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.
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!