Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Vertigo Watch: Preacher (TV series, 2016)
At the beginning of the 1990's, I almost bailed on comics. If you want to know who kept me coming back I can throw a bunch of names at you of authors and artists, but the real force bringing me back to the funny book store was editor Karen Berger, the mastermind behind the 1993 launch of Vertigo comics.
A lot of people say a lot of negative things about the comics industry in the 1990's, and if you consider what was going on in many corners, they're not wrong. I was avoiding shiny and holographic covers, watched unknown companies try to launch whole universes in one shot and avoided the Scarlet Spider stuff like the plague. But Berger was the one who saw the potential for what comics could do, saw the potential in then little known writers, was flexible about what could appear in a floppy comic, and she may be the least risk-averse person to ever work at the Big 2.
After successes with Wonder Woman, Legion and other titles, she shepherded several cutting edge titles that eventually set up shop under the Vertigo imprint. She gave Sandman, Swamp Thing and Hellblazer a home, nurtured and loved both the titles and creators, and resurrected dead IP at DC Comics (Kid Eternity, The Tattooed Man, Shade: The Changing Man) while also letting creators bring their own, fresh ideas to the Vertigo. In an era embracing what had been counter culture as we coined such terms as "Alternative Music" and put a groovy coffee shop on every corner, the company that put out Superman was also putting out The Extremist and Transmetropolitan.
Just imagine a young and hungry Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis... And, of course, Garth Ennis. In many ways for which she will rarely be given the credit she deserves, Karen Berger gave us Preacher.
Originally, I wasn't going to pick up Preacher. A downside of the comics-aren't-just-for-kids movement of the 1990's was the explosion of material aimed at readers high-school aged and up, and like an adolescents rebelling, they wanted to push on their boundaries and on the values of their parents. At indie companies and the Big 2 alike, a lot of material suddenly appeared with religious overtones and iconography, mostly with angels and devils alike portrayed as sexy warriors in an ill-defined celestial wars with a hazy view of religion that seemed mostly culled from metal album sleeve art.
We can talk some time about what is often considered "edgy" and what I often dismiss as affectations and branding, and my own Gen-X'y drive to find "authenticity"- whatever that may mean - but which makes me suspicious of anything marketed to me as "edgy". At some point, the edgiest thing in the world to me became a sincere moral compass, and I'm not sure that Preacher didn't help drive me there.
I don't remember why I picked up the first issue of Preacher as I distinctly remember thinking it would fall in line with what I'd tried and abandoned a few times before. I suspect the fact that the book took place in Texas was enough to get me to at least flip through - after all, I was far more used to comics taking place in imaginary cities than in my own neck of the woods.
When I opened the comic, there weren't over-wrought steroid freaks colored tomato red straining against pentagram laden chains or anything. But, oh my god... the horror. Sometime raise a glass to Steve Dillon's steady pencil and ability to capture a scene and emotion.
I was in and out of the series for the first few issues, but then I picked up the first trade and that's when I believe got sold on the comic as a whole. Like Morrison's JLA, it was the first series I read the issues as they came out and then picked up the trades, anyway, because I was reading and re-reading the issues.
It was an exemplary series, full of tonal changes that worked (full stop). Horror, humor, romance, adventure, character moments, nonsense, sexual perversion on an epic scale, cruel abuse of authority, inhumanly gratuitous violence, unspeakable of levels of blasphemy, kindness, friendship and an abiding sense of humanity. Further, the characters were incredibly well defined, even if they weren't always likable, acting from a place of sincere moral purpose in a world where a person's word was all they had and madness, manmade and otherwise, was the norm. How writer Garth Ennis, an Irishman, understood how well all of these things do fit the mold of a particular Texas point of view, I do not know.
The comic was as likely to illicit from me a grimace, a chuckle, a furrowed brow, and, upon an occasion or two, maybe a tear. Or, at least, get me choked up a bit. All this in a comic that had a character named "Arseface", a cigarette lighter with the words "Fuck Communism" engraved in the side and the ghost of John Wayne guiding the way. Now tell me Garth Ennis isn't just one of the best writers not just in comics, but in any media of the last fifty years, and I will fight you.*
My adoration of the comic likely seeped deep into my subconscious. I was a year past finishing my film school screenplay (written between February and June 1998) before I suddenly had the cold shiver down my spine that let me know how many echoes of Preacher one might find in the three of my four main characters. It would be something that I'd need to rewrite somehow if I picked the script up again.**
I'd heard various rumors of various attempts at movie and TV adaptations of the series, and I could never quite fathom how this would work out. The subject matter of the comics was bizarre, even for 90's envelope pushing across the Vertigo line. No matter what Pat Robertson will tell you, people are pretty squeamish when it comes to what they'll put on TV (less so with movies, but nobody in big-budget showbiz wants to alienate people who might give them dollars). And I had routinely been amused through the run of the comic that WB likely had no idea that this sort of content was coming out under their corporate banner. Comics were ghetto-ized more or less right up through the mid-00's - who was even paying attention to what DC did, let alone that Vertigo imprint?
