Not many comics would tackle the career of Rudyard Kipling for fear of Classics Illustrated mustiness. The Unwritten, though, welcomes not only Kipling, but also writers like Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde (and who knows who else by the time its done?) into a world where significant works of literature mark the globe with focal points and lay lines of power. The Unwritten is a comic where the spirit of Roland appears to blow his horn during a prison riot, Frankenstein’s monster emerges from the shadows when called, and series protagonist Tom Taylor may or may not have sprung from the pages of a book himself.
Taylor is the son of Wilson Taylor, who wrote a hugely successful book series about a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. The real-world Taylor, when he’s not capitalizing on this legacy by appearing at conventions and book signings, does his best to separate himself from the book character in the minds of his fans. This proves harder than expected, though, when news comes out that there’s no record of Taylor’s birth or childhood, casting his claims as Wilson Taylor’s son into doubt. Fans respond to this in two ways: either with death threats towards Taylor the fraud, or with the growth of a cult that believes that Taylor is the word made flesh. Neither bodes especially well for Taylor, but it begins to look more and more like the cult might be right, and that there are forces at work who would rather see Taylor disappear permanently.
As this second collection opens, Taylor is in a French prison, framed for brutally slaughtering the attendees of a horror writer’s workshop. This comes, though, on the heels of Volume 1 revealing the nature of the conspiracy working against Taylor.
For reasons yet unknown, a shadowy group uses literature to shape world events. All those literary triumphs, failures, scandals, and mysteries that we all learned about in English class? Most likely the result of this group that uses literature for its own mysterious, and most likely nefarious, ends. In Volume 1’s “How the Whale Became”, this group contacts Rudyard Kipling to encourage him in his writings on the themes of British greatness and empire. Oscar Wilde is less fortunate. Mark Twain escapes by acting the country bumpkin.
It’s not clear what this group is up to, and it’s equally unclear if they are fully aware of the true power of the stories they wield. Nevertheless, as Twain tells Kipling, “They come to everyone. All us spinners of tales. They seem to have an interest in which stories get told. And when. And how.” Tying it all together is a map of the world’s great literary moments, laid out like some grid of power.
In The Unwritten‘s case, it’s these departures into literature’s secret history where the series really blossoms. In Volume 1, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, it was Kipling. In Inside Man, it’s Jud Suss, the Jewish tale of redemption that Josef Goebbels perverted as part of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda. Here, Jud Suss is a whirling maelstrom of contradictions and pain, the purity of its original themes clashing with the more well-known meanings of Goebbels’ film adaptation.It’s stories like these (and to a lesser extent, the profane excursion into the Hundred-Acre Wood of “Eliza May Hertford’s Willowbank Tales”) that show Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s firm grasp on this increasingly complex and satisfying storyline.
So by the end of Inside Man, The Unwritten works on several levels. There’s Taylor’s story, as he begins to navigate this treacherous literary landscape, but there’s also the tale of the works themselves. As we learn more about the conspiracy behind the world’s history, the actions of those authors—and the works they produced—become suspect. Were they merely tools of this organization, were some of them subversive acts against their powerful masters, were some the pure works of art we’ve always known?
As the story goes along, Carey (Hellblazer, Lucifer, among others) and Gross (Lucifer, Books of Magic) begin to incorporate different forms of communication into their narrative. There are nods to chat rooms and the wildfire-like nature of Internet gossip. Issue 17 (which takes place after the events of Inside Man) takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure book.
As the series progresses, it becomes more and more intricate. The detours into literary worlds aren’t fanciful larks like those old cartoons where book characters came alive at night; rather, the stories referenced in The Unwritten live and breathe and leave a lasting imprint on the geography with which they’re associated. It’s to Carey and Gross’ credit that we’re eased so gently into the complicated truths of what initially seemed like little more than a tale of a man and the boy wizard he might actually have been.