We Love the City

The monologue is my preferred method of discourse.

The Unwritten Vol. 1 review

Unwritten #1If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I was a big fan of Mike Carey’s Lucifer. It was a great, epic book with a cast of wonderful characters that managed to create its own identity despite being one of many Sandman spinoffs published after Neil Gaiman’s series concluded. And I was quite fond of Carey’s return to Vertigo, Crossing Midnight, despite a slow start and some shaky art. So you can imagine I was quite excited when I heard Carey was writing another Vertigo book, this time reunited with Lucifer artist Peter Gross.

The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, the son of a novelist famous for writing a series of Harry Potter-esque books starring a young magician named Tommy Taylor. When his father mysteriously disappears, Tom assumes a sort of C-list celebrity, the sort who shows up at comic conventions charging $5 per autograph even though he’s never actually done anything. Tom’s life of easy money and dubious fame is thrown into confusion he’s kidnapped by a man who claims to be Tommy Taylor’s entirely fictional arch-nemesis.

The story feels like it’s right in Carey’s wheelhouse, but when I read The Unwritten I can’t help feeling it’s all been done before.  It’s another story about fantasy and reality overlapping, ground that’s been well-tread by Sandman, The Dreaming, Fables, and others… maybe even the current Greek Street, if Peter Milligan ever gets around to explaining what’s going on. It seems too safe, the kind of book both fans and detractors expect Vertigo to publish. As much as I love Sandman and Lucifer, today’s Vertigo makes me think of Young Liars, Scalped, Northlanders, and other books that stand strong on their own two feet.

Perhaps the Harry Potter elements make it feel too trendy, too easy; maybe I’d be more receptive to a Wizard of Oz riff.

But then, maybe the problem is less one of repetition than it is simply not having much of an identity. Carey uses some nice tricks in the first issue, incorporating newspaper and TV reports and internet message boards into the story, but they’re gone by the end of the second issue. He has some fun with the homicidal, anti-literate antagonist, but most of the other characters are paper-thin, with little to distinguish them aside from their role in the plot. Tommy Taylor himself lacks much in the way of personality: The boy-mistaken-for-a-hero idea is interesting enough, and I can appreciate Carey’s attempts to at least start him out as an unlikeable jerk, but he doesn’t show much development beyond that of the usual character who finds out everything he believed about his life is a lie.

After the promising first issue, Unwritten just spins its wheels, trying to get out of the mud. A retreat for horror writers offers some clumsy meditation on how to scare people while a madman with a scythe stalks the group, but one mostly just gets the impression Carey wanted to make jokes about some famous writers. The dramatic reveal at the end of the fourth chapter is spectacularly unimpressive: When the first issue begins with a fictional villain seeming sprung to life, you can’t really end the fourth chapter with the same trick, particularly when your hero has grown magical tattoos and been stalked by a man who can melt objects into words.

The fifth chapter, “How The Whale Became”, is the most ambitious, but I’m still not sure it’s telling us anything new. After spending the first four issues in the present day, Carey goes back more than a hundred years to tell the story of Rudyard Kipling. The obvious points of comparison are the Shakespeare stories, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest” in Sandman, and not simply for the use of a famous writer. Like Gaiman’s Shakespeare, Carey’s Kipling, who begins as an unimportant bureaucrat in India, is approached by a mysterious figure who persuades him to channel his talents in a particular avenue; here, it’s to write about the glory of the British Empire.

It’s an interesting concept, but it never feels engaging. Kipling’s journey, like Tom Taylor’s, is a foregone conclusion – you know he’s not going to spend his life writing simple tales of imperial conquest.  And as much as it’s an “origin story” of sorts, it feels detached from the main narrative. For a change, Todd Klein’s lettering doesn’t help the story: the handwritten font used for Kipling’s letters  is distracting, and feels overly gimmicky – modern-day protagonists don’t have computer-print lettering for their narratives, after all.

I suppose I should be patient with The Unwritten. Lucifer took a while to gather steam, and “yeah, but it gets better after the first volume” is a common refrain for Vertigo books. While I’m sure I’ll come back to the book some day for another try, right now it’s hard to classify it as anything but a disappointment.