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Where’s your messiah now? The importance of ‘Preacher,’ then and today

Ahead of Season 3’s finale, how does the show match up to the comics?

A common talking point in the culture wars these days is “PC culture means this thing could never be made now, because everyone is afraid to take risks with controversial content”. My response, whenever I see this claim lobbed across social media, is a single word:

Preacher, written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by the late Steve Dillon and Glenn Fabry for the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics, is one of the greatest graphic novel series of all time. It’s a sprawling American shaggy dog tale, where the dog is actually God wearing a BDSM dog suit, and the main characters are chasing him down to kick his ass for failing to do his job and generally being an arrogant prick.

The story is saturated with machismo, violence, and some of the most deviant sex in any graphic novel that isn’t Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. It’s no wonder studios have avoided it for fear of pissing off, well, everyone.

And yet.

When I first heard a Preacher television series was in production, I was deeply skeptical that it could reach the levels of perversion in the original source material. But in the year of our lord, 2016, under the watchful eyes of Hollywood darling Seth Rogen and Ennis himself, the show hit cable channel AMC harder than a giant hillbilly named Jody.

I was blown away and have total faith in what whatever comes next. AMC’s Preacher is a master class in updating a work of art while remaining respectful of its essence. The show takes huge liberties with the original plot, shifting around whole story arcs in ways that still leave everything feeling tight as a drum.

Tulip O’Hare, Jesse Custer, Proinsias Cassidy.

The series centers on our titular preacher, Reverend Jesse Custer, a man with no faith and a ton of baggage. Jesse becomes possessed by a being of immense power, bringing with it the “voice of God”, the ability to command others to do as you say without being able to resist. The entity is so powerful, even God himself seems to fear it, and hightails it from Heaven to hide on Earth.

Faced with this new reality, and a string of bizarre encounters that quickly follow his possession, Jesse settles on a plan to track down God and demand he own up for his mistakes. Jesse is joined by Tulip O’Hare, his angry ex-girlfriend/one true love with an expertise in firearms and IEDs, and Cassidy, an Irish vampire who never met a drug he didn’t like.

While chasing God, Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy encounter a menagerie of freaks and monsters, and on this front the show does not disappoint. Some of the most vile characters you’ll come across are portrayed in all their revolting glory.

T.C., the rapey hillbilly who will f--k anything. Truly. Anything. The morbidly obese Allfather, leader of the secret organization known as The Grail, and his sociopathic director of operations, Herr Star. Pip Torrens embodies the sardonic Star so perfectly, it feels like he walked right off the pages of the trade paperbacks.

Preacher Book 6: War in the Sun, DC Comics

Even the cult hero Arseface is lovingly rendered far more realistically than, say, Two-Face in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. If that comparison doesn’t make sense, I suggest a cursory Google image search, probably not while eating.

AMC’s Preacher also stands as a testament that you can update problematic parts of a work of art without destroying it. The most obvious example is the push for greater diversity in the cast of characters. The original series suffers from a dearth of people of color. There is only one reoccurring non-white character, and he is a buffoon. To address this problem, AMC cast the incomparable Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare, and beefed up her agency within the story.

Tulip O’Hare, played by Ruth Negga

Other changes we’ve seen so far include a gender swap on the Angel of Death (played by Erinn Ruth) and the addition of a few new folks who aren’t cis white men. It’s clear these choices were made deliberately, considering the pilot episode includes a scene about Jesse’s town replacing their racist mascot with a more “PC” one, a change that’s met with violence. The show’s creators know how dangerous it can be to mess with “beloved cultural icons,” but they’re doing it all the same, and with aplomb.

Even with these changes, AMC’s Preacher keeps the heart and philosophical soul of the series alive. After the PC discussion, in the very next scene, Cassidy murders a group of vampire hunters on a private jet in hilariously over-the-top fashion. He then collects their blood for later, and indulges in some skydiving, sans parachute. None of the comedy of the original is lost, and the fight choreography throughout the series deserves awards.

What matters most, though, is that the show doesn’t shy away from Preacher‘s central ethos:  It’s a giant middle finger to any authority figures who demand love while taking no personal responsibility. It’s an ultra-violent parable for one of the greatest anti-theist arguments of all time, provided by the Roman Emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Preacher Book 7:  Salvation, DC Comics

In this world, the characters know for a fact there is a God, and that he is far from just. Yet despite everything it costs them, despite overwhelming odds, they never bend the knee. I remember as a young atheist being blown away that this heretical masterpiece existed, and it brings me great joy to see it updated to remain relevant and accessible for a new generation. Each season has topped the one before it, and they’re just getting started.


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