For whatever reason, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Vertigo series Preacher has long been held up as a perfect comic to recommend to people who don’t read comics. The series might not have the industry changing influence of Watchmen, but I’d argue it gets talked about just as much in casual settings. And it’s not hard to see why it stood out in its time— it had more in common with Shane Black’s sharp action comedies and Quentin Tarantino’s bleak humor and hardcore dedication to buckets of artful gore than the bloated crossovers dominating mainstream comics in the ‘90s. But with the 20/20 hindsight of viewing Preacher through the lens of Ennis’ now decades spanning career dedication to gay panic plotlines, blandly offensive deconstructions of traditional systems like super heroics and religion and surly heroes who function as John Wayne by way of Charles Bronson, Preacher comes across as regressive and uninspired, an epic as bloated and meandering as the super heroics it sought to stand out from, only with more shit and piss and cum. So you might understand why the news that similarly limited auteurs Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg would be helming the Preacher adaptation didn’t fill with me confidence.
But hey, you know what? Sometimes your worst fears about a thing are just that: fears about what could be rather than what is. I caught the premiere of Preacher during SXSW and I am fully willing to admit that I was wrong about Rogen and Goldberg. Preacher isn’t merely a decent adaptation but potentially an improvement on its source material, and without a doubt one of AMC’s more promising launches.
Granted, it’s early yet, but in the pilot, Rogen and Goldberg bring Preacher to cinematic life, fleshing out the sometimes flat backgrounds and monotonous character designs of Dillon’s art while also getting to the heart of Ennis’ concept without all of the “shock tactic” baggage and naughtiness. Bringing over some of the imaginative horror and violence they showcased in This is the End, Rogen and Goldberg’s Preacher is still brutal and darkly funny, but the characters feel far more real and interesting, with the main trio of Dominic Cooper’s Jesse Custer, Ruth Negga’s Tulip O’Hare and Joseph Gilgun’s Cassidy displaying not only excellent chemistry but fully active motivations and storylines of their own.
Jesse is at the center, as a reformed criminal who has returned to a small town that he associates with childhood tragedy, attempting to clean his slate by serving as a put upon, ineffectual preacher. This is complicated by the reemergence of his former partner Tulip, who leaves a path of destruction and mayhem behind her on her way to tracking down Jesse, hoping to convince him to go in on a big score. Even though Ennis frequently framed Preacher as the complicated love story of Jesse and Tulip, for most of Preacher’s first half Tulip felt like a Mulligan, a device for Jesse to pine for and push away and be distraught over various injustices perpetrated against her.
By contrast, Negga’s Tulip is far more independent and autonomous, and the showrunners give her some of the premiere’s best moments, including its most well-choreographed action sequence. The TV Tulip arguably views Jesse as the burden, since he’s saddled with conflicted notions about what his life is supposed to be and how he is supposed to behave. That’s not to say Jesse is less realized than he was in the comic, if anything, there is more nuance and depth to the character here, particularly with Cooper’s excellent performance adding an additional layer. In the comics, Jesse simultaneously functioned as a deus ex machina and a bland Americana caricature, but on the show we spend more time in his head, and his internal conflict about the kind of “good” guy he believes he should be unfolds much more slowly.
Cassidy is also presented as a kind of “dark Jesse” here, a vampire who is dropped like a bomb onto Jesse’s life who is just as loyal and committed to punishing bad guys but has no qualms about utilizing heaps of explicit violence to accomplish that. Cassidy isn’t as focused as Tulip though they’re both prone to mayhem, and the show nicely utilizes this triad as a way of pushing Jesse to act as a stabilizer for the both of them as he starts to accept his real role in the universe as the literal vehicle for biblical vengeance.
On that note, the show’s only real weak link is its presentation of Genesis, the hybrid angel-demon progeny that possesses Jesse and sets the full plot of Preacher into motion. The first episode begins with an odd, retro sci-fi view of cosmos as a mysterious object screams towards Earth, crashing into the body of a holy man in Africa, eventually causing him to explode. We get a few more mini-scenes like this, as Genesis tries to find the right host, as well as scenes of agents of The Grail pursuing it across the globe. While The Grail currently seems to be a more sinister and disciplined organization than it usually was in the comic series, the Genesis interludes are stylistically at odds with the show, with their lo-fi space views and the cartoonish violence. There’s some obvious Sam Raimi influence here, but when compared to the beautiful symphonies of violence we see Tulip and Cassidy orchestrate, these interludes stick out like sore thumbs.
Still, that’s a minor complaint that won’t have much bearing on the series as a whole. Far more telling is the presentation of minor Preacher character Arseface. A young man with a face disfigured by a failed suicide attempt, Arseface was the comics’ joke on the Kurt Cobain generation, a thoroughly mean-spirited plotline that deviated from Ennis’ usual and more forgivable attacks on traditional organizations. There is a brief moment in the show where it seems like Rogen and Goldberg will follow suit, as they build up Jesse’s first interaction with the boy as some kind of Universal monster riff, but once Jesse is actually in the room, he and Arseface have a sweet, heartbreaking scene together. It’s the most effective of several scenes showing Jesse coming face to face with horrible things humans do to themselves and others and how they try to recover from that, and it does a far better job articulating what moves Jesse to break from his rigidly good path in order to start doling out a special kind of vengeance.
Rogen and Goldberg and their creative team have done an excellent job adapting the elements of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher that were worth celebrating— the warped Americana, the toll of human pettiness on otherwise good people, the twisted action choreography— while cutting out the fat to make it leaner and ultimately more character driven. This is the type of adaptation comics needs more of, one that understands the source but isn’t afraid to make the right kind of updates to it.