The comic book mausoleum: Preacher

Retrospective reviews of significant and socially relevant comic book cycles and their adaptations that every fiction fan should immediately consume.

Creators: Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon
Publisher: Vertigo (1995-2000)

Preacher is the “never mind the bollocks” of comics, and many words have been committed to paper establishing its credentials as an iconoclastic piece of literature. To summarise without retreading too much old ground, Preacher stands out thanks to its snarling tone, blasphemous content, visceral levels of violence, and the believable human relationship between its trio of protagonists. Most of all, it is very, very funny.

Preacher was wildly popular, creatively daring and zeitgeist defining – a truly rare beast. One of the first Vertigo titles, it epitomises the reasons the imprint was so creatively successful in the late 90s. Provided with relatively free reign, Ennis’ vision and anarchic sensibilities are consistent throughout. Few artists are as synonymous with a title as Dillon is with Preacher (RIP). Not to mention Glenn Fabry, the sick mind behind the wonderfully grotesque painted covers that set the franchise’s tone to this day.

As readers are likely aware, the on-screen Preacher adaptation has now run for two seasons after waiting in the wings for over 15 years and surviving several botched versions that never got out of the gate. Hence, despite having now watched the show cumulatively for almost an entire day of my life, it is still vaguely inconceivable to me that this significantly divergent and highly enjoyable TV adaption actually exists. It does exist, doesn’t it? It’s not all some cruel joke…?

“Well, I’m going to spend some time with my scrotum. We may as well enjoy our last couple of hours together.” – Herr Starr, played by Pip Torrens.

Let’s recap. Episode one: the entertaining credits roll, and despite Seth Rogen’s inexplicably reassuring presence, I experience a combination of excitement, dread and extreme trepidation. Surely, they aren’t actually going to get this right? Unfortunately, like many grizzled genre fans I suffer from a condition known as “Inevitable Cock-up Expectation Syndrome” (ICES). Fans of Hellblazer, another Ennis speciality, recently experienced severe, prolonged and even fatal attacks of ICES.

It transpires that the young Shane McGowan is unavailable for casting as Cassidy due to metaphysical commitments, but Joseph Gilgun proves an excellent substitute, providing a relatively faithful, crack-smoking version – with even better t-shirts. Ruth Negga gives us an interesting take on Tulip, delivering up to 25% more rancour with increased death wish and PTSD. The grinding, repetitive introduction of the Saint of Killers is well played, Angel Fiore is more fun than his printed version, and the action scenes are as insane as we might have hoped. Season one works, but doesn’t quite ignite; the first half of season two drags.

Season two, episode seven finally cures any lingering hint of ICES by kicking things up a notch with a stiff dose of the murderous, masturbating, anally-retentive, ticket-validating villain, Herr Starr, played to absolute perfection by Pip Torrens, who does Starr better than I do in my own imagination. A truly magnificent and, dare I say, relatable character who works as well on the screen as he does on paper.

However, realisation creeps in when I realise that I’m not invested in Jesse Custer, the titular Preacher. Perhaps Dominic Cooper is not quite the right man for the job – though he certainly kicks arse convincingly – but it is largely due to the writing. Not to say that TV Jesse is badly written, but he is a notably different character. He is less likeable and affable, less honourable and less endearing as a character. However, this does free the show to take Jesse into increasingly morally ambiguous territory, in particular his team-up with Herr Starr.

In addition, we are yet to meet the ghost of John Wayne, as Jesse’s drawling, chaps-wearing personalised Jiminy Cricket. I think we can expect this version of the duke to turn up at some point, which perhaps will provide some confluence between these two versions of Jesse. Strange as it may sound, a radical change to the persona of the central character does not appear to be fundamental to my assessment of the adaptation as a whole. I’m not sure I’d feel the same if the portrayal of Cassidy or Herr Starr had missed the mark, which would likely be a kiss of death for the whole shebang.

