Saturday, July 15, 2017

Re-Reading "Preacher"/ Quitting "Preacher"

note:  Preacher, both TV series and the comics series upon which the show is based, contain graphic violence, deeply mature themes, deeply immature themes, sexual frankness and deviation and no small amount of content of a religious nature which many-a-good folks would reasonably find offensive.  You can read this post, watch the TV show, or read the comics, but you've been forewarned, you're on your own, and your mileage will vary.   

Last year, Preacher came to television via AMC - arriving as a sort of high octane dramedy and a loose adaptation of the original comics which ran from 1995-2000 under DC's Vertigo imprint.  The second season is now underway, but I only made it fifteen minutes into the first episode of this year's offering before saying "You know, I'm good.  Let's not watch this."

You can do well with a superhero comics adaptation so long as you remain basically true to the intention of the authors, or - in the case of serial comics - find that core to the characters and concepts that have brought readers back, year after year, outlasting almost all other forms of long-time serial publications in the states.

Whether Preacher is a "superhero" comic is up for debate (and editor Axel Alonso says it is in one of the forwards to the collections I just got through).  The series ran 66 issues and a handful of one-shots, retaining the same creative team across the entire run of the main title (writer Garth Ennis and artists Steve Dillon with covers by Glenn Fabry) and had writer Garth Ennis on all the one-shots.  Under the stewardship of editor Axel Alonso (and with Karen Berger in a leadership role), the title did what Vertigo exceeded at in the 90's:  allowing creative teams to stake out an authorial voice in a medium that often quashes the spark of individuality in favor of a shared authorship.

It's worth noting that in the promotional material for the show, producer Seth "huh huh huh" Rogan explained they were changing things up for Season 2 because the comics do this all the time, anyway.  But - and Rogan should know this and they should have caught this before they aired that soundbite - Preacher really did not.

If I had to say how true the first season of AMC's Preacher was to the original Ennis/ Dillon comics, I'd argue it landed somewhere between 55-65%.  Histories are changed, characters are changed in ways drastic and cosmetic.  The entire run of the first season took place in one location, borrowing the Quincannon portions from well past the mid-point of the comics' run and integrated that storyline with the formerly brief and mostly uncovered portions taking place in Annville.  All while changing up quite a bit about the backstories for both Jesse and Tulip, going for more stock TV/ film approaches to character than the comic went for (movies and TV like to keep everything tidy by making sure everything is a closed loop.  example: Burton's Joker created the Batman).

Projecting back to 1995 when the series debuted, I would have been about 20 years old, and as I believe I've mentioned in the digital pages of this site, I didn't immediately take to the series.  There was a lot of "extreme" stuff hitting the stands at that time, guys who grew up on heavy metal or watching Faces of Death in their downtime who mistook shock value for storytelling.  And Ennis and Dillon were never ones to skimp on the shock-value angle (to this day, Ennis' war comics can rely a bit on the horrors of war* in illustrated form), especially in that first issue.

But at some point, I got on board.  I don't remember how or why, but I picked up the first Preacher trade (thank goodness for the Vertigo imprint's early adoption of the trade paperback format) and then stuck with the book from thereon in, picking up the issues and then the trades, just as I'd done with Sandman, as I was re-reading the comics enough to warrant an easier format.  (For those of you on similar timelines, I did sell both those trades and the floppies in the last five years after I'd acquired hardcovers of the series.)

A few months ago, maybe a little dissatisfied with the Preacher TV show, but uncertain what was different with two decades between my reading and the TV show, I decided it was time to pull those hardcovers off the shelf and give them a whirl.

Two decades on, I'm no longer the same person I was at age 20, and it's safe to say Preacher held a particular impact for me at a particular age and point in my life that is impossible to replicate at this late date when the forging fires of young adulthood have cooled.  In much the same way that, even if I went to go see Ministry play today, I doubt I'd be wearing 13-hole Doc Martens and tossing myself into a pit - it's difficult to feel that same fire without also feeling exhaustion coming on.  While I had expectations for how well the comic may or may not hold up, I was also ready to have those expectations challenged, dashed on the rocks, and/or vindicated.

As it occurred, I found the series much the same in plotting, but was surprised, getting to read it all at once like that, how intimate the series felt, how much less epic or sprawling it seemed on this condensed read than it felt spread over the run of the original release dates.  Rather, the comic felt, like so much of the 1990's in film (and occasionally television), a study of friends and their faults and the reconciliation of this knowledge using extreme situations as a backdrop for those mundane moments.

Riffing on Judeo-Christian symbolism and concepts was a straight-up feature of comics in the 1990's (we had lots of bad-girl books about literal demons, angels and warrior nuns, plus lots of metal-album-cover versions of ol' Satan himself showing up, including a softer version in Sandman).  Preacher was rife with angels, the faithful of many stripes, a one-shot appearance by Old Scratch, and was a comic in which God is an actual character who appears from time to time, with motivations and whatnot.  All of this, on paper, sounds terrible.  But - holy smokes - it worked.

