‘The Unwritten’: Carey, Gross reach No. 50, tap into ‘Fables’

June 20, 2013 | 8:00 a.m.

The cover for "The Unwritten" No. 50 features art by Yuko Shimizu. (Vertigo / DC)

"Fables" witch Frau Totenkinder leads a spell on Page 12 from "The Unwritten" No. 50. (Vertigo / DC)

Tom Taylor arrives in the "Fables" universe on Page 14 from "The Unwritten" No. 50. (Vertigo / DC)

Mike Carey's comics work includes the entire 75-issue run of "Lucifer" and long stints on "Hellblazer" and "X-Men: Legacy." His novels include "The Devil You Know." (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Before teaming with Carey on "Lucifer," Peter Gross' comics work included his self-published "Empire Lanes" and the last third of the 75-issue run of "The Books of Magic." (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

"The Unwritten" No. 51, the second part of "The Unwritten Fables," finds Tom on a mission to save the Big Bad Wolf. Cover art by Yuko Shimizu, who is nominated for an Eisner Award this year for her "Unwritten" work. (DC/Vertigo)

"The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice" is due out Sept. 18. (DC/Vertigo)

"Lucifer Book One," released last month, collects "The Sandman Presents: Lucifer" miniseries and the first 13 issues of the regular series, including Mike Carey and Peter Gross' first collaboration, "The House of Windowless Rooms." (DC/Vertigo)

The first page of "The Unwritten" No. 47 shows Tom Taylor in an underworld and at the mercy of the dangerous hare Pauly Bruckner, who first appeared in No. 12 and was initially intended for one-time use. (DC/Vertigo)

When Mike Carey walks to his home office to write “The Unwritten,” he passes one of the earliest things he and co-creator Peter Gross did together.

It’s a page of “Lucifer” from about a dozen years ago that shows a Japanese underworld deity swinging a sword at the erstwhile lord of Hell. In the final panel, the title character’s “clothes are in tatters and yet he stands there completely arrogant, unmoved,” Carey said. “It’s a beautiful image.” It’s one of many Gross-drawn pages in his home, the writer said by phone from England during a joint interview with the Minnesota-based artist.

There could soon be more: Their long collaboration is having a landmark year as “The Unwritten,” their reality-bending, sweeping adventure about the nature and power of story, reaches No. 50 and begins a five-issue arc set in the world of its fellow lore-rich Vertigo title “Fables.” In September, the first “Unwritten” original graphic novel, “Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice,” lands.

Cover | Page 12 | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15

The “Unwritten Fables” story line finds fictional boy wizard/real adult Tom Taylor, who has a deeply troubled relationship with his magical abilities, conjured into unfamiliar territory by the witches of Fabletown. “They need help, they reach out, and the help they get is Tom. May not be quite what they wanted, but it’s what they get,” Carey said.

Tom has just literally been through Hades in the last arc, and “in a way he’s heading even further down,” Carey said.

The hero is newly isolated: After reuniting with his Dickens-rooted girlfriend Lizzie Hexam and manipulative author/father in the underworld and trying to return them to the surface in an Orpheus-and-Eurydice plot, Tom lands alone amid “Fables” characters at the end of No. 49. But Hexam and his other usual comrade, blogger-turned-vampire Richie Savoy, will figure into the new arc in a perhaps unexpected way — one of the reveals the collaborators hint at.

The creative team, who plot the stories together and work in gentlemanly tandem in conversation, said this tale marks the first time that Tom takes control in trying to figure out the world of fiction instead of “ricocheting off other people’s agendas,” as Carey put it.

Creative team Joe Gross, left, and Mike Carey. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

Creative team Peter Gross, left, and Mike Carey. (Sam Fox Photography / Fabletown and Beyond)

“Fables” readers will see some familiar faces, including the witch with the child-like appearance, Ozma, her crone-looking counterpart Frau Totenkinder, the frog prince Flycatcher and master builder Weyland Smith. Also appearing, after a fashion, are “Fables” writer Bill Willingham and artist Mark Buckingham, who both collaborated in conceiving “Unwritten Fables.” The plan is for each issue to contain one scene written by Willingham and for there to be pages with either Buckingham inking Gross’ pencils or vice versa — something the two artists haven’t done together since the mid-1990s at Marvel.

Although “The Unwritten” and “Fables” both use story as subject matter, they take inverse approaches. As Gross described it, whereas in “Fables” the idea is that the characters are real and the stories are versions of their lives, in “The Unwritten” it’s that the stories are real and the characters emerge from them. As he and Willingham would bandy around the idea of a crossover story, the dilemma troubled him: “I thought, OK, if we take an ‘Unwritten’ approach toward ‘Fables,’ it’s kind of belittling the underlying idea of ‘Fables.’”

