Literature is magic and magic is power. In this evergreen review, we look at the first volume of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ “The Unwritten.”
Written by Mike Carey
Illustrated by Peter Gross
Colored by Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Lettered by Todd Klein
Tom Taylor’s life was screwed from the get go. His father created the Tommy Taylor fantasy series, boy-wizard novels with popularity on par with Harry Potter. The problem is Dad modeled the fictional epic so closely on Tom’s real life that fans are constantly comparing him to his fictional counterpart, turning him into the lamest variety of Z-level celebrity. In the final novel, it’s even implied that the fictional Tommy will cross over into the real world, giving delusional fans more excuses to harass Tom.
When an enormous scandal reveals that Tom might really be a boy-wizard made flesh, Tom comes into contact with a very mysterious, very deadly group that’s secretly kept tabs on him all his life. Now, to protect his own life and discover the truth behind his origins, Tom will travel the world, eventually finding himself at locations all featured on a very special map—one kept by the deadly group that charts places throughout world history where fictions have impacted and tangibly shaped reality, those stories ranging from famous literary works to folktales to pop culture. And in the process of figuring out what it all means, Tom will find himself having to figure out a huge conspiracy mystery that spans the entirety of the history of fiction.
Vertigo Comics, due to the rise in creator owned comic centric publishers, has not really been what it used to be. Along with “Fables,” “The Unwritten” was kind of a final classic for the imprint. It seems to be kind of forgotten as well. I mean, even DC has forgotten about it as the second deluxe hardcover edition has been pulled from solicitations. Due to that, I got to thinking about the series and recently revisited the first volume. “The Unwritten Volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity” is a story that doesn’t hide its inspirations but instead, uses them to its advantages through strong character work and unique visuals.
“The Unwritten” introduces us to Tom Taylor, a man who lives in the shadow of Tommy Taylor, a character larger than life that just happens to be based on him. You see, Tom’s dad Wilson was a very famous writer who wrote the “Tommy Taylor” series, which is basically this universe’s version of “Harry Potter.” Wilson took visuals and mannerisms straight from his son to make this character and after Wilson mysteriously disappeared, Tom (never, ever call him Tommy) has worked the convention circuit. With all that said, Tom lived a pretty normal life until a woman named Lizzie Hexam showed up at a convention and threw all of that into chaos. She accuses Tom of being a fraud and not really the son of Wilson Taylor. Given his fame, this story takes off like wildfire with everyone falling on some side in this debate. Tom goes on the run to Villa Diodati, where his father lived at one point. Lizzie is there and what follows in this first volume of 60+ issue series (counting “Apocalypse”) is a sprawling story featuring murder, assassins with magical hands, secret cabals and so many literary references that you won’t be able to keep up.
Looking back on the beginning of “The Unwritten” is a really strange thing when you know where the series goes. This almost feels like a completely different thing and Tom especially is a completely different person at this point. He hasn’t been opened up yet to what’s really been going on and what his place in all of it is and I think that’s what makes revisiting something like this so much fun. The first volume of “The Unwritten” reads entirely like an introduction to the characters and I think that’s what made me so eager to keep reading more. The book touches on all the different paths this story will ultimately go down but what it does the best is tell us who Tom Taylor is. Better yet, it introduces us to this guy and then makes us question everything we thought we knew about him. It’s exciting and great writing.Continued below
“The Unwritten” touches on something very intriguing early on and that’s inspiration and what that means for someone creative. We’ll see Wilson Taylor more in later volumes but this series never actually shies away from what it’s inspired by. It’s all here, with its own twists and turns and it becomes very meta as literature becomes an integral part of why Tom even exists. All the references have a purpose and through the fanatical fans, there are some comments being made about fandom. “The Unwritten” is about the written word and uses the written word as power, figuratively and literally and I think that’s very exciting as I revisit this story.
Peter Gross is a very good artist and what he does in “The Unwritten” is honestly amazing because he’s called upon to do a lot of different things. Gross has to create the current day story along with 20 year flashbacks and then he also needs to take us into the fantasy of these novels. His work is varied and he effortlessly takes us to each of these places. His work for the “Tommy Taylor” novels is clearly inspired by “Harry Potter” but does so much all of its own. It goes even further and becomes almost like a fever dream, which fits with what Tom Taylor goes through as the series goes on. One of the weirdest things though about his work is that it doesn’t feel like it takes place in any specific year. Only when the pages featuring the internet and message boards (feels like an eternity ago) does it feel modern for this time. Gross’ characters are unique but the way they’re styled is very simple and that’s just one of those things I always take notice of. Chuckry and McGee add to Gross’ art in such a fascinating way because their color work in this first volume is really what determines the tone of these pages. When we’re in the novels, we need to feel wonderment, and they give us that through bright colors and this beautiful use of light. In the later pages, when things get murderous, pages get dark and give off an uneasiness that still doesn’t feel “real” (in this series that’s always a question).
In a post “Harry Potter” world where fantasy is in vogue, I wonder where “The Unwritten” falls into that. Comic books are such an exciting and truly unique medium and “The Unwritten,” as it goes on, does a lot of things that are so special to this series. I can’t help but wish this would get a second look from fans because it was such a special thing.