Attention everyone—Hell hath frozen over.
Yes, after nearly two decades of numerous starts and stops, Preacher, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s ultraviolent, blood-drenched cult comic series, will finally have its live-action debut in the form of a new AMC series created by Seth Rogen, his longtime writing/producing partner Evan Goldberg and Breaking Bad writer/producer Sam Catlin. For the uninitiated, Preacher centers on Jesse Custer, a small-town Texas preacher who, as the story begins, is struggling with a crippling crisis of faith. Following an encounter with a mysterious entity, Jesse suddenly finds himself endowed with supernatural, God-like abilities. Along with his criminal ex-girlfriend, Tulip, and a hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy, an unsuspecting Jesse is thrust into the center of a massive struggle that encapsulates Heaven and Hell itself.
Spoiler Alert: It’s awesome. If you want a taste of what’s to come, you can watch the first few minutes in this clip:
That being said, as is the case when any beloved series or property goes through the adaptation grinder, there are the inevitable questions that it must face down. In preparation for the show’s premiere tonight, I will attempt to preemptively answer some general questions after having seen the first few episodes.
Ever since its initial publication in 1995, Preacher has floated around Hollywood, with a revolving door of various directors attempting to wrangle its special brand of southern fried mania into a live-action film or TV show. The most notable names included Mark Steven Johnson (of the underwhelming Daredevil and Ghost Rider), Kevin Smith (he of Clerks and podcast fame) and Sam Mendes (the Oscar-winning American Beauty director turned James Bond helmer). It only takes reading a few pages of the comic to figure out why so many tried and failed to climb this mountain:
a.) It’s a huge world. The Preacher comic is structured like an epic road trip, with Jesse and his allies traveling across the country to find and confront God. The early issues of Preacher alone not only feature a jaunt from Texas, to New York City to Louisiana, but also subplots involving quarreling angels in heaven, along with extended character flashbacks.
b.) It’s gleefully blasphemous. We live in a country where Christianity is the dominant religion (full disclosure: I am a practicing Christian myself). And though we’ve moved past the point where the church’s damnation of a project would necessarily be a “KO” deathblow, there are the obvious financial considerations to take into account. Without giving away major spoilers, the comic puts forth some fairly extreme ideas about God and faith. And when a large percentage of your potential audience risks being offended and alienated by the general premise of your tale, the behind-the-scenes financers and number-crunchers are far more likely to dismiss it as “unmanageable.”
c.) It’s violent. And, I mean, violent. Quentin Tarantino on his worst day ain’t got nothing on Ennis/Dillon. Shooting, stabbing, bone breaking, scalping, face removals, disembodiments—nothing is out-of-bounds.
d.) It’s got some truly pervy villains. Beyond the gratuitous violence, Ennis and Dillon thoroughly explored the depths of human depravity in creating their rogues gallery. In a world where your three main characters are pretty screwy to begin with, the villains’ dysfunctions are predictably amplified to the extreme. Whether it’s S&M, bestiality, incest, pedophilia or, in the case of hedonist Jesus DeSade, a compulsion to fornicate with literally anything that moves, the comic pulls no punches.
Were the series to be filmed exactly as Ennis and Dillon laid it out, not only would the pilot never make it to TV, but everyone involved with its production would probably be excommunicated from the industry. As such, Preacher the series remains a pulpy, subversive action-adventure saga, but significant plot points and characters are tweaked in order to create a more palatable experience. Some of this involves streamlining events so as to make for a more efficient narrative.
For instance, while there are brief cutaways to Africa and Russia and even flashbacks to the distant past, the first few episodes mostly stay confined to the present-day, Annville, Texas setting. Other segments, meanwhile, are fleshed out considerably. Whereas the comic throws you straight into the craziness, with Jesse’s supernatural encounter occurring in the first few pages, the show, by contrast, starts with a literal bang (as seen in the clip) before gradually settling into the show’s bigger mythology. By doing this, the creative team is giving it time to establish the characters, their backstories and various personality quirks, before throwing them into the proverbial shit.
