I’m a Neil Gaiman person. I wasn’t always a Neil Gaiman person—few people come out of the womb quoting Stardust and talking about The Endless—but I’ve known of his existence since middle school, when I first found (and was subsequently traumatized by) a copy of Coraline in my school library, and I’ve considered myself a fan since high school, when I first read Anansi Boys. Even then, after reading Good Omens and American Gods and Fragile Warning listening to Stardust and Neverwhere on audiotape, it was still a low-key kind of Gaiman love—I liked Gaiman, I told people, but I considered myself more of a Pratchett person.
And then came college, when my school library carried the complete run of Sandman, and creative writing classes that required you to show-and-tell your favorite writers to class, and somehow, by the time graduation rolled around, I had two Sandman bookmarks, a battered version of Fragile Things, multiple copies of Good Omens, and an extensive knowledge of the Gaiman-Palmer-Chabon-Lemony Snicket wedding. Somehow, as the years passed, I had become One of Those People.
There’s a similar trajectory with my relationship with American Gods. I liked American Gods when I first read it, but unlike many of my college friends, I didn’t love it. In retrospect, I think this is mostly because I read it right after Anansi Boys, which—despite technically being a sequel—is a wholly different novel. As a baby writer in high school, one thing I appreciated about Gaiman was his prose—the lushness and elegance of it, beautiful without being overtly self-indulgent or purple (the way my writing, in high school, occasionally was). This beauty is also present in American Gods, but it’s present in a more subtle manner: beautiful in a way that is more stark and bone dry than Gaiman’s usual work, blooming cacti as opposed to cherry blossoms. At age sixteen, it was little question which style would win me over; as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the restrained, sparser loveliness of American Gods more. American Gods on reread was better than American Gods first time around, even if I can still understand my younger self’s reservations with the book. Even so, I don’t think I would name it as my favorite Gaiman or even the best place to start with his work.
And so I was rather surprised at the depth of my excitement and investment in the American Gods adaptation. It’s understandable—I fell in love with Bryan Fuller’s aesthetics in Hannibal, and I’ve pretty much wanted to be Neil since I was a teenager—but given my initial response to the source material, the depth of my fangirl excitement seems more suited to, I don’t know, hearing that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is finally getting a mini-series. I think part of this has to do with my experiences with introducing people to Gaiman: The Guardian has (rather rightfully) described him (and his wife, the lovely Amanda Palmer) as geek royalty, but when it comes to talking to people in daily life about The Graveyard Book or Sandman—well. Some people will perk up at the mention of “the movie, Coraline,” but very few of them will know it was a book first. So I’m looking forward to having that change a little, I suppose.
At the same time that I want American Gods to do well (and, given the attention it’s received from critics, I have little doubt that it will), I’m also ambivalent about how well I want it to do. I read the first three A Song of Fire and Ice books before Game of Thrones was produced, and so watching George R. R. Martin – this dude who still used alien emojis and talked about football on Livejournal – explode into popular consciousness was a rather surreal experience. GRRM was already an incredibly successful and respected author pre-HBO; now he’s a household name, with even people who have no interest in (or respect for) fantasy knowing the contours of the battle for the Iron Throne.*
I don’t think the same thing will happen with Gaiman, not really. With Neil Gaiman and Bryan Fuller running the show, I don’t doubt the show will do well; as a fan of both men, I can attest to how loud and loyal their respective fandoms can be (occasionally to mildly frightening extents, I admit). But American Gods doesn’t feel like a blockbuster to me; it’s too weird and too meandering, not plot or action driven enough for me to imagine widespread, MCU-style success for it. There’s been a lot of blood in the trailers, but there aren’t really that many epic battles in the main story itself. Quite a few bloody deaths, yes, but skirmishes mainly, not slaughter sequences.
There’s a line in the book where the gods are talking about how most of the action will take backstage, not in the physical world but the world of minds and belief, and that’s a pretty good metaphor for American Gods as a whole. We’ve got the gorgeous set pieces yes, but most of the book is slower, more quiet and thoughtful than action-packed. Which is not to say that there isn’t a space for quiet, thoughtful things in popular media, just that that space is smaller than the space for things with more explosions and hostile alien invasions. Moonlight won the Oscar, but La La Land made more money in the end.
Still. Mahershala Ali got an Oscar and more people know who Barry Jenkins is now, so I think we can still call it a win, overall.
So here—tentatively, hopefully—is to American Gods, to more people discovering Shadow Moon and a new generation of teenagers being traumatized by Bilquis and that scene, to kitschy coloring books and a Fuller show that (fingers crossed) finally gets enough love to avoid cancellation. I’m hype, fam. You should be too.
*And the thing about fan culture, the thing that often gets fans stereotyped as skinny myopic snobs and gatekeeping white boys, is that it can get weirdly proprietary: by liking something a lot – especially if you like it before most people do – you get to feel that you, somehow, own it. Nevermind that you didn’t write a line of the book or that you’ve never even the author; by identifying with the characters, becoming emotionally invested in story, somehow it becomes yours. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t necessarily push fans to be bad people a la Gamergate and fake geek girl accusations. Most fan-type people I know are quite the opposite, acting as unpaid prophets for our favorite writers and actors. But while we’re happy to share, we’re also careful about with whom we share; it quite when you recommend someone a favorite series – something that has had a profound influence on you, become in some ways a small piece of you – and have them just not get it. It’s not the worst thing in the world and most of us learn to get over it, but it’s still enough to make you cautious about whom you share things with.