Vertigo’s Preacher comic book series, first published over a six year period from 1995, has two shining lights: it’s effortlessly cool to the point of privately painting yourself into the panels, and it’s unceasingly compelling. As a more recent reader, the discipline needed in putting one book down and not diving head-first into the next in the interest of making it last wasn’t always summoned. The agony of reading Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s clever melding of words and artwork on a monthly rotation must have been excruciating.
On the surface, it seems odd in an age where live-action productions of successful comics are almost a given that nobody’s brought Preacher to production before. Think more carefully though about the complexities of the theological background story, its unapologetic sex and violence, and how purposely disjointed the narrative can sometimes be. It’s a scripting minefield. Making television - and with that much content it has to be TV - that stays faithful to the original while also being fun to watch is no easy feat. If the first episode of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s desperately awaited adaptation is any indication of what’s to come, they’ve thrown straight at the bullseye.
Jesse Custer, already made brilliantly real by Dominic Cooper, is about as disillusioned as any preacher could be. Job satisfaction is as absent as rainfall in this dusty and lumbering pocket of Texas. Sleepwalking his way through Sunday sermons that enthuse none of Annville’s faithful if bored congregation, while only half-heartedly offering advice on what Jesus would do, it takes just minutes to realise this isn’t where he wants to be. Actually seeing Jesse work as a reverend is one of the first big changes Rogen & Goldberg have implemented. The comic book jumps straight into the Christian theology that the opening episode only teases. One of the lovelier things about TV is that you have more time to let viewers get to know the characters. It’s essential, in fact, in bringing them back every week. Attachment is everything.
The duo have made plenty more changes, some mandatory to fit the wildly different creative medium and some optional. So far, all are welcome. The comic was set in the 1990s to match the period during which Garth Ennis wrote it. Bringing the TV series up to the modern day makes it feel fresh, new and opens up contemporary avenues for telling the characters’ lives rather than it feeling like an unnecessary nostalgia trip. Other changes pointed out following the trailers included complaints concerning Cassidy’s (Joe Gilgun) lack of sunglasses to shade the Irish entertainer from damaging sunlight and from revealing a secret identity. As pointed out during last week’s press conference, actors need their eyes to tell visual stories and Gilgun’s highly expressive features just had to be seen. The same goes for Arseface (Ian Colletti), whose facial injuries are significantly less grotesque than in the 90s artwork, if still striking.
Ruth Negga, the Ethiopian-Irish actor taking on the starring role of historically 'white blonde' Tulip O’Hare, was the most tedious bone of contention. There cannot be a woman who read Preacher who didn't believe herself to be Tulip, regardless of their own appearance. Ruth Negga’s presence may be the most memorable and satisfying element of episode one. Tulip wasn’t so much the way she looked as an attitude of self-sufficient defiance and audacity. TV Tulip is just that in abundance, along with the essential sparky chemistry she and Jesse exude just by breathing the same arid air. It fizzes from the moment he hears the echoes of her never forgotten drawl.
Tulip’s entrance to the show may be unflinchingly violent, but Cassidy’s introduction is just as explosive. Private jet cabin crew might not be the first occupation you’d expect of a gentleman of his persuasion, but his exit from the job is made up of possibly the best resignation letter imaginable. Cassidy is left with much of the comedy in episode one, putting Joe Gilgun in his absolute element. As casting goes, it’s telling that just an hour in, it’s already hard to imagine anyone else embodying the role better. It possibly shouldn’t be surprising given the well-known showrunners’ usual projects, but leaving the comedy in there to offset the violence is incredibly well done. Even from the very first scene it’s clear they plan on pulling no punches when it comes to gore, so the balance swings nicely between the two.
The first episode offers the audience more than just an introduction to the main players. Preacher’s complete story is long and complicated, and they’ve done well to get the ball rolling from day one. Mainly fitting in the knowledge that a mysterious stream of energy descended from outer space is rushing through places of religious worship around the world, with two equally enigmatic cowboy investigators following the destruction left in its wake. Not even more pious Hollywood actors are safe from this force. It’s only a matter of time before they and this weird ball of electrified wind will eventually feel drawn to the West. Mixed in with flashbacks to both recent and distant times, along with those appetising character inaugurations, every scene feels duly important.
What’s most crucial about this new form of Preacher, as well as how successfully the story hits the ground running, is that it’s deliciously stylish. It takes the coolness of the original and somehow makes it even more so. The soundtrack immediately feels like something you want to playlist, with the crumbling Texan imagery almost annoyingly desirable in how familiar it feels. The large-scale typography that punched the screen so confidently in Captain America: Civil War is just as smart here, though done with a little more tongue-in-cheek. All forms of violence, whether a classic bar-room brawl or something quite other-worldly, are done with slick choreography and camera work, while the script has a real crispness.
Whether a classic novel, a real life story retold or a comic book, adapting one format so that it’s palatable within another is littered with pitfalls for those holding the rights, the new team in charge, fans waiting to be entertained all over again and those hoping to find out what all the fuss was about. If you’re new to the Preacher story, you’re in for a treat. If you’re already a disciple who’s been keeping everything crossed that TV’s Preacher matches up to the paper version’s coolness, you can safely unclench. Though we might all need to make linear movements across our chests and shoulders in anticipation for what’s coming next. It promises to be exciting.
Amazon Prime members can watch episode one now, with subsequent episodes launching on Mondays from 6th June, one day after they premiere in the US on AMC.