I don’t imagine that most people think about the topic of free will every day, though the little decisions we make may be based upon assumptions about our freedom to do so. It is something you’ll probably have to think about in a high school or university classroom at some point, and maybe occasionally when you question someone’s culpability in a gruesome criminal case on TV where there were extenuating circumstances. We probably think about it more often when we have to let someone we care about do something we don’t think is good for them–a partner, a family member, a friend who seems to be taking risks. Or maybe these days we think about it when we remember not to accept a status quo we may not agree with. Instead of just following along, we remind ourselves we have the ability to choose.
But rarely do we think, these days, that we might not have free will at all. The comic adaptation of American Gods, currently being published by Dark Horse, will make you question things all over again. Sure, it’s fiction, and yes, the book is populated with gods as well as humans, but that doesn’t seem to stop the book from being relevant. At least enough to make you wonder. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell, and illustrated by Scott Hampton, with hand-lettering by Rick Parker and covers by David Mack and Bill Sienkiewicz, it’s a gathering of great talent to tell a story that strikes at the roots of the myths foundational to modern society–whether or not we’ve forgotten about they are still there.
Our main character, Shadow Moon, has recently been released from prison after a stint on the inside where he tried to keep his head down and vowed to live a smarter life once free. But he’s been struck by terrible tragedy in the death of his beloved wife shortly before his release. And tragedy seems to come in waves–since there’s even more on Shadow’s plate in the second issue, released this week. While journeying home to face his wife’s funeral, Shadow encounters a strange man–Mr. Wednesday–who simply won’t back down in making a job offer, one he feels sure Shadow will accept. Changing travel plans, brushing Wednesday off, even being blunt and clear in his refusal, does not seem to free Shadow from this pursuit.
Finally agreeing to hear Wednesday out about the job over dinner, Shadow learns that the job he was planning on to give him some direction in life has evaporated. As an ex-con his future is bleak–which, of course, nudges him closer to accepting Wednesday’s offer to be a body guard in the “storm” that is coming.
The thing is, Shadow is a man who has thought a lot about free will, really. All the time he was in prison, 3 years, he went back over his past actions and understood how they had led him to incarceration, and planned carefully how to do better, be better, choose better. But he didn’t choose to lose his wife, of course, nor his job. He didn’t choose to meet Mr. Wednesday, and he even made valiant attempts not to sit down to a meal with the man.
Perhaps because he is a realist, he doesn’t spend time wondering how and why his freedom seems to have been slowly taken away from him. It’s not that Shadow can’t run away from Mr. Wednesday–he can–and to some extent does. It’s that there’s a kind of loop, maybe even an eternal return that poses the question over, and over, and over, until Shadow finally gives in. Because we are dealing with gods in this comic, and they seem to be able to arrange circumstances in peoples’ lives, perhaps even see things coming far ahead, they are capable not just of manipulation, but of orchestration. And isn’t that just another way of saying they remove free will?
Something similar happens in a smaller way in this issue where Shadow meets Mad Sweeney. Mad Sweeney really wants to fight Shadow, just for the “joy” of it. Shadow refuses several times, and then not only is Sweeney relentless, but kind of tricks him into doing so. Sweeney gets his way, too. There’s something uncomfortable about both these circumstances–the way Mr. Wednesday has gotten what he wants and the way Sweeney pulls Shadow’s strings, and there’s supposed to be.
This isn’t just a lark, we feel–this has bigger ramifications over our human character, Shadow. It’s his life, isn’t it? And yet it’s being gradually taken over by the will of others. Are we supposed to believe that Shadow is exercising free will and just making dubious choices? It doesn’t seem like it. The only indication of that in this issue is that drinking alcohol seems to embolden Shadow to make a choice to work for Wednesday. It’s probably more important that he thinks he made a choice freely than that he actually did.
Maybe it’s for the reader to realize the limitations that have closed around Shadow’s will, rather than Shadow.
But when you hear more about how Shadow’s wife actually died and why his job has evaporated that you begin to feel for sure that things are being orchestrated. And it’s when you begin to wonder–how and why exactly did Shadow get sent to prison?–that you begin to lose your grip on free will in the story.
So, what if this is a story where Shadow doesn’t really operate free will? We feel it’s an unfair scenario, possibly, but do we feel it’s not a good story? On the contrary, it makes you feel that this is a really important story. It makes you look harder to see what traces of choice remain, and what outcomes it might provoke. Because the more we question, the more we try to understand our culpability in our own stories, in our own lives.
American Gods is a great comic to get you thinking, and also a beautiful exploration of a strange, but strangely familiar world.