guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2009

Mike Carey and Peter Gross,
The Unwritten (Vertigo, 2009-). $2.99, monthly.

By Jared Gardner

With summer upon us, it is time for me to catch up with that stack of comics on my desk and see what is worth following into the dog days to come. Today begins the first in a series of reviews of new series, most of them only in their first few issues, with suggestions as to which are worth adding to your pull list and which are worth letting go the way of so many one-hit wonders of summers past.

As I made probably too clear in an
earlier review, Mike Carey’s last Vertigo series left me both bewildered and terribly, terribly cold. I never believed he knew what he was up to with that story, and the whole thing felt like a fairly calculated attempt to get all hip to the manga vibe while continuing to tap into the whole Lucifer/Sandman mystique that earned him his stars in the industry. Well, Crossing Midnight is no more, having been unceremoniously dumped by DC, after 19 issues. And as he well deserves, Carey has been given a second chance, this time teaming him back up with his brilliant collaborator on the deservedly long-running Lucifer series, Peter Gross. The Unwritten still feels, I must confess, as if it is not entirely in control: there is enough story in the first issue to fill out about a dozen issues of House of Mystery (and about 100 of Echo), but there is no doubt that Carey and Gross have something special here.

The basic premise alone is complicated enough to make me pause, uncharacteristically, in trying to find the most efficient way to lay it out.
Unwritten tells the story of Tommy Taylor, the son of a famous novelist of a wildly popular series of books which happen to bear his name. Many years ago, his father disappeared, and Tommy has for years been cashing in, reluctantly on his very minor celebrity status by doing endless rounds on the convention circuit signing his father’s books for fans. Like Tommy himself, Wilson Taylor’s legions of fans have been left in the lurch following the disappearance of the author many years ago. The comic interweaves pages from the Tommy Taylor novels in with the story, deliberately collapsing further the space between the (real) Tommy Taylor’s life and the fictional Harry-Potter-like hero. Seems like enough for a series right there? We haven’t even begun.

At a convention talk, Tommy is confronted by a graduate student who claims to have unearthed information questioning his relationship to his father and pointing potentially to a larger conspiracy—including the possibility that Tommy himself was secretly adopted from Bosnia. Tommy is whisked away by his publicist before he can learn more, but the damage has been undone and mysterious forces have been unleashed. Tommy’s devoted fans turn on him as a fraud, and he sets off to learn the true story of his origins and to uncover the truth. Phew! Surely that is enough…

But no. Carey weaves in a junkie’s stash of literary allusion and geography, quite thick meditations on the meaning of truth, literature, and identity, and a conspiracy which turns out to extend far beyond a self-serving publicist and a deadbeat dad. In fact, the conspiracy, such as we can begin to trace its outlines in the first two issues, seems to cross all kinds of boundaries, between the “real” and the “fictional,” between this world and otherworlds quite possibly much more real and meaningful than our own.

By the way, my summary doesn’t even cover half of the first issue (we have vampires, nail bombs, the transformation of Tommy from pariah to messiah), but I am going to leave the rest for you to uncover on your own. Because this is definitely a book to follow, well into the summer and beyond. Unlike its predecessor,
Crossing Midnight, this one deserves a following and a good 60-100 issue run. Of all the newer Vertigo titles that are eagerly trying to fill in the void left by the end of Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets, this is the one I am most enthusiastically rooting for.