The Unwritten by Mike Carey is one of the best current series being published right now. It is one of the few titles put out by Vertigo — DC’s mature line of comics — that has kept Vertigo from losing its respected place in the world of comics. Vertgo was started by Karen Berger with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman stories, and many of my favorite comics have come out with the Vertigo label on them. However, in recent years, Vertigo has lost its edge for the most part except for a few excellent works like Fables (and related titles) and The Unwritten. And while Vertigo is finally coming back with a wonderful batch of new material, including a prequel to Sandman by Gaiman and J.H.Willaims III, The Unwritten continues its strong run with back issues available in at least seven separate trade editions at this point. There are also future plans for an Unwritten/Fables crossover that should be quite good.
So, what is The Unwritten? First of all it’s a Harry Potter spoof. But it’s a spoof that takes a Harry Potter-like story very seriously. The spoof is created by Carey not to make fun of Rowling’s work. Rather, he’s been forced to come up with a similar story to Harry Potter’s for obvious legal reasons: He can’t just borrow Rowling’s work and use the actual character names and plots from her series (though I wonder if in an ideal world she’d really mind!). Carey’s goal is to examine the way in which the stories we tell, the fictions we write, have truth and to see how stories impact, or intersect with, reality in a variety of very “real” ways. His answer, of course, is “yes, stories are real,” but the answer is complex and has many implications.
At the plot level, The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, a young man whose father — Wilson Taylor — wrote the famous “Tommy Taylor” books. When the first issue starts, Wilson has vanished, and Tom is left to travel from one comic convention to the next signing copies of his father’s novels. He makes a living solely based on the fact that his father used his name to create his now-famous fictional character. So that’s a funny part of the comic, but it’s merely the premise for the first few issues. Very soon, we see Tom’s world start to slide into various genre conventions including fantasy and horror, and his fame starts to turn against him as some enemies start to manipulate his image in the media in very extreme ways (from con-man to murderer).
These enemies are hard to identify in the first volume of only five issues. The first four issues complete a full story arc, but by its end, we aren’t quite sure who is after Tom or why. Actually, we do see a specific villain going after him, but we don’t know who he represents. The Unwritten slowly begins to seem like a conspiracy theory of sorts, particularly by the fifth issue as we travel back in time and meet Kipling, Wilde, and Twain, as well as a young writer named Wilson Taylor. Apparently all these writers have been contacted by some shadowy group with a specific agenda and with quite a bit of power in our world.
There are several reasons why I highly recommend this series to you: First, since I’m writing for a SFF site, I have to assume most of you love a good fantasy series, even if you don’t like Harry Potter (though personally, I’m a huge fan). First and foremost, The Unwritten is about books in a fantasy series. The Unwritten periodically shows us scenes from the “Tommy Taylor” novels as if there really were a series. These are great scenes, and they add a meta-fictional level to the comic book. Secondly, we get to meet other writers, like Kipling and Wilde and Twain. Any fan of literature likes to see famous authors show up as characters in other books. Thirdly, it’s got a philosophical/theoretical bent in asking how reality and stories intersect. The final page of the fifth issue shows us a bunch of post-it-notes and scraps of papers that ask us to rethink the definition of stories: “Philosophies are stories,” “Fame is a story,” and “Religions are stories.” There are also enigmatic claims like the following: “We’re all living in Plato’s cave, and we’ve papered the walls with fictions,” and “Stories are the key. But to use them you have to stand outside them.” Just reading this final page makes me want to go back and start reading again at page one: Carey has a bigger agenda and more ideas and themes in play than I first thought.
Finally, I recommend The Unwritten because it’s just a great, well-told story. It’s fun to read and keeps you turning the pages. Don’t let my discussion of theory and meta-fiction imply that the book is heavy-handed and complex in a bad way. Carey keeps his focus on the characters and their discussions. The theory and meta-fiction slowly build as the story continues, and they do not detract from the forward movement of the tale. The dialogue is also good, and best of all, the art is beautiful, particularly when Peter Gross slips from the scenes depicting “reality” into the scenes depicting the fictional world of the fantasy novel. I get the sense that these worlds are going to begin to merge more and more as the story progresses. If you are a fan of fantasy fiction and like to think about the conventions of the genre while reading in the genre, you’ll love The Unwritten.