A Beginner’s Guide to: The Unwritten
One day I’ll get back to recommending comics about people in spandex, but for now let’s look at another more accessible series. The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross is an thought-provoking read that’s a bit more cerebral than average superhero fare, and while it’s most likely to appeal to lit nerds, it’s a great comic for anyone who wants something a bit more scholarly.
Writer Mike Carey was inspired by the life of Christopher Milne – aka Christopher Robin – who developed resentment toward his father’s Winnie-the-Pooh books that mythologized his childhood. Carey and Gross created Tom Taylor, whose father used his name and likeness in a series of Harry Potter-esque novels. Tom makes a living appearing as his fictional counterpart at conventions, but when he’s attacked by a fan dressed as the series’ antagonist, he starts to realize that fact and fiction aren’t as separate as he believed them to be.
Over the course of the series, Tom meets fictional characters beyond his father’s creations from the Frankenstein Monster to Moby Dick and briefly crosses into the world of Vertigo’s most famous intertextual series, Fables. Carey and Gross bend and mix genres, sometimes upholding and sometimes deconstructing them, occasionally creating outright parodies. They also play around with form, mixing news reports and internet message boards in with the traditional comic structure – there’s even a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure issue!
I could go into the characters and plot, but the most exciting thing about this series (for me at least) is that it manages to pack a lot of literary theory into a fast-paced narrative. Through an ages-long conspiracy and various characters’ personal progression, Carey and Gross look at media manipulation, how readers participate in fiction, the intersections of fact and fiction, and how we use narratives to construct truth. Now that all might sound a bit heavy, but what makes this series special is that it’ll have you thinking about all of those things without necessarily putting them into those terms. Gross and Carey work these concepts into the series gradually and let you think things over while you uncover mysteries alongside the characters.
I keep referring to Carey and Gross together because their collaboration isn’t as simple as “writer” and “artist.” They brainstormed, plotted, and built characters together, and then Carey wrote scripts for Gross to draw. Peter Gross is an accomplished storyteller with experience both writing and drawing comics. His style might not be to everyone’s liking, since his figures lean toward abstract and he suffers a bit from “same face syndrome,” but he knows how to tell a story in images, and his close work with Carey shows in the quality of work they put out together (they previously worked together on Lucifer, soon to be adapted for TV). This comic gives Gross the opportunity to play around with style leading to some stunning work. In issues that find the characters inhabiting multiple worlds at once (see below), Gross employs different stylistic flourishes to distinguish between them. Gross is also supported by fantastic guest artists like Dean Ormson (also a carry-over from Lucifer), fantastic colorist Chuck Chuckry, and spectacular cover artist Yuko Shimizu. I’d highly recommend taking a moment to look through Shimizu’s portfolio, all of her work is just incredible and her take on the story is more dreamy and ethereal than Gross’ more grounded work.
As for Carey, I’ve talked about him before since he’s one of my favourites. He’s able to cram these really complex ideas into a usually fast-paced narrative, and chop up his long-haul ideas into shorter arcs so that the story never loses momentum. Tom and Co. face off against the same villains for the entire series, which lends the series a sense of cohesion, but Carey introduces other antagonists along the way to keep up the pace. Nowhere is it clearer that he used to be an English teacher than in this comic, as it’s jammed with literary references – when was the last time you saw the central figure from La Chanson de Roland in a mainstream comic? Even if you don’t recognize every reference, he’s careful to let the characters exposit any necessary info.
Sadly, the series ended earlier this year, but that means that new readers won’t have to wait a month between issues! If you’re looking for single issues the numbering can be a bit confusing, but the whole series is collected into 11 numbered trade paperbacks and one graphic novel (released between volumes 9 and 10). I’d especially recommend this series to any lit nerds who are looking to try some graphic storytelling, but anyone with an interest in mainstream comics that strive for something a bit more complex should give it a shot. If you like your storytelling fun and thought-provoking, this might be the series for you.