essay

Where have all the cowboys gone?

Something occurred to me the other night while I was reading volume three of Preacher. Maybe I had come to it earlier. I think I did. Maybe it just took hearing the right words for me to bring it to mind. Maybe something I saw or read in recent days triggered some way for me to elucidate how I feel. Regardless, what I felt was this: “Where have all the cowboys gone?”

I don’t mean this the way you think I might. I don’t mean actually cowboys. Not the rough riders but the idea of them. The mental picture of those men that stood out against the odds and were victorious. Those men with their guns that were their own law and often were the judge and executioner as well. They were the deciders. Not them. No. The idea of them. The thought of men of single purpose who did what was right and damn the details.

In a way, I am talking about God.

Within the framework of the Preacher stories, God has left heaven and is…somewhere else. Fundamentally, that is the equivalent of Nietzsche’s famous quote “God is dead”. He is not guiding the good and damning the bad. He’s off. He’s gone. He’s MIA. He’s…well, dead to the world.

Only, he isn’t, Not really.

Jesse Custer, the main protagonist, is a man of faith. In the comics, he is the titled character. He is The Preacher. However, he is not trying to convert people to any religion but is trying to find God himself. Jesse wants to make God pay for ruining the world. He wants things to get back to the way he, Jesse, thinks the world should run. Never mind anyone in his way, they don’t really matter. Help some, hinder others. The only real rule he has is this: What would John Wayne do?

And, in a way, that becomes Jesse’s God. Not The Man Upstairs or any other metaphor’ed phrase of comfort but a reflection of the rights and wrongs of a single (fictional) man. In what way is that not a religion unto itself? In what way has Jesse not created his own god?

Once I realized that Ennis and Dillon were not putting forth (yet another) “God is dead. Yadda, yadda. The world is the heaven you make it” story but asking the reader (indirectly) what the effect of a world without heroes would be, I was startled. They step into the obvious with the missing God component but, basically, they are saying: What is a world without heroes? What is a world without God? What other “gods” will people worship then?

Because, once you get right down to it, a god, to many people, is nothing more than a role model. There are countless self-help books “written” by celebrities who say that they can change your life and bring you peace. Everyone wants a set of rules to follow that says Do This, Don’t Do That and then you will be happy. Many people invent their own rules. They pick and choose among the many different religions and creeds and create something unique. Others though see someone they want to emulate, someone who stands for what they believe in and model themselves after them. Jesse Custer does this. He picks John Wayne.

As far as any idea of a classic cowboy could be found, the various roles John Wayne performed would be it. He is driven but honest. The Good guy with a bad mouth. He will shoot only when it becomes necessary. And once he begins his mission, nothing detracts from it. You shouldn’t argue with a man who has a gun and definitely shouldn’t argue with John Wayne. He does what is right and damn the details. Sound familiar to anyone? He is the quintessential cowboy.

Ennis and Dillon want you to consider a world gone bad. The Duke has left the building. God has left heaven. They show what would happen if you removed the heroes, the role models, and left people to their own devices. What would happen?

Many people are perfectly willing to mill around through life. They think only when they have to. They walk through the fields of understanding without picking up any seeds of knowledge. Basically, they are cows.

What happens when the cowboys aren’t there to lead them? Where will they go when the people who normally guide them are absent?