Today, Shelby and Taylor are discussing American Gods 1, originally released March 15th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Shelby: I love the power of pagan mythology. The magics of these stories seem more raw, more chaotic, more basely elemental than what you find in newer, monotheistic religions: like a no-holds-barred Old Testament. And I’m not even talking Greek and Roman pantheons, here; I’m talking ancient Egypt, Norse, Slavic. This is the unfiltered magic that shapes the earth, sea, and skies around us. This is the kind of mystic power Neil Gaiman taps into in his novel American Gods; Gaiman imagines an America populated with these ancient beings, brought here by our immigrant forefathers and forgotten, left to fend for themselves as the world changes around them. I’m sure it will come as no great surprise to you, gentle readers, that I am a big, big fan of this book (and all things Gaiman), and am already enjoying the comic book adaptation with writer P. Craig Russell and artist Scott Hampton. Some NSFW images to follow, so consider yourselves warned.
The story begins with Shadow Moon, a prison inmate. His story is the platonic ideal of the concept of prison as rehabilitation; Shadow made some stupid decisions, and now he’s paying for them. He figures if he keeps quiet and behaves, he can serve his time with no incident and get back to his life and his wife Laura. He’s released early, sadly, upon news of his wife’s death. A dangerous storm complicates his travel plans, and he finds himself on a plane with a man who introduces himself only as Mr. Wednesday; Mr. Wednesday has a job offer for Shadow, one he’s going to take whether he wants to or not (spoiler alert: he definitely does not want to).
This book has a tremendous aura of power about it. Power and mystery. Much of this comes from the introduction of the character Bilquis, a favorite of mine. The Queen of Sheba (yes, the Queen of Sheba) and rumored to be half demon, Bilquis nowadays is a prostitute who demands to be worshipped as a goddess. Such ecstasy is felt at her touch, the men she fucks (and I’m using that word very intentionally) plead to worship her with their entire body, a feat accomplished when Bilquis envelops and consumes their body with her vagina. It sounds like a scene from a horror movie, but in the hands of Gaiman, Russel, and Hampton it’s an erotic display of the raw power of female sexuality, something to be revered instead of feared.
Hampton handles the entire Bilquis scene beautifully. What could have been horror or sleaze (or horrifically sleazy) is instead cosmic power. The already gorgeous Bilquis is transformed into some sort of divine entity, deserving of the worship she demands.
I wasn’t sure about the art in this book at the beginning, but by the end of the issue I was completely on board. Hampton’s style is simple and straightforward, but has this undercurrent of something more. I couldn’t stop thinking about my favorite outsider artist Henry Darger, most famous for his massive illustrated tome The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Looking at Darger’s work again, the style is very different, but both Darger’s and Hampton’s art inspires in me a feeling of powerful, secret things, and that is concept is the beating heart of this story.
I can’t stop talking about power, which is key to American Gods. Gaiman gives us in Shadow a man who suddenly finds himself swept up in this mysterious world he didn’t know existed, a world driven by ancient, chaotic powers. Shadow is not completely blind to that power, however; he feels it in the time leading up to his scheduled release as a storm on the horizon, something terrible that was coming. As he reported to the warden, unknowingly to receive news of his wife’s death and early release, he knew: that terrible thing was here. We’re lead to believe that terrible thing may be Mr. Wednesday himself, the mysterious benefactor who knows Shadow’s name, his situation, even the about the tragic death of his wife, which may not have been as accidental as appears.
So what are we left with? A man who wanted nothing more than to return to the life he knew, only to discover that life no longer exists in any form. A mysterious stranger who just happens to have knowledge he shouldn’t and an offer which has to be too good to be true (not to mention an inability to take no for an answer). A woman whose power shows us there’s a darker, rawer side of the world that some deep-down part of us longs for. A storm unlike any other we’ve seen, and that has nothing to do with the weather. Gaiman, Russel, and Hampton give us a brief glimpse into this world they’ve created, a world of dark, old things; even knowing what comes next as I do, I can’t wait to see it. Taylor, have you read American Gods before? What are your thoughts on this first installment of the adaptation?
