First, American Gods was an award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman. Then, it lingered in development hell for a decade – first as a film, then as a TV series – only to finally be picked up by Starz and given its first season in 2017 (and currently airing its second). Lastly, it was adapted by Dark Horse Comics – and P. Craig Russell and Scott Hampton – as a comic book. American Gods is a story that lends itself very well to the medium of comics as it’s a very visual book, with characters and locales that are large than life. It’s an adaptation that many fans have desired for a long time – given Gaiman’s beginnings in the world of comics with The Sandman – so, with two (of three) volumes of the American Gods comic now complete, how is this adaptation holding up? Answer: very well.
American Gods: Shadows
Shadow Moon gets out of jail only to discover his wife is dead. Defeated, broke, and uncertain 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 where ghosts of the past come back from the dead, and a god war is imminent.
American Gods: My Ainsel
The bizarre road trip across America continues as our heroes gather reinforcements for the imminent god war! Shadow and Wednesday leave the House on the Rock and continue their journey across the country where they set up aliases, meet new gods, and prepare for war.
American Gods: Shadows adapts the first part of the novel – also named “Shadows” – following Shadow as he is released from prison, hired by Mr. Wednesday, journeys to the House on the Rock, is attacked by two of Mr. World’s goons, and ends up in Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jackal’s funeral parlor. It took me a little while to really get into the style of this adaptation. It’s less of an adaptation in the traditional sense and more of an illustrated novel. The script for these issues comes directly from the novel. Nothing is added, certain things are just tweaked to make the transition from novel-to-comic smoother. There is a lot of narration – told via captions in the screen – to help keep the action moving. It’s a weird style at first, but after a while, you totally get used to it. Personally, I do kind of wish there were more changes made in the adaptation from novel to comic, but it’s not a particularly big deal. As the text is just the novel slightly tweaked, the real standout in this adaptation is Scott Hampton’s artwork. Like the text, it does take a bit of time to fully get used to exactly what Hampton is doing with his illustrations, but once you get used to it, you see the beauty in his artwork. He delivers new, unique, and interesting designs for each of our characters, imbuing them with life and a personality that goes well with what was described in the book. His illustrations are every bit as faithful as Russell’s script is to Gaiman’s original book, and it’s all for the better. It’s really nice getting to see visuals for a lot of these scenes that were described in the novel – and have yet to be adapted in the TV series – so, I’m thankful that Hampton and Russell were so faithful with this adaptation. Shadows is, ultimately, the setup for the rest of the story, so much of this adaptation feels like it’s setting up the subsequent volumes, but that’s okay. Every good story needs some setup.
American Gods: My Ainsel adapts the second part of the novel – also named “My Ainsel” – featuring Shadow’s time in Lakeside as he and Wednesday continue to round up Old Gods for the war against the New Gods. Like the first volume, My Ainsel is extremely faithful to Gaiman’s original novel. This volume, more than either of the others, has the hardest task: make the middle of the book – where not much happens – visually interesting. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Rusell and Hampton are able to do. Much of the heavy lifting is done by Hampton’s incredible artwork as he imbues each panel with a breath of life that isn’t always found in the novel. This part of the story is, again, a lot more setup for the final, climactic battle and, as a result, much of it is just people sitting in rooms and talking. This works perfectly fine in a novel, but it’s a bit harder to pull off in a more visual medium. Hampton is able to keep the energy flowing by frequently slipping in little fantastical elements into his artwork, even in scenes where there’s nothing explicitly fantastical happening. This is also the part of the story where we’re first introduced to the “Backstage” – a parallel dimension accessible to the Gods where they can travel great distances in short amounts of time – and Hampton’s depiction of it is delightfully strange. He takes a much different approach than season 2 of the TV series does, and I kind of like his approach a bit better. It just feels… stranger. My Ainsel maintains the same level of quality that was established in Shadows and it continues to build on, and expand, the visual language of this world.
Dark Horse Comics’ adaptation of American Gods is deeply enjoyable. While there’s nothing new in the actual script of the story, the joy comes from how Hampton depicts the world of the story. A part of me wishes some changes were made to the script – like updating Tech Boy to be more reflective of the 21st century – but on the other hand, I am pretty happy that it’s such a faithful adaptation. The style – both text and visual – of this series can take some getting used to, but once you get used to it, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. It’s a nice, quick way of refreshing the story of American Gods in your mind without having to devote a large amount of time to reread the book – though, there’s nothing wrong with doing that. As the second season of the TV adaptation is just starting, it’s nice to have a way of refreshing my memory of the novel quickly and efficiently, and this comic adaptation works wonderfully for that. Plus, the illustrations are gorgeous. I recommend it for anybody who’s a fan of Gaiman or American Gods.
4 out of 5 wands.