Preachin’ ‘Bout Preacher
SPOILER ALERT — This article contains spoilers for the entire Preacher comic, beginning to end.
Time was, everyone knew the only way Preacher could make it to the screen was as an HBO series. A film couldn’t cover more than a tiny fraction of Preacher’s story, and a regular TV series would never be able to get away with all the violence, sex, blasphemy & cursing that made Preacher famous. But even that seemed like a pipe dream — hoping for a decent adaptation of Preacher was like hoping to win the lottery. But here we are — Preacher is now a real, live TV show on AMC, and although only one episode has aired so far, it looks like the series is going to be pretty decent.
With that in mind, I decided to re-read Preacher for the 5th or 6th time. Preacher, along with Transmetropolitan and Sandman, introduced me to the notion that comics could be for grown-ups, and that they could be about ideas rather than fist-fights between people in spandex. Preacher is probably my favourite of the three — I’ve even got a “Fuck Communism” Zippo. I’ve read it enough since then that I didn’t really expect anything new to pop up at me, but there are a few points I’d like to discuss. After that, I’ll dig into some aspects of the show (well, the first episode of the show), and talk about how they compare to the comics, and what that might mean.
Preacher’s about religion, right? It’s all about a, well, preacher who decides to hunt God down and hold him responsible for all of humanity’s suffering. Along the way he runs into a secret organization that looks after the descendants of Jesus Christ, a bunch of angels, and a number of other spirits and beings.
That’s the plot, though, not really the theme. Jesse’s mission is basically just a way of looking at the problem of evil, and it’s not particularly sophisticated in that regard. The Grail and their ward(s) are just a rehash of the thoroughly-debunked conspiracy theory found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. From a theological standpoint, Preacher is a lot like Kevin Smith’s Dogma — it doesn’t make any new or interesting arguments, but it is interesting (and entertaining) in other ways.
I should qualify all of that by saying that I’m not completely sure what Ennis was doing with the Grail. He wasn’t just copying from Holy Blood, Holy Grail — he was using their ideas as a springboard to satirize organized religion (the incredibly fat Pope-figure who loves mass murder & pies is a bit of a give-away), but he may also have been mocking religious conspiracy theories themselves.
As far as I can tell, Preacher isn’t about religion. Religion is just the vehicle that Ennis uses to explore other themes.
All throughout Preacher, we’re presented with a whole bunch of different cowboy figures, and they are very different. They may all be cowboys, but there’s no way you could ever confuse John Wayne and Jody, to name two. Each of them is different, and each of them is flawed. As Preacher moves forward, we watch Jesse mature, and we learn that he always wanted to be a cowboy. Each of the cowboys in his life helped him along that path — they taught him what kind of a cowboy he should be.
To me, this just reeks of symbolism — in an age when masculinity is in crisis, Jesse has to pick and choose from what his mentors taught him, and he ends up becoming a whole new kind of cowboy. In Preacher, “cowboy” is really just code for “man”.
Jesse’s first cowboy was his dad. John Custer was a bad-ass in Vietnam who came home, fell in love, and settled down to enjoy life. Jesse didn’t have much time with him, but Custer Senior taught him some of his most important lessons : “You don’t take no shit off fools, an’ you judge a person by what’s in ’em, not how they look. An’ you do the right thing. You gotta be one of the good guys, son : ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.”
In the end, Jesse’s dad died because he wasn’t tough enough. That’s not a moral judgement, just a statement of facts. He lost to Jody & T.C. They were just tougher, that’s all.
Now Jody, he taught Jesse all sorts of practical things. He turned Jesse into a world-class brawler, a sharpshooter, a mechanic, and even a horse-rider. He also taught Jesse that there are some real bastards out there, and that you have to be even tougher than they are.
Even setting aside his moral failings, Jody still wasn’t a great role model. He wasn’t too intelligent, and he sure as hell didn’t have any ambition. He was quite content to spend two or three decades as a hired ranch hand, working for a woman who didn’t appreciate him. The high point in his life was probably killing a gorilla with a baseball bat (admittedly, that’s pretty impressive, but it sure ain’t on my bucket list). Jody was ruthless and skilled, and he was more than happy to use those attributes whenever the opportunity arose, but that’s it.
