Dream team adapts 'American Gods' for Dark Horse Comics

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

American Gods is already here.

No, not the TV adaptation of the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman, which begins April 30 on Starz. What’s arrived is the comics adaptation from Dark Horse; the first issue hit comic shops March 15.

If the title American Gods isn’t familiar, certainly the author should be. Neil Gaiman is one of those writers whose stories seem simple and straightforward, sometimes almost like a fairy tale or bedtime story from your grandmother. But they always work on multiple levels, lift from the cultural (or Jungian) subconscious, and leave the reader thinking at the end. And, oh yes, they’re also really entertaining.

As a result, this émigré from England – he lives in Wisconsin – has won just about every kind of publishing honor, from the Bram Stoker award to the Carnegie and Newbery medals to Book of the Year from the British National Book Awards. American Gods alone has won the Nebula and Hugo awards.

Gaiman has worked in a staggering number of fields, from prose to graphic novels to audio theater. In comics, his magnum opus was The Sandman, which took a moribund superhero, transformed him into an avatar of dreams and nightmares and created a new mythology around him and his immortal siblings – including Death. In prose, he’s famed for The Graveyard Book, Stardust, How to Talk to Girls at Parties and the recently released Norse Mythology. In TV and movies, he wrote or contributed to Coraline, MirrorMask, Neverwhere and Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf.
 
So Gaiman is kind of a big deal. Which is why American Gods – whether adapted to comics or TV – is so hotly anticipated.
 
The comic book adaptation will run 27 issues, broken into three parts (Shadows, My Ainsel and The Moment of the Storm). That’s why the first issue (32 pages, $3.99) is titled American Gods: Shadows.
 
“Shadows” may mean a lot of things, but it is certainly a reference to our protagonist, Shadow Moon. We meet Shadow, a black (or mixed-race) man while he is in prison, where he has just about finished serving three years for attempted armed robbery. Like all Gaiman decisions, that seems like a neat idea on the surface, but it serves other purposes as well.

For example, Shadow is notoriously taciturn and cautious, both traits learned from his prison stint. Shadow also kept himself in shape in jail, read Histories by Herodotus, and amused himself with coin tricks – all elements destined to play a role in the heavily foreshadowed “big storm” (as a fellow prisoner calls it) to come.

Which starts early for Shadow. He’s lucky, as a prison official tells him, in that he’s got a loving wife, a guaranteed job and even a plane flight home waiting for him when he gets out. But all that is washed away when his wife and best friend (and future employer) are killed in a car wreck several days before Shadow’s release.

And that’s when things start to get a little strange. “If it could have but been some other way,” says a cryptic passenger on Shadow’s plane about the car wreck, as if the accident was something someone had decided. Wait, what? How does this guy know how Shadow’s wife died? And how does he know Shadow’s name?

Especially since the guy’s own name is obviously phony.

“Why don’t you call me Wednesday?” he says with a mirthless chuckle. “Mr. Wednesday. Although given the weather, it might as well be Thursday.”

Does that mean anything? Well, probably. In American Gods, like with everything Gaiman writes, all words have meaning, and are not selected casually.

Anyway, Wednesday is odd. But not strange. Strange would be the dream Shadow has of the buffalo-headed minotaur. The creature says they are “in the earth and under the earth. You are where the forgotten wait.” He also underscores the foreshadowing that has become more insistent with every page. “Changes are coming,” he says with his buffalo mouth. “There are certain decisions to be made.”

This starts to get us where the descriptions of American Gods tells us we’re going to go. In Gaiman’s vision, gods exist because of belief – the more people believe in a given god, the stronger that deity becomes. Needless to say, there are a lot of gods that have weakened considerably since the arrival of Christianity, among them the Norse, Greco-Roman, African and ancient Egyptian pantheons, and various faerie folk. They still exist, and have come to the New World through the belief of immigrants. But they’re not very strong, and face competition from the gods that have arisen here – deities representing belief in such things as “the invisible hand of the marketplace,” technology, media, celebrity and “men in black.”

And a war between old and new is coming. Hence all the foreshadowing.

Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow an unspecified job, a “perfectly legal job – good money, remarkable fringe benefits.” Shadow turns him down cold – twice, even – but is there any doubt Mr. Wednesday is going to get his way? Which doesn’t mean anything good for Shadow.

Still, this is a Gaiman story, where odd and strange are just warm-ups. Shocking is always right around the corner.

That comes in the untitled, four-page short story in the back of the first issue. It’s adapted from one of the vignettes Gaiman drops into American Gods, short deviations from the main narrative depicting various gods in their new homes and vocations. This one shows the Queen of Sheba, now calling herself Bilquis, working as a prostitute in Los Angeles.

While that might seem like a comedown for a goddess, remind yourself that our sense of morality is irrelevant to ancient deities. What they need is worship, and how better for a goddess to get a lot of different men to do exactly what she wants and say exactly what she needs? That plays out luridly here, in a scene expressly not for children.

It is, in the words of writer/artist P. Craig Russell in a previewsworld.com interview, “seriously weird.”

Russell, known for his incredibly detailed, lyrical style, doesn’t draw the main story. But he is writing the adaptation, illustrating the vignettes and putting his artistic stamp on the entirety via layouts. This approach has worked for him before in adaptations of Gaiman works Coraline, The Graveyard Book and The Sandman: Dream Hunters, some of which he also drew.
 
The art on the main narrative is by fan favorite Scott Hampton, noted for his clear, expressive work on Hellboy and Batman. He’s no stranger to adapting Gaiman either, or with Russell, having worked with the latter adapting The Graveyard Book and October in the Chair.

To complete the dream team on this dream assignment, covers are by industry legend Glenn Fabry (Preacher). Variant cover artists include David Mack (Kabuki, Fight Club 2) and Dave McKean (Black Dog, Cages), the latter having provided all the covers for Gaiman’s 75-issue Sandman.
 
By the time American Gods premieres on Starz, two issues of the comics adaptation will be out. Feel free to get a head start. You may need it for the “seriously weird” parts.
 
Reach Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), the Internet (captaincomics.ning.com), Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or Twitter (@CaptainComics).

All art copyright Dark Horse Comics

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I've not read American Gods but I've been considering it since I read, and loved, Norse Mythology.

I assume Gaiman is writing the comic book adaptation himself...?

I'm rereading American Gods right now (and with two flights ahead of me, I'll probably get pretty deep into it). I loved it the first time, and now I'm diving into the "author's preferred text" in the newly issued paperback. (This text has been around for 10 years or so.)

Once I finish the book, I'll dive right in to the comics.

Nope, P. Craig Russell is writing it, doing layouts and illustrating the "Somewhere in America" vignettes.

Jeff of Earth-J said:

I've not read American Gods but I've been considering it since I read, and loved, Norse Mythology.

I assume Gaiman is writing the comic book adaptation himself...?

I loved the original book and am looking forward to the comic adaptation, though I plan to trade-wait.

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