Neil Gaiman is a name that will instantly bring certain stories to mind, even if he’s not a writer whose work you’ve read. Thanks to the popularity of titles like Neverwhere, American Gods, and Good Omens, and their multiple adaptations over the years, he’s a writer whose work has seeped into the public consciousness.
He’s a writer that I’ve always intended to actually read at some point, having experienced his work through other mediums, such as his episodes of Doctor Who, or the TV adaptation and graphic novel of Neverwhere, but I’ve not actually picked up one of his books and read it yet. When I saw that a new adaptation of his book, American Gods was being produced by Dark Horse, I was interested in trying it out in the hopes that it might push me more towards his prose work.
American Gods, which received a television adaptation in 2017, tells the story of Shadow Moon, a man who has been in jail for the past three years. Building towards the end of his sentence, he’s a quiet and well mannered prisoner, keeping out of trouble and trying to just survive as best he can. His release is coming up at the end of the week, his wife Laura is waiting for him, and his best friend has a job lined up for him. He looks set to get his life back on track. However, when he’s called into the warden’s office a few days early he gets told that he’s being released there and then – because his wife has died.
Leaving prison, alone, confused, and grieving, Shadow starts his journey back home where he can attend Laura’s funeral. Along the way, however, he meets the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who wants to offer Shadow a job. At first he refuses, but when he learns that his best friend died in the same car crash that killed Laura, and that there is no job waiting for him, he agrees to help the odd man. And thus Shadow finds himself being dragged into a strange and unusual world, where ancient gods still exist, and a war between the old and the new is on the horizon.
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People tend to look at comics and books and think that they’re very similar things. They’re both things you read in order to obtain the story, so people assume that a lot of books can easily be translated into comic form. And whilst this can work, it does take a certain level of care and skill. Things that work in prose form, long conversations, moments of deep character introspection, and tangents onto other subjects that help build up the world, can flow quite naturally in prose form, and most people wouldn’t even really notice or care that the moment that should have been a five minute conversation takes dozens of pages to make. But when those moments come into comics it can leave things feeling slightly off. And this is one of the issues I had with this adaptation.
American Gods doesn’t seem to be a very visual story, at least none of the things that are collected in this volume are anyway. Much of the book is people talking, people travelling from place to palace, people sitting around and eating, drinking, and playing games. There’s not a huge amount here that grabs at you, and as such the moments of deep description and slow introspection that work in pure text form feel drawn out, dull, and fairly lacklustre when put into comic form. There were multiple times when reading the book where I felt my attention begin to wander, where I started to not really care about what was happening, and I began to wish I could start skipping through things or skimming the book.
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Part of this is also down to the fact that because of the way Gaiman’s stories have entered the public consciousness I knew Mr Wednesday’s identity, and that Shadow was entering a world of gods and magic when the character didn’t. I was waiting for that revelation to happen, I was hoping it was coming soon so that I didn’t have to listen to Shadow questioning who this man was or what was happening for the tenth time. The story felt too slowly paced for the now well known revelation to matter, as the book began to drag. And whilst the artwork is nice enough, the fairly muted colours, the soft lines, and the depictions of the normal meant that there were few moments that make you stand back in awe of what’s on the page.
There were several times whilst reading the graphic novel where I felt like I’d enjoy what I was reading more if it was the prose version. I could see what these moments would be like in the original novel, and it felt like a much better fit. This is a decent and entertaining story, but one that feels slightly misplaced in this form. Perhaps for those that are familiar with the book the experience would be different, that they’d see how these characters and this story have been transplanted to this new medium and appreciate the work done on it; but perhaps they’d be left wondering why it has been done when the original book is there instead. I don’t know how this reads to a fan, but as someone coming to it brand new, it was not the experience that I was hoping for.
American Gods – Volume One: Shadows is out in comics shops on 25th January from Dark Horse.