And then there’s John Wayne. Preacher strongly implies that Wayne was an image that Genesis used to talk to Jesse, but never explains what exactly his nature was before Genesis showed up. Applying Occam’s Razor, the John Wayne that talked to Jesse as a kid was probably just a particularly vivid imaginary friend brought on by all the trauma that Jesse suffered. It doesn’t really matter, though. Jesse’s John Wayne is his partner, and a pretty decent partner at that. Wayne kept Jesse sane (more or less) during his time in the coffin, and was almost always there for him with advice and encouragement. On the other hand, Wayne abandoned Jesse back when Jesse was forced to become a preacher — he walked out on him, and even called him a “faggot”. Not very partnerly.
That brings us to the Saint of Killers, the most authentic cowboy in the whole book. The Saint was a real cowboy, back in the Wild West, and he is very real. He was a tough son of a bitch as a human, and he’s worse as the Angel of Death. He killed hundreds of people before he ever went to hell, and there is absolutely no attempt to whitewash his crimes. Even after he and Jesse team up, Ennis makes it very clear that the Saint is not one of the good guys. He’s effective, he’s dangerous, and you definitely want him on your side, but he ain’t good. He’s also just about as unimaginative as Jody — after he learns that God and the Devil are real, he spends a century serving God without ever wondering if God was responsible for the death of his family. Once he finds out the truth, it’s Jesse’s plan that puts everything in motion.
Where does that leave Jesse? He learned a lot from the cowboys in his life, and he rides out of the series on a horse, but he’s his own kind of cowboy. The best illustration of this comes right after he finishes giving Tulip head (there really isn’t a delicate way to say that). She tells him that 80% of men won’t perform oral sex on a woman. That’s it, right there. Cunnilingus isn’t something he considers gross, or a chore, and he sure as hell doesn’t see it as a threat to his masculinity. Most cowboys won’t do what he did, which sort of makes him the best cowboy of all.
There’s also the issue of guns — cowboys love their pistols. Jody uses a semi-auto (probably a 1911, which is pretty damn iconic, but I can’t tell), and the Saint uses a pair of Colt Walkers. Jesse doesn’t use guns. He’s a great shot, but he sticks with his voice and his fists. If anything really needs shooting, well, that’s what Tulip is for.
Getting more spiritual, Jesse is a more evolved person than any of his mentors. He’s more open-minded (well, relatively so — we’ll get back to this later), he’s more forgiving, he’s more willing to admit his mistakes. He’s also a hell of a lot smarter. Jesse may not be a perfect person, but he’s about as perfect as a cowboy’s gonna get.
Preacher takes a very clear stance on forgiveness — you can be forgiven for pretty much anything, but you have to earn it. Sincere remorse won’t cut it. The clearest example comes in the “Salvation” story arc. Gunther served on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. He committed all sorts of war crimes, and then hid in America. He wasn’t a bad person, and he built a life for himself. He believed in the dream of America, and he helped convince the people of Salvation to stand up to their enemy. But he never took responsibility for his past, and he never even tried to make amends. So Jesse gave him a noose.
Cassidy’s a bit more complicated. At the end, after they fight and argue, Jesse seems to forgive Cassidy just before they die, with that forgiveness apparently unearned. But it turns out that Cassidy earned it after all — he gets a second chance because he made a deal to save Jesse. He put himself in harm’s way to protect his friend, and so he is given new life.
Of course, the flip side of all this is that the bad guys get what they deserve too. Herr Starr is a monster who believes that the ends justify the means. He commits all sorts of atrocities, first for the Grail, then to take over the Grail, and finally just for revenge. He never even asks for forgiveness, and so he dies alone, unloved and mutilated.
OK, I said that Preacher isn’t about religion, but I do feel that belief is a major theme. Once again, let’s look at Gunther — telling Jesse about his love for America, he says “And I like the myth of this place. The myth of America : that simple, honest men, born of her great plains and woods and skies have made a nation of her, and will prove worthy of her when the time is right. Under harsh light it is false. But a good myth to live up to, all the same.”
Hell, that pretty much says it all : belief, even false belief, is a powerful force. It tells us who we are, and it can inspire us to be better. It comes up again, in the narration that describes the Alamo : “Look too close and the legend cracks : but then, that’s legends for you. Was Bowie a slaver, a drunk, a psychotic? […] Are heroes nothing more than desperate men? No, to dwell on such things is to miss the point.”
