Mike Carey’s The Unwritten is an ongoing Vertigo series illustrated by Peter Gross, the first collection of which came out early this year. Carey is known for a variety of things from his Lucifer comic to his Felix Castor urban fantasy series, both of which I’m a fan of, and The Unwritten definitely hits the quality bar he’s set up in the past. (In fact, if previously-review new Vertigo series Greek Street left a bad taste in your mouth, I’d recommend picking up The Unwritten straight away.)
The comic is about the intersection of literature and reality in a universe where words do have the power to twist actions and myth may hold more sway than physics. The main character, Tommy Taylor, is the son of a writer who penned a Harry Potter-esque fantasy series called, well—the Tommy Taylor books. Fans equate him with the character his father based on him, but there’s more at work than just a little bit of hero-worship and weird parental decisions. His father has been missing for years, having never finished the series, and it is at a convention that a fan/not-fan brings up her research into his life. He may not by Wilson Taylor’s son. He may not really exist as who he thinks he is. Everything in “Tommy Taylor’s” life might be a lie, and the other fans are not pleased to find out they might have been tricked.
I picked up the first trade collection of The Unwritten with very high hopes—Mike Carey’s novels are favorites of mine, and his Lucifer run was absolutely fantastic. I wasn’t let down. This is probably the best creator-owned series currently running (and I say this even with like, twelve current projects out and about by Warren Ellis, who I love). The delicacy of wordplay and literary references/in-jokes in this comic make it a must-have for readers of speculative fiction. It’s just gorgeous, as well as having a level of twisty intrigue that drew me in from the first page. I’m normally turned off by the “unwilling hero” protagonist, but Carey’s lead is as much a commentary on the unwilling hero as he is one. The depictions of fandom and its vicious turns, especially for a mega-blockbuster series like the Tommy Taylor books, are spot-on. (Sweet one moment, a cloud of blood-thirsty piranhas the next.)
The Unwritten is heavily intended to be read by people who are readers. This doesn’t seem like too high of a demand, to be honest, and I think you could enjoy it as a comic without having any idea who the authors referenced are or the significance therein—but the weight and the “oooooh” moments when you do get the references are fantastic. The ending chapters, especially, wowed me. The way Tommy’s world beings to shift and blend into the world of Other Things and literature is great and subtle at first, before it gets steadily crazier and less deniable. The cabal of people involved with his father and the creation of the Tommy Taylor mythos is an awesome mystery. I cannot wait to see where it goes.
There are layers upon layers of story to be worked here, and Carey has set them up with a deft hand. There’s the Tommy Taylor/”Tommy Taylor” story, the Kipling/Twain/government story and how it will play into the modern day one, the question of how the writer’s magic works and who has it and how, the problem of the police arresting Tommy for the murder of a whole house full of people, the fandom crazies… There is a lot going on here, and all of it has me hooked. The emotional intensity is there, also. I’m not just curious, I’m wound into the tale.
It’s not the first comic to deal with the uncertainty of reality versus stories (Fables, for one, does a great job of it) but it’s the only one to do it this particular way and with this level of meta-awareness. (Bill Willingham actually wrote the introduction to the trade and lavished praise on it.)
The art is simple but detailed, as is Gross’ way. The colors are vibrant when they need to be, shadowy and dark when it’s right, and the atmosphere can shift from “reality” to “not” visibly when it needs to. It’s truly the perfect style for this particular story. I like the addition in the trade of production sketches, etc., also—it’s a nice bonus touch.
If you pick up a comic any time soon, I recommend it be The Unwritten. It’s crafty, intriguing, and excellent—and if Mike Carey’s other works are any indication, it will only get better as it goes toward its end. I for one cannot wait to see how he builds this tale. I’ll be interested in seeing how it does with various awards next year when it’s eligible, too—maybe a Hugo for Best Graphic Story in Carey’s future? I’d be willing to bet on an Eisner, at the very least.
(The second collection will be released in August.)