A little over twenty years ago, Vertigo began to publish the Preacher series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. It was my job to promote it to mainstream (i.e. non-comic book trade) media. I was already a huge fan of Garth’s run on Hellblazer and almost got a blurb for it from Sting until the corporate types told me that wasn’t allowed.
I loved every issue of Preacher. It was funny and scary and emotional and philosophical and brilliant. It simultaneously evoked John Ford westerns and Harvey Kurtzman slapstick. It had a character named Arseface, for crying out loud. I did some of my best work promoting that book, because I believed I was bringing happiness to millions.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to find out there was going to be a television show based on the comics (or “graphic novels” as it says in the opening credits). Unlike many, I wasn’t worried about the involvement of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg because I loved This Is the End, both because it promised the right tone for Preacher and because it’s so damn funny.
I wanted to refresh my memory of the comics and reread the whole run in my collection of trade paperbacks. Alas, I can’t find them, so I went into the television show only slightly better prepared than a Preacher virgin.
Preacher is about Jesse Custer, a minister with a shady past who is suddenly able to compel people to do whatever he tells them to do. He lives in the small town in Texas where he grew up, perhaps hiding, perhaps trying to find himself. There are people (or beings who look like people) trying to find him and take away his special abilities.
The show begins before the comic book stories do, and seem to take major liberties with the plot. I don’t really care. Comic books are not television series, and can’t be precisely reproduced. And more than twenty years have passed since the comic began. A character like Tulip, who is pretty much just a love interest in the comic, is a fully fleshed out character in the television show, with her own problems and passions and sense of herself. More than a few critics think she’s the most compelling character, at least in the four episodes that have aired as of this writing.
A lot of these critics have compared the television show to a Coen Brothers movie, and I understand that. There are a lot of terrific faces in this series, faces that aren’t symmetrical or conventionally beautiful. The cinematography gives the exterior shots a golden glow that can be warm or bleak, and the interior shots can be exalted or claustrophobic or in-between.
Here’s what I remember most about the series: Steve Dillon would draw page after page of the three main characters (Jesse, the titular preacher, Cassidy, the vampire, and Tulip, the girl), and even though that’s supposed to be the most boring thing one can do in comics, I was mesmerized. A lot of that was Garth’s writing, but it was also the way Steve could convey so much information in a facial expression. There are actors that do this, at least for me (Claire Danes, Denzel Washington, Bette Davis), but very few artists in any medium.
The show doesn’t look exactly like Dillon’s art, but it feels like Dillon’s art, just like the Hughes Brothers’ movie From Hell felt like Eddie Campbell’s art without actually looking like his line work. Similarly, Dominic Cooper and Joe Gilgun feel like Custer and Cassidy without actually looking like them. Ruth Negga isn’t cute and blonde like the Tulip in the comics but, as noted above, she’s way better.
Garth and Steve both have their names on the television series as executive producers, and I hope this means the checks clear. I also hope I keep enjoying the vibe the show shares with the series. In the meantime, I’m having way more fun with this than the last few seasons of The Walking Dead.