First published in 2001, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is long overdue for a comic adaptation. Presumably spurred by the imminent appearance of a TV adaptation, Dark Horse has decided to release an adaptation across 27 issues constituting 3 distinct story arcs with veteran comics creator P Craig Russell as adapter and co-writer and with Scott Hampton (and, briefly, Lovern Kindzierski) on art. So, does the first issue of American Gods: Shadows succeed in hooking this comics reader (who hasn’t read the novel!)? Let’s find out…
American Gods: Shadows issue 1 comes, as might be expected, with a variety of covers. The standard one is a rather tasty bit of Glenn Fabry art featuring a minotaur character who only briefly appears in the comic. My favourite, though, is the David Mack cover which is more impressionistic and more accurately reflects the slow, thoughtful, atmospheric narrative. (If you’re hankering for something more Sandman-esque and disturbing, though, the Dave McKean cover is probably going to be your bag.)
The story itself introduces the character of Shadow (if you’re writing a tale that is rooted in mythic notions of gods, worship and the supernatural, you might as well go the whole hog and give your main character a name positively brimming over with portentous ambiguity), who, when the story starts, is serving time in a decidedly British-looking prison for, we find out later, aggravated robbery. He is presented as a thoughtful – almost philosophical – man who attempts to stay removed from the kind of violence and pettiness popularized in countless low-budget prison movies over the last few decades. Instead, he works out, practices coin tricks and occasionally has interesting conversations with the improbably-named Low Key Lyesmith, a bearded chap who looks like he should be running the House of Secrets rather than serving time. Despite the fact that Shadow is nearing release and an idyllic reunion with his wife and best friend (I have my suspicions about them, incidentally), he can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong.
And, of course, it duly does. A couple of days before his release date he is informed that his wife and best friend have died in a car accident and he’ll be released early as a result. An understandably numb Shadow endures a circuitous journey back home, but he gets off the plane early largely to get away from the dapperly-dressed but strangely knowledgeable Mr Wednesday with whom he’s been sharing the plane flight. Mr Wednesday has, during the course of their conversation, offered him a job, the details of which are worryingly vague. On leaving the airport, Shadow heads to the nearest diner only to again encounter Mr Wednesday (who should still be on the plane flying north at this point) in the rest room and, again, Mr Wednesday offers him the job. And there we leave Shadow, although the comic continues for another four pages, more of which in a moment.
At this point, the comic is… pretty good. Scott Hampton’s art, the occasional slightly off facial expression notwithstanding, is generally great, although it’s worth pointing out that both it and P Craig Russell’s layouts may appear exceptionally conservative if you’re more used to the action-orientated art of your average big two superhero book. The narrative pace is decidedly slow and deliberate. This comic is in no particular hurry to tell its story and, while that doesn’t necessarily have to be a drawback, here it presents some difficulties. Shadow is too taciturn and self-contained a character to be someone with whom the reader can instantly identify. He’s interesting up to a point, but hardly charismatic. That the other characters around him during the prison sequences never really rise above the level of foil or caricature only adds to the sense of remoteness. Some of the dialogue between Shadow and Lyresmith is witty, for example, but that doesn’t particularly translate into warmth. Shadow’s reaction to the news of his wife’s death is so muted as to be almost non-existent, which makes it even more difficult to feel sympathy for him. It’s noticeable that it’s only when Mr Wednesday appears, that Shadow comes alive. Gaiman and Russell do build up a real sense of intrigue about Wednesday and his reappearance in the rest room of the diner is foreshadowed beautifully and handled well.
Whether there’s enough here to hook the reader thoroughly remains to be seen. We get plenty of hints throughout the issue of a wider supernatural plot, not least the character of Wednesday himself, but the focus is squarely on providing the reader with Shadow’s backstory. At this point, I’m not sure that’s enough. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve got those last four pages.
The four-page ‘Somewhere In America’ section (I can only assume we’re going to get more of these as the series progresses) features a quite frankly bizarre encounter between a young man and a buxom, dark-skinned woman who turns out to be considerably more than she appears. This sequence works on so many levels it’s breath-taking. Both lyrical and mundane, it balances pretty much perfectly on the dividing line between beauty and horror, sex and death, and deals with the kind of fundamental questions about love, sexuality and divinity that would have any student of Freud or Jung squealing with delight. Lovern Kindzierski’s artwork appears to be fairly straightforward but has a fluidity and creativity that is very appealing. In these four pages, the comic offers the Gaiman-esque weirdness that the rest of the issue has only hinted at and delivers a considerably greater impact in only a fraction of the space.
This isn’t to say that the main story is terrible. It certainly isn’t. It is, however, an incredibly slow burn. The inclusion of the last four pages serves as a reassurance that, yes, the world that Shadow is in the process of entering really is as disturbing and compelling as the Gaiman name on the cover suggests. Taken as a whole, then, this issue (just about) manages to do its job in introducing our main character and giving us a tantalizing look at the wider world in which the story takes place. On that basis, I think it’s worth a look.
NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Thanks to the guys for the permission to post it here as well.