Graphic novels and novelizations epitomize the phrase "A picture is worth a thousand words." Straight-up novels can only convey so much through mere words. Graphic novels, especially well-drawn graphic novels like the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," convey a massive amount of information in terms of detail and setting and emotion that simple words on a page can't show. Neil Gaiman's words are literally the same in the graphic novel as they are in his book, but like Shakespeare's words gaining new meaning when his plays are placed in different settings by innovative directors, Gaiman's dialogue and characters take on new meanings in the graphic novelization of "American Gods" that they definitely did not have in the book. Gaiman is aided by the extraordinary illustrators P. Craig Russell, Scott Hampton, Walter Simonson, Colleen Doran (expertly imitating 19th century illustrator Kate Greenaway's work in her graphic novel interpretation of Gaiman's short story about a female convict from Cornwall who is banished to the American colonies) and Glenn Fabry (whose masterfully-drawn and -ahem- straightforward illustration of a bashful plump Omani souvenir merchant who hooks up with a sexy djinn made me have to tilt the book a bit while reading at Starbucks).
In "American Gods" a man named Shadow, a guy who just served his time in prison for robbery, is offered a job by a "Mr. Wednesday" as a bodyguard. Shadow is at loose ends. He's an ex-criminal, his wife died while he was in prison and he has no job and nowhere to go. He is almost given no choice but to accept Mr. Wednesday's job. Mr. Wednesday turns out to be the personification of the Norse God Odin who, along with other pre-Christian Indo-European gods and various mystical figures masquerading as immigrants, is planning a war against various new gods such as the god of the internet and the god of television.
In the original novel "American Gods" Neil Gaiman is rather vague in describing Shadow physically. Shadow is a large, burly guy. "He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough(.)" Gaiman implies in the book that Shadow is rather swarthy, leading a white prison guard at the beginning of the novel to ask him "And what are you? A spic? A gypsy? Maybe you got n***** blood in you. You got n***** blood in you, Shadow?" This exchange does not translate well in the graphic novel since Shadow is drawn as unambiguously black.
Shadow's blackness in the graphic novel of "American Gods" adds dimensions to the story that are missing in the book. The scene where Mr. Wednesday an old white man, intimidates Shadow into being his bodyguard takes on an uncomfortable sheen. The fact that Mr. Wednesday turns out to be a Scandinavian god, a figure in a pre-Christian culture that is fetishized by white supremacists, only makes the situation more uncomfortable. When Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun who takes on the form of a 7-foot white trucker with a baseball hat, punches Shadow in a bar it's hard not to see a MAGA-era hate crime. Mad Sweeney's baseball hat reads "The only woman I ever loved was another man's wife.... my mother." Still, it looks a lot like a MAGA hat. When another old white god, Czernobog, talks to Shadow about "your master" Mr. Wednesday the phrase suddenly acquires a bad implication that is missing when Czernobog says the same thing to a racially-undefined Shadow in the book.
I generally liked "American Gods" as a book though it did rehash a lot of Neil Gaiman tropes, like the former-fertility-goddess-now-forced-to-be-a-sex-worker plot line, that he already covered in his "Sandman" series. I adore the "American Gods" novelization for its extraordinary illustrations and multiple dimensions it brings to Neil Gaiman's book. If I have any complaints it is mostly about how women are portrayed. Most of the old goddesses in the book seem to be either sex maniacs (Bilquis, Bast (yes, the cat goddess)), or motherly figures who stand at the sidelines of the male-initiated plot lines, dipping in only occasionally when Shadow is in a tight spot. Even Lucy Ricardo from "I Love Lucy" shows her breasts! The reanimated corpse of Shadow's wife also seems mostly sex-defined (she died while giving a blow-job to Shadow's friend) who makes a half-hearted pass at Shadow. Shadow turns her down. "You're dead babe," he says in one of the best lines of the book.
Only one woman, a white feminist college student named Sam whom Shadow gives a ride to, appears to avoid being defined by sexual activity. Nevertheless Sam is mostly a ham-handed stereotype of middle-class white progressives, a privileged young woman who enjoys living the rough adventurous life a bit knowing that she has a soft place to fall. "I figure you're at school," Shadow says, "Where you are undoubtedly studying art history, women's studies, and probably your own bronzes. And you probably work in a coffee house to help cover the rent." He's exactly right in his assessment too. "How the fuck did you do that?" Sam asks, shocked.
Sam seems to see poverty as something to experience as an adventure tourist rather than an inescapable life trap. After picking her up hitchhiking on a cold country road Shadow drops Sam off at her aunt's wealthy suburban house. Sam is basically me in my twenties, I have to admit. And frankly Gaiman's parody of white feminist college students with his character of Sam touched a few nerves. Her scene with Shadow is easily the most badly-written part of "American Gods." Even the fantastic P. Craig Russell adaptations can't rescue the scene entirely.
My views on the portrayal of women in "American Gods" aside, the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman's book is amazing. It has some of the best illustrations I have seen in years. The pictures evoke a wonderful sense of place, emotion, character and wonder that stretches almost beyond the parameters of the original book. A definite recommend!