To borrow a phrase from Zoolander, Garth Ennis is so hot right now. Much like Mark Millar a couple of years ago, creative types and studio bods seem to be champing at the bit to develop the Northern Irish writer’s work: the recent Netflix take on Marvel’s Punisher character was clearly drawn from his seminal MAX run and proved so popular that a solo series now seems to be in the works. Ennis’ sex’n’violence subversive superhero deconstruction, The Boys is also on the way to TV but most notably, Preacher, the iconic title that made Ennis’ name and helped to shape the landscape of 90s comic books premieres this very Sunday on AMC. (It was also announced on Wednesday that it will be airing in the UK the day after, on Amazon Prime Video.)
If you’ve never had the pleasure, simply know this: along with books like Sandman, Hellblazer and Enigma, Ennis’ Preacher not only helped to establish the fledgling Vertigo line as a major force in comics – it also pushed blasphemy and violence to centre stage, taking the baton from titles like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (which had redefined what a comic book could be) and provocatively led the medium into wholly uncharted, grown-up waters. The importance of this movement shouldn’t be understated – as a company DC had previously baulked at the idea of religious profanity, famously blocking a Swamp Thing story where the character met Christ. With its Vertigo imprint however, all bets were off: the nature of heaven, the bloodline of the Christ… no cow was too sacred for Ennis to skewer and as compatriots such as Neil Gaiman used Vertigo to ask equally big questions of their readers, the idea of what a comic book should be – of what a comic book could be, changed irrevocably.
Of course, with Preacher’s transition to the screen, there’s always the concern that much of what made it so ground-breaking could be lost. It wouldn’t be the first time that the flaming heart of a Vertigo book was crushed in the meaty, collective fist of Mola Ram-like studio bosses (the recent less-than-impressive adaptation of Lucifer being an example of this). That said, the fact that Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen are producing the show is heartening: the duo’s collaboration on The Interview proved that they were more than willing to piss off a North Korean dictatorship (and those guys have nukes!) so ruffling a few feathers with a little religious sacrilege should be no issue at all. Similarly, AMC as a network seem to set great store by their creators. (And lest we forget, showrunner Sam Catlin has a successful working relationship with them having produced the wildly acclaimed Breaking Bad.) Whilst none of their output has yet been as openly provocative as Preacher, over the last seven or eight years the broadcaster has consistently produced the best quality drama of any current network out there. The aforementioned Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and other successes have been realised by allowing producers creative space to tell their stories as they see fit. One hopes that with Preacher, the same freedoms have been afforded to Goldberg and Rogen and Catlin.
Any creative carte blanche afforded to Preacher’s helmers doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re are looking to emulate the book in panel-by-panel fashion though: Rogen has gone on record to state that if you want a perfect approximation of the comic book then you should probably just go ahead and re-read the book itself. Naturally, as creators they’re looking to bring something new to the table and give the audience something new – a commendable move that should be celebrated for its boldness. If the untimely passing of Darwyn Cooke this week reminds us of anything (apart from his stellar art), it’s that those seeking to adapt already legendary works should have something both new and interesting to say, otherwise why bother? Cooke’s work on Minutemen (and to a lesser degree, Silk Spectre), was remarkable for its ability to add something of worth to the Watchmen universe, standing far above a series of questionable Before Watchmen prequels that sought (and failed) to build upon Moore’s original classic.
So what of Preacher? What stays? What goes? Ultimately, AMC is a cable channel and despite the show’s air time, one wonders if some of the comic book’s more edgy material may be a step too far for the network (especially when Breaking Bad was reportedly limited to one F-Bomb per season). Heavy cursing is only the tip of the iceberg for Preacher too. With shows like Into The Badlands and The Walking Dead suggesting that AMC will be fine with graphic violence (as the brutal arm break in the first trailer suggests), it’s difficult to imagine that they’ll be down with some of the more ‘Ennis moments’ from the books – a certain character being persuaded to sodomise themselves with their own severed member comes to mind – but who knows? They may surprise us yet. Speaking of sex (if indeed severed self-sodomy can be classed as such; I’m sure the internet could tell you if you really wanted to know), the book is again full of it, the very genesis of the plot hinges upon it in fact: from angels and demons screwing around to the wanton passions of Jesse and Tulip, hopping on the good foot and doing the bad thing is instrumental to the story’s tone… but whether the show will be allowed to exhibit it in its full glory is questionable at best.
Having said all that, Preacher’s pilot was aired at SXSW and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive with the general buzz being that the show captures the tone and spirit of the source material, honouring the essence of the characters and universe whilst not being particularly faithful in the story stakes. Whilst creating the world of Preacher without the sex’n’cussing may not sound initially promising, the trailers and promotional stills suggest otherwise. The preservation of characters like Arseface are a sure sign that Ennis’ puerile tragi-comic underpinnings have been safely preserved and a healthy layer of violence is sure to help create that Preacher feel.
Perhaps where it is most essential that the story remains true to itself (in order to preserve and honour the tone of the source material) is in the story’s blasphemous attitude to Christianity. And this is where things could get a little tricky… although not just perhaps because of the offense it could cause. The general premise of the story is that Jesse is on a collision course with God and that in itself should be fine; even the ‘seraphim with benefits’ angle is pretty mild in this day and age but some of the undeniably insulting papal imagery in the story’s middle arc along with the idea that the Lamb of God’s holy bloodline could be tainted through generations of incest into something retarded and infantile is just a little more contentious, although not entirely unworkable either.
However, even if you clear those hurdles (or decide to attempt them at all) the show’s writers are posed with an equally pressing problem: what looks fine in a comic book can very easily seem goofy in a more grounded TV drama. Sure, the angels in Preacher are a very human bunch, they plot, they scheme, their hopes and fears can be as small and as petty as ours – but despite that, the show’s creators must be wary of how silly it could all seem. Whilst some of the more earthly elements of the angelic host (such as the Eastwood-esque Saint of Killers) could easily work, straight up angels may not; perhaps this is the reason that all pre-release materials seem to have avoided this element altogether and the absence of angelic character names from the pilot episode’s cast list suggests that this may go beyond a decision to simply omit this angle from the trailer.
So will it be the Preacher that we know and love? Maybe. Is it worth checking out? Definitely. Aside from the pilot’s rapturous critical reception which has spawned favorable comparisons to Tarantino and some of AMC’s other classic shows, a twenty-first century Preacher done well may in some ways be superior. Yeah, I understand that comment was probably heretical to long-time fans of the comic book but as excellent as Ennis’ series is, it’s very much a product of its time. Sure, it set the tone for his career but Ennis has gone on to do even better work since and ultimately, Preacher is a 90s comic book, limited in many of the ways that books of that era were, despite the fact that it stretched the boundaries so very magnificently. A Preacher for this century doesn’t necessarily need to push the same provocative buttons as the source material – they’ve been pushed so many times since Garth Ennis got his mitts on them that these days they’re pretty well worn. Rogen and his co-conspirators are no strangers to controversy so here’s hoping the show embraces the rebel spirit of the comic book but challenges us in new ways that are appropriate for a millennial audience whilst retaining the juvenile charm that we adore it for. Amen to that, right?