Taylor: I have read the book American Gods, but unlike you (and just about everyone else I know), I didn’t fall in love with it. Don’t get me wrong here — it’s a fine book and I would go so far as to say I enjoyed reading it. It’s just that I don’t get what all the hubbub about it is. Something about the book has failed to grab me the way it has grabbed so many people I know. That being said, I’m not particularly excited to watch the Starz Network TV adaptation of the book either. If a book is only OK in my eyes, then the TV show needs to do something special to justify its existence. It’s with this same attitude I approached this adaptation of American Gods, and unfortunately, I don’t find a whole lot to justify its existence except to cash in on the renewed interest in its source material.
The primary reason this issue failed to impress is the plodding pace. Throughout this first issue we learn a great deal about Shadow’s past and present courtesy of a third person narrator. For obvious reasons this narration style is a natural fit in the novel version of American Gods, but frequently it’s deployed here in a way that slows down the pace of this issue and makes it a slog to read through. For example, when Shadow finally gets out of prison and is on the road, he stops to pee and the narrator is there to describe the scene.
The things is, the narrator shouldn’t need to describe the scene since a picture of it is being supplied already. I see that the bathroom is well-lit and clean from Hampton’s artwork, so the narrator’s lines here are superfluous. This one panel isn’t so bad in and of itself, but the narration forces its way into the narrative frequently when it is often unneeded. The problem with this is that in a comic book, a panel with artwork needs to be supplied so these words have somewhere to go. Too much narration means too many panels which also means an achingly paced issue. If this issue was allowed to show the reader details of the narrative (something comic are uniquely qualified to do) instead of having the narrator tell it, it would be much better.
These pacing problems aren’t solely the fault of the narrator’s though. Elsewhere in the issue the plot gets bogged down in the minutia of small events and needless dialogue. When Shadow is traveling home he takes a series of small planes on his trip, the product of his wife’s booking his ticket, getting out of prison a few days early, and a gigantic storm. At one point Shadow has to scramble to find a connecting flight and we are forced to watch this mundane process in great detail.
These thirteen panels, crammed into a half page, go into explicit detail regarding Shadow’s trials to find his connecting flight. Detail is rarely a bad thing but when this details focuses on things that are frankly boring, it makes for a hard read. Here is perfect instance where the narrator should be deployed. Instead of thirteen panels which explain a travelers worst nightmare, one panel could have sufficed with the narrator explaining all of the action above. Instead we have this cacophony of paneling that adds little to the narrative and slows down the pacing with unneeded dialogue.
The unfortunate thing about these choices is that it makes the issue feel long and frankly boring when its source material is anything but that. The creators have chances in this issue to spice things up but frequently miss the chance to do so. One of these instances is when Shadow first meets the Buffalo Man. This meeting ostensibly happens in a dream but in reality (spoiler alert) it’s happening in the cosmic sphere.
Instead of devoting time and detail to this scene like they do with Bilquis, the Buffalo Man is given a scant four panels. This seems a shame since the Buffalo Man is an important recurring character in this story but he is treated as nothing more than a figment of Shadow’s unconsciousness here. Aside from underplaying the importance of this character, I can’t help but wonder how much this issue could have been improved had the creators devoted more times to playing up the mystery and horror of the Buffalo Man in his first appearance. Not only would that do the character justice, but it would make this issue more interesting and perhaps liven up the pace as well.
All in all I was pretty disappointed by this first issue. Generally when Neil Gaiman stamps his name on a product I associate it with a certain level of quality but that belief seems to have failed me here. It makes me wonder how involved, if at all, Gaiman is in this project. The slavish devotion to the narrator in this story along with the showing of mundane details of air travel work together to make this issue less than what it should be. It’s enough to make me wonder if this series might best be left forgotten like so many of the gods we humans brought with us to America ages ago.
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