[24 January 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Maybe one of the secret splendid moments in the recently launched Unwritten: Apocalypse (there are many overt moments, but the secret ones are like cookies to find), is its title sequence.
Unwritten: Apocalypse is the thematic successor to the 2009-launched The Unwritten, the creative product of collaborators Peter Gross (of Books of Magic fame) and Mike Carey (of Hellblazer and Lucifer fame). The antecedent series saw Tom Taylor deal with a tantalizingly modernist problem—what if the beloved boy-wizard from his father’s mega-selling smash-hit novels grew up? In the lead-up to the debut of The Unwritten, Carey and Gross both spoke about how they stylized their own hero based somewhat on Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A. A. Milne who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories. Like Christopher Robin, the fictive Tom Taylor had found his life and potential success ruined by the notoriety build into his early childhood.
When we first met Tom Taylor, we found him in the throes of exactly this dilemma. How to escape the long shadow cast by his father’s early branding of him. How bad was it exactly? Tom suffered from the Lewis Black-esque problem (as told on Black’s White Album) of being jettisoned by Hollywood for not being sufficiently like Tommy Taylor, boy-wizard. But even before the end of the first issue, this modernist problem quickly became transmogrified into a postmodernist problem. What about the inconsistencies that emerged with Tom Taylor’s birth record? Was he really the purchased son of Romanian immigrants? Or even more farfetched, could Tom have been the fictive Tommy Taylor, boy-wizard brought to life?
And that would prove to be the engaging, intriguing, core of the volumes that followed on from Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity. Was Tom Taylor, the actual Word-Made-Flesh? Or had Wilson Taylor, the man he recognized as his father, constructed an elaborate hoax? And if the latter, to what end?
In those early volumes of The Unwritten, villains soon abounded. First to appear was the sinister Pullman whose chief weapon appeared to be a prosthetic hand that could literally (literarily?) vaporize matter into a puddle of mere words. But it quickly became apparent that Pullman’s strings were being pulled, so to speak, by an even more shadowy cabal who had geopolitical interest in which stories saw the light of day. It was this cabal that ostensibly manipulated Victorian author Rudyard Kipling’s fall from grace, yet were rebuffed by a stand-offish Mark Twain.
And of course even this strange and unexpected twist was nothing more than prologue to the real story being told—a postmodern, picaresque journey through literary and cultural history that would see Tom Taylor encounter as diverse an ensemble as Frankenstein’s Monster, Captain Ahab, Baron von Munchausen, Josef Goebbels, and Tom Taylor’s own fictional father, Wilson Taylor.
Naturally, there would be a moment of direct confrontation between Tom Taylor (and his ragtag group of fiction-insurgents) and the shadowy, ever unnamed Cabal. That moment would come in Tommy Taylor and the War of Words. At a moment of awakening, when Tom began fully embracing his literary-based powers, he would enter into an all-consuming conflict said cabal. And it was at this point that the only certainty in The Unwritten (that nothing, not even the conventions of genre, could be certain) presented once more.
By the end of Tommy Taylor and the War of Words, the ever unnamed cabal saw its power-base destroyed, and its structures in ruins, Pullman, the ostensible hired gun, was revealed to be the true power behind the throne (a 5,000-plus year old immortal who could very well be the Biblical Cain), and Tom Taylor, revealed as arguably, Pullman’s greatest invention (or was that just a story?).
At the opening of the final third or so of The Unwritten the story returns with renewed vigor and upended conventions of genre. After having fully embraced his relationship with Story Itself, Tom has transformed himself into a globetrotting self-help guru who packs in audiences in the thousands for each event, sidekick Richie has become a tabloid-darling vampire, and Lizzie Hexam (yes that Lizzie Hexam) has vanished(?).
But this reinvigoration was only a second renaissance for the characters and the entire story. And an opportunity to showcase the true heart of The Unwritten—Tom Taylor wending his picaresque way through history and culture and literature.
Did the story stall at this point, no longer scaffolded by traditional genre, and thus free of the set of expectations that append? Or was it more the case that over the course of readers’ long exposure to genre, Carey and Gross had finally prepared their audience for a kind of pure expression of literature, free from the constraint of any kind of reader expectation. The Unwritten shone over the course of its final third. Never more so than with the series’s two-fisted finale. One part that came in the form of a crossover with Bill Willingham’s Fables, a long-running Vertigo classic. And another, a standalone graphic novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice, that is both named for and retells Wilson Taylor’s first Tommy Taylor novel, and imbricates into this, the story of how Wilson Taylor invented coincidences between his own real son Tom and his fictive creation of Tommy Taylor.
But it’s with the thematic successor that Gross and Carey simply exceed all expectations. The opening title sequence which names this issue as “Bestiary” uses iconic renderings of animals to illustrate the title. But each animal name begins with the same letter illustrated; Y for yak, E for eel, T for tiger.
And just as with the debut issue of the original series, this debut begins by addressing a number of expectations, but then quickly dispatches with them. Tom Taylor is exactly where we left him. Still lost upon the waves of various stories, still trying to find his way home.
Among these tales the Aslan from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series and the guests at the Mad Hatter’s tea party (sans Alice) seem to be the most recognizable. And yet, if you pay only cursory attention, you’d possibly miss the most comicbook-y of all the references, right at the beginning.
While the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant does seem to summon up the original Aesop’s Fable, the line art is very reminiscent of MAD founding father Harvey Kurtzman’s Beat-infused retelling of the same fable. Like Kurtzman’s The Grasshopper and the Ant, this opening act becomes a meditation on the value of play and enjoyment (but, naturally, lacks the comeuppance of the denouement where the Ant is discovered to have been hoard peebles all summer long).
Taken from the point of view of Kurtzman’s wrestling with the meaning of life from a purely biological outlook, “Bestiary” becomes an entirely new and highly innovative book. It’s the Kurtzman reference that seems to open the door to a deeper insight—that Gross and Carey are offering a more grounded, more media-immersed, real-world oriented kind of story with Unwritten: Apocalypse than with the original.
And after the conversation in Willowbank Woods that Tom has with the author of that Winnie the Pooh analog, it becomes increasingly harder to set aside the vague notion that really, what’s being spoken of in this quest for return to the “real world,” is nothing short of a meditation on privacy and surveillance.
It’s an argument that can’t be made without the kind of detailed analysis that would offer up too many spoilers. But if you’ve read it (and you should), think back to the death of the Aslan splash-page, and to the next splash-page, the summer’s day in Willowbank Woods. The language is highly metaphorical, and there’s no direct connection between Liberal and Conservative (are there Liberal and Conservative sides to this debate? Or just pro-security and pro-privacy arguments?).
With everything that The Unwritten has been through these past few years, and there’s no shame in using the phrase “an epic” as signature for that voyage, Carey and Gross have returned us that tantalizing uncertainty, and given us a way to return to the beginning.