Random Musings 10-06-2010

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    Rev. Jesse Custer is a small town minister who never wanted the job. But his will was broken by the sick and twisted machinations of his Gran’ma, and he went into the family business. Then one day, Genesis, the offspring of the unprecedented and forbidden coupling of an angel and a demon, escapes from Heaven and merges with Jesse, destroying the small town of Annville, Texas in the process. From that point on, Jesse can literally speak the word of God. Anything he says in that voice- anything- must be obeyed.

         When Jesse learns that God has left Heaven, he decides to track Him down and make Him account for Himself. Accompanying him in this endeavor are his girlfriend, Tulip O’Hare and the Irish vampire Cassidy.

         That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, which was published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint in 66 issues (plus ancillary specials) between 1995 and 2000. The entire saga has been collected in nine volumes.

         Of course, even with the power to command anyone (well, anyone who can understand English), Jesse’s not going to have an easy time of it. Heaven wants Genesis back, and has sent the unstoppable Saint of Killers- whose hatred had shut down the fires of Hell when he arrived there, and who killed the Devil himself- to kill Jesse. Herr Starr, an ambitious member of The Grail- a secret organization dating back to the crucifixion- intends that Jesse should be their new Messiah, whether Jesse likes it or not. And it’s not always smooth sailing with either Tulip or Cassidy, either.

         If Preacher were a movie, it would be rated R. There’s a great deal of both sex and violence; and while some of it is gratuitous, some of it reaches almost absurdist levels. The indignities hoisted upon Herr Starr are prime examples of that absurdity.

         It’s also a great read, and the characters are very human. As a young man, Jesse stole cars with Tulip. He also drinks, swears and smokes too much. And his- if you will- spiritual advisor appears to be the spirit of John Wayne.

         Jesse has a strong sense of right and wrong, and doesn’t use his “powers” for personal gain. He tells Cassidy that he intends to make God face up to his responsibilities; and that if he uses his gift to lord it over people (or get suites at the Ritz Carlton), who would he be to talk about responsibility.

         Tulip is strong-willed, a crack shot with a gun, and was briefly employed as a hitwoman.

         Cassidy prefers alcohol to blood, and is more or less a fun guy; but he also engages in self destructive behavior that often takes others down with him.

         The tragic turn The Saint of Killers’ life took- the one that led him to damn himself- was orchestrated by God himself. So the Saint wants words with God, too.

         Preacher also has some genuinely funny moments. In one storyline, Cassidy meets a relatively new vampire in New Orleans who embraces the Bram Stoker model. He sleeps in a coffin, only drinks blood, and believes vampires should remain apart from humans (except when feeding). That’s a bit too much for the hedonistic Cassidy, who ignoring his soliloquizing companion, joins a rowdy crowd.

         If you’re easily offended, you probably won’t like Preacher. But if you’re not easily offended, or if you’re willing to look past the parts of it that do offend you, you might like it after all.

     

         On October 30, 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast an adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells on CBS Radio. The program- about a Martian invasion of Earth- caused a panic- though not as big a panic as later reports would claim. In a sense, “War of the Worlds” is radio’s “fish story.” The fish got bigger with each retelling.

         Even so, the Mercury Theatre, led by Orson Welles, made excellent use of the medium to tell the story. First, it was transposed from the 19th century England of Wells’ novel to the then-future of Oct. 30, 1939 (I wonder how many people listening that 1938 evening caught the comment “in the 39th year of the 20th century”?). Second, forgoing straight narration, Welles and company initially used “news broadcasts”- which interrupted periods of dance music- about “explosions of incandescent gas” on Mars; a shock of almost earthquake like intensity within a 20 mile radius of Princeton University; and field reports from Grover’s Mill.

         These “news broadcasts” were effective because people- still in the midst of the Depression- were already hearing disturbing reports from and about Europe as World War II loomed on the horizon. Also, there were no televisions, satellite communications or Internet in those days.

         True, the “news broadcasts” weren’t taking place in real time, but I doubt anybody really noticed. I think it’s reasonable to assume the minority who were panicking were too busy with their panic to pay attention to that detail; while those who were enjoying the drama were too caught up in the story to care that (for example) “Carl Phillips” (Frank Readick) and “Professor Richard Pierson” (Welles) got to Grover’s Mill from Princeton with amazing speed.

         Other things that made “War of the Worlds” so effective:

         During his performance as “Carl Phillips”, reporting on the first attack by the Martian heat ray, Readick echoed Herb Morrison’s on-scene broadcast of the Hindenburg crash.

         Several seconds of silence followed when he was cut off in mid sentence. Very effective, that. It’s a good example of how what you don’t hear on a radio drama can be just as significant as what you do.

         Kenny Delmar’s “Secretary of the Interior” sounded suspiciously like President Roosevelt.

         The “news broadcasts” were timed so that people who switched over from NBC’s The Charlie McCarthy Show when Edgar Bergen brought on the musical guest would tune in to The Mercury Theatre just in time to hear what sounded like a major news bulletin.

         Each Halloween, radio stations that play old-time radio, either broadcast (“when Radio Was” on 580 AM in the metro Detroit area) or satellite (“Radio Classics” on Sirius, channel 118 XM channel 164) tend to air “War of the Worlds.” It’s also in wide circulation on record, cassette, CD and download. If you’re at all curious about old-time radio, and how it was very much a “theater of the mind”, you should give “War of the Worlds” a listen.

     

    Copyright 2010 Patrick Keating

     

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