Chance, oh wonderful chance! Without it, I never would have gotten my paws on The Unwritten Volume One: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity by Mike Carey and Peter Gross (2010, Vertigo). But because there was a comic stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair giving everything away at 3 pm on Sunday, because I made it to the front of the clamoring crowd to claim one free volume from their shelves, and because the cover had a dude wrapped up in tangles of words that were either coming out of or pulling him into a book, I ended up reading Unwritten. I’m not easy to convince when it comes to comics, and I loved Unwritten.
When I finished reading the fifth issue (my volume is a compilation of the first five issues) I wanted more, couldn’t believe I was going to have to wait to get it, even if just until the next batch arrived in the mail. I keep picking it up and paging through it, as if one of these times there are going to be new pages to carry me further into the story. Holy shit. I’m back on horror, and I’m enjoying comics. The world is turning upside down, and it can only be a good thing.
Let’s start with the artwork. When people talk about comics, they often leave out the team of names involved in making the damn things happen. Fuck that. So let me tell you who was in on this one. Mike Carey and Peter Gross did “script – story – art” according to my copy, though who did what and how much of which I don’t know. Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee were the colorists. Todd Klein was the letterer. And Yuko Shimizu did the covers on the original series.
I loved Shimizu’s work. The thing that has always kept me from reading many comics—besides the fact that I was conditioned by my parents to think of them as “lesser” works of fiction, boohiss—is the style. I don’t like the style of most comic art. It is too bright, too clean. I prefer a little blur, a little more “sketchiness.” At the very least, I don’t want the color. I am incredibly picky when it comes to aesthetic, OCD even, and if a visual style doesn’t do it for me, I have trouble forcing myself to look at it. The story can be fucking wonderful, and I still don’t want to look at it. It’s why I can love Craig Thompson’s graphic novels, but still feel repulsed by the majority of comics. Well. Shimizu’s covers are right up my alley. Though they occupy limited space in the book, they were gorgeous little gems, picturing the main character, Tommy Taylor, being sucked into books or otherwise entering or exiting their pages. Just my sort of thing. Check out a few of his cover sketches:
The rest of Unwritten’s art tends toward the comic style that I dislike. I would not say it is bad, but I will say that I am utterly incapable of making any sort of judgement as to its quality. Even so, there were moments that spoke to my own tastes. For example the panels that took place inside the Tommy Taylor books that the story revolves around (and within) or this gorgeous panel from a back-story-focused issue about Kipling:
As for the story…ooooh yeah. This is an excellent literature fetish story. That is to say it is about characters coming out of books, the power of stories, the reality of fiction, and the fiction of reality. I love that shit. Unwritten was everything that I wanted Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair to be (but that it wasn’t, at all).
“Stories are the only thing worth dying for.” -Unwritten
— Book Punks (@bookpunks) October 16, 2014
Though authors and characters and particularly places from classic literature are referenced on every second page (at least), the story’s main focus are a series of fictional fantasy books about a young, reluctant hero, wizarding student named Tommy Taylor. Tommy has short brown hair, round black glasses, and a tattoo on his hand that itches when his nemesis is being evil. He has a male and a female sidekick who look rather familiar, and yeah, they are so obviously ripped right out of Harry Potter that I often found myself wondering if this was meant as a humorous gag, what sort of role it would play in the plot later, or if it was simply bad satire. Or pointedly bad satire meant to make a point I was not yet getting. It does work, though often felt over done.
Another negative: the story is very white and very dudely. It does not pass the Bechdel Test. (There is a ten second conversation between two barely important, soon-to-be-dead female characters, but I don’t see that as enough to pass the test. Not in any meaningful way.)
Tommy’s character is, much like Christopher Robin of Winnie the Pooh, based on fictional author Wilson Taylor’s son. Though who exactly this “real-life” Tom Taylor is is the question that drives the plot through the first five installments. Is he really the author’s son? Did he come out of a book? Is he a con artist? Is he the new messiah? What the fuck is going on here and why did Tom’s father disappear? Characters can be brought out of stories, the hints and the back story that takes up all of issue 5 tell us, and literary settings are a part of that puzzle. The story was so compelling, so perfectly suited to my tastes—like I said, I eat lit fetish stories right up—that the comic-style artwork didn’t even phase me. I’m not sure I can give a comic higher praise. I am absolutely enamoured, and I have just discovered that there are already ten fucking collected volumes printed and on sale holy awesome Tommy Taylor.
What? I said I wouldn’t buy anymore books until the year was out? This is me running off to The Book Depository and not giving any of the fucks. I have to find out who Tommy is. I have to find out who is real and who was born on the page. I have to read more of this beautiful, beautiful story. Holy shit, in an hour or two of reading yesterday I have become a full-blown obsessive fan of a fucking comic book. Here’s to a new year and chance and the open-mindedness necessary to discovery.
Where I got it: Freebie at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Where you can get it: The Book Depository (free shipping around the world!)