The Unwritten

20 May

If I mentioned a bespectacled boy wizard with an undead nemesis, two best friends and a flying familiar you might think I was talking about Harry Potter but what I’m actually referring to is The Unwritten, a clever, post-modern graphic novel series by Mike Carey. The comics follow Tom Taylor, who was the inspiration for a series of hugely successful children’s fantasy novels in the vein of Harry Potter, written by his father Wilson Taylor, who disappeared mysteriously just after writing the story’s conclusion. The Unwritten deals with themes related to fame, celebrity, and the relationship between fiction and human consciousness. Basically, Tom Taylor’s life was screwed up from the start because his father modelled his bestselling novels so closely on his son’s real life that the fictional Tommy Taylor’s fans constantly compared him to his counterpart (turning him into the most pointless variety of Z-level celebrity in the process). In Wilson Taylor’s final book it was even implied that the fictional Tommy would cross over into the real world, giving his delusional fans more excuses than ever to harass poor old Tom. Just when he thinks that his life cannot get any worse, the unfortunate Tom comes into contact with a very mysterious, very deadly group that has secretly kept tabs on him all his life. In the process of escaping from them, Tom travels the world to discover the truth behind his own origins. Tom’s journey of discovery takes him to places where fictions have impacted and tangibly shaped reality in all manner of forms, ranging from famous literary works to folk tales to pop culture. In the process of learning what it all means, Tom finds himself having to unravel a breathtaking conspiracy that may span the entirety of the history of fiction. Literate, absorbing and totally original, The Unwritten will simultaneously leave you wanting more and make you question everything you have ever read.

The hero of The Unwritten, the real-life Tom Taylor (don’t call him Tommy!) is generally portrayed as being somewhat rude and jaded about his status as a minor celebrity. While Wilson Taylor made a fortune from the famous fictional boy wizard based on the young Tom, he himself is without accomplishment, even claiming that his only real skill is the encyclopaedic knowledge of literary geography that his father passed onto him. As an adult, Tom makes most of his money through appearances at comic book and fantasy conventions. At one of these he is confronted by a man dressed as the villain of the Tommy Taylor novels, the vampiric Count Ambrosio, who also may be all too real. It soon becomes clear that there is much more to the Tommy Taylor novels than anyone thought, as evidenced by the lengths that several mysterious parties are willing to go to in order to kill, capture or save the real Tom. An always witty and original roller-coaster ride The Unwritten is the creation of Mike Carey, who was also involved in other seminal comic book series such as Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. Carey’s inspiration for Tom Taylor was Christopher Milne, who is famous as the Christopher Robin of the Winnie the Pooh books. It is often said that Milne grew up feeling that his father had stolen his childhood from him, turned a profit from it and then given it back to him in a form he could not use. In The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is very much in that situation when we first meet him, although his identity crisis a fair bit more serious than that!

A mixture of urban fantasy and horror which gets better and better with each subsequent volume, The Unwritten is similar to other landmark Vertigo Comics series such as The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Books of Magic, Fables and House of Mystery. Carey’s prose is excellent (more akin to reading a well-written novel than most comics) and the visionary artwork by Peter Gross really sets off the quirky nature of the tale. The first few pages set up the intriguing premise, which soon becomes something far deeper – a deconstruction of the nature of storytelling itself. Carey uses the comics to analyse the boundaries between fact, fiction, myth and legend, and tells his tale in the blurred edges around them. For example, some of Carey’s most impressive work comes in issue five, a standalone story focused on Rudyard Kipling, the great imperial poet. In a bravura piece of writing, Carey manages to reinterpret Kipling’s entire literary output and personal life in the context of the series’ ongoing plot. This concern with the nature of storytelling and the interactions between fiction and reality is strongly reminiscent of The Sandman comics, and there is perhaps no greater compliment that can be paid to any graphic novel series. Lastly, I should emphasise that this is not just a series for comic book fans. The Unwritten should appeal to anyone, like me, who has an interest in the history of fiction, as it just drips with literary references and signals a confluence of popular culture, bridging the artificially constructed divisions between high and low art. This is a series that definitely deserves to be read as widely possible – so read it and spread the word!

8 Responses to “The Unwritten”

  1. ashsilverlock May 20, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    Reblogged this on Fabulous Realms and commented:
    Love this series!

  2. Stephanie Saulter May 20, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Anil, I don’t say often enough how much I enjoy your posts. This is another gem, and is sending me off to find The Unwritten right, um, now.

  3. tridecalogism May 20, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Wow, The Unwritten sounds amazing, just the sort of thing I’d love to read! 😀 I’m so glad that I read this post. I’ll have to keep a look out for it from now on.

    • anilbalan May 24, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Thanks, I’m sure you’ll like it 🙂

  4. annabelcupcake May 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

    Great comic. Great post. Love that you drew on “Sandman.”

  5. The World Is My Cuttlefish May 24, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    I found you from ashsilverlock’s reblog. I am intrigued by this series and will hunt them down. I’ve only read one graphic novel and am looking forward to this lot now.

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