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The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice

(DC; US: Nov 2013)

Call it the “gospel of Tommy according to transmedia”, because that’s what the Original Graphic Novel Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice really is. It is a meditation, on acts of mediation. And in keeping with the established tradition of the Unwritten, the long-running series from which this OGN was evolved, much of that mediation concerns the power of story and storytelling beyond the lease of mere entertainment.


Years ago, when the original comicbook series began, the cascading themes seemed to hit the zeitgeist as a kind of meta take on the shutting down of Harry Potter. The Harry Potter books had just ended. The movies were about to end. Change was in the air. And enter stage right, (the direction from which Lucky and Pozzo should have entered, if Beckett wasn’t feeling as inundated as he clearly must have been in those early days) Mike Carey, Peter Gross and their creation of the Unwritten.


It was as salacious a tale as it was ambitious, a single unifying idea that smashed together the worlds of high literary modernity and TMZ. Picture this. Tom Taylor, son of world-famous author and JK Rowling analog, Wilson Taylor, finds his heart crushed by an erstwhile adoring public. Tom’s reversal of fortune is due in as much to the disappearance of Wilson Taylor some two decades ago, as to what Wilson did to Tom pretty much his entire life. Ever since Tom’s birth, Wilson Taylor shaped his son in the popular imagination, to parallel the twists and turns of his greatest creation—Tommy Taylor, boy wizard and star of thirteen novels penned by Wilson himself.


And here, at the very beginning of the Unwritten, with Wilson having disappeared and Tom, his actual biological son confronting an estate tied up in blind trusts, Tom Taylor is nothing but a Z-list celeb, making appearances at whichever wordfest will have him. Here at the very beginning of the Unwritten, all those many years ago now, Tom finds himself already washed up, when he ought to be in his prime.


But it’s at the beginning, that the word changes everything. Here’s the TMZ part. It’s in that first storyarc Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, that Tom is confronted with overwhelming evidence that much of the official record of his early life (prior to age six) has in fact been faked. There’s mounting evidence that Tom is actually the son of a Romanian farming couple. But as the story unfolds, there’s even greater evidence, and here’s the meta part, that Tom Taylor is actually Tommy Taylor summoned by some as yet unexplained mechanism from the fictions of Wilson Taylor and rendered in the real world. There’s growing evidence that Tom Taylor is the Logos, the Word Made Flesh.


And that’s where we began, those many years ago. I can almost hear Eddie Vedder intone those exact words, as he does on “The End” off of Pearl Jam’s Backspacer album. The really interesting part of the Unwritten was never the Dr. Seuss of it all, never the Oh the Places You’ll Go. Rather it was the how of how that story was told. It was never enough to simply show what happened to Tom as he simultaneously attempted to both escape and embrace being mediated by Tommy Taylor (or being Tommy Taylor). What mattered, and here we return like a CSI extra to the scene of the crime that is the TMZ part, was always the “reaction shots” via multiple modes of media. Sometimes an entire comicbook page would be dedicated to a sampling of the myriad websites that followed the Tom/Tommy story. Sometimes, in neatly formatted panels mimicking a TV screen, cable news channels would explore the story. Reaction shots, not of people witnessing the events which unfolded, but reactions shots of the media itself.


It’s this interplay between the story of Tom sometimes pursuing, sometimes eluding Tommy, and the paparazzi nature of how that tale is perceived through and shaped by mainstream media, that always seemed to produce the far richer philosophical vein of the Unwritten. It’s one thing to see echoes of Shelley and Hobbes and Milton and Chandler… the list is by no means endless, but it is a pantheon of literary heavyweights, but that’s already very much so been done. Books pointing to other books is not even where the Unwritten began, books pointing to other books is a presupposition of that fictive world. And it’s one thing to craft a tale about how the “real life” of the characters mimic or even run contiguous with the fictions they engage with. But it’s entirely something else to not only do both, but to mediate that tale through other modes of media. Modes that include cable news coverage or gossip websites or fan websites or conspiracy websites.


And that is the down in the dirt, honest philosophical work done Carey and Gross. Not only the grand literary adventure (although it is an adventure, and it is grand, the Unwritten is every bit Peter Pan and the Pirates), but the critical interrogation of the idea of transmedia. What does it mean to interpret other media forms through the lens of one particular medium? Could transmedia be something more than a punchline for co-promotion?


That has been the philosophical conundrum that formed a baseline for the Unwritten, and Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice is the upgrade of that investigation. The book not only borrows its name from Wilson Taylor’s first Tommy Taylor novel, but also retells that exact novel, in graphic format. But the truly genius part? The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice is interleaved with the story of Wilson writing and selling the book, and then crafting his son Tom’s early years to sow the idea that Tom might be the Word Made Flesh.


Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice is as much a furtive renaissance as it is the culmination of the philosophical project at the heart of the Unwritten. As such, this OGN comes with the highest praise. It deserves to be read. But there’s work that needs to be done before you can fully appreciate it.

Rating:

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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