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Preacher: A Beginner’s Guide

12th February 2016 | by | 2 Comments

The next great comics-to-television adaptation hope over at AMC, home of The Walking Dead, is Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin’s Preacher. Set to air at some point in the next couple of months, it marks the end of a nearly two-decade-long journey from page to screen for the comic, which was being talked up for an adaptation even while it was still being published. But in case you’ve somehow never heard of it before, what is it? Why is it worthy of adaptation, and why should we be excited about it? And what are the potential pitfalls of converting such a distinctive and controversial series?

Preacher was published by DC’s Vertigo imprint between 1995 and 2000, and was written and drawn for its entire 66-issue run by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon respectively (save for a handful of specials with guest artists, but we’ll come to those). The story concerns Jesse Custer, a preacher from a tiny Texas town called Annville, who accidentally becomes imbued with a mysterious and heavenly power called Genesis – which inadvertently destroys the entire town congregation and grants Jesse the ability to speak with “the word of God” and have his every command obeyed. After the destruction of Annville, Jesse encounters his ex-girlfriend Tulip – now apparently working as a hitwoman – and Cassidy, a hard-drinking Irish party animal who also just happens to be a hundred-year-old vampire.

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Jesse discovers, via the power in his head, that God has abandoned heaven for reasons unknown – and resolves to track the Almighty down, to hold him accountable both for this desertion, and for the overall mess that he’s made of mankind. Aside from God, the main antagonists of the series are the Grail, a millennia-old conspiracy to protect the bloodline of Jesus Christ and use his descendent as the saviour of mankind following an armageddon that they themselves plan to instigate; and Herr Starr, a high-ranking Grail figure in charge of his own conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy.

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The story is probably best described as a road movie that takes Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy across America (and, briefly, beyond) on their quest to find God as well as escaping the clutches of Starr, who develops an all-consuming vendetta against Jesse for his own purposes. Along the way, the trio also encounter such characters as the Saint of Killers (essentially God’s own Angel of Death, a terrifying Clint Eastwood character come to life in duster and hat), Arseface (a teenage boy with a horrifically deformed visage, as a result of a failed suicide attempt inspired by Kurt Cobain), Jody and T.C. (redneck errand boys for Jesse’s incredibly evil grandmother), as well as an assortment of angels, a pair of “sex detectives”, the ghost of John Wayne, the inbred descendent of Christ, “a bunch of poncy gothic rich-kid” vampire wannabes, Bill Hicks, and – er – the actual, not-dead, Elvis Presley.

It also quickly expands far beyond the scope of the first storyline, such that the one-line description people usually apply to it doesn’t actually ring true for most of the series as a whole. In the second volume we learn about Jesse’s background and childhood (as well as why the one-time car thief had even become a preacher in the first place); in the third – set mostly in France – the Grail’s conspiracy begins to unfold; and the fifth shifts the action to New Orleans as well as turning the relationships between the characters to a darker place.

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There’s also room for a set of specials and one four-issue miniseries, drawn by guest artists including Carlos Ezquerra, Steve Pugh and Richard Case, that fill in the background of the likes of the Saint, Arseface and T.C. & Jody. The second half of the series sees the lead trio broken up by circumstance, and we follow Jesse as he becomes the sheriff of a small town called Salvation and faces off against a diminutive meat magnate called Quincannon; before the plot threads begin to entwine back together and build up to a huge, shattering finale.

Stylistically, it takes many of its cues from movies, most obviously and heavily the Western genre; but there’s room for a serial killer mystery, a few Vietnam War flashbacks (well, it is a Garth Ennis book), plenty of extreme and explosive violence, and an awful lot of extremely black (and sometimes downright puerile) comedy. Aside from the obvious religious theme, it’s very interested in loyalty and honour (again, those Ennis staples), the status of America as a home to immigrants and a place of second chances, and issues surrounding Southern (specifically Texan) identity and race.

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It’s not a perfect series – the puerile humour and insistence on gratuitous head wounds (there used to be a website dedicated to counting the latter, although obviously you should be warned it’s massively spoilery) can grate at times; and although Ennis is generally someone who’s shown himself to be sympathetic to LGBT issues, there’s some character-based homophobia that’s fairly of its time. And if you’re not onboard with the basic thrust of what it’s all about (specifically that religion is bad and God is a bastard) then obviously you won’t get on with it. There are also those who say it sags around the middle after an incredibly strong first few arcs, and never quite recovers.

But it nevertheless stands as a remarkable achievement in comics: a consistently gripping, thought-provoking and character-driven story that’s endlessly re-readable (I’ve done so more times than I could care to count – it’s probably second only to The Sandman on that score). Jesse himself is perhaps the least engaging character in the whole thing, which is a bit of a flaw (and not a problem that Ennis’ other masterpiece, Hitman, suffered from) but he’s more than made up for by the depth and complexity of most of the supporting cast around him, particularly Cassidy and Starr.

