It’s boom time for comic book creatives. American TV networks, alongside the snowballing behemoths of Netflix and Amazon, have recently cottoned on to the idea that commissioning a full length series from material that’s already written, and that comes ready-packaged with an established, obsessive fanbase who’ll blow loads on merch, is a bit of a no-brainer. Personally I’m baffled by the critical acclaim the appallingly acted Daredevil has picked up, and don’t give a shit about Agent of SHIELD. Jessica Jones is decent enough, probably down to original writer Brian Michael Bendis’s guiding hand on the series. DCs Gotham has been good campy fun, even if the villains quite clearly steal the show, but titles from DCs ‘mature readers’ Vertigo imprint have fared less well. Lucifer, based on the nuanced Mike Carey series of the same name, barely nods to the source material, and is largely irrelevant. Constantine, the TV rendition of Hellblazer is, frankly, fucking appalling.
With such a run of stinkers, I was holding out little to no hope for the long awaited adaptation of Garth Ennis’s much loved Vertigo series Preacher. Preacher is one of those holy grails, the kind of book comic fans press on none believers to convince them there’s more to the world of sequential story telling than muscle heads in tights. Truth be told, the comic of Preacher- the story of a small town, tough nut Texan Preacher who finds himself possessed by the Voice of God, and with it the ability to make people do his bidding- is probably so venerated it’s over rated. Whilst it benefits from Ennis’s snappy dialogue, his critiques of organised religion and his finely paced plotting, it’s also let down by its often puerile humour and Ennis’s weary tendency to fetishize tough-talking-no-bullshit-speak-with-my-fists-real-men. That’s not to say it’s not a great read, more that it’s not without flaws.
Surprisingly, this works out well for the creative team of Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Catlin. Judging by the pilot episode, they might well be the first to get a Vertigo comic right, largely by picking up on the books strengths and jettisoning its weaknesses. The main characters are much as Ennis wrote them – the preacher Jesse Custer as a tortured former badass trying to make good, his on/off girlfriend Tulip a rebellious shit kicker steaming through the world with little care for the causalities, and his friend Cassidy (bit of a spoiler here folks) a wise cracking, amoral, undead murderer. The one difference that seemed most likely to piss off a swathe of the fanbase; namely having Tulip, blonde in the comics, played by black actress Ruth Negga, has actually caused surprisingly little backlash- looking at the Reddit thread on the program (and if anywhere is a home for trolling racists its Reddit) Negga’s flair at grinning her way through moments of insane ultraviolence has instantly won her a loyal following.
The violence of the books is fully present and correct; from Cassidy embedding a champagne bottle into a guy’s chest then using it to siphon off his blood, to Custer literally snapping the bone through a local thug’s skin. All of this is performed in cartoonish Tex Avery style, full of quick zooms and comically overblown sound effects. There’s none of Daredevil’s much vaunted (and imo tedious) ‘realistic’ fight scenes. Instead you’re getting shamelessly glamourised comic book punch ups, Tarantinoesque renditions of the fights 60s TV Batman used to have. I was half expecting a ‘Kapow’ to fill the screen, such was the silliness and fun of the rucking. Whether the series will be quite as gung ho in tackling the book’s many criticisms of Christianity remains to be seen- America is far more nervy about blasphemy than any amount of violence.
When dealing with some of Ennis’s lamer decisions, such as his thinking that calling a character with a facial deformity Arseface is the height of comedy (ha! so funny! He said arse!), TV writer Sam Catlin instead has Arseface appear in a moment of pathos, as a troubled and sad teenager. It’s a smart choice, and makes space for a character that would otherwise have let the series down. There’s also the decision to introduce snapshots of the main villains early on – something that gives a kick to those who know the original books, but takes nothing away from people new to the story. The humour of the book is there – there’s one genuinely funny Tom Cruise (sort of) cameo that feels like the kind of joke Ennis would love, and it gives the show a comic book feel that’s a relief from the relentless seriousness that has plagued adaptations since the Nolan Brothers first got their dour paws on Batman.
So, praise be, the pilot is great; a rollicking but of fun, that is (the terrible Oirish accent of Cassidy aside) far, far better than I’d hoped. It races along on a series of punch ups, wit and boozy protagonists, and largely side steps the trite, all American moralising that tarnishes so much TV super hero fodder. More promising still, there are hints of genuine darkness lurking at the edges. Who knows – maybe Preacher is going to deliver the best comic book adaptation since Ghost World. Now let’s see what happens with Sandman…