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American Gods: Shadows #1 is Worthy of Worship

Comics Reviews Neil Gaiman
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<i>American Gods: Shadows</i> #1 is Worthy of Worship

Writers:   Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell
Artists: Scott Hampton, P. Craig Russell
Colorist: Lovern Kindzierski
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: March 15, 2017

“All of the people, living, dead or otherwise in this story are fictional or used in a fictional context. Only the gods are real.” This preface aptly summarizes Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Published in 2001, the novel has grown to become one of the author’s most enduring and popular works, second only to the critically acclaimed comic series The Sandman. With American Gods’ Starz-produced television adaptation premiering next month, the story of Shadow Moon’s journey of self-discovery across the American heartland has gained renewed prominence in the pop-cultural consciousness. What better time than now to adapt American Gods into sequential art, and who better to do it than P. Craig Russell and Scott Hampton, two masters of the craft known in part for their collaborations with Gaiman in the past?

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American Gods: Shadows #1 Variant Cover Art by Dave McKean

Much like the country from which its name derives, American Gods has always been a story of immigrants; of two generations of ideology vying for primacy in the modern age, and how their proxy war threatens to ensnare the life of a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone. The first issue roughly covers the first chapter of the book and introduces Shadow, an ex-con released from prison just days before his parole sentence in the wake of his wife’s untimely death. Cast adrift in the outside world with little more than the clothes on his back, Shadow does the only thing he can think to do: go home and start over. But a chance encounter with a mysterious man by the name of Wednesday sends his plan for a quiet life careening off-course into a strange and otherworldly odyssey of mythic proportions.

As with Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá’s adaptation of How To Talk To Girls At Parties last year, Gaiman’s prose writing proves again to be uniquely compatible with graphic storytelling. Russell’s script does a fantastic job of pruning more prosaic passages and pacing them to flow throughout the issue. Hampton’s illustrations strike an uncanny balance between the mundane and the abstract, with the drab and oppressive color palette of Shadow’s time in prison framed within an inventive sequence of panel formats and patterns. What’s particularly noteworthy in the issue’s initial parts is the careful interplay between traditional colored pencil elements and modest texture layers, most apparent in the pockmarked gravel of Shadow’s cell or the warden’s reflective desk.

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American Gods: Shadows #1 Interior Art by Scott Hampton

But what’s perhaps most praiseworthy in this issue is its emphasis on one element that often eludes the written format: silence. The scenes of Shadow being led back to his cell after learning of his wife’s passing are a study of contrasts compared to his arrival in the warden’s office just moments before. A tense anticipation gives way to a deflated silence that speaks more across a handful of panels than an entire page of dialogue could otherwise muster. This first issue also emphasizes shadows and silhouettes, an apt, though perhaps entirely coincidental, nod to the protagonist’s alias. Russell and Hampton are a perfect match for this material, with the former’s penchant for smart plotting and latter’s beautiful artwork striking the crucial balancing act of mundanity and surreality that defines American Gods’ appeal. With Shadow’s dream sequence in the latter half of the issue hinting at events to come, one can only look forward to what the rest of the series has in store for both fans of the novel and newcomers alike.

The first issue’s coda, simply titled “Somewhere In America”, sees Russell writing and drawing with frequent collaborator Lovern Kindzierski on coloring duties. The scene is iconic for readers of the novel, depicting the half-demon Bilquis in an act of coitus with a climax that gives dramatic new meaning to the expression “la petite mort.” Russell’s linework with Kindzierski’s colors inspires candid comparison to The Sandman series at its creative apex (to which Russell contributed). The illustrations become more phantasmagoric as the sequence plays out before crescendoing into a grotesquely hideous, yet playful, conclusion.

The quality of the first issue of American Gods only drives home the point that not only is sequential art a perfect medium for the novel’s material, but that this adaptation is sincerely long overdue.

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American Gods: Shadows #1 Interior Art by Scott Hampton

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