When we say we want something "edgy", we usually mean we want a tough guy who doesn't follow the rules, man! Maybe they wear sunglasses a lot. Cool jackets like you can't find at the mall. They might tell lots of people to "shut up" and punch people who get in their way. And Preacher kinda has that, if a preacher's white collar and cowboy boots is cool to you. But they don't usually mean they want to see... what was in near every issue of Preacher.
So, needless to say, I was skeptical when I heard AMC had decided to take on a televised version. Even after 10 o'clock, even on cable, I didn't know how you did it. And, you know, they didn't. There's no question that show dialed it way, way back. How does one even put The Grail on TV?
Some things are improved. I'm not sure how the comics' more reserved Tulip would read on TV, and I am very fond of Ruth Negga's take on the character as a smart, conflicted spitfire. I don't think the violence and gore would play as well in live action when it's not just funny cartoon drawings and you can rely on the frozen frame to make a joke out of something like a nose being blown off or disembowelings - but their handling of violence has found it's own comedic touch, especially in scenes mixed with the supernatural.
I'm not sure Dominic Cooper is the Jesse Custer I had in my head, due in large part to how he was written, and I'd like to see more of the certainty with which Ennis imbued the character as the show returns for a second season (it makes it that much more interesting when Jesse does waver). But, what can I say - Joseph Gilgun's take is more or less exactly how I saw Cassidy.
Like the comic, the show also begins with a small-town preacher in a failing church who is given an awesome power when a celestial force inhabits his body, enabling him to use "the voice" - a power to make anyone follow any direction given them by a verbal command (yes, not dissimilar to Jessica Jones' Purple Man, only... more so). Jesse Custer is a man with a checkered and criminal past, but he's been trying to walk the straight and narrow, and so the show sees him believe he's been given a gift by God to lead his flock and maybe the whole town of Annville (or beyond).
The comic is basically a road trip story from issue 2, and so it was odd to me that the first season took place entirely within Annville, Texas, which the comic abandons after issue 1, I think (I am planning a re-read, it's been at least a decade). But here we remain as Jesse tries to sort out his town.
Elements from the comics are embedded into the show in this season, transplanting the Odin Quincannon material from the latter-era of the comics into Annville and then staying put, and, frankly it works as well here, with Jackie Earle Haley turning in a truly memorable performance (even if the content of the comics is greatly and necessarily watered down to make it to TV). We get Arseface and his origin, his father the sheriff and a new character in Emily, the organist in Jesse's church who hopes to catch his eye but never stood a chance, really. Not once you meet Tulip.
A minor bit from the first issue turns up and turns into two major characters for the series, Donnie and Betsy Schenck, and they're given their very own arcs.
Some of it works, some of it doesn't, some of it feels like dangling plotlines, and while I think they nailed both make-up and attitude for Arseface, I'm not sure I love where they left him at the end of the first season. The quest of Arseface and his motivation was always one of the best parts of the original series - and I wasn't clear on why that got changed or if it's for the better.
I did quite like how they just went ahead and inserted the Saint of Killers' origin right into the intro. It gives everyone a pretty solid Texas start, plays oddly until it dovetails, and works just fine.
There was a point in the middle of the first season - and Jessica Jones and Daredevil also struggled with this - where you got the feeling they have a beginning and ending in mind, but they might not have quite the material to fill 8 - 13 hours or TV. The plot meandered, and if the show didn't exactly lose focus, I lost focus on the show and planned to quit watching. With some encouragement that the last episodes did end up on fulfilling the promise of the first two or three episodes, I was back in until the end and am very glad I stuck with it as I think Season 2 will fulfill on the promise of what it means to have a live-action Preacher, and the risk taking they were clearly willing to do with Season 1's finale letting me know - okay, they may actually do this pretty well.
The last three episodes knew exactly what they needed to be. Both the absurd humor that punctuated the first few episodes and the comics returned, a sense of a direction came upon the characters in their arcs, and the horror you have to associate with the series came home to roost.
With the events of the finale, I feel confident the show can take off in a bang new direction for Season 2 and more of the elements of the comics can begin to appear (A Preacher without Herr Starr feels oddly empty, and I look forward to seeing how they pull that off, should they go that way). It may not have been exactly the show I wanted, but it's rare that occurs, even with Marvel. And as much as I can enjoy my Barry Allen adventures down the dial at the CW, AMC has done what NBC and Fox have both tried and more or less failed at in trying to bring characters I like to the small screen (Constantine and Lucifer).
My guess is that they weren't sure how to tell a complete arc with Season 1 if the characters were on the road, so they brought some of what occurred in the comics to Annville so we'd have something to work with. So, we stayed in Annville with an ambiguous-ish ending to get us to Season 2.
Due to political change at DC Entertainment, Karen Berger is no longer in place anywhere at WB, and that's too bad. She's about to start releasing comics again over at Image, and that's good news by anyone's estimation.
Meanwhile, I could not be happier for Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon who may finally be getting some recognition outside of comics as the originators of the concept.
*despite the very few pages Garth Ennis has ever written of Superman, he has also written one of the best versions of Superman I've seen in any media. He absolutely gets what makes The Man of Steel tick.
**I was always much more worried about someone seeing echoes of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison's Century-ending, reality bending opus