When U.S. television network AMC announced in 2010 that they would be taking a punt at adapting a series of comic books co-created by Robert Kirkman, many considered the move to be bold and risky but at the same time, potentially very exciting. That comic book was The Walking Dead and things worked out really rather well for all concerned. Fast-forward six years, with the adventures of Rick Grimes and co. having grown into an absolute juggernaut of modern TV, it’s hardly a surprise that Kirkman’s most recent creation for Image Comics, Outcast, has been picked up for the adaptation treatment by American cable channel Cinemax and is due to debut later this year.
Outcast chronicles the tragic life of Kyle Barnes, a man in his thirties whose existence has been plagued by a series of incidents in which his loved ones become victims of demonic possession. As the story develops, Kyle finds himself inexorably linked to a world of exorcisms, ancient evil and the supernatural and he grudgingly forms a partnership with Reverend Anderson, a pastor with a speciality in exorcising the possessed, in order to learn more about the conspiracy behind the atrocities that have befallen him and his family.
In the source material at least, many familiar features of Robert Kirkman’s past works are present and correct. Once again, the tale takes place in the U.S state of Georgia, giving the series that country-tinged, Southern flavour that lends itself so well to stories of horror and isolation. Also present are a colourful cast of heavily flawed characters seemingly in search of redemption or purpose. The central duo of Kyle and Reverend Anderson both harbour dark and secretive past lives that drive their actions in the present and Kyle’s various biological and adoptive family members exude the air of having experienced varying degrees of unspoken trauma.
However, there are plenty of fresh elements within Outcast that should ensure the TV adaptation will construct a personality and tone unique to itself. Most obviously, the story is not an ensemble piece like Kirkman’s other television export. Instead, the narrative focuses foremost on Kyle and the Reverend and the relationships between the two of them and their various acquaintances, friends and family throughout Rome, Georgia. Though the pair develop an endearing relationship, their rocky dynamic and the question of how effectively they can co-operate is one of Outcast’s fundamental keystones, with the duo frequently clashing over Kyle’s lack of religious faith as well as his more unorthodox approach to tackling the residents of Hell. As such, Outcast is a very personal and introspective story that uses its other-worldly backdrop to explore some very dark human traits and emotions.
More significantly, Robert Kirkman states in his letter to readers at the end of the comic books’ first volume that Outcast was borne from a desire to create a genuine, epic horror story and document a threat more “real-world” than zombies. Whether themes of demonic possession and exorcism should be considered more plausible than a zombie outbreak is debatable to say the least and will likely depend on the religious and spiritual leanings of the reader. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to deny that the Outcast concept is a more grounded experience than The Walking Dead and peddles a brand of fear and terror that strikes a nerve for any readers with loved ones they would do anything to protect.
A portion of this fear comes from a mechanic in the series whereby it isn’t immediately obvious which characters are in the throes of possession. As Kirkman himself alludes, zombies are not complicated creatures and they’re not difficult to discern from live humans (take note Season 2 Andrea…) however the demons in Outcast are naturally more manipulative and sneaky and it isn’t always apparent whether a character’s soul has been taken by a demon or whether they’re just having a rough day and forgot their morning cuppa.
In addition to the threat of being catfished by Beelzebub, Kirkman’s desire to explore outright horror territory leaves Outcast with a distinctly mature flavour. Naturally, there is plenty of blood and guts; grisly murders and detached body parts are par for the course but the horror hits at a far deeper level. The palpable menace that acts as an undercurrent for the story is genuinely frightening, more so than the moments of physical gore. The contorted faces of the possessed, expertly drawn by artist Paul Azaceta and the conversations they have with their exorcist counterparts are chilling enough to give Regan MacNeil a run for her money.
Perhaps more surprising than the blood and scares however, is just how bleak the world of Outcast is often depicted as being. Kirkman is obviously no stranger to painting despair and hopelessness in his comics but Outcast takes this trope to new levels. It’s an unsettling affair, often sinister but hidden behind a facade of everyday life, as opposed to a post-apocalyptic world of constant and obvious peril. The story also touches upon themes of domestic abuse, depression and the place of religion in a largely atheist world, all of which ensure that Outcast lies firmly outside of the ‘light-hearted’ category.
It’s important for the success of the Outcast adaptation that these integral elements remain intact and since Robert Kirkman will be acting as executive producer the show, as he does with The Walking Dead, it’s reasonable to assume that the mature tone will carry over. Television adaptations have a tendency to tone down adult source material in order to appeal to a wider audience, however the popularity of productions such as Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story has somewhat changed the landscape in that regard, proving that mature themes and controversy can have a place in mainstream television. And if Deadpool has taught us anything, other than how to properly celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s that adult content and commercial success aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
There are, of course, no guarantees but the fact that the show will be broadcast on the Cinemax channel is a positive omen that Outcast’s horror themes will be continued. As well as being owned by HBO, the American network is also renowned in the States for their ‘Max After Dark’ programming, a late night segment where they essentially air soft-porn productions with titles such as Working Girls In Bed and the intriguingly named Topless Prophet. With that kind of record, Cinemax’s attitude towards depictions of demonic possession and violence should be a rather liberal one and this will give Outcast the freedom necessary to deliver an enjoyably uncomfortable level of fear in viewers’ minds.
Although Outcast’s premiere has yet to be allocated an air date, several short trailers are available online and an ‘exclusive scene’ was shown to crowds at the 2015 New York Comic Con. As far as a TV series can be judged on two snippets little over a minute in length, the initial signs are very good indeed. The show appears to follow the comics’ narrative and tone rather closely, with the setting of Rome, Georgia emitting the same rural, small-town creepiness and several brief scenes in both trailers featuring imagery and dialogue ripped straight from the pages of the source material. It also seems that no punches have been pulled when it comes to the horror elements, with a number of the possession-y moments looking like they’d be equally at home in a trailer for an Insidious movie.
The biggest relief for Outcast fans, however, is likely to be how authentic and comfortable Patrick Fugit and Philip Glenister look in their respective roles as Kyle Barnes and Reverend Anderson. You may remember Glenister’s last foray into supernatural territory, ITV’s ill-fated Demons didn’t fare too well, with big Phil himself attracting criticism for his dodgy American accent. However it’s difficult not to feel a British twinge of pride when a talented actor from these shores lands a role in a sizeable stateside production and nationalist bias aside, the man behind DCI Gene Hunt is the perfect stabilising figure to contrast with the unpredictable and chaotic nature of Kyle.
Speaking of which, Patrick Fugit is a distinctly riskier selection in the lead role, having primarily worked in film over the past decade and still arguably best known for his role in Almost Famous. If the trailer is anything to go by however, both Fugit and Glenister will be a roaring success as Outcast’s lead duo.
Robert Kirkman has stated that for the first time in his comic career, he began Outcast with a clear idea of how the series will end. Whether this conclusion will ever be played out on the small screen depends entirely on the level of impact the show has after its ten-episode run but early signs indicate that fans of Robert Kirkman’s previous work and of character-driven horror in general will not be disappointed. Expect a mature and faithful adaptation of the bleakly gripping source material with tense supernatural undertones and a more-than-solid cast that fully justifies Outcast’s placement on a variety of ‘Most Anticipated Shows of 2016’ lists.