Be ready for frequent comparisons to Fables, for a number of reasons: both are published by DC Comics’ imprint for more mature and thoughtful titles, Vertigo; both are from the new wave of fantasy incorporating traditional fantasy literature/fairy-tale-story elements (pre-Tolkien fantasy, as it were); and both create their own worlds rich with character and backstory. As the critics were quick to point out, The Unwritten is kind of a throwback to traditional literature and a perfect fable for the Harry Potter generation. Written by Mike Carey and drawn by Peter Gross, it’s a surprisingly literate and meta-fictional satire on the Harry Potter school of Young Adult fiction that earned three Eisner Award nominations (Best New Series, Best Continuing Series, and Best Single Issue/One-Shot for #5, “How The Whale Became”) in early 2010.
Wilson Taylor’s greatest creation were the Tommy Taylor novels, a Harry Potter-style fantasy series that blossomed into one of the largest pop culture phenomenons of the 21st Century. The titular Tommy Taylor, with his winged cat familiar Mingus and his wizarding pals, set out to stop the evil vampire Count Ambrosio in book after book. Pity Wilson, who disappeared years ago, isn’t still around to see it. Instead, his son, Tom Taylor, is the scion to the family estate; only, the billions in revenue his father’s books made is locked away from him. Instead, to his bitter dismay, Tom has become the face of the Tommy Taylor franchise, signing autographs and making appearances to make ends meet. It’s to the point where people think Tom is Tommy, a thought that irritates Tom to no end.
That is, until a rumor breaks that Tom might not be the Wilson’s son anyways, but instead a Bosnian refugee stolen away from his real parents. The fan backlash is immense. And it causes doubts to form in Tom’s head; his relationship with his abusive father was never strong, Wilson Taylor spending most of his time demanding Tom memorize geographic trivia from classic literature. Tom starts on some amateur detective work to try and figure out what’s going on. Then he’s almost blown up by a lunatic who thinks he’s the villainous Count Ambrosio from the books… or is he just some lunatic? The lines between Tommy Taylor, Boy Wizard, and Tom Taylor, apathetic twenty-something, begin to blur, and finally come to a bloody crescendo in the form of a meta-fictional horror story set in the same chateau that Frankenstein was written in.
The artwork is in the same general style as that of Fables, probably Vertigo’s most popular series still in production. Only with less color and style. By that I mean The Unwritten is very crisp and clear, but completely lacking in texture or detail, and the color scheme is very dull. Fables‘ art doesn’t do much for me, and it’s a step above The Unwritten in that it has creative use of color and background elements. Here, the most colorful things are Tom’s Charlie Sheen-esque shirts, and the backgrounds tend to be sparse. The covers are a delight, but the interior art just didn’t do much for me—the main advantage of a graphic format over a traditional novel is its art, and to squander that leaves you with a badly illustrated short novel.
My big complaint is that this first volume just isn’t that interesting. Not a lot happens other than Tom’s rise and fall of popularity—which isn’t that dramatic or action-packed—up until the last few issues in the volume. There’s a promise for a bigger payoff with the sometimes ham-handed repetition of the theme that stories create/influence the real-world, but not much is done on that front until the second volume (which is a better showcase for the series’ potential than this one). The first volume is a good idea without any hook, and lacking any meat behind that idea. It consists solely of questions, which (hopefully) future volumes will take some time in answering. The last issue—“How the Whale Became”—is the most intriguing, though it displays the guts of how The Unwritten‘s world works before the reader knows they’re there.
That said, there are a few moments of striking brilliance. The opening of each issue is a snippet from a relevant Tommy Taylor book, and while they’re played up to the hilt in Young Adult wizardry cliches, that makes them pretty fun. There’s a lot of intertextuality that adds a lot of verisimilitude to the series, with news segments, snippets of blog and forum posts, and the like scattered about. Given the references, the authors knew (or learned) a bit of classical literature as well as Harry Potter lore, and even get in a few loving digs at the comic-con fandom.
The last issue, “How The Whale Became,” is a one-off detailing the rise and fall of Rudyard Kipling (with cameos by Mark Twain), as he’s drawn into a dark and sinister world where unknown powers strong-arm fiction writers into altering the real world. No wonder it made the Eisner Award shortlist. That’s the kind of brilliant idea that got the critics’ attention and gives the series such potential. But it’s buried in a one-off, and it’s a concept that’s integrated into the main story in a sluggish and ineffective way; it’s hinted at constantly from the beginning, but doesn’t show its full potential in this volume. I get the feeling the authors were making it up as they went along.
Given all the rave reviews on the covers claiming the series to be Vertigo’s next big thing, the first volume of The Unwritten is something of a disappointment. It has the spark of potential but doesn’t follow up on it, so it remains just that: a spark. Having already read the second volume—I bought them packaged together—I can say that the series does show a lot of promise, but isn’t there yet. If I’d bought Volume 1 on its own, I doubt I’d have kept going; there’s a lot of potential, but nothing to back up those promises. It has great literary references and is a witty satire of the Harry Potter phenomenon, but is just lacking that little something that would transform it from “shows potential” to “exhibits greatness.”
As such, I wouldn’t recommend reading Volume 1 by its lonesome if you were interested in the world-shaking graphic fantasy the cover blurbs praise it as; it doesn’t really reach that point until the next volume. The Unwritten Volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity is full of crafty ideas, but just isn’t strong enough for me to recommend on its own.