The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, debuted in 2009 and follows Tom Taylor, who was his father Wilson Taylor’s inspiration for a series of hugely successful Tommy Taylor children’s fantasy novels — much like the Harry Potter series. When we first meet Tom, his cold, distant father has long since disappeared, leaving Tom jaded and disillusioned, scraping together an existence signing his father’s books on the convention circuit.
When a woman named Lizzie Hexam shows up and questions whether he’s the real son of Wilson Taylor, Tom’s world explodes, with half his “fans” believing he’s a fraud, and the other half believing he’s the living incarnation of the Tommy Taylor character come to save the world. Framed for multiple murders and on the run, joined by Lizzie and journalist Richie Savoy, Tom is suddenly thrust into a world where stories literally come to life, and he’s pursued by a mysterious cabal who wants to control what people read — and believe — at any cost.
Unwritten explores the sheer power of stories — and of readers’ beliefs — making it an intense, engrossing read. To make things even more interesting, Unwritten is traveling to the world of Fables, another Vertigo superstar, starting with Unwritten #50 this June. Plus, September marks the arrival of the original hardcover graphic novel, Unwritten: Tommy Taylor & The Ship That Sank Twice, the graphic novel “adaptation” of the first Tommy Taylor book!
We chatted with Fables writer Bill Willingham last month, and now we’ve had the opportunity to interview Unwritten co-creators Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Read below for a fascinating look into the past, future, and present of Unwritten, as well as a four-page peek into Unwritten #48, available now!
TFAW: Unwritten is such a multi-layered, surprising series. How did it come together, and how much did you have planned out when it debuted?
Mike Carey: Thank you! Well the gestation process was really a very strange one. After we wound up on Lucifer, Peter and I really wanted to do another book together, and we pitched a whole lot of ideas to Shelly Bond, our editor, but for one reason or another none of them made it through the triage process. And then after a while we stopped pitching because other stuff intervened. Peter went off and did American Jesus, I did Crossing Midnight and my Marvel stuff.
And then we met up again at San Diego Comic-Con in (I think) 2009, and Vertigo editor Pornsak Pichetshote was there too. We got a dialogue going, and we carried it on after we all went home from the Con. But basically Peter had one idea and I had another, and we weren’t sure which one we wanted to develop. “Put them together,” Pornsak suggested, “and see what happens.” We did, and what happened was The Unwritten.
Peter Gross: My idea was about a kid whose father wrote a famous book using the kid as the main character, and then disappeared afterwards, leaving the kid with the awful fallout of being famous and abandoned. Mike’s idea was about a guy who is given a magic horn that if you blow it, the world changes. When we started merging them together, we basically had the opening scene of The Unwritten!
And from there we planned out what we wanted the book to be about, and came up with the ending and the main stepping stones along the way. As we’ve developed and executed it more, those beats have altered and some characters have been added, made more important, or even determined their own paths, but the ending has remained (in our heads) essentially the same as what we planned at the start.
TFAW: What was it that most interested you about the character of Tom Taylor?
MC: I guess for me it’s that I like heroes who start off completely clueless and out of their depth and have to grow into the role. Nothing turns me off quicker than a James Bond-like protagonist who’s always got exactly the skill set he needs to survive. Tom, when we first meet him, seems to have no skill set at all — but he does have the “literary GPS” that his dad drummed into him, and that turns out to be relevant. Apart from that he’s a babe in the woods. But gradually he pulls it together and manages to survive, against all the odds.
PG: I think for me it was the challenge of dealing with the reluctant hero. That’s actually the sort of character I oftentimes find frustrating and unsatisfying. And I think at times, to be honest, Tom can be frustrating, especially because he’s a character caught up in a lot of big story ideas — within the pages of the series, and within our intent. So Tom’s challenge is to find his humanity in all that.
TFAW: What do you think is the biggest change Tom Taylor has undergone during this series — besides learning to believe in magic doorknobs and such?
MC: He becomes someone who’s capable of compassion. The Tom of the early issues is really all about himself — very selfish, quite self-pitying, more than a little obnoxious. Then when Cosi and Leon Chadron die right in front of him in issue #8, he starts to realize what responsibility is. Which is why, when Lizzie starts to fall apart, he responds in the way he does. He’s prepared to risk himself to help her, not because of the whole romantic/sexual thing between them, which hasn’t happened yet, but because he feels responsible for what his father has done to her on his account.
