Modern Mythology: Limbo and American Gods
Anyone who knows me and my reading habits knows that I have entertained a love affair with Neil Gaiman’s writing for a very long time. He’s a man of seemingly boundless talent and imagination, of which I am wildly jealous. His work ranges from the adorably illustrated children’s book, Chu’s Day, to the gritty, visceral comic book series, Sandman. He’s penned a critically acclaimed episode of the popular television series, Doctor Who, as well as countless anthologies of fiction and nonfiction alike. I was both terrified and touched by his novel, Coraline, and left emotionally distraught by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But it was American Gods that first truly captured my heart until, some years later, I stumbled across a comic called Limbo.
Published in 2001, American Gods is about Shadow Moon, a towering man who is released from prison after his wife and best friend are killed in a horrific car accident. Bereft and suddenly alone in the world, Shadow meets the enigmatic Mister Wednesday, who claims to be King of America and a reincarnation of the Norse god, Odin. Mister Wednesday hires Shadow Moon as his body guard and what follows is a cross continental tale of epic proportions that is as much about mythology as it is about America’s debilitating addiction to technology and pop culture.
To say that American Gods blew my high school mind would be an egregious understatement. Neil Gaiman’s storytelling never misses a beat and the result is gorgeous, terrifying, and violent (if you’re the least bit squeamish then I’d avoid this one)(spoiler alert: there is a scene with a man eating vagina – yes, you read that right – and it is terrifying nightmare fuel to say the least.) American Gods is a stick-to-your-ribs kind of fantasy epic that I have returned to time and time again. It also left me with one of my longest running book hangovers ever.
I’ve been reading comics for a while now with stories ranging from superheroes, to brutal in-home exorcisms, to slice-of-life scenarios, and it’s safe for me to say that Limbo is one of the strangest and most unnerving story arcs that I have come across in a long time. Written by Dan Watters and illustrated by Caspar Wijngaard, Limbo is a six part series that tells the story of Clay, an amnesiac detective who sets up shop in the santeria-inspired city of Dedande (Dedande. Dead End. Get it? Excellent.) with Sandy, a young woman who communicates with the Loa – powerful voodoo spirits – through the mixtapes that she makes.
When you sell books for a living like I do you see people drawn to gorgeous covers, no matter the story, like flies to honey. And, like a fly to honey, I was drawn to the cover of Limbo’s first volume; a single blue, bandaged-wrapped hand clutching a cassette tape with Dead Hand Jams written across it. I was not disappointed with what waited for me inside. There is no denying the fact that Limbo is absolutely gorgeous. Wijngaard has taken a world of voodoo, goat-eating televisions, teleshamen, violent action figures, alligator pits, and downright terrifying, cannibalistic fishmen, and has soaked it all in wild shades of neon, bringing the gritty city of Dedande vividly to life.
Some of my favorite panels are featured in the second issue of the series. After Clay is pulled into a television by the aforementioned teleshaman, he clambers his way through two pages worth of television shows similar to the ones we might find while mindlessly channel surfing at the end of a long day day. There’s a western, a game show, a Friday Night Lights-looking football game, bug-eyed cartoon characters, and even a Godzilla-like creature wreaking havoc. It’s a particularly clever and visually striking moment in a story that is full of clever and visually striking moments.
As for where Limbo falls in terms of its genre… well, I’m not entirely sure. It’s not strictly fantasy like American Gods. There are elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction peppered throughout the entire story arc and they all somehow work in perfect conjunction with one another. Clay himself is reminiscent of the stalwart protagonists of ‘50s noirs but lives in a world full of references to ‘80s pop culture.
Building a world from the ground up, a world that your readers will wholly invest themselves in, is a tricky business and it doesn’t always work out the way an author intends it to. As it happens, that is exactly how Limbo came to fill the American Gods-sized hole that Neil Gaiman left in my heart. Watters and Gaiman share the same faith in their reader’s ability to suspend disbelief for a moment and understand that the world they have created is undeniably strange. And here’s the thing; as a reader I never doubted for a moment that there were Gods roaming the streets of Gaiman’s America or that if the city of Dedande was real, it would bleed neon from the cracks in the street. The people living there would be forced to fight alligators in a swampy thunderdome, they would be entranced by music, and even puke snakes. Mannequins would come to life. Our lives would be recorded on worn out VHS tapes to be played again, and again in a terrifying, never-ending time-loop after our bodies were worn out and broken. The Loa would walk among us.
Admittedly it’s a lot to take in and the result might feel a little disjointed in some places. Like Clay’s memories, there are holes that need to be filled along the way. But please, trust me when I tell you that perseverance is key here. Watters and Wijngaard have the answers you are looking for and they’re absolutely worth the wait.