If you are like most people, you have never seriously read a comic book. You flipped through one once or twice, probably on the recommendation of one of your pop culture-savvy friends whose taste you may even respect, but you just can’t bring yourself to pull one out in public. It’s understandable. You’re a grown-up now. You watch AMC and read McSweeney’s. But comics have grown up too, and if you consider yourself a contemporary aesthete, Mike Carey’s monthly series The Unwritten demands your attention.
The story centers around the disappearance of the author of a series of wildly popular fantasy novels. The “Tommy Taylor” series (a thinly veiled facsimile of Harry Potter) has become a worldwide sensation. Our hero, also named Tommy Taylor, is the author’s son and the real-life inspiration for his father’s fictional character. Things take a turn for the strange when Tommy discovers his birth certificate has been forged and his childhood photos are not actually pictures of him. As Tommy begins to realize he actually may be his father’s brainchild come to life, he enters an odd world where fiction is very real and your survival may depend on what you remember from your high school English class.
In broad strokes, The Unwritten is Harry Potter meets The Da Vinci Code with the meta-awareness of Mad Men. Writer Mike Carey has cooked up a genre-blender with a seemingly infinite amount of styles, homages and themes. After all, the entire history of literature is a pretty deep well to draw from, and each issue has more literary references in it than an episode of Reading Rainbow. In fact, if the dialogue didn’t contain so many curse words (yes, this is a comic book, but it’s certainly geared toward adults), I would slap the little PBS Educational/Informational logo on the cover and hand it to my little sister. In the so-far-printed 13 issues, Carey has managed to incorporate fantasy, horror, nationalistic literature, children’s literature, medieval epic, Dickens, Kipling, Twain, Milne, Wilde and Shelley (Mary, not Percy), which is fitting since The Unwritten is a story about stories.
In each issue, Carey pushes the same bold message: human life is determined by stories. In one issue, a killer raids a meeting of horror authors and is able to predict where each of them chooses to hide based on the “genre conventions” of their own books. In another, Frankenstein’s monster appears in the flesh and monologues about his estrangement from his creator, all the while looking knowingly at an image of Christ. Each issue cleverly portrays the way stories frame and often dominate our existence. On Carey’s account, science, religion, philosophy and government all rely on stories and are stories themselves.
The book brings up Christianity more than a few times, and though I don’t expect Carey to write in a full-blown revisionist history of Jesus (a la Dan Brown), he clearly gives the Gospel credence as one of the most infectious stories of all time. Even the characters’ foul mouths pay its influence tribute. “Jesus [expletive] wept!” one character exclaims. Certainly Carey would not miss the implications of such a story-laden event. Weaving the concept of story into the fabric of our reality is a potentially friendly philosophical project for Christians. In a science-dominated culture, a story, even one that accounts for an actual event, is an unverifiable vessel of truth because of its inherent subjectivity. Carey’s point is that subjective or not, stories are an inescapable component of reality and this is a refreshing perspective for those of us who stake our claim to truth on a big book of stories. The series’ tagline seems laden with religious significance: “Stories are the only things worth dying for.”
The only thing this series has standing between it and mainstream success is the fact that it is a comic book, but this is just what makes The Unwritten such a unique experience. Peter Gross’s art is well researched and mutates stylistically as Tommy travels through the worlds of stories. Gross’s artwork is as important to the story as Carey’s writing. The Unwritten is a comic book for a reason. Film, literature and art are all explored in The Unwritten, and the graphic/literary hybrid layout of the comic is the “happiest medium” to realize them all in one place. Alas, the only way to ensure a comic will be noticed on a wide scale is to adapt it into a movie, provided it’s a good one, and considering Hollywood’s track record, they might just ruin it forever.
Many attempts have been made to distance comics from their juvenile connotations. In some bookstores they have been renamed “graphic novels,” and writers add in a heavy doses of vulgarity and violence. But whether or not the medium has "grown up" is beside the point. The real question is, what has it grown up into? The Unwritten is proof that the comic medium is capable of more than just an overgrown adolescence (like the “Comic Book Guy” from The Simpsons). Its ingredients are different from television dramas, movies and novels, but comics like The Unwritten deliver a unique way to do what humans have always done best: tell a story.
The Unwritten is an ongoing comic series. So far, 13 issues have been released, and the second collected volume (issues 6-12) of the series is scheduled to be released on August 17.
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