The Creative Life of Neil Gaiman as Seen Through ‘American Gods’

As the television adaptation of 'American Gods' gets underway on Starz, here are a few creative highlights from author Neil Gaiman's standout career.
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Ian McShan and Ricky Whittle in American Gods

Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in 'American Gods,' the Starz series based on Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel. 

American Gods, premiering on the Starz network on Sunday, is the much buzzed about TV adaptation of the 2001 novel by author Neil Gaiman, one of the most prolific writers of today in a variety of genres. Gods follows the travails of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a man beset by strange visions while heading home from prison after tragedy befalls his wife in Eagle Point, Indiana. On a plane, he meets a wisecracking gentleman going by the moniker Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) who aims to hire Shadow to be his driver and right-hand guy. Uncanny events befall the two on their journey, as Shadow meets Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a tall, bullying leprechaun who rains coins, and later the three Zorya sisters (Cloris Leachman, Martha Kelly and Erika Kaar), Slavic goddesses who watch over the constellations. 

Author Neil Gaiman

Author Neil Gaiman on the set of 'American Gods.'

Unbeknownst to Shadow, a major conflict is brewing between disguised old world gods who traveled to America from Africa, Europe and the Middle East and the new world deities who represent current trends. Among the more contemporary gods headed by Mr. World (Crispin Glover) are the violent Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), whose artificial minions attack Shadow in a historically loaded, disturbing scene, and Media (Gillian Anderson), who takes over a slew of store TV screens to communicate as Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) from I Love Lucy. A showdown is on the horizon as Mr. Wednesday attempts to gather Old God allies to his side while other deities who deal with sex, desire and the afterlife quietly make their own plans.

American Gods is particularly geared towards audiences who have a go-with-the flow attitude when it comes to connecting narrative dots. The show also speaks to many aspects of Gaiman’s interests, an obvious love of the fantastic being at the forefront. As the mystery of Gods gets underway, here are a few creative highlights from his standout career. 

No Stranger to the Screen

Gaiman has had several other books and short stories become screen projects and, in the case of Neverwhere (1996), created a novel from a BBC miniseries he’d penned. His book-length fairy tale Stardust was turned into a 2007 movie starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfeiffer which performed decently at the global box office though having more modest numbers in the U.S. Garnering significantly more interest from American moviegoers, Gaiman’s lauded children’s novel Coraline (2002) was turned into a 3-D stop motion film directed by Henry Selick, earning both an Oscar and BAFTA in 2010. Gaiman was also co-screenwriter for Beowulf, the 2007 big-screen animated adaptation of the classic epic poem, starring Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie. His story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is slated for a 2017 widescreen release.

At Home with Comics 

Gaiman made a huge name for himself as the scribe behind DC Comics’ Sandman title, whose lead character Dream wields all encompassing-power over people’s interior (and thus exterior) lives as they slumber. The beloved series, launched in 1988, earned a legion of accolades and was later collected in graphic novel format while spawning prestigious spinoffs and prequels. Over the years, Gaiman has worked with other comic characters like Black Orchid (through which he got his DC Comics start), Swamp Thing, Batman and the Eternals. 

Neil Gaiman's Sandman Overture

A spread from Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman: Overture' with art by J.H. Williams III.

The comic world also provided early inspiration for the author’s most recent New York Times bestseller Norse Mythology. As a child, Gaiman read tales connected to Earth and the mythical land of Asgard presented in Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, the company responsible for the superhero version of Thor that first appeared in the title Journey Into Mystery. Moviegoers around the world are now familiar with this incarnation of the hammer-wielding warrior due to the blockbuster Avengers films and Thor solo outings featuring Chris Hemsworth.

At Home with the Gods 

Coming full circle, Thor’s father shows up in American Gods in the guise of Mr. Wednesday, an alias which calls out the day of the week named after Odin (aka “Wotan”) in Old English. (Viewers in the know will recognize certain symbols of Odin as Easter eggs.) Like the comic-book Thor, Gods showcases how old-school divinities interact with our modern world, with results ranging from whimsical to horrific. In fact, departing from mainstream super-folk outings, viewers might be hard-pressed to call many of the primary characters in American Gods heroes. Gaiman continued this type of exploration with the book Anansi Boys, a 2005 follow-up focusing on the children of the West African trickster god. 

Erika Kaar as Zorya Polunochnaya in American Gods

Erika Kaar as Zorya Polunochnaya in 'American Gods.'

Paeans to the Surreal

On Gods, a dreaming Shadow encounters a forest of skeletons, a looming world tree, a buffalo with eyes that burn and nebulous night skies full of color. During another dream, Zorya Polunochnaya (Kaar) effortlessly picks the moon from the heavens in between her fingertips. Such happenings are par the course for Gaiman, whose Sandman series plays wildly with the surreal in the forms of time, identity and cosmic landscapes. The writing there has been given life by mesmerizing art from Dave McKean, P. Craig Russell, J.H. Williams III, Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave Stewart, among others.

Yetide Badaki in American Gods

Yetide Badaki as Bilquis, an ancient goddess of love, in 'American Gods.'

Gender and Sexuality 

In Sandman, Dream has six siblings who are collectively known as the Endless, primordial beings who deal with specific aspects of existence. One of these siblings, Desire—the twin of Despair—is referred to as “sister-brother” and depicted as intergender. Stardust features a crossdressing pirate captain as well. A fluid and non-traditional depiction of sexuality also appears in American Gods, with the mystical Jinn (Mousa Kraish) and Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an ancient goddess of love, embodying riveting modes of eroticism that defy convention. 

'American God' will debut on Starz on April 30, 2017. For those wishing to jump into Gaiman’s canon, here’s a limited bibliography based on works mentioned above, with updated editions available for certain titles.

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991, Vertigo/DC Comics)

American Gods (2001, William Morrow/Harper Collins)

Coraline (2002, Harper Collins)

Sandman: Endless Nights (2003, Vertigo/DC Comics)

Anansi Boys (2005, William Morrow/Harper Collins)

Black Orchid Deluxe Edition (2012, Vertigo/DC Comics)

Sandman: Overture (2015, Vertigo/DC Comics)

Norse Mythology (2017, W.W. Norton)