It’s a big year for Neil Gaiman’s biggest novel. Next month sees the launch of Starz’s much-anticipated TV adaptation of American Gods, Gaiman’s best-selling book about old gods of mythology struggling to adapt to a new world ruled by gods of media and modernity. Before the show debuts, the first issue of an American Gods comic adaptation, helmed by longtime Gaiman collaborators P. Craig Russell and Scott Hampton, hit stores this week courtesy of Dark Horse. The series will adapt the entirety of Gaiman’s novel over 27 issues, divided into three story arcs: Shadows, My Ainsel, and The Moment of the Storm. Although the comic creators will be adapting the book alongside the Starz show, Russell and Hampton made a point from the beginning not to let the TV adaptation influence their own take.
“We’re completely ignoring what’s going on the other side of the wall,” says Russell, who scripts the comic series and comes up with layouts for Hampton to illustrate. “I was in the same situation when I was adapting Neil’s Coraline. They were working on the animated version at the same time. There was no way I could look at it, because I didn’t want that cross-pollination of ideas. If I arrived at the same solution to a storytelling problem or a design idea that they did, that would be okay. But if I saw something they did before I approached it, that would seal it off from me going in that direction. I just wanted to be pure. It’s the same thing with American Gods. I’ll be the last person to watch the series, I won’t let myself watch it until I’ve completely scripted and laid out. The day I finish, I’m gonna go on a binge watch.”
As far as storytelling problems go, the first issue of American Gods: Shadows presents a big one right off the bat. As in the book, the story begins with protagonist Shadow Moon counting down the final days of his jail sentence. Russell and Hampton needed to find a way to spice up the visuals.
“That first issue takes place in a prison, then in an airport, and then on an airplane. These are not most people’s ideas of the most scintillating scenes to draw and paint,” Hampton tells EW. “As the issues go on, there’s more flavor and fun stuff to look at. But I wanted to establish the notion that this book was going to have a lot of fantasy, even within sequences that take place in, say, a prison. Craig had this wonderful moment where Shadow is on the phone with his wife Laura, and Shadow is envisioning her as he remembers her. Those are the moments of fantasy within the first issue that I really enjoyed. They’re kind of painted, so it takes on a different look. I wanted to establish that early on, so readers would get used to the idea over time, and know it’s not just gonna be the same sort of look.”
Fortunately for Russell and Hampton, Gaiman’s comic book roots are still apparent in American Gods. The book is filled with fantasy moments and interludes with plenty of potential for interesting visuals. The first issue, for example, ends with the novel’s first “Somewhere in America” interlude, in which the ancient love goddess Bilquis has a strange encounter with an unsuspecting man. That sequence is illustrated by Russell and will be followed by five other similar “interstices” over the course of the series, to be illustrated by other legendary comic artists like Colleen Doran and Walt Simonson.
“There’s going to be six different artists, one for each story,” Russell says. “I wanted to get my hand in one of them. I wanted that in there because the first issue does what it does, you get an inkling that something odd is happening, but basically it’s a setup. That first four-pager lets you know that things are going to get seriously weird.”
Each issue of American Gods comes with multiple covers, one illustrated by Glenn Fabry and another by David Mack. While Fabry’s cover for issue 1 features the buffalo man who haunts Shadow’s dreams throughout the story, Mack’s is an impressionistic character study of Shadow. Each of his subsequent covers also focuses on a different character from the book.
“Instead of just having one character showing lots of different sides for, like in the case of Fight Club 2 and other series I do covers for, each one kind of spotlights different facets of a different character,” Mack says. “In the first issue, Shadow is in prison looking at a calendar every day, and on the calendar is this image of a bird with its wings spread. I interpreted to mean freedom and also time. I blended that with the idea that it was one of the raven symbols of Mr. Wednesday, and I took the coin he uses for the coin trick, and I put that in the bird’s mouth, along with a strike of lightning since he first encounters Wednesday up in the sky during a storm.”
American Gods: Shadows #1 hits stores March 15. Check out some character sketches below.