Alicia Lozano has written for the Hero Complex about sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card’s "Ender" series as well as a quirky NYC band that makes music about the TV show "Lost." Today she interviews the creators of "The Unwritten," an upcoming fantasy series from Vertigo Comics.
Once upon a time, there was a brave boy wizard who faced down dark and powerful enemies with his two loyal friends at his side. The young hero’s name was … Tommy Taylor?
Yes, clearly, the adventures of Taylor chronicled in the new Vertigo series "The Unwritten" take more than just a page from J. K. Rowling’s collection of Harry Potter stories — the comic book created by writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross has some acidic satire of the Potter canon (and its intense fans), but it also goes well beyond that with its reality-bending tale of a literary character, Taylor, and his real-world namesake, who may or may not be a fictional being come to life.
In "The Unwritten," which hits stores in May but is building buzz already, the story is about a somewhat mysterious author who writes a massively popular series of books about the boy wizard Tommy, a character based on the writer’s own reali-life son, Tom. The author disappears after writing the last installment of the series and leaves nothing to his only child except the unwanted legacy of being constantly confused with a fictional character. As he ages, Tom struggles with his printed-page namesake … and then, eerily, the line separating fiction and reality begins to fade and bend.
The set-up borrows from more than one shelf in the library of youth literature. It’s inspired by the true story of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A.A. Milne. The elder Milne was the creator of Winnie the Pooh, and in his gentle tales he wrote about the bear’s earnest owner, Christopher Robin, and gave that fictional lad his own son’s likeness. The younger Milne suffered through the fame that followed and bitterly resented his father for fictionalizing his life. "It seemed to me almost that my father had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders," the younger Milne wrote, "that he had filched from me my good name and left me nothing but empty fame"
In "Unwritten," Tom’s problem is even worse…
"He’s outed at a con," Gross said. "There’s no evidence that he was ever born. He may actually be a fictional character."
The concept for "The Unwritten" was developed through totally different channels. Gross, who has an 8-year-old daughter, came up with the Milne allusion, while Carey was inspired by a Hindi myth of a man who blows a magical horn to bring about a new age in the world (that image pops up in a major way in the book’s first issue).
The combination of these ideas is characteristic of the creative team’s mash-up mind set. They were three years into their collaboration on Vertigo’s "Lucifer" before they ever met face to face. Previously they had been e-mailing, calling and faxing each other copies of the devilish comic book, crossing paths at ludicrous hours because of the time difference between Carey’s computer in England and Gross’ desk in Minnesota. The distance never hurt the pair, who has been working across the Atlantic for eight years.
"Good thing I stay up really late," Carey joked. "We cross e-mails at about 2:35 a.m."
But when the duo set out to develop "The Unwritten," they ran into a few snags.
"For some reason Peter’s e-mail server hated my e-mail server and we would have messages lost for days," complained Carey. Gross added: "I would have a fabulous idea and Mike would never get it."
"In the planning stages it was very much like a game where you whip off the top and it gets faster and faster," Carey said. "We had this experience of — wherever we looked — the world was throwing bits of our story back to us."
Gross finished the thought: "It’s been a really unbelievable experience that way."
And on they went during a phone interview, finishing each other’s sentences and generally making it impossible for anyone outside their circle of two to keep up. Carey, an Oxford University grad and former teacher, is cerebral and calm. Gross is rambunctious and alert, observing the world with a kind of kinetic engagement.
Carey said of their process: "Peter turns it into the actual narrative. He gives you a lot more than you asked for." Gross picked up the thread: "We spend a lot of time with it. The drawing of it is totally different than the writing."
— Alicia Lozano
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Artwork credit: Vertigo