The multi-year run of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s seminal nineties DC Vertigo comic Preacher had been wrapped up for quite a while before I finally got around to reading it. This, of course, gave me the advantage of being able to plow through the whole thing in just a couple of weeks, but it was still a complete eye-opener for me. I’d read some comics as a kid and sampled a few different ones over the years but this was the first time I’d encountered a work quite like it. I was gripped by it the way I’d only been by a few HBO TV shows beforehand. I’d come home each day just looking forward to reading a bit more of it. After I’d finished it all, I began to explore the whole line of Vertigo comics, whose first 20-years or so of output was an absolute treasure trove. A lot of my favourite comics series came from that era, and the initial titles I read then led me to discover and follow a number of writers who tend to produce a lot of my favourite current comics too. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have discovered them for many years if it weren’t for Preacher being my “gateway drug”.
What actually spiked my interest in reading the comic initially was one of a long line of rumours that it was due to be adapted. These date as far back as the late nineties, before the comic itself had completed. There have been a handful that seemed like they might actually come to fruition along the way, the two that spring to mind being the HBO show and the Sam Mendes movie. Preacher was optioned by HBO in 2006, and at a glance, that would seem like the perfect place for it. Less promising though, was that the showrunner was set to be Mark Steven Johnson, director of the Daredevil and Ghost Rider movies, who apparently intended to produce a slavish adaptation, turning each issue of the comic “shot-for-shot” into a single episode of the TV show. I’m not sure that approach could ever have truly worked, HBO reportedly got cold feet over the potential controversy of the subject matter however, and the project stalled. Then in 2008, there was much attention given to the series again when Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes signed up to direct a movie version. I was always a bit sceptical about this one as Mendes had a number of other projects lined up that he’d have needed to complete before turning to Preacher, when he signed on to direct what was then known as Bond 23 eighteen months later, it was all but certain that he wasn’t going to be making a Preacher movie. It looked like it was dead again.
In all honesty, I can’t really think of a way in which you could satisfactorily turn Preacher into a single movie. Like a lot of my other favourite comics, it’s a long form serialised single narrative separated into certain story arcs with a few single issues in between. Adapting just the opening arc would likely result in an unsatisfactory conclusion that might feel sequel-baiting, and compressing the entire run into one movie might render the whole thing irrelevant. It does look like cable TV is the best place for such series to be adapted. After a few years with no news at all, AMC announced that they’d be taking a stab at it, with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg being the primary creative forces.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of this, I like some, but not all of Rogen & Goldberg’s movies, and AMC had turned The Walking Dead, a comic I once greatly enjoyed into a tedious slog of a show that I’ve long since given up on (along with, now, the comic). Anyway, it’s finally here, and I realised in the days approaching its airing that, despite my concerns, I was more excited to see this than any of the big movies coming out this summer. I don’t really like to judge a show based on just one episode, as we all know many take a while to find their feet – the Community pilot is awful to give a recent example – but here’s my initial reaction to the AMC Preacher pilot:
It’s great. I liked it an awful lot. It gives me confidence for the whole series, but I’m still left with a few reservations.
Here’s the thing about Preacher; I love the comic, but I also recognize that it has many flaws. It’s way too excessive at times, and regularly features certain lines of repetitive sexual humour that just don’t work, especially not in today’s climate. It’s a rare example of a property I’d actually want to see toned down and altered somewhat for an adaptation, as long as the overall storyline was kept more or less intact.
I had two main questions when the AMC announcement was made; 1; is this going to be set in the nineties? And 2); is it going to be subject to content restrictions? I had wanted ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers respectively, I got neither. A lot of the comic’s tone and references, in particular a certain supporting character, feel inseparably rooted in the decade of their conception. I struggled to envisage a way in which they could modernise it without drastic alterations. Well said character does appear, but they’ve yet to divulge his origins, but otherwise the presence of up-do-date technology and absence of nineties pop-culture references don’t seem to matter. As for number 2, well it appears that this show is going to have to exist in the bizarre American TV world where all the violence and gore you like can flow freely, but God forbid anyone utter a dirty word. I’m going to have to wait and see how it pans out but Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) in particular seems like a character who should be allowed to swear.
Overall though, the tone of the show is excellent. It’s managed to transpose that from the comic pretty much intact. Rogen, Goldberg and writer Sam Catlin seem to have a real fondness for the source material, and it shows. That bodes very well.
A lot of this pilot episode however, consists of completely new material that takes place before the comic’s first issue. We’re introduced to the supernatural entity Genesis (not named or explained here) via an amusing opening sequence, but then we spend most of the time getting to know Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) and the citizens of Annville, Texas. Cooper certainly looks the part, and plays Custer well as a weary man wanting but finding himself unable to do good in his small town. A lot of effort is put into fleshing out his character from the start, there’s even repeated glimpses of a flashback involving his father. It does feel a bit like the Jesse Custer origin story, but that’s no bad thing in this situation.
The stand-out cast-wise is, perhaps unsurprisingly Joseph Gilgun as Irish vampire Cassidy. He gets a fantastic introductory scene packed with action, and blackly comic violence that’s entirely of the show’s invention, but feels like it would fit right in with the comic too. His appearance and line delivery is exactly how I’d imagined the character (minus the profanity). The third lead, Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) gets a similarly memorable and entirely new introduction via action scene. I can easily see these being star-making roles for the actors. Both sequences, and this episode in general I’d say, feature the most impressive direction Rogen and Goldberg have delivered so far. They also capture a lot of the series’ Western iconography with a number of gorgeous exterior shots.
Still, there are plenty of Preacher characters that have yet to make an appearance, so it’s difficult to know how this will all go on, but this is an extremely promising start. I can’t imagine many Preacher fans being disappointed with this, unless they actually were clamouring for a shot-by-shot translation. For those unfamiliar, the lead characters and action scenes should be more than enough to gain interest over the (currently) more oblique story elements.
By the end of this immensely enjoyable pilot, we still haven’t reached the main premise for the story; the reason for Jesse’s quest. As I said, I hope that the main narrative is held onto, but I’m really happy that I’ve taken to the new material here too. I’m hesitant to get too excited, as it might not pay off, but for now, this is a pilot that’s filled with potential for a great series, and I know there’s a lot of excellent material for the writers to draw from. It’s a fantastic introduction to these characters, and I’m completely on board.