Got The Grit For It, Pilgrim? (Thoughts on Adapting Preacher to Television)
Travis Hedge Coke
[Note: Some spoilers will, inevitably, follow. I try not to announce any huge reveals or give away too much, but to talk of the thing as a whole, some general coverage is necessary. Read at your own comfort.]
These are questions I have come across repeatedly, about adapting Preacher, now that the deal with AMC for a television series seems more and more sure:
“What can be cut?”
“What’s necessary to the story?”
“What will work on TV?”
A comic about a priest with a traumatic background, who has been given the power to control people with his voice, is currently being seriously developed as a television property on a basic cable channel. It’s an astonishing, tense, brilliant comic. People are asking “What can be cut?”
Are these the questions to ask? Not, “What was hella fun?” Not, “What can they get away with?” or, “What did you love the most?” but “What is necessary…”?
If you boil down to high concept, you have to still pick a high concept. “Former priest who can use his voice to control others” or “Contemporary Western examining gender roles, war, religion, and pop culture through vampires and angels”? If you boil down to a single strong concept or approach, what have you got? What have you lost?
Preacher ran for sixty-six regular issues, some oneshots, and a miniseries about the Saint of Killers. Was it “tight”? No. Hell no. It rambled. It rambled on purpose. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are hellaciously good ramblers. Preacher, like a few other excellent Vertigo-published series in the Nineties, was a running format for its talent to cover whatever subject seemed to be on their mind that month. Transmetropolitan, Sandman, and Preacher were never intended to be “tight” in that way. They were designed to fit the prescribed page limit of the monthly issue, serialized, and apparently you couldn’t do pubes or say “cunt” in a Vertigo book back then, but that’s about it. The idea that nonsequitors or short thematically-related scenes or adventures shouldn’t be included, that there couldn’t be one-off stories on a topic, comedic or horror divergences from the main plot is not something that seems to have greatly weighed on the talent behind those series, and they are stronger for that.
In general, in narrative entertainment, you have two audiences, the character-first people and the plot-first people. Smaller categories include those who are more concerned with genre, with thematic relevance, and in terms of adaptations, there are people who want an adaptation to use everything in the original in exactly the same way, and those who want the adaptation to pull out or change everything they, personally, did not enjoy in the original work.
Preacher was all over the goddammed place, but it held to certain thematic anchors. A stripped down, plot-focused, get-us-through-fast take on Preacher would almost certainly be not worth the time to even make. Do the boy with a face like a butt and the Sex Detectives make themselves invaluable to the plot? They don’t. And, neither, really, do the serial killer, the secretary, or the crazy pissed-off dude with a letter to NASA. All of those characters, all the scenes and emotions they bring up do contribute, however, to Preacher. Preacher is not its through-line, it is not its in-thirty-words-or-less plot. Arseface only shows up here and there in the comics, but his rise to heroism and finding of love, as well as his inability to see his own absurdity or reckon with his own delusions, the messed up childhood, the frustrating adolescence, all play in tangent and parallel to our protagonist, Jesse Custer, and also, his closest compatriots in the comic, his sometime girlfriend, Tulip, and the junkie goodtiming vampire, Cassidy.
Any take that boils Preacher down to one plot through-line or one high concept is going to be a lesser beast than Preacher as we have it.
Arseface echoes Jesse. Amy Ginderbinder’s life has parallels with both Jesse’s and Tulip’s. Tulip and Jesse are just about two sides to one coin. Preacher is strengthened by witnessing variations on the lives of our main cast, by how these people run into similar situations are come out differently, the way events in one’s life braid together to make patterns, to make an easy trajectory, and the way that, as human beings, be can choose to follow that trajectory or stand up, bite down, and do something better. When we jump back to stories of Jesse’s parents’ youth, or Jesse’s own childhood, his friends, seeing even his friends’ relatives come back up later when one of them falls for Arseface, is this then showing itself to be a comic about people foremost?
Is Preacher a character-based comic?
More often than not, Preacher is character-strong. A wandering serial comic has to have strong characters, attractive, engrossing characters, or the audience gets tired of checking it out release after release. That should translate well to television and a weekly episode schedule, season by season. There’s a certain gravitas in Jesse, in Herr Starr or Featherstone, and emotional veracity, a kind of rawness that is neither solely abrasive or tender, that is money in the bank for serial entertainment. It is the same kind of rawness to be found in the characters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Breaking Bad, or Cheers. But, Walter White is not what I would call a “character study,” Norm Peterson certainly isn’t an entire whole real man seen clearly in all possible perspectives. Despite the veracity and intrigue this rawness provides, it also lets them be false in an attractive way. This is the falsity of truisms, and this, too, is in play in Preacher and the comic is better for it.
Before we have the backstory of the Saint of Killers, and after, the Saint is mythic veracity. The Saint is big. Bigness himself. He is a special, unending, repeating death. He is murder as a man, and as a patron saint. To try dwelling in the minutia of the Saint’s daily existence, whether he sweats, whether he has flinching moments or how his post-death memory holds up, does he eat, what does he enjoy, where does he get his smokes from, what does he think of 80s music or 30s music when it plays nearby him, does he pee as soon as he needs to or is he the kind of guy who holds it until he has to go, then lets loose… this would detract from our ability to feel him, to enjoy his existence as a character.
Dillon draws a smaller range of faces and bodies than some artists, but he delineates each enough to see them as an individual, and with the openness that lets us put in a lot of our own expectations and understandings. His Saint is a stew of attitude and celebrity homage, but he is purely, too, himself, and something of a costume, an empty coat hanging on a nail on the door, which we can use to fuel a dozen larger than life speculations. The Saint of Killers is as true as a Disney Jim Bowie or Daniel Boone, but we need him that way.
