P.Craig Russell and Scott Hampton team up with author Neil Gaiman to deliver an enigmatic and underplayed opening issue that asks more questions than it answers…
Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed novel American Gods makes the jump both to comic shop shelves and TV screens this year, with a new Dark Horse series coming out in advance of a Starz television adaption. The comic run will span twenty-seven issues and three story arcs, kicking things off with American Gods: Shadows.
Shadows presumably centres on the novel’s main protagonist, Shadow Moon, who we meet as he’s counting down the days to his release from a three-year sentence for aggravated robbery. But just as he’s due to get out, the news of his beloved wife’s death in a car crash reaches him, and on his way back to an empty home he’s offered an unexplained job by the menacing Mr. Wednesday – a job that will lead him into a deadly supernatural world hiding in the shadows of modern America.
Artist Scott Hampton’s (Hellboy, Batman) line art is solid, but it’s the use of colour and background here that really catches the eye. While the shading on characters is fairly realistic, backgrounds often fade away into block colours or more abstract brick or concrete textures. The interior of the prison corridors are all flat greys and blues, as are the airport and planes. The only splashes of colour are soft pastel flashbacks to happier times with Shadow’s wife, but in the present-day even the airport itself, viewed from a distance, sits against a empty vignette of blue fading to black.
The effect is somewhat flattening – perhaps a mirror to the emotional numbness felt by Shadow himself – but also gives a subtle feeling of surrealness… and an uncanny sense of fabrication covering up a deeper, darker reality.
A different colourist – Lovern Kindzierski (Black Widow, Lunatik) – takes over with Russell for the last four pages to give us a glimpse of that darker reality. The closing ‘Somewhere in America’ mini-story introduces the seductive goddess Bilquis in an explicit scene where worship means predation. Here the colour palate suddenly changes from muted greys and blues to vivid orange, red, and blue against deeper, sultry purples and browns. If there was ever a first issue highlighting the importance of colourists, then this is it, and we look forward to seeing the work of other promised guest artists (Walt Simonson, Mark Buckingham, Colleen Doran, etc) in upcoming issues.
The panel layouts – the work of P. Craig Russell (who previously worked on other Neil Gaiman adaptions Coraline and The Graveyard Book as well as Sandman: The Dream Hunters) – are nearly all fairly straightforward arrangements of tight rectangular panels, which seem to invite a further sense of remoteness from their already taciturn main protagonist. Shadow, for all his coolness, is a hard man for an audience to quickly identify with, and it’s an indication of the writers’ trust in their audience that they’re prepared to take the risk of maintaining his muted reserve, rather than push him into a more empathetic role.
That said, Shadow’s introversion does leave the comic relying quite heavily on narration – though it remains to be seen whether this is a feature of the introductory first issue or an ongoing style choice. It’s no hardship to read, what with Gaiman’s writing as lyrical as ever, but it does act to slow down the pace of an already slow-burning narrative.
Fans of American Gods the novel will probably be glad to see how faithfully the comic adaption sticks to the original text, at least so far, pretty much following the book’s story beat for beat. However, I do worry whether readers new to the story will be left dissatisfied by the intentionally slow pace and lack of information delivered in this first issue. Hopefully the titbits of Shadow’s prophetic dream sequence and the ‘Somewhere in America’ scene will be enough to lure them into the mystical and strange world promised by Gaiman’s novel.
All in all, this is a good – if by no means perfect – start to an adaptation that’s not afraid to take on the enigma and darkness of its original. Plus, it will be lots of fun to compare this with the upcoming TV show…
P. Craig Russell & Neil Gaiman (W), Scott Hampton & P. Craig Russell (A) Scott Hampton & Lovern Kindzierski (C), Rick Parker (L), Glenn Fabry (Main CA) • Dark Horse Comics, $3.99