PG: Not only is Tom a reluctant hero, but he’s also a very reserved one. He was terribly hurt as a kid, and there wasn’t anyone in his life to open up to about it. So he’s very reserved and doesn’t reveal himself. But I think more and more, we find out the reasons for that, and he’s able to open up more. But it’s a long slow process for him. And I think it’s all very tied up in the role his father has tried to design for him. But on one level, Tom’s story will always be about becoming more human.
TFAW: One of the main themes of Unwritten is the power of words, and of readers’ beliefs. They can influence reality, and literally change one into a different person! How do you see this relating to “real life”?
MC: Peter and I talk about this side of the story all the time, and I think we both see it as the single most important thing we’re saying. And weirdly, it’s Pullman who gets to voice it most clearly, in the very next issue. We don’t actually live in the real world, although we generally think we do. We live in ideas and situations that we build for ourselves — stories about the world, overlapping, sometimes contradicting, but empowering in the sense that the stories allow us to function. They provide meaning, and without meaning we’re just deterministic ping pong balls. We react, blindly, to external circumstances.
So yes, I think it’s true that we live in a narrative of our lives. And therefore the construction of that narrative becomes very, very important. People will constantly offer you stories that you can choose to buy into. Big government is killing you. Immigrants are swamping our country and destroying our values. Jews are evil, or Muslims or Communists or gays are evil. You have nothing to lose but your chains. Jesus will save your soul. These propositions furnish your world. You effectively choose to live in the world where they’re true. And obviously there’s a much wider set of propositions that’s just about you. The story of your life becomes your life.
PG: I think, more and more, as we worked on this book we’ve learned of other examples of how our lives are based on narrative — both biologically, and culturally. But the underlying principle of that is that narrative is always a lie we tell ourselves. At their core, all stories are lies, and all storytellers are liars. Not sure where to go with that, but I guess we’ll find out by the end of The Unwritten!
TFAW: Peter, there’s a big focus on the power of words, but you also have the challenge of presenting this visually to the reader–what are the easiest and most difficult parts of illustrating Unwritten?
PG: The most challenging is trying to find ways to illustrate “books” in comics and still have it feel like a book. The opening scene of the series is an example of that. Mike wrote the whole Tommy Taylor [interlude] as prose, and we were going to have it just as text, but I was worried it might turn off some readers. So I did it as a mixture of text and visuals that became our way of doing a book. A similar thing happens with finding ways to show web pages, TV, and other more modern ways that information gets delivered in the digital age.
The easiest part is . . . actually, none of it is easy — but the funnest part is when we divert to other story styles and I get to bring in wildly different artists to do “finishes” over my layouts to give the chapters a distinct and separate look.
TFAW: In the current story arc, we finally get some answers about Pauly Bruckner. Is this going to be the finale of this character?
PG: No! Pauly is a character who was not planned from the start, and he’s the character who has most demanded more scenes and a greater role in the story. He’s our wildcard factor, and we never quite know where he’s going with things.
MC: Absolutely! Pauly is along for the duration, and still has a very important part to play. Every book needs a sweary rabbit!
TFAW: Pauly has become such a compelling character — absolutely repugnant, totally self centered. He literally thinks everything is about him. Does he represent something to you guys? Is he a stand-in for something?
MC: If Tom is the clueless hero, Pauly is the villain hero — our Richard the Third. Like you say, he’s a monster, but he works really well as a viewpoint character. We did the monster as Everyman in Lucifer — and there’s a sense in which Pauly is like Gaudium in Lucifer, except that at rock bottom he’s a tragic figure. He tortures himself by assuming that every place he finds himself is unbearable. Willowbank Wood, when you think about it, would have been heaven for some people, but for Pauly it’s Hell. And now we meet Pauly in Hell and we think, you know, maybe this is how it’s always going to be for you. You make your own weather.
PG: Pauly is Mike, if Mike was American and not a polite British fellow!
MC: I’m gonna take that as a joke.
PG: Well there was a smiley face and all . . .
TFAW: Richie has had such a character arc — a journalist who glommed onto Tom, then became a vampire, then rejected Tom to go live his own story. What’s next for him?
MC: The next time we see Richie, those two aspects of his character — journalist and vampire — are both going to be crucial. He’s in a very extreme situation, trying to avert a catastrophe or at least slow it down. But he’s got to go against type in some ways, and do some things that don’t sit right with him. Because he does have a conscience, even though he tries to hide it. I tend to see Richie as an idealist who’s pretending to be a cynic.