Now, I admit that there’s more than one way to interpret that, and the rest of the narration doesn’t quite agree with my interpretation, but this seems like a fairly clear statement that the truth of what happened at the Alamo isn’t what matters, and that what’s important is the space it occupies in our hearts, and the things that we believe about it.
Looking at the Saint of Killers mini-series, we see that the narration does something similar. After describing a number of famous Western stories, it says “It’s been so long since then that I no longer know just which of them are truth…and which are only legends.” In a sense, it doesn’t matter which are truth and which are just stories — they have the same symbolic value either way.
Of course, there’s another side to belief. It isn’t always about inspiration and making people better. Consider Arseface’s entire story (well, his life after he was named Arseface). First, he decides that he’s going to get revenge on Jesse Custer for killing his father, so he rents a motorcycle & buys a gun that he can’t bring himself to use. Then he ends up believing that he’s a musician, only to have everything fall apart around his ears. He’s only truly happy once he accepts who he is, and takes a job shoveling shit. Ironically, he ends up in a relationship with a woman who doesn’t see anything the way it really is.
Eccarius, the other vampire in Cassidy’s special, is another prime example. He doesn’t know anything about vampirism, so he bases his entire way of life on Dracula and Anne Rice. Not only is this absurd and limiting, he ends up hurting a lot of people in the process. Without his ridiculous beliefs about what vampirism should be, he might have been a lot happier.
I think that Garth Ennis and I like guns in pretty much the same way. We’re not so much interested in their practical value as in their history, their beauty, and even their souls. It’s an attitude that shows up briefly in Preacher, and fairly frequently in his other work, such as .303 & Hitman.
That said, most of the guns in Preacher are fairly generic modern weapons. I’m sure that some of them represent particular models, but I didn’t really pay attention to them, since they just don’t interest me. Only 3 of the guns that are used in Preacher get mentioned by name, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about them.
The ex-Mob member who tortures Cassidy uses a Lee-Enfield, and waxes rhapsodically about its virtues. Why an American Mafioso loves a century-old British rifle is never really explained, except for the evident fact that Garth Ennis fucking loves the Lee-Enfield (and so do I).
The Saint of Killers uses a pair of holy Colt Walkers. That’s actually a pretty interesting choice, because the gun that’s most commonly identified with the West is the Colt Single Action Army. In comparison, the Walker is larger, heavier, less reliable, far less common, and considerably more powerful. In the end, I think Ennis went with the Walker for the Saint not because of any technical specifications (except maybe the power thing), but for character reasons — the Saint’s Walkers (and his Henry rifle, used only before he became the Saint) were holdovers from his service in the American Civil War, on the Confederate side. They were obsolete by the time he died. They, like the Saint himself, are relics of an older, more brutal era.
Here’s the one that I actually have a bit of a problem with. When Tulip buys a gun from her friend in New York, she immediately goes for the Desert Eagle in .50AE. Tulip was raised around guns, she knows a lot about them, and she should know that the Desert Eagle isn’t exactly a good choice for, well, anything. I don’t want to start an argument here, so I’ll just say that pretty much every firearms expert I respect says the same thing : the Desert Eagle is technically impressive, because firing such a large round from a semi-automatic handgun is an engineering challenge, but it’s terrible for anything practical. It’s huge, it’s far too heavy, it’s not particularly reliable, and it only gives you 7 rounds, which isn’t nearly enough for a gunfight. Taking a Desert Eagle into a combat situation (which is Tulip’s intention) is like taking a Formula 1 car off-roading. Moreover, Tulip’s friend repeats the myth that the .50AE Desert Eagle is legally considered a “destructive device,” and is extra-illegal, which Tulip would probably know is false. It’s a small issue, but Ennis is usually pretty good when it comes to guns, and Tulip’s supposed to be familiar with them, so it’s an odd mistake to make.
This isn’t an issue I wanted to deal with, because it doesn’t exactly paint Preacher in a good light, but I think it has to be discussed. Preacher seems to have a pretty negative outlook on homosexuality. Before you start writing me hate mail, I’m not accusing Garth Ennis of homophobia, and I’m not saying Preacher is a bad comic. I just think the issue is worth looking at.