“Smear the cheese!” – Odin Quincannon, played by Jackie Earle Haley.

So, we know the show is significantly different to the comic, but should this be a problem for old-school fans? We can perhaps look at season one’s portrayal of the detestable Odin Quincannon to assess the necessity of modifications from page to screen. Do I miss the snarling, snivelling, meat puppet-pounding sadist we grew familiar with at later stages of the comic? A resounding yes. Does the TV show’s milder, vaguely sympathetic Quincannon provide narrative impetus and make sense in his new environment? Do the writers pay due deference to the comic’s tone and themes? in my view, also yes.

We should bear in mind that this property has no shortage of appallingly despicable villains to throw in our path. Herr Starr, Marie L’Angelle and chicken-worrier TC are already established. Ennis’ menagerie features dozens of wonderful scumbags to choose from. Ask yourself, can the writers afford to ease the audience in with a Quincannon who avoids going straight for the jugular with his bigoted, brisket-banging persona? Once again, I think the answer is yes.

But my personal jury is still out on Arseface. I can see the Kurt Cobain angle of the comics is limited for a long-running TV franchise that has been transposed to the modern day, and it may be irrelevant to younger viewers. However, does the supplementary sub-plot work? Arseface-in-Hell-with-Hitler-as-Virgil might sound mouth-watering in principle, but I can’t help feeling this subplot burns too much screen time. Hell’s Deus Ex-Machina are clearly running out of steam, which does provide some interesting context on the effects of God’s disappearance, but I couldn’t help but feel quite relieved as this sub-plot went the same way. Moreover, it transpires that Eugene is quite hard to watch for significant periods and subtitles are much less fun than working out Arseface’s dialogue on your own.

The heart of the Preacher comic was a triad of trinities. First, the unholy trinity represented by truant-Jehovah, Humperdoo and Genesis for its controversy and bile. Second, Tulip, Cassidy and Jesse’s friendships and intimate relationships that provide the heart of the narrative. Third, the relentless action and brain-splatter of the conflict between Jesse, the Grail and the Saint of Killers. It seems apparent to me that the writers are intent on keeping these moving pieces central to their story as well. Assured by the welcome arrival of Humperdoo (the lamb prince) and the increasingly significant role of Herr Starr and the Saint – and with season three now on the horizon – I feel like I can finally relax.

“It’s like a gun. You keep it in reserve and only bring it out when you have to, that’s good. When you start waving it in a receptionist’s face, that’s bad.” – Jesse Custer, played by Dominic Cooper.

Another memorable aspect of the comic is its affection for the vagrant spirit of America. I have fond memories of scenes of Jesse and Cassidy drinking whisky while dangling their legs off the side of the Statue of Liberty. Jesse’s demeanour and attitude epitomise much that is admirable about the American Dream, filtered through Ennis’ younger, wide-eyed immigrant perspective.

While far from shy of confronting negative aspects of stateside culture, the Preacher comic was often in awe of Americana, an endearing and enjoyable seam that felt straight from the heart, championing freedom, the pioneer spirit and really good bars. The same cannot be said for the TV show, whose hilarious use of the drunk/dead golf carts at Mardi-Gras seems like a more relevant comment on the global status of America. Does the differing tone of the TV show reflect the somewhat tarnished perception of American culture in 2017? Fading glamour and economic might, nationalism and small-minded political decision-making would seem to render the comic’s romantic portrayal of the good ol’ USA unfashionably dewy-eyed.

It should be pointed out that comic rendition Jesse Custer at least presented a clear and unambiguous response to Neo-Nazis, KKK members and other assorted human swine. Generally a boot in the nether regions and a foreign object up the Khyber Pass. One can only hope TV Jesse is consistent. It seems significant portions of the American population and several members of its incumbent government might benefit from realigning their own views to that of the Preacher man. What’s that, Ennis? Can’t satirise the USA anymore. Sad!

Images courtesy of Vertigo and AMC.

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