The Unwritten, by Carey & Gross – reviewed

Review by Paul W Smith

How many times have you watched a film or read a book and said, ‘Hang on. That’s what happened to me. That’s my story!’ Real-life people can often be turned into great fictional characters. Just ask Christopher Robin. In Mike Carey’s latest series, The Unwritten, his dramatically engaging conceit is playing around with the notion of fact and fiction merging so that it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Tommy Taylor is the boy wizard who’s the hero of a hugely popular series of novels that are an international phenomenon. However, that is also the name of the son abandoned by the author, Wilson Taylor, who has gone missing without concluding Tommy’s magical adventures. Since the real Tommy was the inspiration for his father’s much adored character, he becomes a legend himself for the legion of fans. Then someone raises doubts about his real identity and he finds himself the target of violent lashback, forcing him to go in search of his missing father and to discover the truth. It’s a journey that takes him to Europe and an encounter with a mysterious group of authors who seem to owe their success to unholy alliances. As Tom is about to discover, someone has been manipulating his life, someone else is the author of his destiny.

The Unwritten has been crafted to operate on a number of levels. On the one hand, it reads like a gothic novel taking our hero on a trip from the everyday to the unnerving realm of murder and half-hidden secrets. On the other hand, it’s an exploration of the nature of narrative and storytelling, asking us to read between the lines and question where true-life steps over into fiction and vice versa. Of course there is the more obvious mischievous fact that the success of Tommy Taylor stories mimic the popularity of another teenage wizard’s novels but the premise soon bleeds away into a darker, more unsettling realm.

Once the ‘Bogus Identity’ story arc is concluded there’s a one-off tale, ‘How The Whale Became’. Set in Victorian Britain, it follows the literary career of Rudyard Kipling in Just So Stories mode whose suave, enigmatic agent seems to have a presence over 100 years later. In fact much of literary London including Oscar Wilde seem indebted to this figure, but what exactly is this Faustian-style pact that they all agree to? Just as reputations can be made, they can be broken. It’s this conspiratorial thread that Carey is intending to weave through ongoing plots of future issues of The Unwritten.

He’s ably abetted in his tales by his Lucifer collaborator Peter Gross, whose clean simplicity and tempered colour scheme evoke the right air of enchantment that distinguished that other comic-book boy wizard, Timothy Hunter, in The Books of Magic series. Reminiscent of The Sandman and Fables which both explore the nature of mythology and fairy tales, this volume is just the intriguing beginning of another cult series that delves deeper into the origins of creative ideas. Perhaps there are darker muses that manipulate events and engage authors as vessels through which they can channel a more sinister agenda. This is not just an enjoyably inventive comic book but as intelligent and imaginative a piece of storytelling as you’ll find in any medium. ****

The Unwritten. Writer: Mike Carey Art: Peter Gross. DC/Vertigo.