Jesse Custer was raised on an isolated plantation in the Deep South by religious lunatics. He spent a few years as a cowboy & a petty crook, and then he was forced into becoming a preacher in a tiny Texas village. You wouldn’t expect him to be particularly open-minded about homosexuality, and you would be right in that assumption. He doesn’t ever say that homosexuality is evil, or disgusting, but he uses some homophobic insults, and I’m pretty sure he never says anything even remotely positive or accepting about any gay people, ever — except for the time he was tolerant of gay rape.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with depicting a homophobic main character in a work of fiction. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with making the homophobic main character a hero, albeit a complicated one. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s even OK if the book never explicitly addresses the hero’s homophobia, never calls it out, never shows that it’s the wrong attitude.
But if you’re going to do all that, you should probably make sure that your story includes some kind of positive depiction of homosexuality, or even a neutral depiction. If homosexuality comes up a lot, and it occurs in a negative context every time, that’s a problem, especially if your hero is homophobic.
Off the top of my head, I can only think of one reference to homosexuality in Preacher that even comes close to being neutral. Other than that, there are a few instances of gay rape, a “fucked up” guy who hates gay people but enjoys being abused by them, a story-line in which rich people indulge in “extreme” sexual behaviours that include homosexuality, bestiality, & pedophilia, a conservative pundit who is humiliated when he’s forced out of the closet, and a straight drug addict who’s “debased” when he gives a man oral sex in exchange for heroin. There may be a few other ones that I’m missing, but that’s basically it. In context, they all make sense individually, but when you look at them as a whole, the pattern is troubling.
I don’t think that Preacher is homophobic — at worst, it’s clueless and a product of its era. Then again, I love Preacher, and I’d really hate for it to be homophobic, so maybe this is just wishful thinking.
What About The Damn TV Show?
I’ve mentioned it in other articles, so I’ll just do a quick re-cap : I feel that there are two basic approaches to bringing a book (or comic) to film. Adaptation tries to be as faithful as possible to the source material, given the limits of the medium — think Harry Potter, or Lord Of The Rings. Re-imagining, on the other hand, takes the original source material apart, and builds something new out of it — think Spider-Man, or almost any other comic book movie.
Neither approach is better than the other, but they seem to be suited to different kinds of sources. Books that are just one story tend to be best off when adapted, while an ongoing set of stories will do better as a re-imagining. In general, with an ongoing story like Spider-Man, it’s the characters and themes that people really respond to, and not so much individual stories. Whereas if you’re trying to film a stand-alone story, there are often specific plot points and events that make the story what it is. Moreover, stories like that are often much more tightly-written — any given scene can be highly dependent on the events and characters that came before, and has major implications for what will come after. Trying to pick that apart is like playing Jenga on a see-saw.
There are exceptions to all this, of course. Starship Troopers was a brilliant book, and a very good movie, even though it was a very loose re-imagining.
Why am I bringing all this up? If Preacher is an adaptation, then we can and should judge it by how faithful it is to the original story, as well as how good it is as entertainment. On the other hand, if it’s a re-imagining, then we can only judge it as a TV show — saying that it “sucks” because it’s different than the comics would be missing the point.
Having seen only the first episode, I think it’s pretty clear that Preacher is a re-imagining. To the extent that it takes things from the comics, I’ll be pretty happy, but that has to be a bonus — Preacher needs to be judged on its own merits. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but I will mention two caveats. Preacher isn’t exactly Slaughterhouse-Five, but I feel that it’s more of a single story, albeit a rambling one, than a collection of loosely-connected stories. A straight forward adaptation, at least on the surface, wouldn’t seem to be unrealistic. What’s more, this is probably the only filmed version of Preacher that we’re ever going to get — there won’t be a faithful adaptation. As a fan of the comic, that’s something of a disappointment. Preacher has big boots to fill.
I have no idea what the show is going to do with Jesse, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. In the comics, Jesse is a passionate, caring fella who stands up for the little guy — except Annville (oh god, I’ve been a fan of Preacher for more than a decade, and I just got that joke now). He was their minister for five years, and they all blew up in front of him. He just walked away, more-or-less completely undisturbed. Sure, he was angry at God, but he didn’t seem at all shaken or emotionally affected.
