"Shadow had done three years in prison.
"He was big enough and looked Don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.
"So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."
It's so long since I read Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS prose novel that much of this came as a pleasant surprise: it was like being reacquainted with an old friend who was as charming and witty as ever yet - thanks to P. Craig Russell on crystal clear layouts and Scott Hampton on highly polished art - had grown even more handsome in the interim.
It also triggered recollections of further down this long and winding road which reminded me that - as any SANDMAN reader knows - Neil Gaiman is a master of foreshadowing.
P. Craig Russell, whose exceptional adaptations to comics include Wagner's RING OF THE NIBELUNG and THE FAIRY TALES OF OSCAR WILDE and who has here distilled Neil's prose to its vital essence, is no slouch on the foreshadowing front, either. See Shadow's calendar.
Shadow is a level-headed, pragmatic man and in this lies much wisdom.
"He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring because yesterday had brought it."
Instead he kept himself much to himself and marked the days off until he would see his wife once again. During these three years of calm incarceration Shadow's cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith, introduced him to Herodotus' 'Histories' (circa 425 B.C.) and the self-professed reluctant reader became hooked. What happened to Lyesmith? Transferred without warning, apparently: vanished into thin air.
"Shadow did not believe in anything he could not see.
"Still, he could feel disaster hovering in those final weeks, just as he had felt it in the days before the robbery.
"He was more paranoid than usual, and in prison, usual is very, and is a survival skill."
With five days to go before his release, after a collect-call to his beaming wife who enthuses about the last leaves of autumn, Shadow is warned of an approaching storm: something cataclysmic waiting outside. There's no audible thunder in the figurative air but then lightning strikes: Shadow is told that although he was due to be released on Friday... he will in fact be released a couple of days early. His wife has been killed in a car accident.
In an instant everything Shadow had mapped out for himself after his three years in prison is gone. He still has a future but it is empty, unfurnished, unforeseeable and so unimaginable. Numb, he boards the bus to the airport, then his plane home, but home is not what he thought it would be. Shadow falls asleep in the storm.
"Where am I?"
"In the earth and under the earth. You are where the forgotten wait. If you are to survive, you must believe."
"Believe what? What should I believe?"
When he dozed once again he was back in prison.
"Someone has put out a contract on your life."
Then when he wakes up, Shadow's nightmare begins.
I don't know about you, but I am constantly lost, late and disorientated in my dreams. But that is now Shadow's reality. He's at the wrong airport: the plane was redirected because of the storm. He misses its replacement; the next one is cancelled; but if he's quick there is one he can catch.
"Shadow felt like a pea being flicked between three cups."
Once on board he discovers he's been given a duplicate ticket, but "This is your lucky day" for there's a single spare seat in First Class.
Now, after the death of his wife, his early release, the redirected plane, the plane that he missed, the one that was cancelled and the seat which taken, Shadow is finally where he needs to be. Well, he's where Mr. Wednesday needs him to be: right across the aisle.
"I said... you're late."
Normally I wouldn't take you this far through a comic, but there are 36 more chapters to go, so I think you can consider this fair game! I've tried to remain allusive.
One of the key elements already reawakened in this instalment is something Neil had touched on in SANDMAN: that of faith, and the dwindling of gods' power if followers fall by the wayside. If ancient gods are no longer believed in or worshipped, but lie forgotten, what power have they left?
As to structure, slight-of-hand stepping stones are one of Neil Gaiman's fortes. We have spoken of this twice before in HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES and THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE wherein Neil's stories begin grounded firmly in our shared reality but then his protagonists pass over a subtle, metaphorical bridge - or some sequestered, sun-dappled stepping stones - into another. It's as though a rarely spotted signpost has popped up, redirecting you down a road less travelled, a side-path to somewhere else, somewhere other.
Back in prison Shadow took comfort in the inevitability of his release but - Gaiman being a master of foreshadowing - he thought of it in very specific terms:
"One day the magic door would open and he would walk through it."
And now he has.
Top tip: avoid reading his on public transport. I'd forgotten how priapic this initial episode grows towards the end. My adjoining seat wasn't empty.