Well, this is good. After two issues of slow burn and a third issue that was much more promising, it feels like this series is finally hitting its stride. Last issue, if you remember, ended with Shadow being invited to play checkers with a retired slaughterhouse worker who was really the Slavic god Czernobog. As issue endings go, it’s not exactly riproaring stuff, but if you’ve read enough fantasy – or folklore, to be fair – you won’t be at all surprised to find that wagers are made very early on in this game and that things turn out both well and badly for our main character. Nor is the game the only interesting thing to happen this issue. Throw in Colleen ‘A Distant Soil’ Doran into the mix for this issue’s back-up and you’ve got a pretty tasty proposition. Let’s taste and see what our creators have lined up for us…
Like, I would imagine, most people, I was first introduced to checkers as a kid. I used to play the game with my grandfather and, like, I would imagine, most grandfathers, he let me win with such a degree of regularity that I ended up failing to appreciate the game. Ah, well. At the start of this issue, Shadow is up against an opponent who is nowhere near as generous. In fact, with an obscene amount of relish, Czernobog proposes a wager. And things get tense. What has been, up to now, a somewhat flat, almost sedentary tale becomes suffused with a sense of danger that is rather compelling. Wednesday’s warning is the clincher here. If even he is worried about Czernobog’s wager (if Shadow loses, Czernobog gets to bash his brains out with his sledgehammer), then the reader should be, too. And this reader, at any rate, is.
The creative team do a great job with this section. Czernobog, who had last issue been a forlorn, almost lugubrious, character, here becomes much more sinister and Hampton’s artwork successfully portrays the idea that, despite his declining status, this is still an extraordinarily powerful – and capricious – entity. Shadow comes across well here, though. He is cool but when, after losing the first game, he has to persuade Czernobog to play another, there seems to be an element of urgency underneath the unruffled exterior that only adds to the tension. It’s a very effective piece of storytelling.
After Shadow duly wins the second game by playing in a reckless, unpredictable manner (if this isn’t a recognised fantasy trope, it should be), everyone retires for a bland dinner which is followed by an enigmatic but rather affecting conversation between Shadow and Zorya, the third of the sister goddesses who, up to now, has been sleeping. Again, the creative team do a rather fine job here. Zorya is presented as a luminous, slivery character; her conversation is focused on the stars, a poetic, mythic explanation of her and her sisters’ function in Slavic mythology. It’s a beautiful, unhurried piece of writing and ends with Zorya giving Shadow the moon in the form of a coin. Awesome stuff.
This section of the issue ends with Wednesday bursting into Shadow’s room in the morning, grinning manically and announcing that the pair of them are going to rob a bank. Compared to the previous issues’ endings, this is almost a cliffhanger. But we’re not done yet. Oh, no…
Colleen Doran is exactly the kind of artist a Gaiman story about an 18th century Cornish immigrant’s life needs. In this issue’s ‘Coming To America’ story, she manages to combine a rich level of detail with clean lines that could have come out of an Edwardian book of fairy tales. Her heroine, Essie, is beautiful and capricious, tragic but scheming, and her men are, on the whole, coldly handsome as befits Gaiman’s incident-packed biography. For Essie is a girl for whom her youthfulness and femininity are both an asset and a curse. She is not above using both to get out of tricky situations; at the same time, though, she does find love when, eventually, she ends up in the new world, settles down and starts a family.
Gaiman offers no judgement here. Her life is what it is. At times, she is unjustly treated; at others, she turns situations to her advantage. Her ‘gods’ are the Cornish pixies (or ‘piskies’) for whom she leaves each night a saucer of creamy milk outside the kitchen door. The last two pages of the story deal with her finally coming face to face with a ‘pisky’ who she credits for both the good and bad fortune she’s experienced throughout her life. Finally at peace with what she’s experienced, she takes his hand and is found dead a few hours by her family.
As a way of ending this issue, this story is really rather beautiful. Perhaps even more powerfully than issue 3’s tale of Norse gods, it highlights that, in Gaiman’s world, gods can be immigrants, too. With Doran’s art, the tale assumes a stylised simplicity that belies its more profound implications. Essie’s ‘god’ has been forced, by her belief and observance of custom, to accompany her to a new world that, Essie aside, is not especially receptive to him. Despite the unpleasant things that happen to her, Essie maintains an equanimity that is almost noble. The question remains open, however, to what extent Essie’s superstition has affected her life. The function of ‘Jack’, the red-haired ‘pisky’ who shows up at the end of the story, would appear to be to add a supernatural gloss to a life of both tragedy and joy. The story’s final image – of the half-shelled peas – would seem to suggest that, while Essie has lived a long life, it is not a complete one, that she had more to do. But perhaps I’m misreading (always a possibility with writing like Gaiman’s). What does seem clear, though, is that America offers Essie a stability and security she never really knew in Cornwall. Whether it offers her accompanying ‘god’ the same remains to be seen.
This was an impressive issue on a couple of levels. The checkers game is appropriately tense; the meeting between Zorya and Shadow mysterious. The back-up, however, is simply beautiful and transforms the issue from being merely good to being excellent. Highly recommended.