While certain comic purists may balk at the adjustments, I thoroughly welcome it. As the long history of adapting beloved material has shown, what works in one medium often has trouble being as effective in another. This especially can be the case in comic books, which revolve around staging and coloring specific moments for maximum impact. Whereas Dillon’s artwork could display the most atrocious, vile actions imaginable, the format renders it all as a bit of giddy fun. Put those same events in a real-life context, however, and your audience is liable to throw up, turn off the TV and take a long, cleansing shower. Moreover, the show’s deviations from the original story make it just as fun for Preacher-fans as well as the newcomers, as you don’t know entirely what to expect. On that note…
During a panel with lead actors Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga at this year’s WonderCon, co-creator/showrunner Sam Catlin made it a point to mention Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s undying love for the cult series as well as to admit his own general ignorance about it, up until he was approached for the job. This dynamic, he argued, created an ideal way for adapting the series. Whereas Rogen and Goldberg could act as the oracles for the comic and all its inherent weirdness, Catlin, a TV veteran, came into the process as an outsider with a more discernible eye for what could and couldn’t work in the context of a TV narrative. And though the final product can feel a bit overwhelming at times, that speaks more to the general insanity on display than any deficiency on the creators’ part.
All that said, if you think you have the stomach for it, by all means seek out the original comic! Preacher stands as one of the greatest close-ended stories in comics history, and a brilliant hybrid of Western, exploitation, Southern Gothic, horror and dark-as-night comedy.
Boy, are there ever! The introduction to Annville, Texas and Jesse Custer, for instance, are soundtracked to Willie Nelson’s Time of the Preacher song that both introduces the comic’s first panel and serves as the title of the first issue. Later, characters drink from a whiskey bottle marked “Ratwater,” which references the origin of The Saint of Killers, one of Preacher’s most memorable baddies. Moreover, several of the characters are shown to be working at Quincannon Meat and Power, the company owned by yet another villain, Odin Quincannon. Likewise, when Jesse meets up with Eugene, a young boy with a horribly maimed face (he will later be dubbed “Arseface” by Cassidy), the character’s muffled dialogue is translated via subtitles, much like it was throughout the comics.
No major surprise here, given that the comic series basically bleeds black humor and the TV adaptation comes courtesy of the duo responsible for Superbad, Pineapple Express and This Is The End. Perhaps one of the show’s earliest, most daring jokes concerns the death of a certain major celebrity who still wields a ton of power in the industry. It’s as if Rogen and Goldberg, despite their major Hollywood success, are out to prove they can still bite the hand that feeds them.
Given that Preacher—which deals heavily in Americana themes and imagery—was created by an Irish writer and an English artist, it’s almost fitting that the Texas-set series should be spearheaded by a pair who are equally removed from the material: Canadian comedians. As directors, Rogen and Goldberg demonstrated a talent for melding big action set pieces with big laughs in This Is The End and (occasionally) in The Interview. The Preacher pilot, however, is their tour-de-force as filmmakers. In addition to striking a tonal balance between broad comedy and legitimate drama, the show displays a beautiful, atmospheric look, with director of photography Bill Pope (The Matrix) milking those Texas (via New Mexico) landscapes for all they’re worth. The duo has also greatly upped their game in terms of staging incredibly sophisticated action sequences. Each member of the central trio is given their moment to shine, whether it’s as simple as a bar fight, or as complex as a close-quarters skirmish in the backseat of a car as it’s speeding through a cornfield. Fans of both Paul Greengrass’ Bourne thrillers and Gareth Evans’ Raid films will find a lot to like here.
I would like to take this time to signal out Preacher’s casting directors. Such personnel often don’t get the credit they deserve and, by God, do they deserve special mention here. Across the board, every actor perfectly embodies their comic counterpart. After spending more than a decade dividing his time between small-scale British dramas and massive Hollywood blockbusters, Dominic Cooper seems to have finally found his breakout role. As Jesse Custer, Cooper is equal parts charming, sardonic, brooding and jokey. While not quite as colorful as some of the other characters that inhabit the series, Jesse is the show’s heart and Cooper brings the proper humanity and gravitas to the character. As the profane Irish vampire, Joseph Gilgun’s Cassidy looks like he stepped right out of the pages of the comics, with all the piss and vinegar to boot. What’s more, while he doesn’t appear until the second episode, Jackie Earle Haley oozes menace as the malevolent Odin Quincannon.
Perhaps the most inspired casting choice, however, is Ruth Negga as Tulip. In Negga’s hands, Tulip is the most charming sort of rapscallion—one moment, she’s beating an adversary to death to the sounds of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” while the next she’s effortlessly bonding with a pair of scrappy children and showing them how to make homemade weapons. As comics fan will know, the Tulip of the comics is your more run-of-the-mill blonde white girl. In casting the Irish/Ethiopian actress, the creators not only seemed to take Hollywood’s well-documented diversity problem into account, but—frankly—they found a performer that not only embodies the spirit of the comic character, but finds shading and personality to the role that no writer could properly capture.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.