Dark Horse’s American Gods Comic Series Achieves a Happy Medium between Page and Screen

Cover of American Gods, Issue #1 "Shadows", Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics

As a longtime fan of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, I was thrilled to check out the first issue of Dark Horse Comics’ new series based on the same work, out March 15, 2017. As is usually the case when I experience something created by Neil Gaiman, I was not disappointed. It is a richly illustrated rendition of the story and worthy of its place next to both the novel and the forthcoming television show, due to air on Starz beginning April 30.

One might wonder what the comic version has to offer in a world in which the book is already beloved and the television show is much anticipated. I wondered it myself as I started through American Gods: Shadows #1, which establishes the main character, Shadow Moon, as the story opens and takes the reader through the first few chapters of the novel. It didn’t take me long to find my answer, however. American Gods makes ample use of the fact that comic-book illustrations have different opportunities for creativity than television production designs possess as far as representing abstract concepts. In a TV show, it’s difficult to go too far into the unusual and still remain accessible to the majority of your viewers, and retaining audience numbers is usually a primary goal of any television show. From almost the very beginning, the story of American Gods is plentiful with deities and dream sequences, among other things, and the advantage of the comic medium is that it has the ability to tap into much more imaginative visualizations with regards to illustrating these opportunities.

One such sequence takes place when Shadow is speaking on the phone to his wife. In the book, their conversation is described very normally—“he said,” “she said.” The point of the conversation is to convey basic information, establishing the relationship between Shadow and Laura. In the television show, I predict that it will be treated with similar normalcy. It is, after all, simply a phone call between a man and his wife without a great deal of imagination necessary. But in a demonstration of imaginative storytelling that took me by surprise, the comic book treats this simple scene with beautiful and touching creativity. The sequence, which I reread two or three times in a row, made it clear that this series will gives us an opportunity to experience what Shadow experiences every step of the way.

This is the key piece that sets the comic version apart from the novel and, presumably, the show: experiencing Shadow’s perspective with a richness that neither of the other media can quite match. Books have the advantage of being able to describe something fully with several paragraphs, layering on the detail as the reader builds the story in his or her imagination. Television, conversely, can illustrate the story for the audience, using skilled cinematography and elaborate production values to bring a story to life. The comic, however, is somewhere between and also in a class of its own. It necessitates a streamlined version of the novel, without having the space for pages of description. But the storytelling also balances between third-person views of the characters and first-person views from Shadow’s perspective, allowing the reader to step into Shadow’s experience, see what he is seeing, and be privy to his thought processes in a way that can’t be accomplished in another medium.

Page 7 of American Gods #1

Dark Horse Comics

Another aspect that I anticipate will be shown to great advantage in the issues to come is the illustration of the various title characters, the American gods. Periodically throughout the novel, the reader experiences short vignettes—stories of gods who came to America with the people who believe in them and how these gods adapted to life here as their believers assimilated into the American culture. The novel describes these stories bluntly and in a manner that’s not likely to translate to the screen, even on a non-network television channel like Starz, exactly as portrayed in the original version. However, the comic book again has more leeway to illustrate these stories, as it demonstrates at the end of “Shadows.” The first vignette, the first obvious god that the reader meets in the plot, is perhaps is the most startling in terms of setting the stage for what to expect—but I look forward to meeting the other gods who will be introduced in the course of the series.

I will admit that as I sat down to read this comic, I was skeptical about what it could add to the American Gods universe that doesn’t already exist. The novel is well established; the teasers from the television show have proven that its creators are taking the depth of the universe seriously, and they promise an equally satisfying experience. What more is there to add that can’t be achieved in one of the existing formats? As the preceding paragraphs should have made clear by now, this initial installment of the comic series has shown my initial misguided skepticism to be fully unfounded. The richness of the art and the different perspectives of the storytelling have convinced me that the comics will be able to stand on their own against their siblings, the novel and the television show, and I look forward to experiencing the rest of the series.

Pages 8 and 9 of American Gods #1

Dark Horse Comics

American Gods: Shadows is adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel by P. Craig Russell and illustrated by Scott Hampton. Issue #1 is available now from Dark Horse Comics; #2 and #3 are coming April 12 and May 17, 2017.

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