Review: The Unwritten

I’m here to highly highly highly recommend the comicbook series The Unwritten. If you’re happily a reader of or author on Speech Events, and if you wouldn’t turn your nose at a fantasy-ish comic, I think there’s a good chance you’ll love it. If that’s enough for you, then my work is done! If you want to hear more, here we go.

What if the power of language to construct and change reality was unlimited? We know that some stories are so strong that they affect the world directly. But what if linguistic anthropologists didn’t understand the half of it? The Unwritten explores these questions and asks a few new ones. What The Matrix did for virtual reality researchers explaining their work at dinner parties, The Unwritten could do for educational linguists, narrative analysts, linguistic anthropological linguists, literacy heads, Bakhtin fan club presidents, and the rest of the riff raff that hangs around Speech Events. We’d have a much easier time explaining our work to a fan of this series.

The Unwritten follows the life and adventures of Tom Taylor, whose father has delighted millions of fans with a popular series of books about a boy wizard, named Tommy Taylor. His father has recently disappeared, and Tom makes his living appearing at fan conventions. The narrative begins with Tom’s identity being questioned by an audience member. Who is he really? Why are records of his birth and childhood so murky? If you recall hearing those stories about kids writing to J.K. Rowling asking to be admitted into Hogwarts, you’ll have no trouble guessing that this question gives rise to speculation that this mystery has a clear answer: Tom is Tommy, and the magic is real! The truth is not so simple, but Tom is soon drawn into a world few know exist, where storytelling is a Great Power, coveted by many and wielded, but perhaps not fully understood, by a nameless and powerful elite.

The whole series is infused with a love for and fascination with storytelling itself, genre itself, text itself. Author Mike Carey, amply supported by Peter Gross’s artwork, puts intertextuality to work here even more spectacularly than does David Weisner in The Three Pigs. Especially memorable examples of this are the numerous full page spreads of various media commenting on events of the story, including blogs, fan sites, and TV news. We also occasionally get a peek into letters between characters, diaries, and even the Tommy Taylor novels themselves. This is a work that continually revels in (dare I say it) multimodal possibilities for storytelling. But, much to my liking, this is not pulled as gimmick or done for its own sake. The Unwritten directs us at the many ways and forms in which stories are and have long been made.

Readers are continually invited to see the role of storytelling in the construction of the world. There are many ways the series gets direct about this. In one memorably self-aware scene early in the series, we hear a particularly murderous Bakhtinian witticism from one of the antagonists. In tried and true slasher film fashion, the man known as Pullman is stalking the inhabitants of a house during a lightning storm, killing whomever he finds. As he searches, he comments on his victims’ experience:

“It does no good to run. And it does no good to hide. / But I know what it’s like. Your brain shuts down, and you follow your instincts. Or at least, you think you do. But you know what you’re really doing? / When you flee through the night, or crawl into your little bolthole? / You know what’s really guiding you? Controlling you? Pushing you on?”

As the villain’s scythe rends a curtain with a tremendous and embellished “SKUTCHHHHHH,” the man simply says: “Genre conventions.”

For a series that employs such intricate premises, the story is remarkably free of trite MacGuffins and onerous infodumps. Events and revelations move logically even in their otherworldly strangeness. Mysterious mysteries abound, but that’s because they are truly pretty weird and hard to grasp at first, even for the characters sometimes. The mysteries are not simply informational cliffhangers. The narrative moves forward but doesn’t neglect to build on itself and get readers to re-examine what they thought they knew–as also shown in his work on Lucifer, Carey is a skilled creator and manager of a long but limited series. Even as smaller story arcs begin and end, the larger cohesion and direction of the story is always at the forefront.

The first collected volume of the series (Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity) is probably enough to get you hooked. The Unwritten is what is sometimes known as a finite or limited series: unlike the various ongoing superhero comics, it will end, somewhat soon, for good. There is so much more in this series that makes it a beautiful and thrilling exploration of the place of story in human life. But you will have to find out for yourself.

The Unwritten is written by Mike Carey, with art by Peter Gross. Issue #54 was published October 2013 (there are also some .5 issues, for 59 issues published in total). There is also a recently published companion graphic novel, in support of the main continuity, called Tommy Taylor and The Ship that Sank Twice. I’d only read that after you were a good way into the series, if I were you. The series is on hiatus until The Unwritten Vol. 2, Issue #1: Apocalypse, is released this month! It’s been popular and well-regarded enough that you might find copies of the trade paperbacks (which collect several issues into one volume) at your local library. The Philadelphia Free Library has TPB volumes 1-5, which is nice.  (If we are friends, you should just borrow everything from me, since I have been buying it monthly for over two years.)

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