Dreaming of monsters

June 16th, 2020

Like a surprising number of people out there, I’ve been having strange dreams in quarantine.

Some are straightforward anxiety dreams – e.g. showing up to some fancy event but only wearing a towel because I forgot to bring any real clothes – while others are more comics-oriented. The most vivid involved fighting a group of superheroes gone bad who were led by the Homelander from The Boys; it was sort of a dream-bootleg version of Garth Ennis’/Darick Robertson’s/Russ Braun’s seminal comic. Another, less vivid but with more of a quietly lingering emotional impact, and also a The Boys ripoff, placed me at the bar where, in the comic, Billy Butcher sits on St Patrick’s Day while chatting with the bartender, an Irish man by the name of Proinsias.

I’m about 75% sure this bar is modeled on Foley’s, a real-life NY bar (run by a cool Irish guy) that is sadly shutting down.

Said bartender, as Ennisheads may already know, is an older Cassidy: the charismatic, hard-drinking vampire from Preacher. Although The Boys never explicitly states this, the clues are there: Proinsias is Cassidy’s first name, which he drops upon emigrating to America (and presumably reclaims at some point before The Boys takes place); he talks about wanting to open a bar in Texas called “The Grassy Knoll,” which is the name of the bar we see in The Boys; and to cap it off, there’s that distinctive accent. Granted, The Grassy Knoll is in New York, not Texas, but like all good Ennis characters Cassidy is drawn back to New York, where he first made his home in the New World. As for the accent, while it’s true that having an Irish accent doesn’t necessarily mean he must be that Irish guy we met in a previous comic, Ennis knows what he’s doing when it comes to writing Irish inflections. (For contrast, check out Dicks, which showcases Belfast accents to great effect.)

When we last saw Cassidy at the end of Preacher, he had regained his humanity after making a deal with God and was driving off into the night to who knows where. I guess he ended up in New York, where he fulfilled his dream of opening that bar but also got to experience some of the side effects of humanity, like significant weight changes – he’s distinctly heavier in The Boys than in Preacher; being able to get fucking diesel, because check out those biceps; and presumably having some kind of midlife crisis, which is the only explanation for his ponytail.

Why

The conversation between Butcher and Proinsias/Cassidy doesn’t do much to advance the comic’s primary plot; it’s mainly two guys – one British, one Irish, both now living in New York – opining about America. But there are little moments that make it worth noting, such as Butcher and Proinsias drinking club sodas and repeating the recovering addict’s mantra:

“One day at a time, eh, Billy?”

“One day at a time.”

From this we can infer that Butcher and the man formerly known as Cassidy have quit drinking, which is an especially big deal for the latter. Not only does he own and work at a bar, he used to abuse the hell out of alcohol (and drugs, and people’s trust) like it was his job.

If you used to be immortal, though, “one day at a time” doesn’t just refer to how the addiction recovery process works. It’s also a reflection on how life is finite now, a quantity you can measure in temporal periods that always end – and that embracing everything said finitude encompasses is necessary to live a life that doesn’t lead to utter destruction.

At this point I should say: it’s hard for me to write about these topics from a completely analytical standpoint, at least in the sense that Cassidy has always been such an emotionally fraught character for me. Maybe I’ll do another, more in-depth post about it someday, but for now here’s the short version: That motherfucker broke my heart when I was 21, and I’ve never entirely gotten over it. To quote Cassidy’s ex-friend Xavier (the voodoo practitioner from the New Orleans/Les Enfants du Sang story arc), “I loved him so much I let him climb inside of me [...] and then he let me down.” Ennis has a gift for writing enchantingly charming shitbags, from Cassidy to John Constantine to Tommy Monaghan – who, admittedly, is more of a dirtbag with a heart of gold, but you get the idea. I mean, Ennis’s Constantine was a huge mess, but you can see how Kit Ryan wanted to get with that, even if I personally would not touch it with a ten-foot pole doused in holy water and engraved with crucifixes.

Cassidy, though, is more of an archetype, even as much as he is his own person. We all know someone who can talk their way into other people’s hearts and pockets, which they essentially strip-mine for parts, but with such deftness that a) the people being fucked over want to keep giving up pieces of themselves to this charm monster and b) the Cassidy-type manages to fool themselves in the process, self-deceiving with stories of how they’re the real victim here despite, say, having sucked thousands of dollars out of an unsuspecting, now almost broke friend.

Combine that with the physical invulnerability that comes with being a vampire who can heal themselves and can only be killed by exposure to sunlight, and…well. You know the truism about absolute power corrupting absolutely? Imagine knowing that you could shoot up so much that your blood was mostly heroin, that you could drink until your liver dissolved, that you could crawl out of any fistfight without permanent injuries – hell, that you could have your extremities shot off or be decapitated, both of which happen to our boy Cassidy – and then imagine how much that would warp your mind.

What can’t you do? It’s not like you’ll ever die from an overdose, no matter how much you inject or snort or swallow or drink or butt-chug (this last one doesn’t happen in Preacher, but I have to assume Cassidy has tried it at some point), so bring on the illicit substances, right? And it’s not like you could ever be beaten to death or die from a gunshot, so you can start a fight with whoever even thought about looking at you funny, right? And it’s not like you’ll ever get old in the same way people do, where your internal wiring, plumbing, etc progressively deteriorates, what with that self-healing thing, so who gives a shit about “planning for the future” or – what’s that word? Starts with a C. No, not that one – “consequences”?

