The Unwritten (Comic Review)

Note: So far, I’ve only reviewed comic series after they concluded. I’d to occasionally examine ones that are still ongoing, as well. As issue #24 of The Unwritten was just released, it seems like a good time. This is the point where most Vertigo titles are cancelled, so it’s now safe to say that this series should have have a long life ahead of it. In this case, it also happens to be the point where author Mike Carey says the first act is concluded. In a happy coincidence, as I was writing this review, I got word that volume 2 of this series had been nominated for a Hugo award.

Ever since it was birthed by Sandman, the Vertigo comic line seems to have a fascination with stories about stories. From the modern hit Fables (in which fairy tale characters literally live in New York), to more obscure titles like Testament (with rebels in a near future dystopia who repeat the mythic cycles of traditional religions), to constant spin-offs of Sandman itself, like the current House of Mystery (which features a different character narrating a story-within-the-story every month), this is the closest Vertigo comes to a unifying theme. The Unwritten is the latest example of this, with a plot that literally explores the power of stories to control the world.

The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, whose father wrote Harry Potter-style books about a boy wizard named, coincidentally enough, Tommy Taylor. Tom resents the series and his father, who warped Tom’s mind and then disappeared mysteriously, but is willing to cash in on the B-list celebrity that comes from having a famous fictional character named after you. Of course, there turns out to be a lot more to the story, and the “warping” Tom’s father did turns out to have a serious purpose. Suddenly, Tom finds himself in a web of mysteries, as some fans proclaim him to be a messiah-like figure, a shadowy cabal tries to destroy him, and a girl who was secretly raised by his father shows up to teach him about the magical powers he can harness.

The pieces come together excellently. On a re-read, this follows the formula of a reluctant hero very closely (Tom wants nothing more than to live a normal life, and feels no loyalty to the purpose his father shaped him for), but on a first read, every issue adds so many tantalizing hints and new mysteries that it’s never obvious where it will go. Magic is very real, but also very rare, and our glimpses of the supernatural are all the more fascinating considering how believably mundane the world normally is. Artist Peter Gross complements this perfectly, with an art style that can keep mundane, conversational scenes flowing. He usually avoiding the metafictional conceits (such as characters jumping between panels) that would normally accompany an adventure about people moving between stories. Not that those conceits are bad, but by using them so rarely, Gross keeps this story grounded in the real world. His main trick is to shift art styles when necessary to portray fictional characters as distinct from “real” ones, and he manages to imbue every style with a gravity that keeps this centered around the real world.

Magic failing in Unwritten

Author Mike Carey pours his love and vast knowledge of fiction into this story. Plot points hinge on everything from classics like Melville and Dickens to the 12th-century Song of Roland. The villains of this series are a group that has directed fiction throughout history to keep humanity under control, and Carey deftly supports that concept by examining, among other things, the literary development of Kipling and the ways Nazis corrupted stories for propaganda. Everything is explained thoroughly so as not to lose the readers, but also without ever getting bogged down in exposition.

Even at its most basic, The Unwritten is a very good story. The mysteries are introduced and resolved at a satisfying pace, the plot is unpredictable but fair, and the system of magic underlying the world is unique. But what raises this series the level of excellence is the detours it takes every few issues. Some show a different part of the world, such as that history of Rudyard Kipling, or a power struggle within the villains’ society. Others approach the main story from a different point of view, like a dense, tour-de-force choose-your-own-adventure which explains one character’s backstory with several conflicting versions. While it doesn’t work as a true choose-your-own-adventure (there is only one “failure” ending, and the different story branches merge back together regularly), it’s a fascinating and playful way to make the reader feel familiar with a character while dismissing the details as unknowable. The best issue, though, has been the stunning #12. Set in a sugar-coated, Winnie-the-Pooh-style narrative, it stars a violent, foul-mouthed person who has been exiled there from the real world. Conflicts between innocent children’s stories and the harsh world are a dime a dozen, but this is one of the rare ones that doesn’t feel forced. Partly because it references established parts of the rest of the series, and partly because of the unsettling but believable conclusion, it’s a story that sticks in my mind a full year after I read it.

The Unwritten is the best new Vertigo title in years, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Grade: A

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