It’s been a while since I last reviewed an issue of American Gods, so I thought I’d better catch up. Dark Horse’s adaptation of Gaiman’s magnum opus has been slow-moving and just a little laborious up to now, but the ending of last issue promised a little more detail and clarity. Mr. Wednesday has called together a meeting of fellow gods in the frankly bizarre environs of Wisconsin’s The House On The Rock, a real-life architectural curiosity built in the late 1950s. Having climbed aboard the carousel, our viewpoint character Shadow is transported to Mr. Wednesday’s feast hall which, the garrulous Mr. Nancy tells him, is in Mr. Wednesday’s head. More or less.
Dark Horse’s American Gods has, after an initially underwhelming start, become a comic to which I rather look forward each month. This adaptation has been very much a slow burn up to now, but there are deepening mysteries beginning to unfold and characters being introduced who are quirky and distinctive enough to hold the attention even while the questions swirl around the reader’s head. In this issue, Shadow’s journey down the rabbit hole continues apace and shows no sign of letting up. Step into the madness…
This series has quickly become one I look forward to every month. The decision by Gail Simone to supplement the main story featuring Conan and Diana with a developing flashback featuring a younger Conan and a girl called Yanna who looks (and acts) an awful lot like our favourite Amazonian princess has proven to be an astute one. With an increased opportunity for mirroring and foreshadowing, it’s added greater emotional depth to the narrative and, indeed, last month’s cliffhanger emerged out of that flashback plot rather than the main one. Having finally brought our heroes into direct contact (and conflict) with the Corvidae, the story’s principal antagonists, we enter the second half of the story with a fairly clear idea of where the plot – and our heroic duo – is headed. What is less clear is how the action of the present ties in with the memories of Conan’s past. Will we get some clarity this issue? Let’s see…
Last month’s opening instalment of this series was big on action, a characterization of Conan that foregrounded his grim humour and mercenary streak, and a Wonder Woman who, divorced from her familiar milieu and suffering amnesia, was cloaked in mystery. There was much to enjoy and I must admit I liked it a great deal. Left with a number of issues to explore, not least the precise nature of this version of Wonder Woman and the intriguing question of how she would get on with a hero like Conan, I awaited the arrival of this second issue with a fair amount of anticipation – and impatience. Was it worth the wait? Let’s find out…
This crossover involving two of the most iconic vigilantes in the history of pulp fiction is drawing to a close and I must say I’ve found the series intriguing and interesting rather than downright exciting. Snyder and Orlando have woven a story that acknowledges Batman’s literary debt to The Shadow, while refusing to smooth over the differences between them. Indeed, their diametrically opposed views on the killing of criminals form the thematic tension at the heart of the story that somehow needs to be resolved if the pair are to succeed in their bid to stop the Stag (along with the Joker) entering Shamba-La, the mystical paradise in which The Shadow was ‘born’. Given how last issue ended, it’s difficult to see how they can complete this particular mission. After all, it’s hard to stop crazed criminals entering a pocket paradise when you’re bleeding out on a slab. Still, this is comics. And there is going to be an issue 6. Let’s keep an open mind, eh?
I must admit I’ve been excited about this title ever since it was first announced. As a Wonder Woman fan of many years and a Conan fan for even longer, the prospect of these two iconic characters sharing the printed page was mouth-watering to say the least. That Gail Simone was to be responsible for the script only added to the anticipation. Simone’s understanding of everyone’s favourite Amazon princess is already well-established and her run on Red Sonja is compelling evidence that she can do sword and sorcery with enviable skill. In short, I expected this to be good. Even so, I wasn’t adequately prepared for just how enjoyable and satisfying this first issue was…
Engineering a crossover between two beloved franchises set in markedly different universes is not an easy thing to accomplish. There are, it seems, a couple of ways of doing it. The first, a la the recent Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series, is to provide a clear in-story reason for the coming together of the different franchises; the second, a la the Snyder/Orlando/Rossmo Batman/Shadow series is to avoid addressing the issue, pretend that the two franchises have always been linked and hope no one cares enough to ask too many awkward questions. This series looks like it’s going to be opting for the former approach, although, by the end of the issue, we’ve still not got a full explanation for how Diana ends up in Aquilonia. What we have got, however, is an exceptionally engaging Conan-centric first half of the issue.
