Shiny Shelf

The Unwritten

By Mark Clapham on 04 November 2009

As with so many aspects of the American comics industry, it sometimes feels like Vertigo is only still around because of its legacy, rather than because it serves any great current purpose.

The sales heyday of heavy hitters like ‘Sandman’ and ‘Preacher’ are long gone (although supporters and creators argue that bookstore sales of trade paperbacks and misinterpretations of the monthly figures vastly underrate the commercial success of Vertigo titles), and with the opportunities for creators to launch new, mature titles more widely spread between Image, Oni et al, Vertigo isn’t the creative vanguard for the industry it once was.

Following the end of ‘Y: The Last Man’ and ‘100 Bullets’, Vertigo has launched a number of new titles in the last few years, to limited success. ‘Scalped’ is excellent, a sufficient critical darling that it’s been kept going in the face of low sales, but a lot of other ‘ongoings’ have been and gone shy of the 20 issue mark. The search for a big hitter, or at least a moderate success to match the consistency of ‘Hellblazer’, continues.

‘The Unwritten’ is one of the more recent launches, and has just hit its sixth issue. Created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, the team behind the heroic ‘Lucifer’, it strikes an admirable balance, targetting Vertigo’s genre heartland of adult literary fantasy while proving wholly distinct from ‘Sandman’, ‘Fables’ et al. It has also been fine-tuned as an ongoing narrative – compared to a lot of comics that take a while to find their feet, ‘The Unwritten’ allows itself no learning curve, with a fast-developing story filled with hooks and twists.

In short (these were supposed to be short reviews, remember? I obviously don’t): Tom Taylor is the son of missing (presumed dead) children’s fantasy author Wilson Taylor, author of the Tommy Taylor books, which have become a worldwide multimedia phenomenon in Wilson’s absence. Tom has eked a living on the fan circuit as the ‘inspiration’ for the world famous boy wizard, partially because he isn’t very good at anything else – his only inheritance from his famous father is an encyclopedic knowledge of fictional geography.

The series raises one initial question – was Tom the inspiration for Tommy, or is he the fictional Tommy magically made real-world flesh? – but then throws in a whole load of others, all of which lead to a bigger, underlying question: does this reality inspire stories, or is reality shaped by the dreams encapsulated in fiction?

While there are obvious points of reference for the initial premise – the ‘Harry Potter’ phenomenon, post-modern fantasy books like Carroll’s ‘The Land of Laughs’ – six issues in, certain aspects of the story remind me less of those than they do of TV conspiracy thrillers. There’s something of ‘Fringe’ or ‘The X-Files’ in the conflict between different factions somehow criss-crossing between the worlds of fact and fiction, the hidden war beneath the normal.

Tom himself is a spiky, appealing protagonist, less the fantasy hero following the ‘hero’s journey’ of self discovery and more like the dysfunctional patsies who get dragged into conspiracy narratives. He’s not a hero, but he’s fearless in his own strange way – thrown into a menacing environment he neither stands tall nor sinks into despair, but instead threatens to take out someone’s eye with a plastic fork.

It’s hard to separate words from pictures, so let’s not bother – Carey and Gross work as a storytelling team, metamorphosing as they shift between historical fact, children’s fiction, and numerous other genres and worlds, while blurring all of the above into a consistent whole. They have fun with pictures, text and ‘found objects’ such as mocked-up internet fora (which need carefully reading for sly jokes and references). What could be a mish-mash with undigestible chunks of text instead reads incredibly smoothly, and looks gorgeous (special mention on this front to the colorists, letterer and cover artist, who all add to a coherent, beautifully presented whole: Chris Chuckry & Jeanne McGee, Todd Klein and Yuko Shimizu respectively).

‘The Unwritten’ is in some ways the archetypal Vertigo book, a sharp, serialised contemporary fantasy. However there’s nothing wrong with playing to your strengths sometimes, and hopefully that match-up of material and imprint will allow ‘The Unwritten’ to have the same kind of epic run that past Vertigo successes have had. If nothing else, this is a story that I want to get to the end of… wherever and whenever that end may be.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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