Monthly Archives: February 2017

Adaptation and Nostalgia: on the Preacher series

As I’ve discussed before, adaptations are tricky things. On the one hand there is the fannish tendency of attempting to perfectly replicate the source material that might end up mummifying the original work in a formulaic representation. On the other hand there is the adaptation that is attached to the source material mainly in name and has little to do with it otherwise. The Preacher adaptation is hard to pin down: at points it feels like it has veered to far in the territory of the latter case, at other points it does come across as trying to faithfully replicate the key aspects of the graphic novels.

My interest in the series, though, is driven by a nostalgia for the comics I consumed at the end of high school and the beginning of my undergraduate degree. Preacher was one of the series I followed at that time, and at one point I thought it was pretty amazing, but then my tastes changed both politically and aesthetically. Hence, I wasn’t overly concerned with whether or not the show would faithfully abide by its source material because I had ceased caring about the comic series as anything more than something I used to enjoy, that I had fond memories of, but no longer counted myself a fan. Indeed, the fact that it took me so long to watch the series is probably evidence that I was not overly excited by the idea of the adaptation let alone committed enough to care if it managed to stay faithful to the original version of the story.

Some background… One of the reasons I stopped caring about this particular comic series (and in fact culled all the dusty Preacher collections from my bookshelves years back) was because I eventually realized it was a US libertarian trash heap that worked too hard in passing itself off as transgressive. Trying to offend religious sensibilities by writing stories about God being an asshole, the inbreeding of Jesus’ blood-line, and an irreligious Texan who wanted to kick God’s ass was not, in my mind, that radical in an ideological context that promoted some white maverick John Wayne loving Texan named after a colonial murderer as a cowboy protagonist. The series persistently valorized some of the most insidious aspects US mythology (i.e. the sacredness of the Alamo, the heroism of Confederates, the cowardice of the French in WW2, the supposed “amazingness” of US society, etc.), had a pretty offensive treatment of Vietnam, mocked the Easter Rising and John Connolly, and at the end of the day was about a small group of white folks “sticking it to the man” through their own piss and vinegar. Let’s be honest: politically, Preacher was pretty shitty.

The fact that Seth Rogen of all people was one of the adaptations producers did not help renew my interest in Preacher. Aside from the fact that I cannot stand his comedic hijinx, he is also responsible for making that extremely racist film about the DPRK and is one of the people who saw fit to publicly chastise Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz for daring to criticize colonialism and apartheid. Lovely fellow.

So I approached the television adaptation with an attitude of tired interest: let’s see what they do with something I used to like when my tastes were different because there’s small chance that it could be worse than what I remember. (This attitude is similar to what I feel about the new Star Wars films.) Thankfully the series cleared this low bar and, in the choices it made to stray from the source material, made me interested enough to keep watching and look forward to a second season. I’m not saying it’s pure gold or some masterpiece everyone should watch, only that the way in which it cleared that low bar was intriguing enough to take notice. In fact, the series was often more interesting when it strayed from the source material than when it remained faithful.

Of course, the television was barely faithful to the way in which the comic’s narrative developed. The writing team threw multiple characters from the comic, some of whom would be encountered later and in different contexts, into the same town at the very beginning. Whereas the comic began with Jesse Custer’s church being destroyed by Genesis’ arrival, leading Jesse to leave town, meet with his ex-girlfriend Tulip and the vampire Cassidy, and begin the road trip story that would define the entire series, the adaptation brings multiple characters to the same town so that it feels a bit like a Twin Peaks affectation. You know, throw a bunch of creepy and quirky characters into one place and see what happens. So you get a situation where Jesse knows the Roots rather than encountering them first as antagonists. Where Odin Quincannon knows Jesse’s family because he’s from the same town, rather than being the sinister figure Jesse encounters at a much later point of the series in another town. Where Tulip shares a childhood and then a life of crime with Jesse rather than being someone he meets as an adult. Even still, the gist of the story (Genesis entity, God fleeing, Heaven in crisis) remains the same and most of the characterization remains quite faithful. When such characterization differs, or at the very least is given depth, the show is in fact superior to the comic.

Take, for example, the character of Tulip. In the comic she’s a white woman from a privileged background who was taught to shoot by her NRA loving single dad who somehow becomes an amazing gun-toting vigilante. Most of the character tension between her and Jesse has to do with the latter’s southern boy macho bullshit getting in the way of recognizing the former as an equal (i.e. he’s always trying to protect her when she doesn’t need protecting but somehow that’s okay because of LOVE), which is utterly boring. In the adaptation, though, Tulip is played by Ruth Negga: she’s a black woman from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up in a situation of violence, claimed a subject position in this violence, and possesses the kind of rebel agency that the comic Tulip couldn’t believably possess. Moreover, television Tulip’s tension with Jesse has nothing to do with this macho-protector bullshit; they possess a different and more equitable shared history. Really, and mainly because Negga’s a phenomenal actor, Tulip is the best character in the adaptation: she’s introduced as some kind of kickass MacGyver assassin that little girls want to be like but, at the same time, possesses significant character depth.

Then there’s the character of Eugene Root who was little more than an extended politically incorrect gag in the comics: a Nirvana fan who tried to suicide with a shotgun after Kurt Cobain killed himself only to survive the attempt with a severely mutilated face. In the comic he’s mainly called “Arseface” (a name that appears here and there in the adaptation as fanservice but is in fact treated as insulting) and exists for comedy relief – the “joke” is that the protagonists laugh at his disfigurement only to demonstrate their magnanimity by befriending him. But in the adaptation he possesses a real subjectivity – at one point he even challenges Jesse which leads to a tragic development – and the story behind his failed suicide disfigurement is given more nuance than “Nirvana fan”.

Even more interesting, to my mind, was the adaptation’s refusal to celebrate USAmerican mythology, a key element of the comic, and instead treat the foundations of the US with cynical contempt. The flashbacks to the “Saint of Killers” origin story, for example, are also flashbacks to genocidal settler violence: frontiers towns that hang Indigenous people from trees and encourage scalping – the “western” history of the US is given the serial killing dimension that it actually possessed. As critical scholars such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have pointed out, settler men, women, and children were united in the ideology of genocide and these flashbacks depict this ideological unity as historical fact. Obviously this depiction is not perfect, and at points it feels more about shocking the audience than being truly critical, but at the same time it rejects the asinine settlerist mythology that the comic often promoted. Low bar clearing? Maybe.

None of these changes are enough to render the show perfect. Indeed, one of the reasons I didn’t finish the series until recently was because, when I watched the first episode back when it initially aired, I was turned off by the opening scene that happened in “Africa”. No country or region within a country, just the name of the continent and a scenario that felt like the “this is what all of Africa looks like” trope: shanty-towns, a dust-ridden place of worship, dusty roads in the outback, superstitious enthusiasm. Seriously folks, this is some retrograde shit. Only the fact that, in the last episode, Tulip made sardonic comments about God’s whiteness allowed me to (partially) stomach that.

In any case, compared to the other recent (and network) DC-Vertigo adaptations – the underwhelming Constantine and the eye-rolling Lucifer – Preacher stands out as a franchise that could be better than its source material. Hopefully the second season improves on the faults of the first and does more than simply accommodate my nostalgia.