What Is Preacher? A Guide to AMC’s New Comic-Book Adaptation

Still from Preacher. Photo: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

One of the strangest developments in modern entertainment is the explosive rise of the comic-book adaptation. Twenty years ago, it was damn near impossible to get a television or film studio to green-light a story based on stuff that originated in the the then-niche world of comics. Now, such studios are in a race to adapt as many of them as they can: Not only do comics provide the basis for big-budget superhero movies, they also gave birth to the top-rated show on cable, AMC’s The Walking Dead. That network is hoping for another comic-book-originated hit: Preacher, which debuts this Sunday in a 90-minute pilot special.

Preacher is based on a cult comics series that ran from 1995 to 2000 under DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, and it was never a mainstream sensation, so you're not crazy if you've never heard of it. To make matters more confusing for laypeople, the ad campaign for the show has been extremely mysterious, so there's a strong chance you have zero idea what Preacher is all about. If you’re scratching your head about what, exactly, this show’s deal is, we’ve got answers.

Can you give me a brief rundown of the show’s premise?
It’s a supernatural action-comedy about a small-town Texas preacher named Jesse Custer, who gains a magic power. He becomes enmeshed in his town’s secrets and lies, and he hangs out with his ex-girlfriend Tulip (who’s a violent criminal) and his newfound Irish friend, Cassidy (who’s a vampire).

It’s based on a comic book, so does it have superheroes in it?
Not exactly. There are absolutely no costumes (unless you think of a reverend’s black duds as a costume, in which case show some respect), there’s no advanced technology shooting people out of the sky, there are no fights involving lasers, and there aren’t really any “good guys,” per se. However, Jesse does get that aforementioned supernatural power, which technically makes him a little superhuman, and Cassidy has some vaguely defined vampiric abilities, including the ability to survive massive acts of violence.

Do I have to like comic books in order to like it?
No, but you do have to like genre fiction where weird stuff happens. Comics have long been a medium with a much higher tolerance for high-concept oddness than film, television, or prose, so comics fans won’t find the show off-puttingly supernatural. But if you’re not a comics fan, be prepared to suspend your disbelief more often than you might be used to.

How would you describe the core cast of characters?
They’re all anti-heroes of some sort. Jesse (Dominic Cooper) starts out his story as an apathetic drunk, listlessly and incompetently leading his flock through stumbling sermons. The mystical happenings that descend upon him give him renewed vigor, but he also has to outrun his checkered past. Tulip (Ruth Negga) is a cheerful brawler, ready to shoot, stab, or blow up anyone who gets in her way. She and Jesse used to be very much in love, but they had a mysterious falling-out that haunts their friendship. Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) is the character you’re most likely to fall in love with, as he’s an irreverent and immature goofball who has to hide his vampirism from his new pals. His accent is pretty thick.

If it’s not a superhero thing, what genre would you put it in? What other shows does it resemble?
It’s kinda like Justified if Justified had magical realism, periodic bouts of comically over-the-top violence, and a vampire. As was true with that Timothy Olyphant vehicle, Preacher is a sepia-toned look at a deceptively sleepy part of the American South where one man takes it upon himself to define right and wrong and tries to force his town to get its shit together. It's also funny and has occasional ridiculous fight scenes, but it's not a joke-a-minute endeavor. Preacher the comic was also a road-trip story, a Western, and a tale about a web of conspiratorial intrigue, but it’s unclear right now how much the show will draw upon any of those approaches. 

Isn't Seth Rogen involved somehow?
Yes, but only behind the scenes. He and his professional partner, Evan Goldberg, developed the show, directed the first episode, and act as executive producers.

How Seth Rogen-y is the show?
It's somewhat Seth Rogen-y. It's got its fair share of sophomoric humor and gross-out moments, and the action scenes are often goofy in the way that The Interview and This Is the End were goofy. But the simmering tension and Deep South drama are big departures for the Rogen brand. If you didn't know he was involved, you probably wouldn't watch it and say to yourself, Boy, this sure seems like something Seth Rogen made!

Are there gonna be a ton of references to the comics that will be lost on me if I’m a lay viewer? I freaking hate when comic-book adaptations do that.
Enh, there are a few, but they definitely don’t get in the way. Maybe just don’t watch it with a fan of the comics, because that person might get insufferable.

If I am a fan of the original Preacher comics, will I be disappointed?
Unclear. The most surprising aspect of Preacher the show is how radically it departs from the plot of Preacher the comic. The core cast have the same names and the same general traits as they did in the source material, and Jesse’s power works mostly the same way — but other than that, the plot is wholly different. You’ll see some names and key words from the comics pop up, but in totally new contexts. That said, the violence and the humor of the comics are very much present.

If I like the show, should I read the original comics?
That depends. If you’re looking to do what Walking Dead and Game of Thrones fans did and read ahead to see how the whole plot turns out, you will be totally confused because the show and the comics are so different. But if you’re just looking for a cracking good yarn (that, admittedly, has some cultural elements that haven’t aged well — there are a lot of racial and homophobic slurs) with top-notch artwork, it’s well worth a read.