Bein’ Good Isn’t Always Easy
Preacher was a comic of its time, and that time was the 1990s.
To put it another way, Preacher was a comic of the time when many of its biggest fans — fans who are now television-watching adults, and, for that matter, television-criticism-writing adults — were in their 20s. Which is all well and good; there’s nothing wrong with being in your 20s. It’s something everyone should have a chance to do. The thing you’ll learn once you’re a good distance removed from your 20s, though, is that a lot of the stuff you thought was awesome was, in fact, mildly to seriously awful, and the proper response to this is deferential embarrassment.
Such a comic was Preacher. It’s not that it didn’t have its moments; artist Steve Dillon was for the most part a skillful draftsman, and Garth Ennis was…well, he was still Garth Ennis, but he wasn’t yet Garth Ennis, which is an important distinction. He knew how to stage a big climactic scene, he had a good sense of pacing, and his work was exciting enough. He even had a real knack for creating memorable characters, and that’s part of the problem with reading Preacher now: when you get older and your critical judgment gets a little more reliable, you realize that ‘memorable’ doesn’t always mean ‘good’.
Preacher was always a book that depended on how well you related to Ennis’ bombastic sense of what it means to be awesome. Ennis never met a subtle idea he didn’t completely ignore; it’s easy to wonder if he ever met one at all. The book — the story of small-town minister Jesse Custer, his on-again/off-again girlfriend Tulip O’Hare, drunken Irish vampire Cassidy, and the quest to make a vanished God answer for his flawed creation — is full of stuff that seems mind-blowingly audacious when you’re young and haven’t been exposed to much: a preacher who’s a drunk, chain-smoking tough guy! A pretty lady who shoots people! A vampire who speaks with a crazy accent and is, like, extreme! A quest to, like, totally mess up God himself! Jesus — only he’s an inbred retard! A demigod who’s basically a cross between Superman and Clint Eastwood and he fuckin’ kills everybody! A failed teen suicide whose face looks like an asshole, and he becomes a huge rock star because fame, it’s, you know, so fickle, man! It’s all like caramel corn to the mind of a young man of a certain age and inclination, but if that same man 20 years down the road doesn’t find it mildly mortifying, he’s wasted a couple of decades.
Of course, being catnip to twenty-something dudes is the Holy Grail to film and television executives, so there have been a number of aborted attempts to bring Preacher to the big and small screens. It finally happened this year, when a series adapting the comics, developed by longtime fans Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, came to AMC. It was a long time coming, and where it landed gave a lot of people hope for a faithful adaptation and others fear that it would end up with the same problems as the source material: AMC gives shows a lot more leeway with sex and violence than some cable networks, and has been quick to greenlight over-the-top, bloody pulp fare if they think they can make a hit out of it. As it turns out, both the hopes and the fears are pretty well justified.
The casting is pretty decent. Apparently we ran out of American actors a while back and we’ve had to start importing them from the U.K., but Dominic Cooper certainly looks the part of Jesse Custer, and his accent is passable generic-Southern if not specifically Texan (we in the critical trade call this the True Blood effect). He doesn’t really set the screen on fire, but he glowers nicely. Cassidy is played by something called Joseph Gilgun, who has an accent thick enough to require subtitles and a good line on gurning for the camera. The find of the season is Ruth Negga, who, as Tulip O’Hare, lights up every scene she appears in; she’s terrific even when the part isn’t.
And that’s a major factor in the transformation of Preacher from comic to series. Tulip was always underwritten in the book, and Jesse’s lack of trust in her ability to handle danger was just the most (but not the only) misogynist element in the story. Here, that’s played up far less, and Tulip is allowed to be the genuine charming bad-ass Garth Ennis always wanted us to believe she was. Jesse himself is less of a horse-cock jerk and more of a thoughtful, indecisive soul; a lot of critics have complained about how long it’s taking the story to get him out of the small town of Annville, and while this is almost certainly a function of needing to pad things out for a series run, I think Jesse’s character benefits from the psychological depth that comes from keeping him on a more human scale. Other characters who are cartoonish villains or one-dimensional metaphors in the comic are given more shading and dimension in the TV show, particularly Jackie Earle Haley as Odin Quincannon, Ian Colletti as Eugene, and the great W. Earl Brown as his father.
The show also looks pretty great for something done on a limited budget; it knows how to build suspense; and, so far at least, it seems to be avoiding some of the particularly gross elements of sexism, cheap shock tactics, juvenile iconoclasm, and (especially) gay-panic-as-punchline that the book specialized in. Still, while some things have been improved, others remain dead in the water. Cassidy is still the primary vehicle for over-the-top violence and whoopsie anarchy, and I still find myself wishing the character would just crawl in a hole and disappear. The Saint of Killers story is being rendered nicely in flashback, but it’s going to have to blow open at some point, reviving one of the most pointless of ’90s-era nihilist superman characters. Far too much attention is being paid to Fiore and LeBlanc, the two Adelphi killers, who have zero charisma and eat up screen time leaving nothing interesting behind. And the script is still struggling to find a worthwhile balance between violent drama and black humor.
Looking back at Preacher (the comic) today, it’s hard to imagine how it once had the same critical reputation as titles that have aged far better, like Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Hellblazer. Preacher (the TV show) is off to a better start, but time will tell if it ends up being another Breaking Bad…or another Comic Book Men.