Willingham suggested making that tension an important part of the story – and that, Gross said, was the key to making the project work.

“We had to find a mechanism for allowing the two books to meet that didn’t do violence to the core ideas of either book,” Carey said, adding that he thinks the two creative teams found one that will work for readers of both series.

One quirk of taking Tom into the “Fables” universe is the presence of a certain wooden fellow, as Tom Taylor has already met one Pinocchio, in the belly of Leviathan.

Carey explained: “You’ll see as the story plays out what the explanation is for that, but there’s a sense in which all of these fictional characters that have become archetypes are repeated endlessly in different iterations in the worlds of fiction.”

The Pinocchio-Tom relationship is one to watch in “Unwritten Fables.”

“I don’t think we realized this going in, but the two of them are very similar,” Gross said. “They both have kind of wicked fathers who have confused them as to whether they’re real boys or not. And when you draw them, it’s kind of funny because Pinocchio looks exactly like a squashed-out Tom.”

Speaking of Tom’s father, the much maligned Wilson Taylor steps to the fore in “Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice.”

"The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice" is due out Sept. 18. (DC/Vertigo)

“The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice” is due out Sept. 18. (DC/Vertigo)

The original graphic novel mixes the story from Wilson Taylor’s first mega-selling Tommy Taylor book with a look at the cruel man who not only cursed his son with religion-level fame but also raised him as a sort of literary weapon for his private war against a narrative-controlling cabal.

“We get a fuller picture of him,” Carey said, “although whether he comes across as less of a monster is open to question.”

The new book starts with Wilson’s experiments in trying to find the right vehicle for his storytelling, and addresses fans’ interest in seeing a complete Tommy Taylor story after getting flashes of the novels in early “Unwritten” issues.

Gross is doing the layouts, and the art is finished by Kurt Higgins and Zelda Devon, who together brought a children’s storybook style to the “Unwritten” issue that introduced the profane rabbit Pauly Bruckner (don’t call him Mr. Bun) as he tried to escape an idyllic woodland/“hundred-acre gulag.”

It’s the sort of collaboration Gross relishes. “I love it when it comes back looking completely unlike anything I would draw. … I like when the art mixes together like that. I like when I mix the storytelling with Mike and we’re coming up with the story together. I just like it all being a big stew pot.”

Though their co-creator status didn’t come until later, both Carey and Gross said their working relationship clicked immediately.

When the artist arrived on “Lucifer” with No. 5, Carey said, the book was in crisis because the initial art team had left. Already a fan of Gross’ work as writer and artist on Vertigo’s “The Books of Magic,” Carey said seeing the new approach he brought to “Lucifer” was “like the sun rising above the horizon. It was a revelation.”

“I think we understand what the other person is after 99% of the time,” Gross said.

“Lucifer” ran to a planned conclusion with No. 75 in 2006 with Gross as the regular artist, and a new collected edition’s first volume, which includes that sharp-edged illustration Carey has framed at home, was released last month.

The first page of "The Unwritten" No. 47 shows Tom Taylor in an underworld and at the mercy of the dangerous hare Pauly Bruckner, who first appeared in No. 12 and was initially intended for one-time use. (DC/Vertigo)

The first page of “The Unwritten” No. 47 shows Tom Taylor in an underworld and at the mercy of the dangerous hare Pauly Bruckner, who first appeared in No. 12 and was initially intended for one-time use. (DC/Vertigo)

After “Lucifer” ended, they looked to collaborate again, finally landing on the concept for “The Unwritten,” which began publication in 2009 and has been, Carey said, “a richer, stranger journey than I expected it to be.”

Part of that is the fruit of what he called a “more organic” collaboration.

Where on his art for “Lucifer” Gross would stay within what Carey scripted, “with ‘The Unwritten’ because it’s both our stories, I feel completely unfettered,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have to self-edit at all because I don’t have to do the work of the writing. … But poor Mike has to wade through this stuff … ”

Carey seemed game: “There’s a fairly high percentage of OMG moments when we suddenly … realize, yeah, there’s a much better way of doing this [story].”

Among those OMG moments is Pauly Bruckner’s role. Carey said the rabbit was initially intended for one-time use, but they found he was worth weaving into the main narrative.

As the first appearance of that foul-mouthed furball arrived on the heels of a story with a sort of phantom Joseph Goebbels, Gross recalled saying to Carey, “You realize we just did a story about Nazis in one issue and now we’re doing a story about Winnie the Pooh/Beatrix Potter in the next?”

The collaborators laughed. Gross continued, “It’s hard to imagine coming up with a concept that gives us more free rein to tell stories.”

– Blake Hennon | @BlakeHennon

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