Alicia Lozano is back as a contributor to Hero Complex and today she revisits “The Unwritten.”
It’s been almost a year since writer Mike Carey and illustrator Peter Gross launched “The Unwritten,” the Vertigo Comics literary adventure that follows the exploits of Tom Taylor, a man whose childhood has been immortalized by his author-father through a popular fictional character named Tommy Taylor.
In the series’ first issue, Tom is outed as a con. Nothing in his past appears to be real and soon he begins to question if he actually exists outside of the Tommy Taylor books, which bear a not-so-subtle resemblance to the “Harry Potter” franchise. The series spins in a magical, mysterious whirlwind of self-discovery that blurs fact and fiction for the reader and, more often than not, reluctant Tom.
The result is fantastical storytelling laced with literary allusions and an undercurrent of “Potter” satirical themes. The 13-issue series is accessible too, despite its spiral of meta-fiction — a term, by the way, that makes Carey cringe.
“I have a slight prejudice against a certain kind of self-conscious narrative because it’s easy to do it in such a way where nothing matters, where the floor is cut out and you don’t know what is real,” Carey said. “’The Unwritten’ is definitely not that kind of story.”
Maybe not, but “The Unwritten” does splash around in a rich literary inkwell. A working knowledge of Rudyard Kipling and Mary Shelley would give the audience a point of reference when reading certain themed issues, but it’s only a fleeting trill of recognition – people who haven’t read “The Jungle Book” or “Frankenstein” would not be at a loss.
“I don’t think you need to be familiar with every story that we’re referencing – it’s definitely an Easter egg,” Carey said.
The premise that words are power is central to “The Unwritten”: The series presents a mysterious cabal that molds events using literature and writers to unleash powerful acts. Without the magic of storytelling, the villains would be marooned in the pages of long-forgotten books rather than influencing the world around them.
“The difference between reality and fiction is kind of an imaginary one,” Carey said “It’s hard to get away from that. They define the parameters for us.”
Gross chimed in: “Stories have to have effects in the world. I think there’s just a power to it. [‘The Unwritten’] is really about that curiosity, why we spend our lives telling stories.”
Even before setting out to complete the series, Carey and Gross knew that the story’s evolution would be organic and fluid. They each approached the concept from different angles – Gross was inspired by his 9-year-old daughter, while Carey was influenced by a Hindu myth of a trumpet creating a new age in the world, something that pops up in the first issue – yet the two are not surprised that “The Unwritten” has become a wide tapestry.
“The structure is kind of like a stone being dropped into a pond and the ripples spreading out, except that the ripples intensify with each reiteration,” Carey said. “We’re up to point where fiction informs life.”
Gross added: “This is pretty much where we intended to be, but the journey there was a little intensive. Things have developed.”
Despite being so in tune, the creative team rarely meets face to face, the exception being conventions in San Diego and New York. Carey works from England, while Gross is stationed in Minnesota. The duo cross e-mails sometime after midnight and spend hours on the phone hashing out plot lines and story arcs.
While the method might seem crude, it got the team through their early days working on “Lucifer” together and helped them forge a unique relationship that remains strong in spite of the transatlantic distance.
“We both feel that we own Tom Taylor,” Gross said.
– Alicia Lozano
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