If ICV2 sales figure estimates based on numbers and data provided by Diamond Comic Distributors are any indication of popularity, Mike Carey and Peter Gross's The Unwritten is Vertigo Comics' third bestselling title, although such a classification is somewhat unfair and perhaps misleading. Unlike the top-selling Fables, which just recently broke the 100-issue milestone, or the slightly one-year-old American Vampire series that was co-written by Stephen King for its first five issues, The Unwritten is just nearing the two-year mark and holding strong between 11,000 and 12,000 issues per month. In fact, for such a newcomer on the comic scene, volume three recently ranked number one on the New York Times paperback graphic bestseller list. Statistics and ratings aside, The Unwritten is deserving of this attention and more.
Signaling a confluence of popular culture, bridging the artificially constructed divisions between high and low art, The Unwritten makes an original contribution to both the monthly floppy shelves and chain bookstore retailers' trade paperback collections. Synthesizing elements and themes of fiction versus reality from Neil Gaiman's award-winning The Sandman as well as Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol or The Invisibles, Carey and Gross's The Unwritten is by far one of the most innovative and strategically marketed books of the decade. Just now, as Harry Potter-fandom is at its zenith with the anticipated release of the final film installment, readers who have grown up alongside the boy wizard can now graduate to the mature, young adult Vertigo title that goes far beyond the mere walls of Hogwarts.
The Unwritten opens on the life of Tom Taylor as he makes a scant living touring on the convention circuit and capitalizing on the fame of his father's series of popular children's books about a young wizard named Tommy Taylor. Immediately, the central conflict of the series is the identity of Tom --- not so much distinguishing his life from that of the fictional Tommy Taylor (that comes much later in the series), but rather if Tom Taylor is actually Wilson Taylor's son. Blurring this further is the arrival of Tommy's arch nemesis from the novels, Count Ambrosio, who captures Tom and threatens to kill him. Aided by Lizzie Hexam, who bears a striking resemblance to the character of Sue from the Tommy fantasy tales, Tom embarks on a quest to learn more about the mysterious Wilson and the literary geographic trivia he instilled in Tom as a child. Add to this the paternal discord between Tom and Wilson, and The Unwritten is a multifaceted work.
The most intriguing sequence, however, in this volume is the Eisner Award-nominated chapter five "How the Whale Became." Expanding the cast of characters to include Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, Carey illustrates his creative strengths as he incorporates these literary icons into the story. Contextualizing Kipling's rise to fame as a defender and champion of British imperialism within the environment of the organization targeting Wilson Taylor and his son, Carey subtly introduces the concept of certain stories as dangerous, subversive weapons and weaves this idea into the conflict facing Wilson and Tom.
Alongside Carey's masterful narrative skills, Peter Gross has penciled a varied and diverse book as well. Gross contrasts the muted tones and cartoon style attributed to the Tommy Taylor sections with a much sharper and crisper line work for the others. One of Gross's strongest contributions is his ability to construct extremely busy, detailed and crowded sequences of foreground and background characters and elements within the panels, and yet not once reduce or limit the pages' impact upon the reader. His ink work and finishes are also deserving of praise, as the weight he ascribes to the lines reinforces the tension, fear and mystery inherent in the scenes. Gross obviously has a solid rapport with his colorists too, as the hues only enhance the pencils and inks.
The potentials for The Unwritten in the classroom are stellar, particularly for educators specializing in Young Adult Literature. As a pedagogical tool, the series holds great promise, as it can inculcate a passion for classic literature within students without the didactic methodology or coerced nature traditional literature classes often have in junior high and high school curriculums. Furthermore, the possibilities for comparative assignments and projects between The Unwritten and other similarly themed fantasy books are endless.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on January 12, 2010
Unwritten, Volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity