The Unwritten is a Vertigo comics series published from 2009 to 2015, written by Mike Carey. I picked up the first few trade paperbacks by sheer chance, when my wife found them at a garage sale and thought they looked interesting. After devouring those four, I bought the remaining seven books in the series.
The Unwritten takes place in a world similar to ours, and follows Tom Taylor, whose father published a massively best-selling series of books starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. Tom makes a meager living on the convention circuit by virtue of being the character’s namesake. Early in the story he becomes the target of a secret society that uses stories to manipulate and control the world, and finds out that his father was somehow involved with them as well.
The Unwritten is a modern comics masterpiece that intertwines its own original story with real history and dozens of famous works of fiction. It starts with the classic idea that stories have the power to change the world, and then asks what would happen if that were literally true.
This is a big series of books, so I’m going to cover it in a couple posts. First, volumes 1–4.
Everything is a Gun on the Mantle
Callbacks are powerful, and The Unwritten makes liberal use of them. Characters are often introduced in short scenes where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The story steps away, only to revisit them later and explore them more deeply. Scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and from other works of fiction are shown early in an episode and become relevant later on. And some ideas keep coming back again and again, like the vampire, Ambrosio, never quite being dead for good.
These callbacks use the principle of minimum necessary information to pull the reader along without bogging down the story. But they’re not just one-and-done. In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig calls this “echoing.” The gun on the mantle need not be thrown away as soon as it’s fired. It can be fired again and again. It can turn out to have historical significance and emotional significance. This layering of narrative makes the reader feel rewarded for simply paying attention, seeing these through-lines keep building and building.
The Unwritten covers a lot of history, back to the very first stories and ahead to the end of the world. But that history is doled out carefully, in small helpings. It takes most of the series for the reader to finally see the whole picture. Each new plot twist seems inevitable, because the groundwork was laid for it by the elements that came before.
I skimmed through the books again as I was writing this, and I immediately discovered several tiny references that I had missed the first time around. These were little clues about what was going on, and which mysteries would become important later. Missing them didn’t hurt my enjoyment of my first read-through, although I’m sure they’d add to the experience of a reader who caught them. Perhaps it’s even better to catch them on a re-read, and discover that I can still find new things in a story whose shape I already know.
Breadcrumbs like these also give the reader an important sense that the author knows where the story is going, which is particularly relevant in episodic media like TV and comics. Many of us have been burned by stories like Game of Thrones or LOST where the authors threw down exciting mysteries and conflicts, but couldn’t come up with commensurate payoffs because they didn’t have a clear plan for the end. Breadcrumbs and callbacks let the reader know that the author is leading them somewhere. It’s hard to enjoy a story until you trust that the author is going to bring you somewhere interesting.
Form Follows Function
The Unwritten plays with a variety of different forms. News broadcasts show up in several places as a series of small TV stills with a ticker along the bottom of the “screen” and the voice-over text just below. There are also times when the characters are browsing the web, and pages of various sizes and shapes are shown shuffled and overlapping, to give the sense of time passing in a jumble of scattered information.
Stories from ancient and recent times are interwoven into the narrative, and are illustrated in different ways. The medieval Song of Roland has washed-out colors and heavier line work. The Tommy Taylor books-within-the-book are slightly more cartoony. Dickens looks like woodcut. The Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired fictitious Willowbank Wood is all pastel watercolors. The Nazi propaganda Jud Süß is black and white, with the red of swastikas providing the only color.
Beyond the visual style, the prose itself changes between these different types of stories. Even more interesting are narrative jaunts, like the issue that reveals Lizzie Hexam’s past. Rather than give the reader a definitive version of events, we get a choose-your-own-adventure story, and different branches paint the characters as sinister or sympathetic, in their own control or manipulated by others. The result is a character whose back-story exists in a quantum superposition of different states.
Sometimes, the way the story is told is what makes the story worth listening to. Memento just isn’t a very interesting story if it’s told linearly. House of Leaves would lose its punch without the multiple frame stories and the parts where the text starts wandering around the page and turning back on itself. The ordering of the narrative and the presentation are the layers of the story that the reader directly interacts with. Even if they aren’t the “meat” of the story, they are responsible for a lot of the flavor.
More to Come
Next time, I’ll dig into volumes 5–8.