The television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning fantasy novel, American Gods (2001), is nearly upon us, set to premiere on Starz at the end of this month. However, to whet our appetites until then DC Comics has launched their own ongoing comic book series to capitalize on the buzz. Penned by P. Craig Russell (who previously adapted Gaiman’s The Sandman: The Dream Hunters for Vertigo in 2008, as well as the novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book), with art duties handled by Scott Hampton (who illustrated three-issue Sandman spin-off Lucifer: The Morningstar Option in 1999), the series has so far has been faithful to the source material, even down to featuring the same dialogue.
The first issue introduces us to our protagonist, Shadow Moon, during his prison tenure as he awaits his release. All he wants is to get home to his wife, Laura, and enjoy his newfound freedom building a life with her free from trouble. However, with dreams involving a Buffalo Man and the heartbreaking news that Laura has died in a car accident, followed by a not-so-chance encounter with a man who goes by the name, Mr. Wednesday, Shadow’s dream of living a normal life isn’t going to work out according to plan.
In the second issue, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday get further acquainted and our protagonist accepts a job offer to work for the strange gentleman. In this issue we also meet Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun who needs no introduction for those familiar with the text. For newcomers, his arrival should confirm that this is a story full of unexpected turns, and these scenes perfectly encapsulate American Gods’ ability to bewilder and humour simultaneously.
The first two instalments don’t offer much in the way of originality for those already familiar with Gaiman’s novel, so if you’re expecting a fresh take on it then you might be disappointed. However, seeing the story play out all over again in a different medium is a refreshing way to consume it; a worthy companion piece, though perhaps too loyal for its own good at times. The second issue is an improvement as the adventure starts to shift into gear a bit more and find its groove, so to speak.
Both instalments are not without their pitfalls, however – mainly due to the the difference between comics and novels as mediums as the latter tends to demand telling your story within 30 pages . While Russell and Hampton do an admirable job of introducing us to some characters, setting up the story and hitting the necessary notes, it feels more like a highlight reel of the opening chapters of Gaiman’s mammoth tome and entering with preconceived notions of what it should be based on your memories of the novel might leave you feeling a tad underwhelmed. Furthermore, while some of the dialogue in Gaiman’s novel is too good to resist, Russell’s proneness to lifting direct quotes makes the comic feel like a copycat. That said, Crampton’s illustrations do help give it some unique flavour, though its lack of originality in other departments means it’s more like a mixtape with pretty pictures.
However, as an introduction to a comic series and judged on its own merits, American Gods is thoroughly entertaining. New readers will probably enjoy it more as they can experience it blissfully unaware of what is yet to come. However, for fans of the book will be inevitable comparisons will be inevitable, so if you fall into that camp I’d advise you to enter with your expectations in check. That being said, who knows what future issues entail? Maybe we’ll encounter some surprises or modifications down the line. But, for now, this is an enjoyably serviceable adaptation of one of the best novels of all-time, in this writer’s humble opinion. For that reason alone, American Gods: Shadows is worth checking out.