The issue starts with a single-page flashback to Conan’s youth, when, attending a meeting of clan leaders with his father, he encounters a warrior woman and Yanna, a younger warrior girl. The younger Conan is visibly struck by her… well, what exactly? She is very pretty, but it’s not her beauty that the narration focuses on but the notion that, to Conan at any rate, she “walk[s] in mystery”. What this means exactly is not clear. There is, perhaps, the hint of something supernatural going on here, but there’s not much time to dwell on this as the action shifts to focus on an older, more cynical Conan. He is about to ride past a group of three Aesir tribesmen who are preparing to burn off the jaw of Kian, a scrawny Aquilonian. Kian’s quick talking manages to persuade Conan to intervene and save him, but his promise of a gold reward for our barbarian hero proves to be a little more speculative than Conan was expecting. Despite finding out that his promised remuneration depends upon the favourable outcome of a bet on a match in the local arena, Conan is content to follow Kian and extract his reward after the fight is over.
It’s worth pointing out that both Simone’s dialogue and Lopresti and Ryan’s artwork are excellent here. Simone presents Conan with a dry sense of humour and a mercenary streak that is entirely in keeping with Howard’s original creation. The fight between Conan and the three Aesir is rendered clearly and the details of the action are appropriately bold and brutal. To cap the whole episode off, when Conan asks the final Aesir why they were preparing to torture Kian, the Aesir uses his dying breath to inform him that Kian had welched on a debt. Conan’s reaction of “Crom” is nicely wry. It seems that the chances of Conan receiving his payment are diminishing by the page.
As Conan and Kian head for Shamar, the Aquilonian city, we get our first look at a certain warrior princess. (No, not that one!) Somehow captured by Dellos the Slaver and compelled to fight in the arena, Diana is nameless and wearing a crude approximation of her normal outfit, including a star daubed (or tattooed) onto the middle of her forehead. While she can’t remember how she got there or who she is, she can remember how to fight and takes on three male opponents in a really rather impressive action sequence.
This, of course, is the match that Kian has bet on and he has, of course, bet on gender stereotypes and come up horribly short. It’s a good thing, then, that Conan, having seen Diana and been reminded of Yanna from his childhood, is too preoccupied with the Amazonian to be angry with Kian for not being able to fulfill his promise of gold. There follows an interesting moment in which Conan and Diana meet and a cliffhanger ending that, given the nature of the story so far, is not especially surprising but nevertheless manages to round off the issue in a satisfying way.
This is an excellent issue for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Lopresti’s art, if perhaps a little too cartoony for some Conan fans’ tastes (he’s no John Buscema, after all), suits this kind of rollicking action yarn perfectly. There’s a wonderful gruesome clarity to the fight sequences and some interesting uses of perspective, too. Outshining the art by some distance is Simone’s script. Not only does she imbue each of the main characters with their own clearly-defined personalities, but also, through her narration and despite the odd misstep (“no amount of rusted valor would penetrate his thuggish cadre of guards” is not the best), she manages to convey a grandeur and insight that adds a welcome depth and complexity to the overall story. The moment when Conan recognizes (or thinks he recognizes Diana) wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact without the narrator repeating a key line from earlier in the book, for example.
As first issues go, this one does its job perfectly: the main characters have met and begun to form some sort of friendship; an antagonist has been clearly identified and an amusing supporting character introduced; key questions have been raised about just how Diana has come to be in the predicament in which we find her during this issue. Satisfyingly, Simone doesn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to explain things to us, instead preferring to concentrate on the exploring the emotional connection between our two leads and that, it seems to me, can only result in a more natural-seeming and involving narrative.
In short, this is a great start to the series. The odd bit of poor writing notwithstanding, this is a thoroughly engaging issue with great characterization that forms the basis of an already intriguing chemistry between our two lead characters. Lopestri and Ryan’s artwork is dynamic and entertaining and there are hooks galore in the form of unanswered questions about Diana and an ending that promises plenty of action next time around. Highly recommended.