American Gods has morphed into a multi-media experience, springing out of the original novel by Neil Gaiman, and then hurtling concurrently into a Starz TV show and a comic series currently being published by Dark Horse with a long-term plan to adapt the entire book to comics. Adapted from the novel to comics by P. Craig Russell, who handles writing duties and layouts, illustrated by Scott Hampton, and hand-lettered by Rick Parker, the series is also graced with a number of covers per issue, including consistently evocative and powerful work by David Mack.
The premise of the novel and comic series digs deep into the cultural history of many nations–but transplants their gods to the tumultuous context of American soil and developing American identity. At the heart of the story is former convict Shadow Moon, who is lured into working for mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Shadow Moon gradually becomes a party to a world just behind the scenes of everyday life where groups of gods are forming alliances for an epic struggle. Meeting these gods is just part of the reader’s–and Shadow Moon’s–experience of this greater reality.
At San Diego Comic-Con 2017 in July, I sat down at the Dark Horse booth to talk with Scott Hampton and David Mack about this phenomenon in storytelling, with the fifth issue of the comic recently published, and the sixth arriving on August 16th, 2017.
I asked Hampton and Mack what it’s like coming onto a project that one knows is going to be long-term, whether they found that daunting, or if that gave them more opportunities for planning.
David Mack said: “For me, I love it. Because I get to focus and crystalize an issue into one central image. That gives me a lot of room to do one thing, and perhaps contrast it later. Rather than 9 images, I get 27. I loved doing that with Fight Club. If I’m doing comics, I love having a long-term episodic story to deal with”.
I asked Mack if there’s a relationship between his covers that form a continuum. He said that sometimes it’s very “overt” when he does that, like in Alias: Jessica Jones. With American Gods, “It might go that way with each of the three over-arching arcs. There might be a different flavor to them”, Mack said. He thinks that there’s a subconscious thing in his head to create a “family feel” between covers.
Scott Hampton related that working on a long-form series “is a little like taking on a huge graphic novel”, which was something he did frequently earlier in his career. He would take on a 150 page graphic novel, and plan out the work accordingly. This makes life “easy” for him.
He sees a difference between his career and that of many of his friends in that he focused on “continuity” whereas they focused on “covers and illustration”, which is a different approach. They find themselves “hustling” a lot more than he has to. He finds himself with “open field running for a year and a half” on long projects. Toward the end, he’ll figure out his next project, and “slot that in”.
For him, American Gods is continuity that is so “pre-imagined and beautifully conceived in another form” that to have the opportunity to “put his own stamp on it” via P. Craig Russell’s layouts is “both a lot of fun and a bit daunting”. Mainly he hopes not to disappoint fans, even though fans are not “all of one mind”. Other than that, it’s moving “one chunk at a time”.
I observed that it seems to have influenced the landscape of Hampton’s career to work on longer projects, and he added that Mack has had his feet “in both worlds” working on continuity with Kabuki but also doing covers. Hampton feels he can relate to that. People who do just single images work in a “different mindset”, he feels.
I said they were hitting on something I had planned to ask them anyway, which was what their process was like in designing key characters for the covers and interiors.
Mack said that he “didn’t want to do anything that would feel like it was out of continuity” with other visions, including the visualization that might exist in the reader’s imagination already. Much less the TV show, or the interior art of the comic.
He wanted to create images “inclusive of all that, but not specific to one of them”. But these characters “are deities, so I figure there’s a lot of room for different time periods”, Mack said.
He cited the example of the Mama-Ji character, which he had created for a print he had at the convention [seen above], who is an older woman in the book, but is also “the goddess of time and timelessness” so he could present her in different ways.
I said that both Mack and Hampton are working in “a weird hall of mirrors situation” with so many different possible interpretations of these characters, having to pick between versions.
Mack agreed. Hampton said that’s what it feels like. Hampton said that with something “this complex and ongoing”, he doesn’t move forward having designed the “look” of every single character who might appear in the story, either.
He focuses on the characters immediately in front of him, and if he’s asked by Editor Daniel Chabon to come up with a quick character design as a reference for cover artists, he may not have even thought about that character yet. He focuses on letting cover artists do things that “generally” work, and doesn’t try to make their designs conform completely to what he’s working on for interiors, Hampton said.
That worked very well for the “Buffalo Man” cover from Glen Fabry [seen above], which is very different from the appearance of the character in the interiors of the book. They set that as an example to give people “latitude”, so no artists would feel “confined”.
Mack said that within the “dynamic of this world, it’s possible for people to see this character differently”. So as long as no one does anything that makes it “flat out impossible for him to be the same character”, it’s all good.
That way it’s doesn’t “obviate” anyone else’s vision, including the reader’s, Hampton said. Leaving “play” there fits with the story, too, since the factors in the story mean that all these characters “appear differently to different people throughout the ages”, according to Mack.
It seemed to me, I said, that it was like a “conceptual composite” and the characters existed somewhere in the overlap between all these visions, with people “riffing” on different aspects.
Mack said that he had something of the same situation when working on the Fight Club 2 covers, since though some people have read the novel, most people know the story of Fight Club from the film. And then they identified actors as characters. He wasn’t going to be drawing the likenesses of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt for the covers, but he also didn’t want to exclude readers who might view the characters in that way, so he tried to find a middle ground.
