Not having read the novel on which it’s based, I can’t say for certain just how close to the book this comic adaptation of American Gods is, but I suspect it’s pretty faithful. The first two issues were something of a slow burn and, while this continues in this issue, at least what is smouldering slowly is interesting. This issue, while we still don’t know exactly what the enigmatic Mister Wednesday is up to, we do begin to get a clearer idea of the world in which our eponymous character, Shadow, has found himself. And it is pretty weird. And just a little bit scary.
This issue starts off exactly where the last issue left us. Shadow makes his way back to the motel, bumps into Mister Wednesday and tells him about his encounter with the strange fat kid in the limo. Wednesday says that he knows who the kid is and that “they don’t have a fucking clue”. I got the impression here that, at this point, Wednesday sees the fat kid as more of an irritant than a threat, but the narrative doesn’t give us time to dwell on that, as we see Shadow go back to his room and try to get to sleep and not think about his dead wife.
So, of course, she turns up. But not before Shadow has a satisfyingly weird, but oddly informative, dream. This is where Hampton’s understated art comes into its own. So realistic and grounded is his art normally that, when the narrative enters, as here, a dreamscape, the art feels just as ‘real’ despite its clearly fantastical subject matter – and it’s all the more disturbing for that. Shadow finds himself in a hall of statues, each statue representing a god who has been “forgotten” and “might as well be dead”. Then, he is shown a much larger collection of statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, too. These gods, presumably, have passed from the “might as well be dead” category into the “are actually dead” category. This is a useful – and memorable – bit of background provision. Gods can die. They have died in the past. Their deaths are connected with the process of being forgotten.
This section raises a slight issue with the way the adapters have chosen to tell this story. Anyone who’s read enough of my reviews will know that I have an irrational nostalgia (all nostalgia is irrational, arguably) for the heady days of melodramatic third person narration. The third person narration here is more understated than that found in your average pre-90s comic; it does, nevertheless, remind the reader of both the good and bad aspects of the form. It is, for example, useful to know that Shadow is being spoken to in his dream by a “precise voice” that is “fussy” and “exact”. That kind of detail is difficult to hint at through relying on dialogue alone and I get the feeling it’s important detail, too. That said, being told that “there was something profoundly disturbing” about the statue in front of which Shadow finds himself is a piece of commentary we don’t really need. If you think there’s not something profoundly disturbing about a huge three-breasted, snake-headed statue with a massive vulva carved in the front of it, you might want to seek professional help.
Shadow wakes up from his vision in something of a state and goes to the loo. When he comes back, he finds his dead wife sitting on his bed. This section is astonishingly well-written and incredibly disturbing, mostly because of the jarring juxtaposition of the dead Laura’s matter-of-fact honesty and the fact that, well, she’s dead, something that, again, the third person narration helps communicate very effectively. That third person narration lets the reader down a little, though, by telling rather than showing us that Shadow cries himself to sleep. Given Shadow’s taciturnity up to now, that display of emotion might have been a useful way to cement the character’s relationship with the reader. A minor gripe? Probably. It’s more or less forgotten as the narrative is interrupted by a rather nice vignette with art by Walt Simonson and Laura Martin.
Given that this 4-page section deals with the establishing of the Nordic pantheon in the New World, the choice of Simonson as artist is a bit of a no-brainer. After all, if you want anyone to portray this story’s version of Odin, Thor and Tyr, who better than the writer/artist of probably the best non-Kirby run on Marvel’s Thor title as well as his own criminally ignored (seriously, am I the only person reading it?) take on Norse mythology, Ragnarok? This, however, is Simonson in much more restrained mood, which is appropriate given that this is not a tale of heroism, but of, to use a timeworn phrase, a clash of cultures, faith and, ultimately, betrayal. It’s grim stuff and makes the point fairly eloquently that most religions are rooted in blood, violence and self-interest.
The rest of the issue deals with Shadow and Wednesday’s trip to Chicago where they meet up with some odd characters who, my trusty googling tells me, are Slavic gods. The issue ends with Shadow sitting down to play a game of checkers with Czernobog, whose name literally means ‘black god’. Gaiman, Russell and Hampton portray these Slavic gods as old, decrepit and down on their luck. They are, perhaps, only one or two steps removed from those unmoving statues that Shadow encountered in his dream. What the significance of the checkers game might be is, at this point, unclear. As has been the case with the last two chapters, this issue ends on an anti-climactic, somewhat uncertain note. I don’t necessarily mind that, though. American Gods is perhaps a series to encourage reflection in the reader rather than the desire to read on straight away.
