From the stack: The Unwritten vol. 1

January 28, 2010

The Unwritten (Vertigo) is entirely about stories within stories, or at least about stories that break the boundaries of the page to influence the real world. It centers its attention on the adult son of a revered author of fantasy fiction, specifically a series of novels about a young wizard and his two friends who battle evil. Tom Taylor shares a first name with his father’s protagonist, Tommy, and Tommy shares just about every meaningful quality with that other boy wizard. It’s an appropriation that strikes me as more functional than resonant, and it could verge on seeming at least a little envious of the critical and commercial success of the Harry Potter franchise, but the creators manage to avoid that.

Tom’s author father disappeared years ago, and Tom is making a living off of being the son of the creator of Tommy. Tom treats Tommy’s fans with warm cordiality that evaporates into sullen discontent as soon as they’re out of earshot. Writer Mike Carey does a nice job playing up the awkwardness of unearned celebrity. Tom would rather make his way on his own merits, presuming those merits ever assert themselves, but he’s got to eat (and drink), and his father’s estate is tied up in litigation. Tom’s situation deteriorates when a mysterious young woman casts his entire identity into question in front of an auditorium full of fervent Tommy admirers. Is he Tom Taylor, son of a famous author, or is he just a prop acquired by that author to inspire his fictional child? Or is he actually that fictional child, bled into the real world?

So Tom is thrust into a strange, mystical conspiracy about stories and their power and begins what seems likely to be a world tour of fiction, starting at the birthplace of Milton’s Satan (possibly not really, as some sources claim the villa was built after Milton’s death, but the story works better if he had) and Shelley’s monster. As if that weren’t name-dropping literary import enough, Carey sprinkles in references to Agatha Christie, Kevin Williamson, Laurell K. Hamilton, and others, all while launching Tom on a metaphysical quest right out of a Dan Brown novel. It’s like a best-seller list with a plot.

And honestly, it’s pretty good. Artist Peter Gross does a nice job with the material, aided by colorists Chris Chukry and Jeanne McGee and letterer Todd Klein. My problem with the series is that I don’t care much about Tom or Tommy. Tom is a hapless whiner at this point, hampered by people who may be his allies and menaced by mysterious forces that are more postures than characters at this point. Even Tom seems to know that he’s irritating and largely superfluous. As for Tommy, well, I’ve already got Harry Potter.

I did like one of these collected chapters very much. In it, Carey uses the career trajectory of Rudyard Kipling to tease out the underlying conspiracy that plagues his contemporary protagonist. It succeeds in being sly and even moving in ways that the other chapters probably intend to be but don’t quite achieve. Kipling’s story and the way it reflected the colonial impulses of his time is re-framed, and though it doesn’t say anything meaningful about the plight of the colonized, it’s very useful to the ongoing narrative. And it gives the reader the chance to speculate over which other authors owe their success to diabolical agreements.