Academics like to ignore genre. If a “literary” author goes slumming in the SFFinal, it might be worth a look. If it gets shelved in Science Fiction & Fantasy, it might as well be in the trash can. But there was this one professor at my college who taught a class called The Fantastic in Literature. We read Borges and Maupassant. E.T.A. Hoffmann and Cortazar. We read fucking Sandman. That’s right, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was on the syllabus.
Oh glorious glorious man! If only I could remember your name! But hey, I bet Erika could tell you. If memory serves, he’s the reason she got to write her thesis on His Dark Materials. (Yeah, that’s right, that is exactly how cool Erika is. She wrote her fucking thesis on His Dark Materials. Hey Erika, can I read that sometime?) I later did an independent study with him during which I recall reading even more Sandman.
But I digress. Sandman was the first comic I’d ever read. As a kid, I would occasionally try to convince my parents to buy me the comics they sold at the supermarket checkout line, but they always refused. Didn’t see the value. Didn’t think something I would read as quickly as I could read a comic was worth the money. They had a point with the time-money value ratio, and it’s one of the reasons I never got deep into comics: I read too fast. I would rather pick up a 200-page novel that will take me five hours than a 150-page comic for the same price that will take me one or two. Those supermarket Mickey Mouse comics were pretty shitty. But the truth was, Sandman aside, I had just never encountered a comic that made it really worth it. Now I have. It’s called The Unwritten. (It is also called Saga, but that is an enthusiastic seizure for another day).
If The Unwritten—the first collected volume of which came out in 2010—had been around in 2003, we would have read it in The Fantastic in Literature. This is pure literature fetish gold. As I said in my review of volume 1, “Unwritten was everything that I wanted Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair to be (but that it wasn’t, at all).” It is meta. Characters from books come alive, and characters outside of books fall into stories. A secret cabal of authors (sort of) control the world through the power that stories create. It is meta. Literature writing about literature writing about literarture. It comments on the genre while commenting on itself while telling its own fast-paced story. It is exciting. It is literary. I can’t stop reading it.
Though I don’t even like most comics visually (let’s call it aestetic OCD), I can’t stop reading this. (But, hey, the covers are gorgeous thanks to Yuko Shimizu.) The story is fun, as are the constant lit-geek references. Moby Dick pops up, as does Frankenstien and…shit, nevermind, I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s just put the story in a nutshell—Tom, son of the author of world-famous Tommy Taylor books is finding out that stories are a lot more real than he ever thought, and that his life is inextricably wrapped up in stories—and send that boat out to the library where you will take out this series and read it immediately.
If you like literary references and meta and riffs on Harry Potter (and every other big SFF book of our age) and the idea that stories are powerful and dangerous and important, that this is a story for you. As Paul Cornell says in his intridcution to The Unwritten Volume 2: Inside Man, “Narrative equals consciousness equals magical power equals political power, an equation which feels instinctively true, which might even define existence.” If we buy into the premise of the story, then the authors are doing magic right before our eyes, and we are doing magic as we read. I. Love. This. Shit.
Except for one part. The part where ALL of the characters are white, and almost none of them are female. This series does not pass the Bechdel test at all. I don’t even think two female characters talk to each other ever. I don’t recall a single gay character either. For some smart guys, Mike Carey and Peter Gross really dropped the ball on that one. That’s a pretty big caveat, so you might be able to tell how fun and wonderful the story is, to manage to make The Unwritten enjoyable anyway.
I’m devouring The Unwritten too quickly to stop and write reviews of each volume, so instead I offer up a blurb-sized comment on each.
Ok, so this volume was a little disappointing, but it might have had something to do with the fact that while I was waiting for it to arrive in the mail, I read all three available volumes of Saga, which is pretty much the best fucking thing (not just comic, best thing) I have read all year. After Saga, The Unwritten felt even whiter and dudlier; it simply lacked color, diversity, and women who do things besides get used by other people or date them or die. Tom gets thrown in prison, accused of murdering half a dozen people at his father’s villa in Switzerland. The weaving of fictions by the prison master both for himself, his inmates, and his children is in the spotlight here, and the result is dark in a way I like in my fiction. When the characters find themselves in a story in Nazi Germany, another interesting rumination on the molding of stories to bend realty unfolds, but damn, guys, who did you get to proofread the German you used?
Then there’s an entire episode about a white rabbit, dear fucking god, a swearing, angry, violent rabbit who I didn’t really know what to do with. Though his presence was a little baffling to me, Cornell’s introduction gives it more weight as a literary device. *Shrugs.*
Somewhere among the pages of Dead Man’s Knock, I was sucked back into the story, though I didn’t reach fever pitch until Leviathan. The artists have ceased to use a different style when showing us the insides of books, making the transition between fiction and reality quicker, less obvious. Which is real and which is fiction? Not being quite sure is the entire point.
We also learn about Lizzie Hexam’s past via a choose your own adventure issue which is pretty neat. Lizzie is a woman who is either from a Dickens’ book or who Tom’s father Wilson brainwashed into believing she was from a Dickens’ book. The more we learn about Wilson, the bigger the asshat he turns out to be. Will he ever be redeemed? There is a potential conundrum here. Wilson believed stories were powerful, that fiction and reality were basically the same thing, and believing as such, he molded the lives of those he could control like putty. His own son, geezus fuck, the things he did to his own son! We’re told it was all to make Tom into a secret weapon that will defeat the evil story cabal, but how will that play out? If it turns out Wilson was right, we’re making excuses for child abuse and parental negligence. If he turns out to be wrong, well, then we’ve just spent a lot of time with a huge asshole who is going to make us feel awful ashamed for believing in the power of stories as much as he did.
Here comes the white whale. While I recall reading Moby Dick as being absolute torture, I love the story when someone else tells it. But before we find ourselves inside Moby Dick with Tom, we meet the creepy puppetmaster who, depending on how her role plays out, might make it onto my Vilest of Villains list. Then we get the fun of riding the ocean through a number of literature’s whale stories, after which SECRETS ARE REVEALED. By the end of this volume, I was back in love the way I had been during volume one. Except for the return of the cursing white rabbit, whose story line feels like it is intended to be particularly deep. I’m not so sure, but I’m willing to listen to the arguments in favor.
The slimmest of The Unwritten volumes so far, On to Gensis’ title promises answers about the creation of Tom/Tommy. Nope. What we do get is a lot of information about Wilson Taylor’s journey (that would be his Dad), in fact, more information than was offered in Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice. The stories on display this volume around are pulp comics with a touch of noir, and the secrets that are revealed are appropriately dark and startingly. Savoy, Tom’s Ron Weasely, has been turned into a vampire by Tommy Taylor’s nemesis Ambrosio, and his behavior in this volume rocketed him onto my favorite fictional vampires list. There is also a lovely bit about a female comic writer using a male pseudonym because she feels she has to in order to get published. Nice touch, gentlemen. I ended this volume feeling incredibly excited for the thick volume that follows it: War of the Words.
OK, kids, *cracks knuckles*, it’s time to start reading that next volume.