Fanboy supreme José Barbosa hitches his hoss and spends a little time in Preacher country, the latest comic book adaptation to hit our screens.
Lately it seems 20th century pop culture has been sucked into the 21st century filter and spat out with a nose ring and a smartphone. The reconstituted mass includes Zack Snyder’s insipid superhero mimicry; new Star Trek‘s fun but philosophically off-the-mark escapades and Guy Ritchie’s utter misunderstanding of the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. If old favourites are to be rebooted or “reimagined” – ugh – for the Snapchat generation, then it seems all we can expect are breezy attempts at leveraging brand recognition into online impressions and ticket sales.
This matters not a jot. Probably. The original work remains on the shelf undiminished by repeated clumsy fumbling. Arguably it might mean for each retread a unique, truly original work is not made. It certainly means the possibility of experiencing a sinking feeling, possibly even intense annoyance (hello online forums!), when the fan of the source material is faced with a superficial adaptation, ie “yeah, we’re pretty sure the suits and cars were what people loved about The Man From U.N.C.L.E and not the mysterious and sexy allure of Illya Kuryakin.”
So it seems like an act of divine magic that we have Preacher on our screens because – against all odds – it is good.
In the second half of the ’90s Preacher tore the American comics industry apart. Preacher was a modern western focusing on the world-weary Jesse Custer, his ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hare and their vampire party animal mate Cassidy. Custer inadvertently becomes possessed by a spirit more powerful than God. For a number of reasons, they all decide to hit the road in search of the almighty who has done a runner from his job and apparently hiding out on earth.
Written by North Irishman Garth Ennis, the comic book was a coherent yet diverse collection of apparently everything Ennis wanted to explore: graphic violence, sick humour, infantile jokes involving dongs, the place the western has in US culture, religion, the nature of friendship, modernity and feminism. It was all there and it was raucous as all hell.
The AMC series, made by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad and Pineapple Express infamy, is magic precisely because it captures the spirit of the comic without slavishly adhering to it. The first episode careens wildly from the source, but it feels like something Ennis and his co-creator artist Steve Dillion could have come up with during a bender in the heady ’90s.
Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is a washed up preacher languishing in a Texas parish. If he’s not drowning in whiskey, he’s boring his congregation senseless with his sermons or resisting attempts by his old flame Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) to join her on a as yet undisclosed illegal caper.
Cooper’s good as the fed up, pugilistic Custer, but Negga’s flat out great as O’Hare. She’s a wide-eyed on-the-lam crim who’s handy with a gun and even handier with an improvised bazooka. She’s so much fun and hopefully here (as in the book) she’ll be a counterpoint to the brooding Custer.
Like the book, there’s oddball characters at every turn: the disfigured but puppy dog-eyed Arseface; red neck civil war re-enacters; the bug-eyed Irish fella who can survive being mashed on impact after falling from an airplane and a meatworks boss who really likes to get involved with his work.
They’ve got so much right it’s a little intoxicating. But most importantly, Rogen and Goldberg have managed to make something that’s genuinely surprising. Reading the comic every month was a thrill because it was a given that something would happen that would either make you guffaw like hyena or bring up a spot of involuntary spew. It was a wild ride with every goddamn instalment and it looks like the TV show will do the same. Exhibit A: in the first episode a very famous Scientologist comes to a very sticky end.
So the twists and gore are there, what about the rest? Ultimately the comic was about the tussle between the old world and modernity and a guy learning to change. In this respect, the relationship between O’Hare and Custer is crucial. So far we’ve barely seen them together, so it’s still unclear if Cooper and Negga have the have the kind of flammable chemistry the two leads should have.
Will the show go all the way? The comic was gleefully profane. Will we see the notorious Quincannon meat woman, a sight so disturbing the younger 20-something Barbosa dropped his comic book on the family dog? Will we see messianic siblings flinging human shit at each other? Will we finally get to see redneck man-fish love on screen?
Each and every one of us should be looking forward to finding out.
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