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So if it’s a pretty great comic, then what are its prospects in live action? It’s been mooted for development since the late ’90s – before the series had even finished publication – when Ennis and Dillon sold the film rights. Rachel Talalay was attached to direct, with a script by Ennis himself based around the book’s the opening arc (Gone to Texas). Financing was difficult due to the controversial subject matter, and comic book fan Kevin Smith – along with producing partner Scott Mosier – got involved, helping to pitch it to Bob Weinstein at Miramax.

The Preacher film was then slated to go into production in the early 2000s, with James Marsden cast as Jesse in 2002. But a couple of years went by without any further word, and the project was quietly shelved – it seems largely due to budget considerations – by around 2005. So in 2006, focus switched to a possible TV series – with many feeling that, like Sandman, the long-form and serial nature of Preacher would be better suited to an episodic medium. Mark Steven Johnson (of Daredevil ’03 and Ghost Rider fame) was hired by HBO to write a pilot episode and series bible. Johnson was keen to stick faithfully to the source material, planning to shoot every individual issue of the comic as a single episode. But HBO eventually got cold feet over the subject matter, and abandoned the project in 2008.

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There was a brief attempt to resurrect the film idea when Columbia acquired the rights just a few months after HBO had shelved their project. Sam Mendes was purportedly attached to direct, but this version seemingly didn’t get anywhere before AMC finally announced in 2013 that their pilot was going into production.

Certainly, Preacher seems set to work best as a long-form episodic story. I can’t imagine how a version of Gone to Texas would have made for a particularly satisfying movie in its own right, given that it’s clearly the first chapter of a much longer and more involved story. But the interesting thing about AMC’s version is that they don’t look like they’re going to try and slavishly adapt the comic the way that HBO and Johnson intended to. I’m not just talking about superficial changes, such as Tulip being played by Ruth Negga (she’s white and blonde in the comics) – rather, the whole structure seems to have changed, with the pilot episode (at least based on the script that I’ve read) set almost entirely in the town of Annville.

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Rather than being unceremoniously killed off in the first five minutes, Jesse’s congregation look like being the show’s recurring supporting characters – and they include figures from later in the comics run such as Arseface, Sheriff Root and a gender-swapped Quincannon. Tulip and Jesse, while still exes, are also now both from Annville (rather than having met while both on the run) – and Cassidy makes his way into proceedings not on the road, but in the town as well. Notably, the pilot doesn’t introduce either the Saint of Killers nor anybody connected to the Grail – but we can only imagine they’d have to be involved a little further down the line. With the aim of producing an ongoing TV series that may not have a definitive end point for several years, it looks like the show will focus more specifically on Jesse dealing with the power that he’s been given, rather than following the original saga beat-for-beat.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing, so long as the show retains the tone and spirit of the comic – and while the trailer that’s been released didn’t convince everybody on that score, the script that I read certainly had a positive effect on my expectations. While it differs so significantly in terms of plot and character setup, it nevertheless feels like a valid interpretation of the comic’s themes and setting. Notably, there’s only one solitary line of dialogue that is lifted exactly from the comics – and while even that takes place in a different context from the book, it’s such an important line that I feel that including it shows that these guys get what they’re doing. And the shock moment at the end of the pilot isn’t a Garth Ennis-written scene – but crucially, speaking as someone who’s read a lot of his comics down the years, it certainly feels like it could have been.

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I’m not completely sold on the casting of Dominic Cooper, but I also couldn’t tell you who I think would really fit Jesse anyway; so if he turns out to be a slightly different interpretation, he could well work. Joe Gilgun as Cassidy is simply inspired, however, and every (brief) moment he gets in the trailer is a joy. For me, that character will be the key to making this whole thing work (I really, really hope we get to properly delve into his backstory) and for the moment, it looks to me like they’ve got him dead on.

So I’m cautiously optimistic. It won’t be an incredibly faithful adaptation of the comic – but the comic never really felt like one that could work onscreen anyway. For all that it’s stylistically inspired by movies, it takes things to such extremes and does a lot that you could only really get away with on the page of a comic. So for an adaptation to work, it needs to zero in on the elements that will survive translation, and build something new and interesting around it. The Walking Dead is an obvious point of comparison, but I suspect Preacher will diverge from its source material even further than that show did. I strongly doubt that it’ll stand astride the field of television the way the original does over comics, but it may turn out to be a far more interesting and engaging adaptation than we might have hoped for back in the late ’90s.