Vertigo has always been known as DC Comics’ smarter and more mature sibling, a reputation it built upon the firm foundations of Hellblazer, V for Vendetta, and The Sandman. A reputation cemented with titles like Preacher, Transmetropolitan, 100 Bullets, and Fables. It’s one of the few comic-book imprints marketed towards a more sophisticated audience, containing mature themes and cerebral topics. And so there’s a lot of Vertigo titles that show potential and are labelled the “next big thing,” the next Sandman or Fables. The Unwritten is the front-runner “big new thing,” a high-concept series from Mike Carey and Peter Gross, the minds behind the Sandman spin-off Lucifer. A blend of philosophy, literature, and meta-fictional technique, The Unwritten has made waves since its début.
The first arc, “Inside Man,” deals with a framed Tom Taylor arrested and jailed for the murders committed at the Villa Diodati. Extradited to France, Tom is shipped off to Roncevaux along with Richie Savoy, soon to be Tom’s cellmate. The blending of literature and reality become a bit more blatant; this close to the battle of Roncevaux Pass, a spectral Roland from The Song of Roland appears, and it turns out Frankenstein’s monster has tracked Tom from the Villa Diodati. Lizzie Hexam is tracking Tom as well, and the flying cat familiar Mingus from the Tommy Taylor stories makes a reappearance. Things heat up when the series’ undisclosed nemesis arrives with a small army of armed goons.
The second story arc is where the series really begins to shine, with the metaphorical, metafictional elements displayed through unfettered creativity. The second arc is “Jud Süss” and it brings our characters into a grayscale world. It’s falling apart due to the Nazis’ bastardization of the Feuchtwanger novel into their anti-Semitic epic. Jud Süss has become an elemental, Lovecraftian cosmic monstrosity which struggles to blend the conflicting 1925 novel and 1940 film into one entity. Again, more questions are raised than answered, but this arc does a wonderful job of bolstering and expanding the possibilities held by the series’ “fiction impacts reality” mantra, even though it does nothing to clarify it.
The last inclusion is another of those one-off issues, “Willowbank Tales,” filing the role of “How the Whale Became” from the earlier trade edition. “Willowbank,” much like “Jud Süss,” examines the meta-narrative of stories, particularly the dead areas of negative space within fiction, in a psychological way. Also, it’s got a foul-mouthed rabbit in a whimsical Winnie the Pooh setting, so there’s something for everyone.
As with the previous issue, most of the art doesn’t do much for me; it’s in a functional, simple style lacking in details or texture, and it ends up feeling flat and bland to me. The color palette is muted for the first story arc; the characters lack emotion. Things change dramatically for “Jud Süss,” where our characters are spots of color existing in a world of black, white, and red. It’s not as dark and sickly as it could be, but it is stark and otherworldly, which makes that story arc shine the more. The last issue in the volume, “Willowbank Tales,” is done in a vibrant, painterly style that evokes its source inspiration, Winnie the Pooh. It’s that last issue which is the most beautiful.
The writing is of a consistent high quality, and we now have the Tommy Taylor character roles filled—Tom as Tommy, Richie and Lizzie Hexam as the supporting cast, and Mingus as himself. Still, the volume suffers from the same issue as the first volume of The Unwritten: it lacks a truly great story. It’s filled with great concepts, wonderful ideas, and a brilliant creativity, but the subtext remains obtuse. By now, we know that stories can change the world, that there are people working to use this to their advantage, and that the realms of literature can easily overlap and blend into reality. But the plot itself is distant and unexplained, and you’re not going to rip through the series with anxious anticipation of the next revelation; you keep reading because you want to uncover more of the mystery.
The Unwritten is a cacophonous mixture of idea, adventure, fantasy, philosophy, and visuals, but two volumes in it has yet to coalesce to the point where all three aspects cooperate and enhance each other. There is a lot more creativity on display here; “Jud Süss” and “Willowbank Tales” are high-concept pieces of metafictional psychology of mind-blowing originality, and showcase the talent masterminding the series. But while it’s a stronger, more ambitious volume than its predecessor, the series has yet to grow from a promise of greater things to come into actual great things—it’s close, but not quite, the sheer excellence talked about by the exuberant cover blurbs. Thumbs up compared to Volume One, but there’s still a ways to go before it blossoms from greatness into brilliance.