July 22, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT

Starz unveiled its new stars at the first-ever panel for American Gods, the network’s upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 fantasy novel.

During the cast’s first appearance at San Diego Comic-Con, Gaiman joined executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, director David Slade, and several of the show’s main stars: Ricky Whittle (who plays Shadow), Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), Yetide Badaki (Bilquis), Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney), and Bruce Langley (Technical Boy).

The panel — moderated by Community alum Yvette Nicole Brown — kicked off with the cold open of a trailer, which showed Shadow’s release from prison and his arrival at his wife Laura’s funeral, followed by his first meeting with Mr. Wednesday and Mad Sweeney (who bears a warning about the mysterious man Shadow’s about to enter business with). Cloris Leachman pops up as well, as does Bilquis, Technical Boy, Crispin Glover’s Mr. World, and Peter Stormare’s fearsome Czernobog (and his equally fearsome hammer).

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The series, set to debut on Starz in 2017, follows a clash of titans between the old gods — a group of immigrant, cultural deities who were brought to America from across the world but whose believers are dying out and, with that, their power — and the new gods, reflective of our society’s obsession with money, celebrity, media, and technology.

Gaiman shared a fascinating tidbit about his full-circle journey with American Gods, which he began writing on his way to Comic-Con 16 years prior: “In 1999, I came by train, and on the train to San Diego, which was a three-day train journey from Chicago, I wrote the first chapter of American Gods. So it all sort of started for me on the way to San Diego, and it’s so glorious that round two of American Gods the television version is happening here today.”

Gaiman spoke to the casting process of bringing his book characters to human (well, sort of) life. “I was very involved. I still am. And it’s really been interesting, finding our Shadow was a process that lasted several months, and we put poor Ricky through the ringer. I hate to think how many audition tapes he did for us.” (“I know,” said Whittle. “I did 16.”) “With Ian, I think it was as simple as getting a phone call from Bryan saying, ‘What about Ian McShane?’ and we went, ‘Oh my God, yes.’ We then made him do 16 audition tapes.”

Gaiman said he was impressed that series creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green didn’t whitewash the cast and kept the racial make-up of the group the same as his book. “There was no pushback, there was nothing but absolute agreement, and that’s the way that we’ve been casting it…and it feels so much more important that we’re doing that now than even when, a year ago, 18 months ago, we were first beginning to put this into play.”

But as the show goes on, Gaiman added, “I’m getting less involved in casting because it’s gaining its own power and its own identity, and I’m less needed, which makes me very happy, too, because now I get surprised.”

Halfway through the panel, Fuller and Green brought out a new cast member — Kristin Chenoweth, who has been tapped to play the holiday Easter, reuniting with Pushing Daisies creator Fuller. “Easter is very, very pissed that Jesus took her holiday,” Chenoweth told the crowd.

Other actors delved into their characters, including McShane’s Wednesday (“It’s one of those parts that comes along once in a while for an actor of my experience and age,” he said); Langley’s Technical Boy (“You never see the same version of him twice,” he said. “As soon as you’re getting used to him, no, not so much.”); and Badaki’s Bilquis, who in one scene in the book devours a man with her vagina (“For those who know about this scene, let’s say the star of that scene is called ‘Joy.’ The one who does the consuming,” she said.)

Fuller said viewers don’t need to have read the book before the seeing the show. “I actually would see the Harry Potter series and then read the books, so however you come to this — TV first, book second; book first, TV second — you’re in good hands.”

Gaiman adds: “We’ve tried to build it in a way that means if you’ve read the book, you are definitely ahead of the people who have not seen the TV series or read the book, but we have surprises for you too, and we have things that will leave you puzzled. And of course we get to spend a lot more time with a lot more characters.”

Plus, Gaiman says there are plenty of stories that never appeared in print. “There were definitely chunks of American Gods that didn’t make it into the book,” he said. “In some cases, just because the book itself was getting really thick, there were stories and things that didn’t get written.”

The show could serve as a second chance for some stories that never made it into the novel. One such tale, which fuller encouraged Gaiman to adapt for an episode in season 2, involved a Japanese internment camp during World War II. “[It] would have been a sort of kitsune story, and I had it all plotted out,” he explained. “I did months work of research and then, ‘The book’s too big already.’ That will be its own thing one day. So maybe I’ll just persuade Bryan to do that story at some point. Or maybe that will be in the next American Gods book if I do another novel, which is seeming more and more likely these days.”

Bringing such an epic story to the small screen is a tall order, and Slade admitted it’s a daunting one. “To begin with, you’re terrified, and you look at it and it’s so big and massive that it can’t be even approached, and then you break it down into little tiny post-it notes, and eventually you get 10,000 post-it notes, and then you decide which direction to go at it with,” Slade said. “And because of Michael and Bryan, I know we can continue to be entirely weird while being highly cinematic. And it has been gratifyingly weird.”

Entertainment Weekly is on the scene at San Diego Comic-Con. Go inside with all our coverage, available here.

William Morrow
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