Do you believe? While the world is waiting for Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s epic novel to land on Starz, Dark Horse has beaten them to the punch with this comic book adaptation by P. Craig Russell and Scott Hampton.
Will this comic outshine the upcoming TV adaptation? Unfortunately, it’s not likely. Read on below to find out why.
Written by Neil Gaiman & P Craig Russell
Illustrated by Scott Hampton & Lovern Kindzierski
Shadow Moon just got out of jail, only to discover his wife is dead. Defeated, broke, and uncertain as to where to go from here, he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who employs him to serve as his bodyguard—thrusting Shadow into a deadly world of the supernatural, where ghosts of the past come back from the dead, and a brewing war between old and new gods hits a boiling point.
The Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula award–winning novel and upcoming Starz television series by Neil Gaiman is adapted as a comic series for the first time!
Despite being a novel from 2001, American Gods is getting a lot of play this year what with the upcoming TV adaption by Bryan Fuller and this comic book adaptation courtesy of P. Craig Russel and Scott Hampton. It makes sense: American Gods is fundamentally about the loss of belief throughout America as people begin to worship technology and new media over the old ways of life, which leads to the Old Gods striking back. In reading this first issue of “American Gods” as a comic, I found myself questioning why we adapt things and, specifically, why we adapt novels to visual mediums.
Much like another Dark Horse published adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s work, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s “How To Talk To Girls At Parties”, “American Gods” #1 is an attempt to directly translate Neil Gaiman’s prose to comics. The comic uses entire passages from Gaiman’s prose as narration over Scott Hampton’s artwork. However, while this may have worked in “How To Talk To Girls At Parties” because Moon and Ba were able to selectively use passages that informed a greater context to the reader beyond their visualisation of Gaiman’s story, the effect isn’t the same here.
For one, Hampton’s art is incredibly static and very plain, lacking a lot of detail. Characters are only really detailed in closeup panels and even then characters like Shadow’s facial details seem to shift from panel to panel. There’s no real consistency to the detail of the artwork in either the character’s facial details nor the backgrounds. The settings are as sparse as can be, often just plain walls with flat colouring and very little other detail. This, combined with poorly chosen prose that do little more than simple explain what is happening in the panel, giving the comic a muddied sense of storytelling.
This is why I found myself questioning why we adapt novels into comics. If it’s to visualise the story we see in our head then Scott Hampton’s artwork feels like the wrong fit for Gaiman’s epic, character focused narrative. American Gods is all about characters and locations, how they move through the world and how the world shapes them. Painting a room a series of blank squares coloured a flat grey behind characters whose facial features are so inconsistent that they look like different people from panel to panel would be a mark down for any comic, but for a slow burn, character driven narrative like this it’s almost a crime.
If, instead, adapting a novel to comics is a way to make the novel easier to read as opposed to the near 200,000-word count of American Gods, then this comic still fails because of it’s attempt to directly translate the novel to comic. There is no real sense of editing for time in this issue, no attempt to quicken the pace. American Gods is a dense novel with a real slow start that finds Shadow beginning his transition back into society while dealing with a personal tragedy.
All of this happens internally and is juxtaposed by the fact that his attempts to get back home leaves him stranded and isolated in a series of identical airports. This, however, is barely communicated by the issue as neither the art nor the passages chose by Russel reflect Shadow’s inner turmoil, but instead serve to simply show his actions removed from a sense of emotion.Continued below
It’s difficult to describe the feeling “American Gods” #1 produces. It reads like an ill conceived Cliff Notes that skips over how the characters feel and instead only focuses on what they do. The solicit text above is also featured on the issue’s credits page, I’m assuming to give readers an idea of what the story is about, but not only does it explain the entire issue in one paragraph, it is more interesting than the dry, surface level reading of the issue’s content. There is nothing beyond that credits page that isn’t covered by that paragraph. Just a very simple, very emotionless retelling of the events of American Gods‘ opening chapter.
It’s such a disappointment because that emotionless retelling is then followed up by a back up story by P. Craig Russell and Lovern Kindzierski that adapts the now famous ‘Somewhere In America’ interlude featuring Bilquis. In four pages, this backup illustrates everything the main story could have been.
Kindzierski’s artwork is fantastic, with a very European style that layers a lot of intricate lines with expressive colours to visualise what could only be hinted at in Gaiman’s prose. His characters are dynamic and expressive and consistent in a way that Hampton’s aren’t. The colours are rich and deep and speak to the inherent fantasy of the story, building a world that’s a bit arch, a bit fantastic, but still grounded in naturalistic hues.
Even the passages of Gaiman’s prose are more selective. Instead of simply reiterating a character’s action that we can clearly see in the panel, the passages inform a greater context beyond what can be visualised on the page. The words and the images are copacetic in telling one story from different angles instead of limply conveying the same basic information.
The backup story puts in stark relief how much the main story fails not only as an adaptation of Gaiman’s work, but as an attempt to tell a story in it’s own right. It’s pacing is glacial with no real idea of who the central character is or his mindset at any given time and while this opening chapter may have grabbed readers’ attentions enough to keep diving into the book, with no editing to suit the pace of a comic there’s little here to make you want to wait a month for more.
Final Verdict: 3.5 – If you were looking for a way to experience American Gods before the TV adaptation hits, just read (or re-read) the novel instead. This isn’t worth your time.