Here’s my reasoning — we know he was a drunk and a shitty, disengaged preacher. When he woke up in the wreckage of his church, it was like waking up from a nightmare, one that he was eager to forget. But the show can’t do that — by the end of the first episode, he cares. He’s trying to help people. He has friends and connections in the community. If they get blown apart, will he be able to shake that off? Or will the show give us a much angrier Jesse, suffering from PTSD? I guess that could be an interesting story, but it’ll be a hell of a change.
Jesse’s dad is another big change. In the comics, he served in Vietnam, spent a couple years bar-tending, and then lived on Jesse’s grandmother’s plantation as a hostage for a few years before he was murdered. In the show, not only was he a preacher before he was murdered, he was a preacher in Annville. That seems like a major change. One possibility is that Jesse’s mom’s family forced him to become a preacher, just as they forced Jesse. It would still be a change from the books, but not a huge one.
Cassidy is perfect. I have absolutely no complaints about Cassidy, just one minor quibble — you’d think that after living (well, existing) in the US for a century, his accent wouldn’t be quite so thick.
OK, there are a couple more sort-of issues. In the comics, any exposure to sunlight would make Cassidy burst into flames. In the show, they seem to be using the sunlight rules from shows like Angel, The Vampire Diaries, and even (ugh) Twilight — only direct sunlight is harmful to vampires. I understand that this is probably necessary, from a production standpoint, and it will open up a lot of different story-telling options. I’m still not crazy about it.
The only other thing that I think needs to be mentioned isn’t even about Cassidy himself. Apparently there’s a group of fanatical vampire hunters on his trail. They seem to be well-organized, well-funded, and impersonal — he doesn’t recognize any of them. I see only two possibilities : either they’re the Grail, or they’re a completely different group of Bible-thumping lunatics. I hope they aren’t the Grail — I really like the professional, military-style Grail from the comics, and I’d be disappointed if they get reduced to being crazy people who scribble in Bibles & carry out elaborate, Wile E. Coyote-style schemes to catch vampires.
Incidentally, the curved sword that one of them used was a falcata. It’s nice to see some lesser-known historical blades get air-time. If you absolutely have to have one, Himalayan Imports occasionally makes beautiful falcatas.
Tulip was white in the comics, and she’s being played by an Ethiopian-Irish actress. That’s an absolute non-issue (although it’s funny that Tulip is played by an Irish actress, and the very Irish Cassidy is played by an Englishman).
The other changes in her character are far more interesting. In the comics, Tulip spent the years after Jesse “abandoned” her pretty much just rotting away and drinking heavily. In the show, it looks like she became a criminal instead. That actually makes a whole lot of sense. She was young, she had a taste for adventure, not much respect for the law, and (if TV Tulip is anything like comic Tulip) no roots or family to tie her down. It’s a big change from the comics, but it’s a good change. There’s only one downside — Tulip becoming an alcoholic after Jesse left her served as foreshadowing for when she did the exact same thing after Jesse left her a second time. The show might not even go in that direction, though, and if they do, it’s a minor issue.
Personality-wise, Tulip is also pretty different. As Garth Ennis explained in a recent interview, comic Tulip is normally a calm, polite person…who will whip out a gun and start blasting in a heartbeat. She goes from 1–100 instantaneously. TV Tulip, on the other hand, is always at 100.
She’s also got a different backstory. Instead of being raised by her father, she was apparently raised by her mother (I guess this is revealed in a future episode, ’cause I didn’t notice it in the pilot). Since the way her father raised her is vital to her character in the comics, it seems likely she’s going to be wildly different on TV.
But the real issue, and the only one I have a problem with, is that she and Jesse are still friends — she says that she hates him, but they hang out. That is just wildly different from the comics. Differences aren’t necessarily bad, but the relationship between Tulip and Jesse is a central part of the story. Tinkering with that is risky, and this goes way beyond tinkering. This is the kind of change that will have to have major consequences for the rest of the story. I don’t hate it, but it makes me nervous — I hope the writers know what they’re doing.
Overall, I’m excited for Preacher. While I would have preferred a more faithful adaptation of the comics, the pilot was pretty good, and hopefully the rest of the show will be even better.
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Pop Culture : On the Moral Status of Vampires, My Harry Potter apologia, an essay about Heinlein’s influence on Harry Potter, my reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, The Magicians, and Star Wars : The Force Awakens, another essay about The Magicians, my essay about Star Trek, and my thoughts after reading every Discworld book …plus a third essay about The Magicians