Because it's Dillon and Ennis, there's violence and grotesques that show up with terrific regularity and with the throttle in the red zone at every opportunity.  But inbetween, there's genuine character development, intricate storytelling and a heart bigger than Ennis would ever want to assign him.  The book can be laugh-out-loud funny, horrifying, romantic and never less than gripping.

Some content and exchanges now feel dated from the perspective of the tumblr-lefty-purity-test crowd, and - if the series hit today - it's hard to see how this book wouldn't be causing people fits and forcing editors and writers into public apologies on Newsarama (Alonso also confesses to being certain Preacher was going to get him in trouble, if not fired).  The sprinkling of choice language of the characters would today earn the book justifiable accusations of gay panic and homophobia (the kids won't know how much has changed in the past twenty years on this tip).  Jesse's relationship with Tulip and his inability to allow her to be placed in danger would be seen as sexist at best - and I'd argue was honestly progressive for the 90's to even address his macho posturing versus her obvious capabilities.

But I wonder if the intentionally gray and muddled characters of the series would be allowed to exist in an era where every panel is poured over and given a hot-take.  No doubt in 2017, the comic would be met with outrage and Media 101-derived think-pieces as to "Why Ennis' Preacher is Bad for Comics" by 5:00 PM every Wednesday as the latest issue arrived.

Point:  We're increasingly not-very-good about navigating characters who don't conform to pre-approved, safe templates.  Sometimes I think the super-sanitized media consumed by the kids has been a disservice when it comes to their ability to deal with nuance or character.

No doubt sidebar riffs on Bill Hicks or characters mulling over films would be seen as distracting in today's shoot-first-talk-later comics, instead of maybe a bit derivative of/ Tarantino-esque.  I believe these sidebar narratives provide insight and/ or character (After all - what do people actually talk about when they're not arguing?).  Finding and discovering an old comrade-in-arms of his father from Vietnam (not yet a faded memory for America in the mid-90's) and other seeming diversions might actually work pretty well in serial television, but we'll have to see if the showrunners have the nerve or vision.  I suspect they'll do what they did in Season 1 and just make media references these cutesy moments where our characters acknowledge they listen to the same radio we do.

Frankly, I'd argue the characters of the comics are simply a lot cooler than those on the Preacher television show.

Cassidy, of course, the stand-out character with the outsized personality gets the most play when people remember the comics.  One wonders what exactly occurred with Ennis and/ or Dillion to recognize and acknowledge the heart of the party is not always good for the people around them.  And while the Cassidy of the television show bears more resemblance to his comics counter-part, he's less the grand-standing attention whore that the Cassidy of the comics wishes to be.  That a comic about love and friendship acknowledges how good times can be toxic, that the cracks in the facade with pals might need some examining - doesn't mean you can't still care or it doesn't hurt all the more when things fall apart.

The take on Tulip of the show is nigh unrecognizable from the tulip of the comics, and I can see how the producers decided to Hollywood-up the idea of Tulip, who's story in the comics is to be a POV for the damage what social media now calls "toxic masculinity".  Even Jesse Custer, the great love of her life, who is fully aware of her abilities, can't stomach the notion of letting Tulip decide to take mortal risks on his behalf.  She's not the extreme cartoon Ruth Negga has actually made pretty charming on the television show, but contained dynamite, and that sort of thing *can* play well on television, but the comic takes a while to show who Tulip really is through flashback, action and deed - and I don't think that fit well into the ADA world of AMC's show.

Jesse Custer of the (first season of the) television show is going through a crisis of faith that we see only in a few panels over the run of the comics.  He's crippled by an uncertainty and his attempts at proactive change meet with disaster as often as they help, even after he's impacted by Genesis.  It's pretty standard adult-TV-type character development and presentation.

But the Jesse of the comics has his certainty in place by the end of issue 2 or 3 (which recount the first day or so of Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy intersecting), and if he had a crisis in Annville, it was largely in part because he'd been forced into a lifestyle in which he, himself did not believe and it was eating him alive - not something he felt he *had* to do.  His merging with Genesis seemed as much a factor of the timing of his throwing in the towel as anything else - he doesn't mistake it as something that will save the world - he doesn't muck about with it.  He drops the mission statement: they're going to find God and find out what He's up to.