There is no denying that part of Preacher’s appeal is Jesse Custer’s odyssey around the world and across America, Jesse maturing, Jesse dealing with family demons, childhood myths, the better and worst parts of all the things he learned from his daddy, his mama, from Jody and Tulip and the Duke Wayne lookalike that walks invisibly by his side. Jesse is wrong about a lot more than a protagonist in this sort of story is often allowed to be wrong about, but he always has conviction. It is a comic about growth, and that should not be cut out just to turn this adaptation into an evergreen sitcom. Which, is where a number of these “inconsequential to the core story” characters come in handy.
Jesus de Sade, is into drugs, sex, weird parties and total indulgence, and as Jesse wanders through one of his happenings, he’s pretty cool with the whole thing. What is important, is where Jesse does draw the line. The Jesus de Sade interlude is not plot-necessary, but the situation allows the comic to reveal a lot about its primary characters by putting them in awkward situations, situations where they must react, be it to yell, join a party, avert their eyes. What Jesse will enjoy, what he tolerates, what he isn’t into but doesn’t care if others are, and what he actually gets pissed off about are shown to us, in practice, as the situation goes on.
In a flashback scene, we saw Jesse, then a practicing priest, walk into a bar, smashed, harangue the folks present, listing their sins as he deems them, just lashing into people, hurting them. To the venting Jesse, this feels like justice, and to an immature reader, it may also seem such, but it’s not, it’s just letting off steam. Another time, Jesse calls into a talkshow and uses his control powers to make the opposing speakers both declare what they “really want” and has a laugh when everyone wants dick. Hurr hurr. It’s hilarious. The angry misandrist and the loudmouthed misogynist both want dick. At which point, Jesse realizes he actually went to the trouble of calling into the show, of getting so worked up by all this, so frustrated, he’s venting himself on these people, jacking up their lives to vent his own sexual frustration. See, also, most of the times Jesse uses The Voice, or when he sits in judgment of a Nazi war criminal, hangs a horse thief, or any time he gets high-handed over Tulip.
Like a Pearls Before Swine strip, the punchline we see coming isn’t the final word, it’s prep for the final word. Populism in Preacher is to bait you, to reel you in. Sometimes what feels like justice is really just being horny or pissed off. Sometimes a real person is just the bull you want to believe in a person. The characters feel real, feel solid, human, but they’ve got an air of props, too. They are tools for bringing certain ideas or flaws to mind. Plot enlivens characters, characters open up the stories, and ethos anchors events and people. The audience is lured with Preacher, but we must not mistake either the hook or the bait, the floater or the water for being the only necessary element.
Jesse Custer is a great hook. He’s charming, he’s rough, he comes off with such emotive conviction, but beneath it, he’s wounded and worried, and isn’t that all so appealing?
Jesse Custer is a young guy with a ton to prove to himself, a drive to prove himself to others, and a mean streak of vengeance just broiling beneath his surface. That he’s also a compassionate, goofy, sometimes generous human being does not automatically counter those negative or impassioned qualities in his character. Cassidy is a complete mess, an unrepentant vampire, killer, thug, and bastard who introduces them to “friends” who are total monsters, who has a trail of damaged buddies and lovers behind him, and is pretty weasely in general, but Jesse trusts him implicitly more than his sometime girlfriend, Tulip, despite Tulip proving herself regularly and having a higher class of friends, because Cassidy’s his bro, Cassidy is a dude. Tulip, no matter how mature she can be, no matter how fast on the draw, accurate on her sights, deadly and earnest and loyal, is a girl to Jesse. She’s his girl.
But, if it was that comic for sixty-six issues, I wouldn’t bother and it probably would not still be in print. It’s interesting to see how Jody reflects Jodie, how both reflect and open up the character of Jesse, or Tulip, Sheriff Hugo Root or Sheriff Cindy Dagget. It is not the half of Preacher, though. These are fun people to read about, to cheer or to jeer, but if they sat down and just had dinner conversation every week for forty-five commercial-interrupted minutes? Fuck that. If the characters are the hook, the plot the bait, the violence and irreverence the water in which these things float, none of it is going to catch you many fish without the other parts. Preacher is about people whom life has shit on, and how they deal, but it’s a Western, and Westerns are as much about the sunset into which a cowboy and his posse ride as it is about the men on those horses, disappearing over the horizon seeking wealth or justice.
Wherever Preacher is character-strong, it is also infused with ethics, and it is dominated and populated by place.
Some scenes are more integral than others, some characters deserve more prominence, some moments are easily sacrificed to time concerns or to be TV-friendly, but any adaptation must strive to achieve either a similar tone or a similarly strong atmosphere. It must allow fiction, reality, and myth to coexist in the promise of potential. Preacher has a world tour and a walk across America, the first thing the main group does is go from Texas to New York, because those are all, in that big, exploded, too proud sense, the same deal. From Amarillo to Manhattan is trek across the planet. Ireland to America, America to France, from Annville, Texas yesterday to Salvation, Texas today is a world of distance. Today and tomorrow are not the same country. And, the future? The future is out there, in all directions, in all possible ways. The future, like today, begs choice and checks integrity.
Preacher is a tonal comic. More than anything else, it has a sensibility to it, as should any adaptations. This TV show is dead if it can’t stand for itself. It has to walk with a swagger and back it up. If it smells anemic or backed up with bullshit and nothing else, the wolves will be on it, and it’ll be canceled in half a season or sooner if cheaper. Preacher is a great comic to adapt, and a good model to look to. Sustained by its own special existence, its own particular feel, the atmosphere of cigarettes and bourbon and the air gone blue in a haze of bathroom bets, drinks to lost loves, too many hours in the cab of a pickup, and the moon, the stars, and a night of not dying in some glorious mythic August before the real heat has gone out of an open patch of Texas.