The Unwritten, Vol 1: Metafictive Storytelling At Its Finest / by Alex Jarvis


  One year ago, I was wearing a very nice sweatervest, if we are agreeing that sweatervests can be nice and my story is true. I'm wearing this vest in the oppressively warm Javits center, having just danced to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in a large pull-out trailer they've set up by the entrance. I'm eyeing a poster by an artist that I don't recognize (it depicts a Pangea-esque mashup of the continents with a translucent overlay of a woman with her head thrown back, and hangs to my right as we speak) and I am standing in the DC booth, waiting for the only autograph I want the entire weekend: Mike Carey, writer of Vertigo's The Unwritten.

I got to the Vertigo signing table about a half an hour early, holding my freshly purchased copies of The Unwritten volumes one and two, as well as two copies for my friend, Beth. I had told her about the series and more-or-less forced her to purchase the trades. As her and her boyfriend were graciously letting me crash at their house for the con, I was more than happy to secure her an autograph.

My first issue of the series had been purchased at the fantastic underground (literally, underneath the street) comic shop The Million Year Picnic some months earlier. I read it waiting for the T, then proceeded to walk back to the Picnic to pick up the rest, which I believed had five issues at that point.

It is, without a doubt, some of the best stuff between two covers that I have ever read.

The story is so deliriously metafictive (especially now with the series approaching issue #30) that it would be hard to recap the entire thing in a single blog post (if I tried, I would probably spin out of control and include the review in something similarly metafictive, like the origin story of this website). The plot circles around the character of Tom Taylor, son of Wilson Taylor, famed children's author of the Thomas Taylor books (think Harry Potter, but more) and notoriously missing person. Tom makes his living off of conventions, where he signs memorabilia and copies of his father's work as the character. This interaction raises a question that both keys into the plot structure of the book, as well as reveals it's underlying themes; to what extent is Tom the same as Tommy? Is Tom a creation? What is the nature of creative work itself--what powers do stories have over their readers? It's like Carey himself reached deep into my brain and made a comic that indulges every bit of "English Major" I've buried inside of me over the years. This plot has only evolved since the publishing of The Unwritten: Volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, but as continuing this review would simultaneously spoil the story and reveal myself as even more of a drooling fanboy, I'll stop.

Of course, I couldn't stop myself from being that kind of fanboy when Mike Carey--whose work I was otherwise largely unfamiliar with--arrived at his autograph table a half an hour early, with me being the sole person in line. I found my composure fairly quickly, and proceeded to spend half an hour talking very intelligently about comic books to someone who knew his shit. It was a little more than inspiring. I asked him a lot of questions about writing (have I ever mentioned that I want to write comics professionally? No? Well, I do.) and he was more than happy to answer. He told me (as everyone does) that writing is about putting words on the paper, getting practice. He told me that he wrote music reviews for zines, book reviews, anything that he could get.

What an interesting idea.

The covers of The Unwritten deserve their own article. Drawn by Yuko Shimizu, every one is so perfectly detailed that I'd hang them all in my home. The interiors (by Peter Gross, who is also credited with story and script in the book) are nothing to sneeze at either; the art is such that it shows detail when required, but hides unnecessary detail when it would appear noisy. The style has to fluctuate as well, from symbolic representations of ideas to literal events happening on a linear timescale. And yes, they play with the paneling, in really cool ways, which you may or may not remember, is kind of my obsession. The way that the words appear on the page is of special significance here; they seem to always be in the exact place they belong. It's a hard observation to enunciate; everything in this book is exactly where it should be.

The Unwritten utilizes one of my favorite modern storytelling tropes to deliver information: the in-universe cutaway. A truly interesting story doesn't only effect the main cast, but echoes throughout the rest of the Universe (which, ideally, acts as a cohesive and tangible place). Carey does this at two levels. There are splash pages depicting the world as it exists in the midst of the actions of the main characters. Blog posts, tweets, etc. are all showcased at relevant times. On top of that, every five or six issues breaks away from the main characters to tell an ancillary (but incredibly relevant) story, in Universe. The one included in volume 1, How the Whale Became, is potentially my favorite of all the ones published so far (but not the fan favorite; check out volume 2 for the story of Mr. Bun). Just to be clear, this is a story about stories that tells stories (about stories). In later issues, they actually begin to talk about comic books. Brilliant.

I can conceive of a person who doesn't like this story. It's not that it is low on action or story, but it may not be sufficiently driving enough if the questions I raised above aren't your cup of tea. The story is definitely thought intensive; its intellectual while avoiding the snootiness of highbrow works. It's a dirty kind of intellectualism, a very modern kind. It's also not the kind of intellectualism that thinks disliking it means your stupid. Some smart people I know just plain ol' don't like the series, which makes sense. This kind of meditation on the nature of storytelling is a unique brand of poison, and you might not be willing to take it.

After almost forgetting to have our books signed, I thanked Carey for his kind words and (sheepishly) handed him my card. I had such a genuine interaction with him that I was absolutely buzzing. I walked back to the booth where Beth was working, put down her books, and said the first thing that came to my mind.

"Beth, we should make a website."

TL;DR: If you are at all interested in a mystery-thriller comic mixed with high-minded questions about the nature of fiction and storytelling, please by this book. Even if you're not, try it out. For me. 

The Unwritten: Volume 1 is written by Mike Carey and drawn by Peter Gross, with covers by Yiko Shimizu. It's published by Vertigo. Buy it at your local comic store, or support Spandexless and buy it from Amazon.