I said it was a “delicate art” that Hampton and Mack were dealing with and that I was relieved not to have to deal with the issues they wrestled with on a daily basis.
Talking about the fandom that exists for American Gods, first for the novel, and now for the TV show on Starz, I asked Mack and Hampton why they thought the story “worked” on such a demonstrable level for fans and inspired such a following.
Or, alternately, why they personally found a “connection” to the story enough to work on it.
Hampton said that of all the people involved in the project, he may be the one person who hasn’t actually read the story all the way through. He wanted to explain this, saying that he has read “a lot of it”, but he hasn’t read it thoroughly, since he “wants there to be holes” for his creative process.
Hampton has a sense of where things are going, but some “answers will come later on”. He feels he needs to be “excited and delighted by the twists and turns” that are to come, in the same way he wants fans to be. He’s aware not everyone works that way, but for him it’s “an ongoing thing” to create and experience this book. For obvious reasons, he’s not watching the TV show either!
That would definitely be a situation where you “can’t unsee it”, I said. If an artist were to watch the show, it would definitely influence their view of characters and events.
Hampton agreed that it would be far too big an influence. He will watch it once he’s done with the series. It keeps it “fresh” for him to be experiencing the story “in real time”.
I commented that writer and artist Larry Hama feels the same way, and is a big advocate for not always knowing where you’re going with a story, since it preserves a sense of “vitality” for the reader.
Hampton asked Mack if when working on Kabuki, he always knew where it was going. Mack said that at the beginning of the story, he had an outline, and a sense for where it would go, but there was a substantial “margin” for change and development, and so “many tangents” to pursue.
At first, he thought he knew what was going to happen, clearly laid out, within a certain number of pages, but once he “jumped in”, it “revealed” to him “what it really wanted to be”. “It also takes about ten times more pages than you think it’s going to take when you naively assume how it’s going to go!”, Mack laughed.
Regarding why fans connect to American Gods, Mack said, “For one thing, it’s just a good story on many levels”. It engages people “imaginatively”, but it also engages on a “primal, mythological level”. But it also engages on a very “grounded”, almost “crime story” level, for fans.
Mack said that there’s “heist stuff” and “serial killer” stuff, comparing this to The Dead Zone by Stephen King, where there is serial killer stuff, and an assassination attempt, along with mythological elements. American Gods reminds him of that, grounding events in these genre elements rather than drifting off purely into mythology too much. It’s “knit together” well. Mack likes this aspect of Gaiman’s writing generally, but particularly in American Gods, is that he makes the mythological stuff “look easy” because he’s also “thought out and done all of the groundwork to weight it into a world that makes sense”.
I liked the idea of weighing something down so it’s accessible, commenting that Gaiman introduces these “elements of grandeur” and then “undercuts them constantly” so that they aren’t the only effect on the reader.
Mack said that Gaiman’s technique is like when you see “a swan gliding on a lake, but underneath the water, its legs are moving” furiously. Hampton liked that comparison and agreed.
We settled on it being a “thick mesh of elements” at play at any one time in the narrative.
My final question regarded a concept that comes up directly in the TV show, which is the idea that America is a country that’s in search of itself. That it doesn’t really know itself, unlike older countries. I asked Mack and Hampton if they felt, as Americans, that this assumption was true.
Hampton said he hasn’t really thought about a question like that before, but at “first glance”, he feels that America is both “envied and despised” across the world for “good reasons”, and nevertheless, we are what Bill Murray refers to in Stripes as “mutts”. For that reason, that does make a person always “question” what your place is in the world. He does think there’s a question about what defines us as Americans. Is it free speech? If not, Hampton isn’t sure what else it might be.
Mack loved the question. He thinks it’s the “central motif of the story”. American Gods is an immigrant story, he said, and the nature of America to immigrants outside of America is that it’s a place to go to “reinvent yourself”. In this land, anything is therefore possible. In the story, you have characters coming to America, bringing their mythology, and doing the same. He sees America “as the land of invention and reinvention”, even if you grew up here.
Mack feels we still have “the opportunity to reinvent ourselves any time we like here”. If you don’t like how your life played out in one place, you can move a thousand miles away, Mack said, and start over somewhere else. That way, you can have a “completely different existence”.
Mack said that he thought Neil Gaiman had once said something to the effect that everything in Britain develops “vertically”, within a small amount of space over time. You have vast history with “strata” in a small space. But in America, things go “laterally”, over a vast expanse, and so if you don’t like some aspect of history, you just spread out and can “find anything”. You can find different ways of life an existences “all happening differently at the same time” wherever you may go in America, Mack explained. “It’s almost like in America you have the future and the past existing simultaneously, but unevenly distributed”, he concluded.
I commented that “pockets of history” definitely continue to exist in small towns, and out of the way places. Mack called them “pockets of alternate reality” but existing at the same time.
The more you travel, the more you see that’s true, I said. Mack added that American Gods is also a “road trip”, almost a “Dante’s Inferno on the surface of America”, flattened out.
American Gods #6 arrives in shops next week, on Wednesday, August 16th, 2017.
Deep thanks to both Scott Hampton and David Mack for taking the time out of their schedule for this interview at SDCC ’17.
American Gods is also set to return for a second season on Starz, with the first season complete and currently streaming.