Legendary Artist P. Craig Russell Talks About His Work on the New 'American Gods' Comic

Wednesday, 15 February 2017 - 10:16AM
American Gods
Wednesday, 15 February 2017 - 10:16AM
Legendary Artist P. Craig Russell Talks About His Work on the New  'American Gods' Comic
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When I spoke to P. Craig Russell this past week about his work on the comic book adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, one moment in particular struck me: I asked about his influences and inspirations, thinking I'd hear names like Jack Kirby or Gil Kane, but instead Russell began listing 19th and 20th-century children's illustrators: Arthur Rackham, Eyvind Earle (whose work Russell called "a revelation"), Kay Nielsen, and more.

Russell's portfolio is as wide-ranging and unexpected as his tastes: his comic book projects have run the gamut from classic weird fiction and fantasy like Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone to more mainstream properties like Star Wars: A New Hope and Doctor Strange to German operas and Oscar Wilde's fairy tales. He's won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards for his work, taught master classes in storytelling, and before American Gods, he worked on Gaiman's comic book adaptations of Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Here's what he had to say about working on the new comic with Gaiman.

1. How to Turn a 200,000-Word Novel Into a Comic Book

Russell is not illustrating American Gods—that's Scott Hampton's job. Russell is in charge of scripting the comic book and arranging the layout of the story. Seems less fun, right? Wrong. Unlike some writers or artists who might not be satisfied with adapting the stories of others, Russell finds joy in it: "I don't have a lot of original stories bursting to get out, but I know how to tell [stories]...When I sit down to script, it's a completely original experience...it's like visual problem-solving." 

Part of that problem-solving involves whittling down 500 pages of prose into something that will fit in comic book format. There were many things that had to be cut from the comic version of American Gods, but for Russell it was a balancing act: he wanted to keep the "little interactions" and "side-excursions" that gave the book its flavor, humor, and charm, but keep the narrative succinct and moving smoothly. That's part of the art. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what Russell's work looks like before it's finalized:

2. How To Build Scenes That Weren't In the Book

As Russell points out, a comic book adaptation could be as simple as slapping blocks of text from a book onto a couple panels of visuals that match the scene from the text. Instead, he takes things a step further to create something unique and artful on its own—this is where Russell's storytelling skills really shine. There's one particularly engrossing scene from the first issue that illustrates what he's talking about:
Russell says he could have easily made the scene one where Shadow stands at the payphone and little speech bubbles stick out from the receiver as he listens to Laura's responses. Instead, he weaves memories of Laura into the scene, so that every time Shadow hears his wife's voice, we get to see how he remembers her in his mind. She seems to be speaking to him out of the happiest times in his life, until she says goodbye. At that point, Shadow's image of her is turning away from him, looking over her shoulder and foreshadowing her death a few pages later.
None of the images from that sequence are in the book, according to Russell. It's his job to create them.

3. How to Tell a Story in the Layouts

Whether or not you're conscious of it, the way a comic book is laid out has a huge impact on how you read the story. Some fans of the acclaimed comic series Watchmen might not even be aware that Chapter 5: A Fearful Symmetry, which follows the hero Rorschach, is palindromic: panels and scenes are mirrored across the chapter, sometimes from opposite perspectives, so that the whole chapter resembles the symmetrical nature of Rorschach's mask.

Russell points out that many of the spreads in American Gods are meant to be viewed as a single "design unit"—meaning that if you pay attention to both pages at the same time, you'll notice that they often mirror one another and reflect the flow of the narrative. The pattern of enclosing a single, large image with a series of smaller panels is one technique Russell uses in some of his work, as seen in Hellboy and Coraline. For his work on Sandman: The Dream Hunters, he very consciously arranged the panels in a manner similar to Japanese art, with lots of equal-sized rectangles and aligning gutters. The effect was that the comic had a uniquely calming vibe to it, meant to reflect the culture and aesthetics that influenced the story itself.

4. How to Turn an X-Rated Scene Into Art

Ever since the Starz TV show was announced, one particular scene from the book has been generating a tremendous amount of speculation and controversy: the part where the voluptuous god Bilquis, posing as a prostitute, seduces a man and swallows him whole through her vagina. It's one of the most striking and infamous scenes in the book, but it presents a tough challenge: how do you portray it on the screen or in a comic without getting slapped with censorship?

Russell dealt with it by creating a sequence that was somewhat reminiscent of that flower scene from Pink Floyd's The Wall, where there's a lot of trippy, semi-Freudian imagery (as well as some actual nudity). When talking about how he approached the scene, Russell said he decided to show the hapless man's mental state, where the experience was something like an abstract cosmic epiphany, woven with some elements of "a Venus fly trap." He also noted that though he doesn't support censorship, it ended up pushing his creativity when it came to structuring the scene. In the end, he admits "We got away with it."

5. How P. Craig Russell Found His Niche in Comics

Russell admits that part of the reason his tastes and works are so diverse is because he originally wanted something to show his "intellectual, non-comics friends so they wouldn't laugh out loud." Since then, however, it seems he's found his niche: some of his passions are drawing nature scenes, dealing with historical settings, and working with fantasy-oriented subjects. He admits that he much prefers scripting rather than illustrating in American Gods: "One of the reasons I'm scripting American Gods and not drawing it is that modern life is banal." To Russell, drawing buses and modern interiors holds no interest for him. Laying out the story and solving visual problems like the Bilquis scene are more his speed.
American Gods, co-written by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell and illustrated by Scott Hampton, hits comic book retailers March 15th, 2017.
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