The work of quintessential whimsysmith Neil Gaiman doesn’t often boil over with searing political commentary. No doubt, the fantasy icon’s 30-plus-year career includes bits of topicality, but compared to contemporaries like Warren Ellis or Alan Moore, Gaiman prefers to mine the history of lore with more subtle nods to humanity’s current plights. But American Gods, a novel about the things we worship and what they say about us, stands as a prominent exception.
In the 2001 tome, a gaggle of old-world mythological entities—Norse gods, Egyptian gods, even a flippin’ leprechaun—are baited into a life-or-death spat against The Internet, The Media and other de facto deities of contemporary times. Gaiman feeds us this mayhem via an everydude ex-con dubbed Shadow, who just wants to get out of prison so he can eat pizza. Sadly, the cryptic Mr. Wednesday hijacks Shadow’s life and drags it into a metaphysical battle for the the ages, ruining all pizza-related plans.
The TV adaptation of American Gods premieres on Starz next month, but publisher Dark Horse beats them to the punch with a comic, American Gods: Shadows, scripted and overseen by longtime Gaiman collaborator P. Craig Russell, with Scott Hampton handling art duties. A 40-year professional weaver of sequential art, Russell’s hyper-eclectic array of output ranges from Killraven and Detective Comics jams during the ‘70s to stunning Doctor Strange tales to graphic adaptations of Mozart and Wagner operas. He recently took a breather from juggling two projects—American Gods and a comic iteration of The Giver—to chat with Paste about adapting this seminal work.
Paste: The fantasy elements of American Gods don’t kick in until the final pages of the first issue, but Mr. Wednesday still looks otherworldly and ominous in certain panels, even while, as far as we can see, he’s just a guy sitting on a plane. How do you figure Hampton pulls stuff like that off?
P. Craig Russell: Well, Scott has a talent for faces and character design. I think it’s partly because he’s a painter. He can be more expressive with a brush. And the art for this is a cross between his linear, line work and a painted comic, so he’s able to call on both sources. And you’re right, in that there’s a lot of mundane in this world. A lot of American Gods takes place in automobiles and cheap motels and restaurants. So the challenge, always, is to make the mundane visually interesting.
Paste: Agree or disagree: American Gods contains the most real-world-applicable commentary of Gaiman’s stories?
Russell: Well, what’s sort of fascinating about the book to me is shortly after Neil came to America, he spent almost a year traveling the country—going down secondary roads, visiting roadside attractions—gathering material. So his perspective on what we take for granted, or maybe even look upon condescendingly, was quite fresh and amused. That’s what gives the book its undercurrent. We’re able to look at our own culture with a fresh perspective, because that’s what he’s doing.
Paste: Did you run into any challenges adapting American Gods that maybe didn’t come up with the other Gaiman novels you’ve worked on?
Russell: To me, a story is just a story, whether it’s a historical novel, sword and sorcery or something set in the modern world. It’s prose, action and that sort of in-between place where nothing’s happening—the author’s talking about ideas. And that’s where I’ve got to find something visual that explains the ideas, or reinforces them, or amplifies them.
Paste: Can you give an example?
Russell: In the first issue, when Shadow talks to his wife on the phone and anticipates seeing her in four or five days. Now, you might stage it visually just like two people on the phone, or just him on the phone with her voice coming out of the receiver. Of course, to him, everything about her represents freedom, so I imagined her from his point of view. So during the conversation, she’s speaking almost directly to us, the viewer. In one case we see her on the beach, another time in the forest. We’re seeing her as Shadow imagines her. There’s also a scene later with Shadow and Wednesday talking in the car as they drive through a snowstorm. There’s a number of scenes like that, so you run out of ways to stage them. But the things they’re talking about are very amorphous and esoteric, so we stage it as if the reader is looking through this windshield, going through this snowstorm, and the words aren’t coming out of word balloons. They’re right in the middle of the snow coming at us. So it gets to the emotional heart of the scene, beyond just two people sitting in a car talking.
Paste: So, the Bilquis scene… Did the conversation about that start with someone saying, “Okay guys, we can’t show her eating the guy with her vagina,” or was it more like, “Okay guys, we could show the vagina eating the guy, but let’s go in a metaphorical direction instead”?
Russell: I just went ahead and did it. I wanted to do one of what Neil calls “interstices,” these tiny chapters throughout the book. Two of them are called Somewhere in America, and four are called Coming to America. I settled on that one, partly because of the subject matter. Like the Wicked Witch says, “These things must be done delicately.” Because of the opera adaptations I’ve done, I’ve had a lot of experience with visual metaphor. It’s the kind of thing where if you’re too literal, you end up with an X rating, and they wouldn’t be happy with that at all. I think there’s a lot to be said for those sorts of restraints when it comes to flat-out sex or murder or something primal like that. In Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, they came up with metaphors that were so much more poetic and interesting because of what they weren’t allowed to do. You should be free to do the obvious, but I find having to work around a thing stimulates your creativity, and you come up with something much stronger than you would have if you could simply be obvious.
Paste: Anything you’d care to add?
Russell: The only thing is that while I’m working on this, I’m not going to be able to watch the cable series. I can’t see someone else’s interpretation while I’m working on my adaptation. After I finish the script and the layouts, I will be on a TV binge, I think, and catching up with everybody else.
Paste: What did you think of the Doctor Strange movie?
Russell: I haven’t seen them yet. [Writer’s note: Russell doesn’t assume I’m talking about the 2016 blockbuster, and switches to the plural pronoun in case I’m referring to the 1978 straight-to-TV movie starring Jessica Walter.] I definitely plan on seeing them. Of course, Doctor Strange and Sandman are my favorite characters to do. But I was always too busy working. Which one do you recommend?
Paste: I’d say the new one. [Full disclosure: I haven’t seen 1978 version]
Russell: Cumberbatch is supposed to be terrific.
Paste: He sure is.