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Further Thoughts on Preacher (AMC)

In preparation for the panel on Preacher (Gone to TV), I've been thinking about what this television series, and the graphic novel that inspired it, mean. The big take-away I have, reflecting upon both, is the extreme good fortune I feel we, as the television watching public, currently enjoy having this story taking shape on the small screen. Despite being an excellent story, with memorable characters, it surely falls within a class of works posing a challenge to bring to the screen. 

Alright, let's talk for a moment about what the graphic novel is, and why at heart, I'm still incredulous Garth Ennis' work has made it to AMC. Pared away to simplest elements, The Preacher is a story of a man named Jesse Custer who goes on a long road trip across the United States and parts of Europe to have a few words with the all-mighty creator God. He meets up with an old flame, Tulip O'Hara, and an amusing Irish libertine by the name of Proisinois Cassidy who also happens to be a century old vampire. Jesse becomes imbued (possessed doesn't seem quite the right word) with power of an entity known as "Genesis" who as a product of the union of an angel and demon has the power of a new idea, has power that rivals God's Himself. As God's grows increasingly desperate to throw Jesse off His trail, the three main characters encounter serial killers, globe spanning conspiracies, Jesse Custer's awful family, and a resurrected, unkillable cowboy known the "Saint of Killers."

During the course of 75 issues of the Preacher comic (a count including a couple of related side-stories), there's enough material here for a whole fleet of television series, most of which fall outside the viewing guidelines for basic cable. AMC , with Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, certainly provides a little latitude for the comic's frequently profane or downright appalling storylines, but not as much as say HBO or Showtime. However, the diversity of settings, characters, timelines, and spectacles all suggest a budget closer to that of a tent-pole movie than something that runs for an hour every week. Television is expensive and a show like Breaking Bad or Walking Dead both found ways of cutting down on the number of sets or find ways of making as much of the action (even in the case of the Walking Dead) happen inside as possible.

The scale of The Preacher is as wide and open as the highways and byways of America itself. One of my initial concerns with the first season of the TV version was whether they were going to can that sense of motion and scale within the confines of one (telegenic) western town. I was happy to see that by the end of the first season, the intent appers to be to take the show on the road. As that epic quest aspect of the comic was one of my favorite features of it, I could not be more pleased by this development.

Add to that the basic theme of The Preacher being a fairly determined assault on the idea of organized religion and you wonder exactly who is going to fund this thing.

Having recently re-read the graphic novel, I'll add in one more problem any potential television adaption would have to face. Although published a little over a decade ago, The Preacher feels very much entwined with the era in which it appeared, both an expression of the late 90s and a reaction against it. It's hard not to pick at the strands of influences that lead up to the comic: the rough-hewn cool of Western movies, the black humor of that era's war movies, and the casual, hyper-erudite depravity of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith movies. Even reading this back then, it was hard not to observe how much of Jesse Custer's world-view comes off as a reaction to the controversies and social movements of the day. Ennis had little use for identity politics and reserved as much ire for things the typical Blue-stater might find sacrosanct as a red-stater. As has been noted by other reviewers, one major short-coming of the series is its treatment of LGBT characters and concerns. In a comic where John Wayne appears as walking, talking embodiment of all Jesse Custer aspires to be as a man, it's really concerning when every LGBT character in the story is either a ridiculous caricature or an evil-doer.

That said, I find it very difficult to escape the pull of this story. What struck me most about The Preacher, in the re-read, was my own entertainment, - there are story-lines which still strike me as having the power to awe and emotionally devastate. But there's also plenty that needs correction or at very least a critical reappraisal. No work can be all things to all people, but some of The Preacher will be off-putting, offensive, or down-right insulting to a potential reader. Partly this is by design. Garth Ennis delights in goring sacred cows, smashing idols, and generally taking the piss out of things other people consider above reproach.

The television series has already made gestures that it's going to take a different approach to many of the issues. While the first season dragged a little bit - it also opened up the story in a variety of ways. The casting of Ruth Negga as Tulip O'Hare strikes me as the best sort of reappraisal of the series - finding a way to push the narrative away from something as simple as one white dude's unhappiness and power trip. Another aspect to this is the character of Jesse Custer himself, as revealed in the series. Custer does plenty of under-handed and morally questionable stuff in the comics but he's always treated as the hero, the John Wayne of the story. That is simply not the case in the television series. If anything, Custer's flaws in the show are as much an aspect of the story as his virtues. I like this. The part of the graphic novel that aged the worst are the ways Custer is given a pretty much free-hand to manipulate and lay-low everyone he meets.

In an America that just hired a guy promising he's the only one who can fix things, it's of critical importance the central figures of The Preacher are shown as flawed as they are, and that absolute power in capricious hands tends to produce tragic consequences. My hope for the television series is that it doesn't recreate the source material faithfully but goes beyond and improves upon it. The Preacher comic book meant a lot to me but I'm hoping the television series means more.


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