Page 45 Review by Stephen
"These are the gods who have been forgotten, and now they might as well be dead. They are gone. All gone.... Even their names have been forgotten. Gods die and when they die, they are unmourned and unremembered.
"Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed in the end."
So, let us remember, can people. Many a woman has died at a god's decree; many a man too. They have been known to use us as pawns, and there is a game to end all games afoot here, before the lights finally go out.
First of three books - each containing nine sequential-art chapters - in which Gaiman elaborates on an element which he first explored during his epic SANDMAN mythology: 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, what power have they left?
And how did they come to America at all from lands so far away? Each was carried in the hearts and minds of immigrants, and mortals have been landing on America's shores long before Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed he'd reached the Indies. Which gods of many faiths you will meet under most unexpected circumstances, I shall not say, for half the fun is in spotting them, but there are history lessons aplenty interjected - along with rude discoveries - and both Colleen Doran and Glenn Fabry have produced my favourite art of their substantial careers for these brief interludes.
The former illuminates the tumultuous history of one resourceful Essie Tregowan who once worked as a scullery maid on the shores of Cornwall and whose days ended - after many marriages, children and much meandering, up-and-down fortune - on the other side of the Atlantic. She never forgot the Piskies and the Spriggans, she always paid tribute, and it seems they never forgot Essie. Doran's lines are as delicate as her softly lit colours, and her knowledge of historical fashion in hair and costume spot-on.
In a more modern setting, poor Salim is dispatched by his brother-in-law from Oman to cold New York City in order to sell cheap copper trinkets from a suitcase. His meetings with business owners are wholly unsuccessful and his funds, like his spirits, drain away until he strays into a taxi whose driver displays certain attributes which Salim finds fearfully familiar. Adam Brown's colours on Glenn Fabry's line art are quite extraordinary: I've never seen rain on a windscreen in a neon-lit city quite like it.
For these acts of worship in storytelling, story-spreading, acknowledgement and sexual congress, the gods will show their... gratitude? ... to differing degrees and in many different ways. Top tip: I'd probably avoid reading this on public transport, though, for my own adjoining seat wasn't empty.
So we come to the central narrative. 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 hyper-real 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 is no slouch on the foreshadowing front, either, and has distilled Gaiman's prose to its vital essence while retaining so much of the original words' key cadence, along with ideas like this which would be much missed had they ended up on the cutting room floor:
"The short service ended. The people went away. Shadow did not leave. There was something he wanted to say to Laura, and he was prepared to wait until he knew what it was."
As to structure, sleight-of-hand stepping stones are one of Neil Gaiman's fortes. I've spoken of this at least 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.
This is why Hampton's hyper-real yet not-real art works so well from the start, for Mr Wednesday's ever so many sleights of hand have already begun from the get-go. It is Shadow's path that we follow, and it has an eerie, distanced quality to it, the protagonists not quite inhabiting their landscapes which, as you see, have a mutable quality to them anyway. Shadow has so little control over his environment, his circumstances or indeed his entire trajectory, and this will prove all the more disconcerting to someone who considers himself a pragmatist.
"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...
"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 keeps himself to himself and marks the days off on a certain calendar until he will 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 whole two 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 dozes once again he is 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."
And that's precisely what he is. Now, following 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."
For someone inhabiting this Age of Information, Mr Wednesday is far from forthcoming, but he's on a mission and to fulfil that mission they must journey across America, gathering allies as they go. It is of course Shadow who will attract the one-eyed man's enemies, receiving forewarning not from Mr Wednesday but from others who crossed their path.
"You're walking on gallows ground, and there's a hempen rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder waiting for your eyes, and the gallows tree has deep roots, for it stretches from Heaven to Hell, and our world is only the branch from which the rope is swinging."
Over and again, Shadow will receive visitors - mostly late at night - and some are more welcome than others. Animals and birds may not be quite what they seem, but then, are they ever? Names will have meaning, coins will gain currency and promises will hold power. Beware whom you worship.
"Now there are new gods in America: gods of credit cards, of internet and telephone and beeper. Proud gods, puffed up with their own newness and importance. They are aware of us and they fear us, and they hate us. They will destroy us if they can."
I'm sure you've gathered by now from all the references who and what Mr Wednesday is.
If so, you will be unsurprised to learn that Wednesday means war.