A Modern Promethea: Mike Carey and Peter Gross Pen the Unwritten

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…[John] did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”

— Book of John 1:14, 20 (NIV)

“Stop telling God what to do with his dice”.

— Niels Bohr

It is obvious to anyone who has ever read an issue of Doctor Strange or Ghost Rider that magic has a long, storied history in the realm of comics. Truthfully, it goes much deeper than that, as many creators themselves, including Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, are, in point of fact, practicing magicians.

When Morrison was writing his seminal treatise on magic, The Invisibles, he quickly came to realize that whatever he wrote for the character of King Mob — a facial wound, perhaps, or a specific event or illness — would manifest itself in the very real world of his life. Upon realizing that it was his own doing, that the hyper-sigil he was writing was slowly killing him, Morrison decided to begin treating King Mob differently. The character would have nothing but fantastic luck, terrific sex and great fortune, and bad things would only happen to him when necessary. Morrison now recalls the days following his decision to change the course of King Mob’s destiny as some of the best of his own life.

Similarly, Moore, whose career (Promethea,The Courtyard) has shared a long history with his well-documented practice of magic, claims, on a variety of occasions, to have seen his own creation, John Constantine (who first appeared during his run on Saga of the Swamp Thing before spinning off into his own series) in the waking world, and even once to have spoken with him about the very nature of magic, being told by his own creation that “any [expletive deleted] can do it”.

This very concept — the notion of a sort of pantheistic solipsism, wherein a writer or other powerful creator brings his or her world to live either in our own or in a parallel reality — serves as the most basic interpretation of The Unwritten, the new Vertigo series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.

The story, clearly inspired by the famous Harry Potter series (which was itself inspired by Books of Magic, to which Gross contributed for some time), follows Tom Taylor, son of famous and mysteriously reclusive novelist, Wilson Taylor. The younger Taylor, identified by the public as the germ for his father’s most successful character (the boy wizard Tommy Taylor) now haunts fantasy conventions as a down-on-his-luck pseudo-celebrity. Much like Christopher Robin Milne and Dennis Ketcham before him (as noted by Carey and Gross in various interviews and promotional materials), Tom has grown to resent his father on some level, as he has never had a private life of his own.

Very early on in the series, Tom Taylor’s true identity is called into question. Is he truly the genetic offspring of Wilson Taylor or the child of a Hungarian couple who, for whatever reason, feel a need to reclaim him in his adulthood? Is he trying to milk his pseudo-celebrity for whatever it’s worth, or is there another reason why he occupies the spotlight of fan conventions and the media? Is Tom Taylor actually the fictional Tommy Taylor, a series of books and words made flesh, or is he a false prophet? Is he a Messianic savior or a brutal murderer?

The first nine issues of the series represent the finest, most literate storytelling the comics medium has seen since Morrison, Moore and Neil Gaiman burst onto the scene. As the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, Tom encounters Mingus, the flying cat from his father’s novels (no doubt an amalgam of Rowling’s Crookshanks and Hedwig from the Potter epic) and befriends a woman with the patently false name “Lizzie Hexam” (named after the character from the Charles Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, brought yet again to the cultural forefront after it appeared for the first time on Lost a few years ago). Hexam (who herself may or may not also be one of Wilson’s creations) rescues Tom after he is kidnapped by a deranged maniac who believes himself to be Count Ambrosio (read: Lord Voldemort), the vampire arch-nemesis in Wilson’s books. The literate quality of comicbooks crescendo as Tom even has a conversation on the very nature of reality with Victor Frankenstein’s flesh golem in the middle of a French jail.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Unwritten, as well as an important part of the creators’ mission statement, is Tom’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature and literary geography. These being forced upon him by his father at a young age on the claim that it was important for him to know. The concept of the father forcing his own legacy onto his offspring is certainly not a new one, but is most assuredly a very common one in popular entertainment these days, especially in works emerging, in some fashion, from or directly out of the George W. Bush administration.

One need look no further than the aforementioned Lost and the father issues that shaped the lives of large portions of the cast, pattern continues in shows like Supernatural and Fringe, where obsessive fathers repeatedly put their own sons in danger and then will do anything in their power to save them when they’re at death’s door. In recent issues of The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner has begun mentoring his half-alien son in the way that only the world’s most brilliant and terrifying mind could conceive. Similarly, the conclusion of the “Fear the Hunters” storyarc in Robert Kirkman’s remarkable Walking Dead shows the great lengths that Rick Grimes has, consciously or not, taught his son Carl to go to for the good of the many. Jonathan Hickman’s Pax Romana brilliantly uses a future Pope in place of an actual parent, but it’s no surprise when his story introduces a scientifically ‘better’ Pope known in-story as “the Gene Pope”.

Of course, this is but a small sampling of the works that have approached this theme over the last decade, but like everything else, The Unwritten refuses to do anything by the oldest or even the newest traditions. The still-unfolding mystery of Wilson Taylor has uncovered layers likely to drive any David Lynch fan mad with uncertainty. And to top it all off, the conspiracy element of the series — which, once again going against the grain, is not a smoky, shadowy X-Files-y room filled with, yes, fathers, but rather an intangible, centuries old threat — reaches back as far as anyone could even try to imagine, where it unraveled and eventually destroyed the lives of Wilson Taylor’s (and, by extension, Carey’s and Gross’s) literary father Rudyard Kipling.

Using the old trope of the distant father and son and the seeds of discord such an unhealthy relationship can sow, Carey and Gross pave the way towards their true goal in the recently-wrapped storyline “Inside Man”. In this arc, Wilson Taylor’s use of a horn in his novels — a horn that, when played, sings the song that ends the current age of man — is crystallized when Tom realizes he is imprisoned in a penitentiary built over the location of the famous poem “The Song of Roland”. In essence, Carey and Gross are blowing a horn meant to usher in a new age of storytelling, one requiring original thinking and new ideas, and they are subverting old storytelling concepts and clichés in order to do so. And as with the blowing of any horn on any battlefield throughout history, it is a clarion call to arms that cannot, shall not, will not be ignored by those who serve at the command of Story.

As a famous film star of decades past would say, “You know how to usher in a new age, right? Just put your lips together and blow”.

And if it works, if their call is heard and Story changes, it will in turn change reality. There is no better definition of magic, and it is hard to think Morrison and Moore would disagree.