But it’s a harrowing way to live, and I say that in the traditional sense. It breaks you up. Scores furrows into your soul. Source: have been between the ages of 18 and 25 in the past, during which “the future” extends to, I don’t know, the looming final exam at the end of this semester of undergrad rather than the incredibly nebulous notion of being 50 (?!) years old one day, or older, if that’s even possible. I’m not going to lie: despite all the insecurity and fear, it was kind of fun.

However.

Part of growing up is realizing how much power you don’t have. How vulnerable you are. Where you need to stand on the bending/breaking, willow/oak continuum, and when. To do otherwise is to become a Cassidy, stunted, stuck, perpetually rotting from the inside out until nothing is left but, in Jesse’s words, “the shape of a man,” a simulacrum without humanity that damns themselves as they shamble through their existence. (Let’s remember, too, that Cassidy is to a degree stuck at the age of sixteen; he was born in 1900 and becomes a vampire after he and his brother flee the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, so if his body can never fully age, he is an eternal teenager, which by itself is curse enough.)

At the end of Preacher, though, he becomes human – or, more specifically, self-immolates by stepping into the morning sunlight and then comes back to life as a mortal human, due to a side deal he made with God – which he describes as “be[ing] a man,” in an echo of Jesse’s earlier invective. I can, obviously, only go so far in analysing this, given that I do not identify, and never have identified, as male, but here goes.

It’s striking that Cassidy’s, or perhaps Ennis’s, definition of manhood encompasses the recognition of the vulnerability that comes with being mortal, partly because conventional toxic masculinity aggressively refuses to outwardly acknowledge that in any way whatsoever, but also because it means growing up. Ennis isn’t contrasting manhood with other constructions of gender here, but rather frames it in the context of maturation: if you are male, are you an eternal child or are you an adult, i.e. a man? Being the latter requires embracing the vulnerable state that comes with mortal humanity, which on the one hand comes with things like aging, illness, and weakness, but on the other is a lot better than locking yourself into a state of existence that urges you toward greater and more hurtful monstrosity.

Ultimately Cassidy chooses to stick to the path of manhood as opposed to boyhood, which is good news not only for him but for at least one other major Ennis character: The Boys‘ Billy Butcher, shitbag extraordinaire who finds himself facing a similar fork in the road of maturity. Cassidy – or should I say Proinsias, because Cassidy is dead (a phrase that pains me a little bit to write, even now) – stands before Butcher as an illustration of a possible future: subject to the ravages of age, yes, and with unfortunate hair, but content. Healthy, jacked, fulfilled, no longer needing to chase down the excesses or hostile performances of toxic masculinity, and content. It’s notable, too, that Proinsias is the only character in The Boys who calls Butcher by his first name, Billy, drawing attention away from the violent connotations of “Butcher.” (The exception is Becky, Butcher’s dead wife, but she only appears in flashbacks so that doesn’t fully count.)

But getting good news doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t listen to what it’s trying to tell you.

In order to withstand combat with the strongest, fastest, limb-extending-est, etc. people on Earth, Butcher’s body is pumped full of Compound V, the same substance that gives The Boys‘ superheroes their powers. Compound V makes him, and them, a hell of a lot less vulnerable – there’s that word again – to injury; increases his, and their, physical strength; and slows down the aging process so that a man in, say, his fifties has the constitution of one several decades younger. These effects enable Butcher to channel the violence that drives him into a mission: eradicate every single person with superpowers from existence, whether they’re psychopathic adults or children too young and too exploited to make any informed choices about what they’re signing up for. To paraphrase Arnaud Amalric at the Albigensian Crusade, kill them all and let the CIA sort them out.

While waging a seemingly endless war isn’t easy easy, it’s a lot easier than stepping away. That would mean a life not driven by the creation and fomenting of violence, where the body ages at a human pace rather than at a superhumanly halting one, where a punch doesn’t glance off you but hurts like fuck; a life where power is defined on new terms, or at least terms that Butcher has never had to reckon with.

Tfw you’re an extremely cool and normal guy

In such a context it’s so tempting to keep doing what you’re doing, especially if it means you can channel your worst flaws into something approaching strength.

But we can’t, can we?

Unlike Cassidy – sorry; Proinsias – Butcher never gets the chance to see what he could become if he’d chosen to shed the trappings of monstrosity. Instead, he destroys his own mission, kills almost all of his closest friends, and coerces the survivor among them to kill him, dying in a burst of self-annihilating violence.

What Butcher and Proinsias/The Bartender Formerly Known As Cassidy show us is not that we can choose to change, but that we need to change. Otherwise our psyches ossify into something fatal and pernicious that infects the circles we occupy, and if we don’t see anything wrong with that then we fucked up. It’s scary to walk into an existence that embraces vulnerability; what’s scarier, though, is not taking that first step and forever staying right where we are, weaponizing the callowness of the ways we think about power and agency and mortality and the point of taking up space in this world.

Take one step, as soon as you can. One day. One choice at a time out of monstrosity, into being more fully human.

Yes, there is!  We talk about Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library # 20, also known as Lint.

lint

Then there’s some rambling chat about Mark Millar, Marvel Ultimate stuff, The Authority, Bryan Hitch, Warren Ellis, Freak Angels, The Boys, Garth Ennis, Unknown Soldier, Jesse Custer’s hair and white jeans,  Peter Milligan and Hellblazer. Then the battery ran out and we all went home to bed and it was all a dream.  Or was it?  Of course it wasn’t, you can hear it here:

Click to download