Do I really exist? To you, dear reader, am I anything more than a pair of hands and a keyboard? Maybe you imagine me as a wispy being who lives only to review the second volume of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Unwritten.
The value of this shoe gazing waffle is dubious, but it’s the kind of literary introspection that reading The Unwritten inspires. Every story beat is an intellectual prod at the place and purpose of fiction in our social consciousness. I’m doing it again. It’s impossible to talk about this comic without grasping for the most pretentious locution in your lexicon.
This probably paints an unfairly snobby picture of The Unwritten, which keeps its analysis at a cerebral, but approachable level. Lest we forget, there’s a perfectly functional and occasionally gripping story rumbling along in the foreground.
Holding all the flighty concepts in place are the travails of Tom Taylor, whose fictional doppelganger is the star of a series of Harry Potter-esque novels penned by his father. His universe is like a reverse Truman Show. Instead of the world revolving around the pretence that he is a real man, thousands of people believe Tom to be an imaginary character come to life.
The Unwritten‘s narrative toys with this idea, hinting heavily that there may be more truth to the “made flesh” concept than meets the eye. Carey shows his skill as a writer by realising how obvious a twist that must be to the reader. So, rather than dialling back the allusions, he ramps them up, putting us in the tantalising position of being almost convinced, but intriguingly unsure.
Despite a potentially indulgent premise, The Unwritten sports an action-packed narrative. A mysterious evil cabal wants Tom dead and his missing dad is talking to Lizzie Hexam through the pages of a book. It’s not really clear what any of this means, but, along with a confusing map and a magic doorknob, we’re on the hunt for answers together.
At the beginning of Vol. 2, Tom is transferred to prison after being falsely accused of the murderous rampage that concluded Vol. 1, and the penitentiary’s downtrodden prison governor shares the spotlight in the first half of the book. His kids are Tommy Taylor obsessives and he is conflicted. Reading his offspring a bedtime story is cathartic, but it only increases the risk that they will discover the ‘truth’ about their idol.
It seems almost cheeky for Carey to spend a whole issue revisiting previous story sections from the governor’s perspective, but his bravery is vindicated. Aside from adding a welcome layer of context to the denouement, it’s hard not to see Carey and Gross’ decision to depict the same episodes with altered mise en scène as a commentary on the mutable nature of fiction, a study of how the interpretation of a story changes with each reading.
Perhaps they didn’t intend this at all, but the brilliance of The Unwritten‘s premise is that it invites the reader to pontificate on every subtlety.
In a book with such a huge focus on the written word, it’s easy for art to seem like an afterthought. Peter Gross’ rendering of everyday settings is functional, if not exciting, as are his depictions of each character. At times he is a little too vague, particularly in the facial expressions of the lead players. Tom et al lack definition and, by extension, expression. It says something that the most emotive face in the entire book belongs to an incidental horse on the second page.
When the focus shifts to a grey alternate universe created by the Nazi bastardisation of Jud Süß, Gross begins to flourish. He seems more at home with the creepy fantastical imagery, and his climactic creature (which looks as if it was spawned by an unholy union between the Third Reich and the smoke monster from Lost) had me twisting the book around to get a better look. It’s a shame that the story falters at this point, as the narrative takes a backseat to literary musings. It’s enough to keep you ticking along, but the book never really recovers from the powerful emotional hit that concludes its first half.
On the art front, it should be noted that Yuko Shimizu’s covers are inspired. Her striking work is reminiscent of Katsushika Hokusai, revelling in minute details and sharp simple colours.
Volume 2 ends, as did its predecessor, with an aside. Mike Carey claims that the model for Taylor’s angst is Christopher Milne, son of A.A. and inspiration for Christopher Robin. In a neat reference, we’re treated to a foul-mouthed hare stuffed into a Winnie The Pooh-style yarn. It’s a great conceit for a single shot narrative and the change to watercolour storybook art is perfect.
Sadly, Vol. 2 doesn’t really fix the main flaw with The Unwritten‘s first trade release, the lack of a really great story. As interesting as the beard-scratching subtext is, you’re never going to be turning the page with sweaty hands, anxious to read Mike Carey’s next philosophical nugget.
The Unwritten is in constant flux between ideas, adventure, and visuals. At no point do these three spheres collide symphoniously, but there are hints of possible brilliance to come. All in all, it’s enough to make me eager for the next book, if not with bated breath, then at least with an eyebrow cocked.
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