So it occurred to me a while back that reviewing long-running comics series TPB by TPB doesn’t really convey the overall effect. So as I recently finished rereading the 2009-13 Vertigo series Unwritten, I thought I’d try doing a whole-series review (with spoilers, be warned)
Created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, the first issue introduces us to Tom Taylor, son of legendary children’s author Wilson Taylor. Wilson’s masterwork is the Tommy Taylor series about a boy wizard (yes, Harry Potter is the template, though not the only one) which has made his son’s life hell. Just imagine if JK Rowling had a son named Harold Potter: the jokes, the fans who want to jump him just for his name, the crazies who insist Harold is no mere boy — he is the real Harry made flesh! That’s Tom’s life.
Then at one con, a young woman named Lizzie Hexam challenges Tom, claiming he’s not Wilson’s son at all. This sets off ripples in fandom, accelerating when Tom, retreating from the fuss, is framed for a series of murders. Oh, and he also meets the Frankenstein monster, who identifies him as a fellow artificial creation, neglected by his father. Tom, Lizzie and reporter Savoy begin investigating what’s going on, and who framed Tommy. Weirdness continues to multiply, such as one man getting transformed into Tommy Taylor’s archfoe, the vampire Ambrosius.
It turns out there’s a secret organization, the Cabal, that has been shaping humanity’s storytelling for centuries. Which stories are remembered? Which are forgotten? Do they teach us war and heroism? That greed is good? That self-sacrifice is good, or a waste of our potential? Inconvenient storytellers are broken, or dispatched by the Cabal’s enforcer, Pullman. And Wilson, a former Cabal agent, is telling stories the Cabal doesn’t like at all. Killing Wilson would only make the stories more popular, so Pullman went out to frame Tom; when that doesn’t work the Cabal launches a scheme to discredit the series with a really horrible book.
It turns out there’s much more going on. The Cabal is an unwitting front for Pullman, who belongs to one of the oldest stories ever created, that of Cain and Abel (which he says was a distortion of true events). The legend that grew around his fight with his brother attracted the attention of Leviathan, an entity that lives on human imagination; because of that, Pullman can’t die, as Leviathan preserves him in story (the relationship between Leviathan and human fiction is symbiotic). Pullman’s goal is to kill the Leviathan so he can die, even though humanity may die with the great cosmic whale.
Wilson, meanwhile, created Tom (who is his son) as a weapon against the Cabal. As belief that Tom=Tommy Taylor grows in fandom, Tom becomes able to tap his counterpart’s magic. Because of the way Wilson raised him, Tom is able to slip in and out of stories, understanding them at fundamental level. He fails to stop Pullman wounding Leviathan but is it possible he can put the whale back together?
It’s a strange epic journey, but it works. Carey and Gross do a great job playing with stories and how they influence us, though the idea we’re all stories to someone else never quite came across. They throw in some great characters such as Pauly Bruckner, a horrible human being Tom accidentally trapped in the Hundred Acre Wood (sans serial numbers) and willing to do anything to get out. They also make effective use of the way the Internet plays such a big role in fandom.
I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending on first read, but it worked better on this go-round. Tom’s fate isn’t quite as dark as I thought and he never does forgive Wilson for using him as a means to an end (I’d remembered some sort of warm hug that never happens).
There are 11 volumes collectiong the series plus Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, depicting the first Tommy Taylor novel with cuts to show Wilson formulating his master plan. I recommend them all.
#SFWApro. Covers by Yuko Shimizu, all rights remain with current holders.