TFAW: Lizzie is another character who has undergone a huge shift — from a troubled orphan girl to a brainwashed Dickens character, programmed to help and love Tom — and that’s before she died! Can she and Tom ever have a relationship as equals?
PG: Both Lizzie and Richie exist partially because they have to. Tom’s father has created pathways of story that Tom’s life slips into to build on the power of the Tommy Taylor stories. Tommy Taylor, boy wizard, had his companions Peter and Sue, so Tom Taylor attracts his own companions, Richie and Lizzie, to fulfill those roles. So the challenge for them, just like it is for Tom, is to hold on to their humanity and not get swept up into the greater currents that Wilson Taylor has set into motion.
TFAW: What can you tell us about Unwritten Fables, the next arc?
MC: It’s a stage in Tom’s odyssey in which he finally comes face to face with some unwelcome truths about the fictional characters he’s been meeting, and maybe to some extent about his own nature — and the backdrop in which he makes these discoveries is the Fables Homelands. Sort of. But with a very scary twist. Because the Fables side of this equation is a crisis that we had every reason to think was over and done with, and it comes live again in a really alarming way. I think there are big narrative payoffs for readers of both series.
TFAW: An Unwritten-Fables event seems like a perfect fit — both center on the power of stories and belief. How did the idea germinate?
PG: Bill Willingham was a big supporter of The Unwritten from the start, and kept saying he wanted to do a crossover or something shared. But as close as the two books are in concept, they each take a different approach to the subject of stories and characters from stories. Ours is that the stories happen, and then characters might appear because of the stories. Bill’s is that the characters were real, and the stories came from their actions.
Those are two pretty opposed ideas, and it wasn’t until we got to a point in our story that those ideas sort of demanded attention, that doing a shared arc with Fables finally became a possibility. The nice thing is that this isn’t just a throwaway event designed to boost sales — it’s an essential story tipping point for us. If we couldn’t do this story with the Fables characters, we’d still have to do the story somehow.
MC: Although it wouldn’t have been nearly so much fun. Using the Fables cast has been pretty much pure pleasure.
TFAW: What is your favorite thing about Fables?
MC: I love the feeling you get from Fables that nobody is safe and anything can happen. It’s like the fairy tales and folk tales that are part of its source material — it portrays a world where the worst outcome can always come to pass, and where life and happiness are precarious. That’s part of what makes it such an exciting read.
And of course I love the vivid, evolving characters — my all-time favorites being the Thirteenth Floor witches.
PG: I like the powerful simplicity of what Bill brought together. I think it was Fables that led the way with all the fairy tale-based movies and TV shows out there now. And I love that after 125 or so issues, it’s still compelling and readable. It’s one of the few comics that continue to catch my jaded interest and that I make sure to keep up on.
TFAW: Bill Willingham mentioned that he begged to write parts of the story, because, I quote, “I’ll never get a chance to handle certain characters in this way again. One hopes.” Care to shed a little light on that?
MC: We go to some very dark places with this story, and we see some harrowing things. More than that, I think, we get to see good people making bad choices because all the good choices are gone. If we do it right, parts of it will hurt.
PG: Bill and Bucky had a lot of input into the story, and there were some things they talked about that they had wanted to do with Fables until the stories went off in another direction. Because of the nature of fiction in The Unwritten, we are able to go in some of those other directions.
TFAW: What else are you reading right now?
MC: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. Very, very clever stuff. Too clever for its own good, sometimes, but man it’s a great read.
PG: I haven’t been able to read anything in a while because I draw most every minute of the day. But I’ve been slowly listening to audiobooks of Game of Thrones!
TFAW: What else do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
MC: I’ve got a novel coming out in January of 2014 that I’m very proud of. It’s sort of a retelling of the myth of Pandora in a post-apocalyptic future. And my superhero series, Suicide Risk, is debuting over at BOOM! Studios.
Oh, and I just got the green light to go to script on a movie version of one of my own novels, which is really exciting.
PG: I’m excited about our graphic novel adaptation of Wilson Taylor’s famous first novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice, coming out in the fall of 2013!
MC: Yeah, and that . . .
Our sincere thanks to Mike Carey, Peter Gross, and Vertigo Comics for an excellent interview. Pre-order Unwritten #50 and Unwritten: Tommy Taylor & The Ship That Sank Twice and save 20%!
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