INTERVIEW: P. Craig Russell Brings Neil Gaiman's American Gods to Comic Books

P. Craig Russell and Neil Gaiman have a shared history of making fantasy. Their working relationship dates back to “Sandman” #24 (where Russell inked Kelley Jones) and includes the legendary 50th issue of "Sandman," “Endless Nights,” “Dream Hunters,” and many adaptations of Gaiman’s prose stories, including “Coraline” and “The Graveyard Book.” Russell’s lyrical layouts bring Gaiman’s visual, vivid prose to life like no other artist.

Now, Russell and Gaiman are working together again, this time to bring the Hugo and Nebula-winning novel "American Gods" to the comic book medium. This time, Russell handles scripting and layouts, while artist Scott Hampton (whose own history with Gaiman goes back to “The Books of Magic”) provides the heavy-lifting illustration.

RELATED: "American Gods": Meet Neil Gaiman's Deities Before You Watch Them on TV

This March, “American Gods: Shadows” #1 from Dark Horse Comics starts Russell and Hampton's journey in Gaiman's world. Russell carved out some time from a very busy schedule to answer some questions for CBR News, on what impact the upcoming “American Gods” television series (debuting in April on Starz) had on the adaptation, Russell’s thoughts on making the unspeakable speakable, and which sequence he wanted to take a crack at drawing himself.

CBR: You’ve worked on several Gaiman adaptations. What drew you to “American Gods” this time? Did the upcoming TV series play into the decision at all?

P. Craig Russell: I’ve been working with Neil for 25 years and my attraction to that partnership has always been the quality of his writing. The unique challenge of “American Gods” was the sheer size and scope of the project. 598 pages of script and layout is a major piece of work. I know that a TV series will bring a whole other dimension of attention to the project, but it had no bearing on my decision to be a part of it. Just being Neil’s novel was enough. Also, I can’t even look at the TV series until I finish my adaptation. I can’t risk the cross-pollination. It was the same situation when I did “Coraline” and there was a competing animated film in progress at the same time. I do look forward to binge watching it once I’m finished.

Do you have a favorite character to bring to life in comics?

The three Eastern (or were they Central?) European "Yaya" sisters were great fun to work with.

"American Gods: Shadows" #1 variant cover
"American Gods: Shadows" #1 variant cover by David Mack.

Were there any new or unexpected challenges this time around?

The first story arc of nine issues comprises about 200 pages of Neil’s novel, which means there is approximately one page of prose to one page of graphic novel, and Neil can get a lot into one page. So there is a lot of serious paring down, more than will be in the next two story arcs. There are times when whole scenes are pared down into two or three wordless panels. If done right the reader should have no sense that anything is missing.

One of the wrinkles to adapting prose is how much of the internal narration to keep -- Neil’s a very visual writer and his prose very distinct and conversational. Is ever it tricky to find the balance in how much to show versus how much to tell?

My first impulse is to put in as much as I can and I do. But then I let that simmer on its own for a while and come back to it fresh. That's when it becomes obvious, looking at it on the art page as separate from the novel, what more can be pared down. It is tricky to find that balance. Sometimes a scene can be done entirely with pictures and no prose at all. Other times you can do that and it works as a story but curiously feels as if you’re watching TV with the sound turned off. That's when you go back and add in the writing. It's very subjective but with experience you get a feel for what works.

How much of the language comes directly from the text? And obviously you’ve established a level of trust in your handling of his stories, but how involved is Neil with a project like this?

The language comes directly from the text, at least that which survives the paring down. Descriptive prose is usually the first to go because the picture of a location is doing that already. Where I might have to do some original writing is where a scene has been condensed to the point where existing prose no longer flows seamlessly. My contribution there to Neil’s voice is pretty much limited to two or three word sentences, just enough to sew up the seams.

Neil’s involvement is that he gets back to me whenever I have a question on the text or where I need to know if my trimming an event isn’t going to impact the story later on. I should know these things but it's hard to keep all the events of a 500+ page novel in your head. The author is better at that than I am.

"American Gods: Shadows" #1 variant cover
"American Gods: Shadows" #1 variant cover by Dave McKean

Although you gain a very powerful visual impact by putting a story like this in comics, you’re also surrendering some visual mystery. I think, for example, of Silas in “The Graveyard Book,” who is never explicitly said to be a vampire but is clearly drawn as one. Here, that visual reveal is not as apparent, but the various deities have physical traits that are more apparent illustrated than in prose. Did you have any concerns about character designs or visuals giving away some of the mystique?

It’s true that an author can evoke an image in the reader’s mind that may be spookier or lovelier or more transcendent than reality. When you attempt to draw the ‘unspeakable’ in the Lovecraftian sense you’ve made it ‘speakable’. Nevertheless, we try. In “The Graveyard Book,” Neil described the unseen Sleer in the pitch black pit as the sound of dry rustling leaves. First off, we can’t draw it as pitch black or we’d have nothing but pages of solid black panels, as tempting as that might be to an overworked artist. So we work with the colorist to come up with a color palette that evokes darkness while still showing our characters. With the Sleer I drew in abstract swirling shapes that felt like rustling leaves and incorporated the Sleer’s speech into those shapes, as part of the shapes so that the lettering is in the art as opposed to outside it in word balloons which would have looked ridiculous.

Scott Hampton is handling the artwork from your layouts. How has that collaboration gone? Did you both work on the designs?

Scott is doing the character design. There are times where my layout indicates what the direction of a character's design might be but that’s about it.

"American Gods: Shadows" main cover
"American Gods: Shadows" main cover by Glenn Fabry.

You provided full line art for a side-story in the first issue. Why did you take that piece for yourself?

I thought that short story was so gloriously outrageous in its action and would be such a challenge to illustrate without an X-rating being slapped on it that I wanted to have a go at it. I even thought about asking Tim Vigil to illustrate it but then I’m sure we would have earned our ‘X’. A man being swallowed whole by a giant vulva is a visually tricky business.

Do you have anything else in the works that fans should watch for?

I’m within a few months of completing a 178-page adaptation of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” Coincidentally, Scott Hampton is illustrating about 20 pages worth of ‘memory’ sequences in that novel. I wanted those memories to have a visual look separate from the rest of the book. And of course, there’s my final fairy tale from Oscar Wilde that I should be able to get to next year. I’ve been waiting to get to that for a long time.

"American Gods: Shadows" #1 is scheduled for release on March 15 from Dark Horse Comics.

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