In conclusion, this issue delivers much more fantasy than the previous two and is all the better for it. As Shadow gets more and more entangled in Wednesday’s plans, the richness of Gaiman’s world is becoming clearer. Hampton’s art works well here and Simonson’s interlude is rather classy. This is entertaining, thought-provoking and, at times, disturbing storytelling. If you don’t mind the slow burn, it’s well worth your time.
(This review originally appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
American Gods: Shadows #2 (Dark Horse)
Hear that? That sound of punches flying, mysteries swirling mysteriously and antagonists finally showing up to throw shade at our (anti)hero? That’s the sound of Dark Horse’s adaptation of American Gods finally hitting its stride, that is. And I, for one, am very relieved. It is, after all, an uncomfortable feeling reviewing the comic version of an iconic story and finding it… underwhelming. That is not, fortunately, the case with this issue. Read on and I’ll explain why.
Issue 2 starts off exactly where the main strip last issue left off. In the john. Mr Wednesday’s repeating his job offer to Shadow, in the process pointing out that the ex-con doesn’t have a job because his best friend died in the same car crash that killed his wife. It takes some written evidence from a local newspaper to convince Shadow, but, eventually and somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to become a bodyguard-cum-chauffer for the extraordinarily charismatic stranger. The two seal the deal over a drink and things begin to get strange. Or, at least, stranger.
Much of the strangeness comes from Mad Sweeney, the self-professed leprechaun who shows up at the restaurant and appears to be, as Shadow says, “about ten feet tall”. Already known to Wednesday, Sweeney provides a fair bit of incident in this first section of the issue. Where Wednesday prefers to sit and make conversation, albeit of the decidedly enigmatic sort, Sweeney likes to provoke Shadow into a fight. Which the Irishman eventually loses. The fight is prompted by both Sweeney and Shadow’s skill with coin tricks and the latter’s desire to know how Sweeney’s managed to pull off a particularly impressive bit of sleight-of-hand. This is rather fitting given how much of this story so far has been concerned with deception and things not quite being as they appear.
After the fight, Shadow celebrates his victory with a drink or seven and wakes up on the highway in Wednesday’s car. Wednesday helpfully informs him that his wife’s body is available to view at a nearby funeral parlour and even more helpfully drops Shadow off there. And it’s here that my earlier suspicions about just what’s been going on between Laura and Richie are confirmed, when Richie’s widow enters and spits on Laura’s face. When Shadow catches up to her, she informs him that Laura’s mouth was wrapped around her husband’s gear stick (this is not quite how she describes it) at the time of the crash. Which would explain why he lost control, I guess.
Not for the first time, I’m somewhat taken aback by Shadow’s muted emotional response here. I can only assume that this is deliberate. More so than his time in prison or his conversations with Wednesday, Shadow’s memories of his wife seem to be idealised and almost dream-like. His ongoing reaction (or lack thereof) to both the death of his wife and subsequent revelation of her betrayal seem like he’s suffering from some sort of dissociation. This may, indeed, be deliberate, but it continues to make empathising with him more difficult than perhaps it should be. That said, the plot is moving now, and it’s well-constructed enough to hold the interest regardless of the slightly flat lead character. (And, to be fair, he’s nowhere near as flat as he was in the first issue.)
The book closes with Shadow being drugged and encountering a deeply unpleasant fat boy in a limo, and it is clear that the boy is much more than he initially seems. The dialogue here is clever, merging the language of computer science with that of religion. The boy has a warning for Mr Wednesday and it is clear that, in taking Wednesday up on his job offer, Shadow has chosen sides in some kind of conflict. Once again, Shadow is dropped off where he needs to go – this time the Motel America – and, with no back up this time round, the issue ends with him heading inside.
Well, this was better. The dialogue between Wednesday, Shadow and Sweeney really crackles and the encounter between Shadow and the fat boy in the limo demonstrates Gaiman’s wit very nicely. There’s a definite sense of impetus now and, although Shadow’s not quite as engaging as you’d expect a main character to be, Wednesday is and I definitely want to see more of him. I also want to find out more about the wider situation Shadow’s got himself into. There’s a genuine sense of intrigue now – and danger. Scott Hampton’s artwork is of pretty much the same standard as last issue, but the bar fight is dynamic and his portrayal of Sweeney as a mercurial, slightly grotesque braggart is very engaging.
All in all, this is a good example of comic book storytelling: the plot is intriguing, the characters fleshed out in interesting ways, the dialogue lively and the art, though still a little on the restrained side, is detailed and clear. Shadow is growing on me and Wednesday is so far the star of the book. There’s certainly enough here to hook the reader into the unfolding larger plot and I’m now very interested to see how this story develops.
This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Check them out for some great reviews of DC, Marvel and indie books!