How P. Craig Russell Crafted the 'American Gods' Comic

Inside the journey from Neil Gaiman's book to a graphic novel. 

Dark Horse Comics

There’s at least one comic book writer and artist who texts with Neil Gaiman on the regular. P. Craig Russell has worked with the famous fantasist on several graphic novels, from Coraline to The Sandman. Their latest collaboration is the American Gods graphic novel from Dark Horse, set to be published just before the new TV version of the story debuts on Starz.

Inverse recently spoke with P. Craig Russell about working with Neil Gaiman, the difficulties of translating the Orgasm of Death scene into a graphic novel, the relationship between the comic and the show, and much more.

How did you first approach conceptualizing American Gods as a graphic novel?

I start going through [the novel] very simply, underlining dialogue, and trying to rough-draft it down into individual pages. It feels sometimes like you’re just going around a giant block of marble and just chipping at it from all of these different directions until something takes hold and you see something emerging. It’s just a lot of trial and error; there’s no simple formula for how you wrestle it into shape.

Dark Horse 

What’s your rapport like with Neil Gaiman?

I’ve been working on his novels for almost 25 years. He pretty much trusts me to handle it. I think one of the reasons he has me do this is that he knows that I know how to make a graphic play from a novel and visualize it at the same time. I’ll send him a text message about a character or if I can drop this scene, if it’s needed or not, and he’ll get right back to me. We’ve had a couple of those messages back and forth so far, but that’s about it.

What have those exchanges been about for American Gods?

There was one scene in the first few pages where Shadow is having something of a flashback to a scene from a couple hundred years ago that was analogous to what he was going through. I thought, “Okay, we can drop this,” but then I thought, “Is this going to pay off later in the novel?” I know I’ve read it three times — I don’t have a photographic memory — but I thought, “Is this a setup for something else?” I sent him a message about that. I said, “We could drop this scene if it’s not needed later on. Is there a payoff?” He just texted back, “You could drop it.”

Shadow and Laura in the 'American Gods' comic

American Gods has a lot of iconic scenes, one of which is the obviously the “Orgasm of Death” scene. It has a lot of potential to go sideways if it’s not handled with care. How did you approach it?

We don’t want to get an X rating. The text, of course, was about as obvious as possible. The challenge was visualizing what was a very incredibly graphic sexual scene. Part of it was to make it an almost mystical experience with sexual symbolism. The solution was not to show the two of them in the picture at the same time, so that it wasn’t totally explicit.

The reader visualizes and knows what’s going on — you see him being swallowed up by this thing — but it could be any sort of thing that is swallowing him up, almost like a Venus flytrap sort of thing. By handling it that way, I think we could be very explicit without getting into trouble. I enjoy the challenge of that, of finding ways to show something.

Shadow and Laura Moon in the 'American Gods' comic 

Was that the most challenging scene, then?

This is one of the more challenging scenes because of the subject matter. Every scene has some challenge. Compared to that four-page scene with Bilquis, there are a number of scenes that are challenging because the setting is so mundane. There are a number of scenes that are set in cars, where they’re driving and conversing. How many ways can you show people sitting in a car talking without repeating yourself or how many scenes when they’re sitting in a diner or a restaurant someplace and having a conversation? How do you handle that?

Sometimes you can visualize what they’re talking about, which takes you out of where they are in that physical space. For example, in issue seven, Shadow and Sam are having a conversation, both in the car and in the restaurant. In the car, she’s talking about her favorite mythological story. It had to do with Odin. While she’s telling that, instead of just having her with a word balloon — as we say, “talking heads” — I did it as voiceover and we actually see the story she’s talking about. I’m always looking for solutions to open up the story visually and to get it out of a single setting that goes on for a number of pages without changing.

Shadow at the airport in the 'American Gods' comic

Have you seen the upcoming TV show at all or are you intentionally avoiding it so it doesn’t influence you?

Intentionally avoiding it. My editor sent me a link to the first trailer for it, but I won’t look at it until I’ve finished all of my script and layouts. I don’t want to see someone else’s solution to a problem before I’ve approached it because that kind of straitjackets me. I will think of what their solution was and I’ll say, “I can’t do that because it would just be copying.” Now, if we arrive at the same solution independent of each other, that’s fine.

What do you think it is about American Gods in particular that makes it ripe for adaptations in multiple mediums?

The visuals. While I just said that a lot of it takes place in a mundane situation — Motel 6 or Motel America and diners and small town America — at the same time, it’s on the back roads of America. Not the front room of America, but the back roads, which is what Neil did in his research. It has a carnival feel to it. Then, the play between the old gods and the new. We have a chance to visualize all of these old gods, either if they’re from India or Africa or Scandinavia, and all of the costumes that go with those gods as played against the very modern gods of the iPhone and the iPad and celebrity and all of that. It’s a real clash of cultures. Visually, that can be an exciting thing to work with.

What are you most excited for people to discover when they read the comic?

The source material itself; it’s such a good book and so much fun to read. One of the challenges in editing something down this enormous is that you foremost have to keep that narrative line going and connected, but you don’t want to do it at the expense of all of the other stuff that gives the book its flavor. Neil does a lot of little side trips off the main narrative. You could be in danger of just saying, “This doesn’t advance the narrative. We can get rid of it,” but it’s the juice and the flavor and the spice of the thing. I’m always aware of retaining some of that as I’m doing the adaptation.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The first issue of the American Gods comic is out now from Dark Horse Comics.