The mystique of the cowboy, a fiction created first in Remington art, then Wild West shows and pulps, and key to the founding of Hollywood, by the 1990's could be boiled down to the iconic presence of John Wayne on the screen.  The Duke's characters could be flawed, cantankerous, combative and blunt to a fault, though, yes, they were intended to be working from a solid moral core, as seen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Cowboys, Stagecoach, Red River or a hundred other movies (we can debate the morality of Wayne's character in The Searchers at your leisure).  It's this myth of the American male in the form of this cowboy from which Jesse Custer has molded himself (remarkably, Ennis does not treat this idea with cynicism or sarcasm in molding the character, while acknowledging the complications).  And, indeed, Jesse takes time to address a sort of apparition of Wayne from time to time, a sort of avatar of morality.**

As Gen-X was coming of age, the Boomers, the last generation to eagerly consume Westerns, from Hopalong Cassidy to Clint Eastwood, were on solid footing as "the establishment".  By the 1990's, Western films had become post-modern references to themselves, having gone through a transformation of the genre with the rise of the Spaghetti Western and the most recent success in the prestigious Unforgiven.  The audience for the Preacher comics, 18-20-somethings, had mostly turned its nose up at Westerns as something Grandpa watched on Sunday afternoons (Jamie still won't watch Westerns with me), supposedly filled to the brim with outdated moralism, unrelatable heroes and none of the "edginess" a generation raised on anti-heroes and dark knights was looking for.

All of this made Jesse Custer's insistence on a firm moral compass of his own-making (certainly not put in place by Gran'ma), derived from lessons handed down by Rooster Cogburn, Hondo Lane and The Ringo Kid, an anachronism and somewhat antithetical to the then-current trends in pop-culture.

And made him, possibly, the most punk-rock thing you could think of to do with a character.

That Jesse is/ was Texan is of course, integral to not just the character, but the entirety of the story (something the TV show's first season didn't entirely grok).

Worth noting:  Garth Ennis is not an American, but Irish, and it's often in these outsider's perspectives that can both decode and illuminate some of what we take for granted or let wash over us in the ordinary, free from examination.  I'd argue that perceptions of Texas reflect the American psyche turned up to 11.  A reputation for friendliness, hospitality and fortitude co-exists with a reputation for intolerance, arrogance and even a lust for violence.  And, having had lived here for 30+ of my 42 years, I can assure you, it's all true.  The moralistic hypocrisy one can associate with the evangelical devout is so common-place, it's baked into the bedrock.  Just as much as a stranger will stop and help you, or that anything less than a church-smile upon meeting someone is considered deeply rude.

At root in the comics is the schizm between religious certainty (in a world in which God is someone our characters see and speak with) and the realities of the people He's created.  We sometimes forget Westerns take place during the same period as those corseted Victorian period pieces where the British upper-crust can be "shockingly" hypocritical as they look down upon the middle-class dreamer girl who won't just do things "their" way.  That a man standing up with a revolver against inhumanity in the unsettled (by Anglos) West was another side of the same coin, living on the edge of the world of those proper manners, which still had a roost in Eastern cities.  And, indeed, carving a path for those same hypocrisies to make their way into western lands, placing those fictional moral (and often reluctant) do-gooders in an awkward place between two worlds with that moral compass to guide them.  And both sides claiming the cowboy as stalwart hero and rugged individualist.

But our characters dwell in the present of 1995-ish.  The West is won, and now that rugged individual makes their way in America.  So I don't think it's a mistake that the comic wants to be an American roadtrip, even if it has a lack of destination points along the way.

Preacher is the story of one sort-of-good man holding the Be-All, End-All of Goodness to task for failing in His end of the bargain, let alone unleashing a world in which bad things happen to good people.  In this, the comic is a blaspheme.  That alone is enough to stop most readers by the end of issue #1, I'd guess.  That's not the way this is supposed to work.  The notion of holding God accountable for the very world He created and populated has, no doubt, been taken on, but I've yet to see a story about a crisis of faith that doesn't end in hugs, good feelings and Man accepting that The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

All-in-all, I had to give up on the show.  It lacked faith enough in it's own source material and wanted to crank things up to a level where the challenges and questions the comic took on would get lost in the melee of wackiness.  They didn't understand the restrained and shocking appearance of violence deployed by Ennis and Dillon, and instead turned it into a videogame fantasy.  In short, the show lacked conviction, and while it didn't bastardize everything I'd once cared about in a book that meant a lot to me as a young adult, it also wasn't ever going to try to rise to those heights.  So why bother?  I've got the comics any time I want to go back to them.

It's impossible to discuss each event, plot twist, sojourn and character of Preacher, or we'd be here all day.  Ennis and Dillon's cast weaved through a world I can't say I'd care to live in, and they put up with horrors to which I cannot relate, aside from recognizable tomfoolery of trying to be a reasonable man in the South, where that sort of thing is not always the easiest option.

I won't bore you with my adoration of Herr Starr as villain, the myopic brilliance of The Grail, the bizarr-o perfect commentary of pop culture that was the journey of Arseface, or a dozen other things I'd like to discuss.  But, god damn.  I love that comic.

*which, the few times my grandfather who served the 82nd Airborne in WWII, talked about his experience, included some absolute horror shows served up right in front of his eyes.  And one does not fight on the fronts we did in Europe, Africa and the Pacific without generating some nightmare scenarios.  And we weren't seeing half of what the Russians witnessed.

** that the Tarantino penned-True Romance bore certain similarities is something worth observing, from swapping The Duke for The King and certain similarities between Ms. Alabama Worley and Tulip O'Hare

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