What do the Golden Age of Comics, Bill Willingham’s Fables, Harry Potter, Moby-Dick, The Jungle Book, and Frankenstein have in common? Answer: Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten. A story that is rich with literary and comic references, The Unwritten focuses the role of storytelling and its effects on the human imagination. “Stories are the only thing worth dying for!” is the running theme sustained throughout the 12-volume series.
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
The Unwritten follows the journey of Tom “Tommy” Taylor—a fictional character who was brought to life by his author-father, Wilson Taylor—and his two companions: Lizzie Hexam and Richard Savoy. In the story, the boundaries between fiction and reality dissolve, and fictional characters begin to inhabit the “real world,” the first being Tommy Taylor’s nemesis, Count Ambrosio (shown above).
Readers learn that Tom suffers from a form of amnesia and does not remember living his “fictional” life as a messianic boy-wizard at the Tulkinghorn Magic Academy. Before you say, “Rip off! Totally derivative of the Harry Potter series!” know that Carey and Gross encourage readers to understand the story’s connections to other stories. In their world, stories organically grow and, thus, create other stories. And, it’s fitting for the narrative, too. On one hand, Tom is created by his father, and the story maintains the characters’ connections with Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. On the other hand, this is a comic book, and Tom’s half-brother is a superhero from the Golden Age of Comics, named “The Tinker.”
Similar to other Vertigo titles, such as Sandman and Promethea, the logic of The Unwritten posits how all human activity affects and is affected by stories, whether a personal story shared with a friend, a political narrative, or popular fantasy fiction, like The Lord of the Rings—or The Unwritten itself. In the story, a secret society named The Unwritten seeks to control imaginative storytelling with the goal to accumulate political power and influence. They believe that by controlling the circulation of stories, they can control the world. In the tradition of fantasy, they become the dark force against which Tom and his friends must fight.
Consistent with The Unwritten‘s logic of how stories create other stories, Gross incorporates many different artistic styles to show how they influence and drive his creative process. From the visual aesthetics of the Golden Age of Comics to Film Noir, Japanese woodblock print, and European wood engraving, Gross’s artwork is as diverse as it is superb.
Although people who read traditional literature will be pleased to recognize the implicit and explicit references to “the canon” in this story, there is plenty of fun to be had for comics readers, especially if readers gravitate towards Vertigo’s brand of fantasy. Also, it is worth noting that The Unwritten Fables entails a crossover event with Bill Willingham’s Fables, and it is a great read. Carey and Gross continue to produce impressive stories, and we at Geek Motivation highly recommend The Unwritten.
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