stop me from holing up and reading each volume cover to cover, which is what you do when you’re a broke student. That’s where I first met Jesse Custer, where the bottom of my heart fell out when I learned about Cassidy’s monstrous nature, where I weighed the benefit of continuing to read one hell of a comic against consuming 66 issues plus specials of raging blasphemy (I was raised in a speaking-in-tongues evangelical church), and where I learned the term “reach-around”.

I didn’t realize at the time how special Dillon’s art was, because it drew me in without even giving me time to blink. It all seemed real. More than that, it all seemed accurate. That’s exactly how it looks when someone machine-guns a report to bits in the office, I thought. That’s totally the pose you fall into when your friend’s ex-friend sends you into a voodoo trance.

Of course, these weren’t conscious thoughts; Dillon’s work invited you to react subconsciously first. It was a lot like reading comics as a kid, if you disregard all the sodomy references and profanity. My childhood comics reading experiences were immersive, or rather, I judged comics on their immersive capacity. Did I feel as though I were on that gargoyle-studded rooftop beside Batman, narrowing my eyes at the criminal scum/people failed by Gotham’s mental health care system on the streets below? If yes, then it was a good comic.

As I got older, I learned to spot badly proportioned bodies, static poses, overly photorealistic likenesses, and other artistic touches that push readers out of the action. Coming from a performing background, the best analogy I can think of is that it’s like watching an actor who’s clearly Doing A Character, or this piece of brilliance from Derek Jacobi’s guest star spot in Frasier.

Preacher was none of that. Preacher simply…was. Dillon wasn’t Doing A Comic. It felt like Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy had allowed him to observe their exploits for the purpose of documentation, because that’s something real people can do, and under Dillon’s hand they were as real as the rustle of Batman’s cape once was in my child-ears.

It was a comfort, not only for the sharp wit cloaked in splashy vulgarity, but for the surety of those good old Dillon lines. Everything around me was unknown and scary, except this. Here, in Preacher, art by Steve Dillon, was a world where even the most outlandish could be familiar, like a welcome I didn’t know I needed.

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Maid of Nails: You can’t put the Punisher in everything. He’s a specific person for specific contexts, and this is part of why I love the Garth Ennis run so, so, so much. Basically, he’s made for a Garth Ennis context.

Botswana Beast: It’s American crime. I can see how it works in 1980s comics, to an extent — well, in the Daredevil series on Netflix, he is contrasted with Daredevil, and they do take scenes from Ennis’ Punisher, like in issue #3 of Marvel Knights. They fairly directly transpose them.

MoN: It was SO COOL. I was just sad that Maginty wasn’t in it. I love that dude.

BB: Maginty is in Punisher: War Zone.

MoN: With the Urban Freeflow Crew, doing parkour all over the place for no reason. That’s not in the comic.

BB: Nope.

MoN: I was sad to see him go. I mean, he was a really messed-up guy who did messed-up stuff, but I enjoyed him a lot, in a sort of weird way.

BB: That’s the one thing we’ve not talked about, and it’s kind of an absurd thing. Frank Castle, as a notional superhero…

Botswana Beast: So the central arc of Punisher MAX, which I think really begins in Mother Russia and ends in Valley Forge, Valley Forge, is all based on this plan, post-9/11, causing terror in order to provoke more foreign interventionism. It’s something to do with the Soviets — well, the Russians, not the Soviets, because it’s not 1989 –

Maid of Nails: But it is framed very much as “the Soviets,” because, you know, General Zakharov from Man of Stone is old-school.

BB: He’s a great character, but he also does horrible things like throwing a baby off a cliff.

MoN: Yeah, he herds a bunch of people off of a cliff and this one woman who’s about to go over gives him her baby to try and save it. And he lifts up the baby like it’s The Lion King or something, and then he throws the baby over the cliff.

BB: That’s literally one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen, certainly in a Marvel comic.

MoN: So it’s okay that the Punisher’s trying to kill him.

BB: I can’t actually remember the intricacies of this general’s plan, but it’s to provoke war. And of course these are not real soldiers like Frank Castle, like the other respectable Special Forces –

MoN: Or the SAS.

BB: Ennis has a fucking erection for Special Forces guys. In the story they’re just pen-pushing dirty motherfuckers that never saw a day’s combat in their lives. It’s just an ant farm; it’s a game to them, and they’re total shitlords. And they get killed as well.

MoN: That’s very satisfying, though, because they’re not cool like the SAS or Frank Castle.

BB: He doesn’t actually kill the SAS guys, does he?

MoN: No, because they’re too cool.

BB: Well, they’re not SAS guys in this story. They’re American Special Forces.

MoN: But Yorkie’s in there. He’s SAS. Anyway, Rawlins is the guy who’s going around stirring up shit on behalf of the American government, and he’s just the worst person in the entire world.

BB: He is a gigantic piece of shit.

MoN: If someone has completely no feeling for fellow human beings at all, then I can see how they might end up in something like human trafficking. But Rawlins — he has passions, at least, so it’s even worse. O’Brien, you know, the one who wants to bang the Punisher, is his ex-wife. There was some kind of attraction there. Then there’s the thing with Nicky Cavella, when Rawlins comes in to see him like, “Heyyyy, remember me?” and then goes down on him.

I really hate torture scenes, but when he got his, I was like, “YEAH! Fuck you, Rawlins! I hope they take your OTHER eye out!” This comic kind of makes you want horrible things to happen to people.

There’s a bit where he pays off a bunch of Middle Eastern guys to fly a plane into something and make a giant deal out of it –

BB: And the CIA do do things like that. He makes a fake jihadi cell, because that’s his job and there’s essentially profit in war. Frank Castle ultimately gets to the top of the fuckin’ tree and kills these bitches with the help of Good Soldiers, as opposed to the bad soldiers.

MoN: The bad soldiers, who are bureaucrats.

BB: Middle-class soldiers.

MoN: Rawlins is a really good contrast to the Punisher, though.

BB: A lot of characters are set up that way. Like the Russian general, Zakharov. They are all sort of counterpoints: men who have broken in different ways — well, broken to the civilized eye.

MoN: See, “civilized” — people like Rawlins are the ones who make civilization, and the implication is that it’s kind of always been like that. But Frank didn’t know that when he was in Vietnam, although he probably learned while he was there how bad it could get.

BB: I think there’s certainly an issue with his origin, that this bureaucracy isolates his encampment, which would be overrun but for –

MoN: His awesomeness?

BB: Essentially, although it does kind of delve into this slightly fantastical thing where he makes a deal with Death. Which is his totem, after all, with the skull.

MoN: How many of those shirts does he have, do you think? Is it like how cartoon characters have an entire closet filled with just the same outfit?

BB: 40 or 50, anyway. He’s got the T-shirt versions, he’s got the versions where you suspect there may be clubs held in the skull’s teeth.

MoN: That seems like it would make it really hard to bend over, because they’re right up against his stomach. They’d be in the way. It’s one of the few things that is slightly unrealistic about the Punisher.