What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part III)

Having gone through the first four volumes in Part I, and the next four volumes in Part II, I finally arrive at the end. Just when the heroes seem to be at their strongest, rescuing a whole host of characters from Hades, Tom gets whisked off to another world entirely, leaving the others behind on an Earth that’s rapidly falling into a chaotic maelstrom of stories and reality.

Sometimes a Crossover is Less Than The Sum of Its Parts

The ninth volume of The Unwritten is a crossover with another (and arguably bigger) Vertigo series: Fables. I have only read a couple of the Fables books, so I know the basics. The Fables are castaways from fairy tale worlds, with the main series focused (at least initially) on a group living in modern day New York. Having not read the whole series, I had to make some assumptions about what’s going on in this crossover.

From what I can tell, Tom finds himself in an alternate version of the Fables universe where pretty much everything has gone to shit. One of the protagonists has become an antagonist here, and another is imprisoned. All the Fables are on the run from an evil that has nearly succeeded in taking over all of their worlds, with his seat of power in the hollowed-out shell of New York city.

Of course, this could also just be much further down the O.G. Fables timeline than I have read. I don’t know.

This illustrates an inherent problem with crossovers. Your target audience is people who enjoy both of these stories, but many people will only be fans of one. They will have little or no background in the other story. You can’t make assumptions—you have to explain everything that matters to the crossover story, and ideally try to avoid boring your core audience who already understands.

However, an even bigger problem than not knowing is not caring. I haven’t read all the Fables books because the ones I did read didn’t make me excited enough to go buy more. I was excited about The Unwritten. All I really wanted out of this story was to see what happens to Tom. However, Tom spends a good chunk of the crossover storyline stuck in his wizard alter-ego, Tommy Taylor, which was always intended to be a Harry Potter pastiche. The story is mostly a Fables story, where the “real” Tom gets one big confrontation and one big revelation at the very end.

As a result of all this, I found Volume 9 to be the least interesting to me, personally. Everything Tom got out of this storyline could be summarized in a few paragraphs in the next book. In fact, it is. I have no doubt that die-hard Fables fans find much more to enjoy, but for me it was one big aside to the main story.

Don’t Give Characters a Breather

As authors and as readers, we sympathize with well-written characters and often want them to be happy. But they can’t be happy. They always have to be in a tug-of-war; they always have to be struggling. Whenever they succeed, there has to be a new challenge waiting in the wings—preferably a bigger challenge, or the momentum of the story begins to peter out.

As Wilson Taylor says, “Nobody ever lives happily ever after, Tom. If that were to happen, the story would have to stop. Because it’s sustained on the endless agonies and exertions of the hero. The twists and turns of the plot resemble a maze. But they’re the very opposite of a maze. There are no wrong turnings. Just one way through, and one end point. At the close of each book, we promise…a respite. A moment’s peace, and a moment’s all it is. But believe me, lad—that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to a happy ending.”

The End is Never Really The End

And on that note, the very last page of The Unwritten is a title page. It has the credits listed, like the start of any other issue. And then you turn the page, and it’s done. Armageddon has more-or-less happened, and nearly all of the mainstay characters have disappeared. Only one is left. But rather than end on this note of “victory, but at what cost?” we get a title page. The tantalizing expectation of something more. Our last character is heading off in search of the others. It’s the beginning of a new adventure that we don’t get to see.

It’s a bold move, and one that clearly annoyed some people, going by the reviews. It worked for me, because I don’t mind ambiguous endings. In stories and in real life, the beginnings and endings are all a matter of where you choose to start and end the story. The characters were around before the first words, and at least some of the characters, the world…something…will continue on after the last words.

As authors, we tend to think a lot more about the backstory, the bits that happen before the first words. Those inform everything that happens in the story itself. But it’s also worth thinking about the post-story, the epilogue, even when it doesn’t get written. The trajectory of the characters and world after the events of the story inform the story as well. The real world didn’t magically appear the moment you were born, and it won’t disappear into the void when you die. A good story will feel the same way, like things are going to keep happening, whether the reader is there to see them or not.

A Tiny Bit of Review

As I’ve said before, I’m not very interested in writing traditional reviews. Instead, I prefer to look at a story and see what useful ideas I can pull from it. But I’ll indulge a little bit here.

I really liked The Unwritten. I read through the entire series, and then I went back and skimmed through a lot of it as I was writing these three posts. Even on cursory examination, I picked up on things I had missed the first time. I look forward to letting the story rest for a while and giving it a thorough rereading in a year or two.

It’s not without its weak points. It dragged for me in the Fables issue, and there were definitely a few plot points that worked on an emotional level and made a nicely-shaped story, but didn’t make logical sense for me when I stopped to think about them. Overall, they don’t detract much from the work. This is my second-favorite Vertigo series, after the incomparable Sandman, and in my top five favorite comics series of all time.

I guess I’m just a sucker for a “Power of Stories” narrative. I already think that stories have the power to shape the way we see the world, and in The Unwritten, stories have that power literally as well as figuratively. The universe bends to the story and the ways we interpret it. It’s a sort of mass hallucination. One that I’m happy to partake in.

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