“I’m just beginning. The pen’s in my hand… ending unplanned”
The first scene of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Unwritten, set within a fictional novel, shows us a Harry Potter-esque narrative where young magicians face up against an evil vampire for one last battle. Filled with magical devices, secret spells, and entry-level lore, the sequence offers an easy hand for us despite telling a story which has apparently already been going on for thirteen novels. And much like Harry Potter, it’s a story which pretends at depth whilst letting you wallow happily at the shallow end of the pool.
The characters are simple, the threat is easy to spot, and the pretty ideas which wing their way around the narrative are there to keep you distracted from a host of deus ex machinas and chekov’s guns. You know, all the once-literary terms which critics hoist at fantasy series as they sneer away at all-ages fiction. But within the fictional world of The Unwritten and it’s fictional world of Tommy Taylor lies a concept which changes the rule of fiction: it doesn’t matter if you’re telling a good story, a bad story, using a bunch of artificial tropes or letting the characters “live” on the page. If your audience believes what you tell them, they’ll accept it as real.
Such is the case for Tom Taylor, our protagonist, who was the basis for “Tommy Taylor”, a series of popular all-ages fantasy novels which have apparently been read by 40% of the world’s population. Written by his mysteriously-vanished father, the book series isn’t completed, and that leaves behind a massive base of readers who want to know what happens next, and are more than happy to speculate on how Tom’s real-life persona is connected to the fictional wizard who was based on him. The first issue of the series follows Tom’s slightly scummy life as he goes from convention-to-convention, scraping up appearance fees whilst resenting the entire franchise which feeds him a low-level celebrity. He isn’t his own person: he’s the shadow of his father’s fictional character.
But what the series suggests is that Tom’s very real life, his past, his present, are all a meticulously crafted fiction by his father, whilst his fictional life as “Tommy” is actually his true and factual existence. When Tom goes onstage for a Q&A, a woman who calls herself “Lizzie Hexam” steps up to the microphone and questions his parentage. She claims he was actually adopted by his father in order to play into the “Tommy Taylor” mystique: that he wasn’t the basis for Tommy Taylor, but instead Tommy Taylor was the basis for him.
This causes Tom’s life to start spiralling as people seize upon that idea and start treating it as real. It’s not that there’s huge amounts of evidence to Lizzie’s wild claim that Tom Taylor is a work of fiction – it’s that the internet doesn’t need evidence. What people are looking for online isn’t fact and objectivity, but the most compelling story possible, and once a new narrative about Tom is put out into the world, imaginative readers immediately huddle round it to give it strength. They suggest plausible explanations to support the story, reinforce the cracks within it, and generally treat Tom’s life as a mystery to be solved. The conspiracy theory in-universe is “who is Tom Taylor’s real father?”
And yet as the issue continues onwards, the creative team double-down alongside the conspiracy theorists as they reveal a conspiracy within that conspiracy. The suggestion is not simply that Tom’s childhood was faked, he was adopted, and was given the “Tommy Taylor identity” his father had already created. The real conspiracy is that he’s never had a childhood: the Tommy Taylor novels are real and Tom stepped out of them. We’re dealing with literary magic, here.
The magical element grows throughout the issue. At Tom’s Q&A, we see a cosplayer dressed as Count Ambrosio (Tommy Taylor’s vampiric nemesis) ask Tom a question, but he asks it in-character and pretends that Tom is actually Tommy. “Why did you do this to me” in one of the books, he asks, rather than “why did the Tom character do this to Ambrosio”. However, it’s clear that he’s wearing a costume, and is pretending this is all real, rather than believing it. By the end of the issue, however, we’ve seen the actual Count Ambrosio show up, straight out of the books. He knocks out Tom and drags him to the Globe Theatre – a grand stage for a final confrontation, albeit a characteristically on-the-nose choice, which fits the prose we read at the start.
Compellingly, the final moments of this showdown between Tom, Ambrosio and Lizzie happen after Lizzie has unplugged a camera which was livestreaming the confrontation: once more the internet audience is given the start of a story, and asked to fill in the blanks. They are more than happy to do so, essentially crafting fanfiction around a real world event, and taking the story out of the hands of its author. With the stream cut and readers left to their own imagination, they have an endless imagination to draw from – and that’s very dangerous for Tom, who is being called a messiah, a fraud, a mystery. His life doesn’t matter next to the story around him, and once more he lives inside the shadow of Tommy Taylor.
In the very first panel of the issue, set inside the novel, we see creatures called “Gossamoks”, which live as ghosts – concepts, ideas, possibilities. But Tommy defeats them by bringing them to life, creating physical bodies which can’t sustain themselves when they’re ripped out of the imaginary world. When Tom, later on, tells Ambrosio that a story isn’t worth dying for, the Count recites the names of several people who died in the service of a good story: alleged spies, pagan witches, modern enemies of the state, whose guilt was never proven outside the court of popular opinion.
The scariest thing of all is that a good story is all that’s needed. You can lock someone up in prison with no evidence if you craft a compelling-enough narrative reason (to the right audience) for keeping them there. You can have someone killed; you can give someone a new lease of life, all at the whims of the storyteller. And when a story gets into the wrong hands… well, that’s where this first issue ends, with our first look at a shadowy group who seem to have a lot of interest in where Tom Taylor goes from here. Will he live a comedy or a tragedy? It seems as though, as readers, we’re going to have to untangle his origin story in order to establish what sort of narrative he’s living out.
- One of the other writers refers to Tom as Christopher Robin, the boy from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Christopher Robin was based on Milne’s son, just like Tommy was based on Tom.
- Harry Potter is obviously one of the inspirations Carey picked up on for the Tommy Taylor books – but Books of Magic, which predates Potter, is a much more telling choice. Neil Gaiman, who has a long association with both Carey and Gross, spent a lot of time telling the story of young magician Timothy Hunter, after all.
- In 1984, George Orwell names four distinct Ministries, one of which was the Ministry of Truth. Contrary to its name, the Ministry’s main job was to put out disinformation and falsify history for its own benefit. You can see why it gets mentioned in this issue just after Tom’s own past is questioned.
- Similarly, when Tom mentions Cram’s Fields, home to a foundling hospital, it once more plays into the idea of lost children, whose parents are unknown and whose origins are lost to time. The hospital relocated out of London in the 1920s and a park was built in its place.
- The Villa Diodati was made most famous for a period of time where it was rented by Lord Byron, who frequently entertained Mary and Percy Shelley as guests. Frankenstein was written at the Villa, in fact. John William Polidori was another guest at the time, and went on to write The Vampyre, perhaps the first modern vampire story.
- The Unwritten will go on to suggest John Milton previously lived at the Villa; however in actuality he died before it was built.
- Catch-22 is almost more well known as a saying than as a story, now, which again ties back to Tom’s predicament. The saying refers to a problem which can’t be solved because it contradicts itself – for example, if a military pilot wants to get out of flying a mission because they’re mentally unstable, they would be denied, because not wanting to fly a mission is a mentally stable desire.
- “All the world’s a stage” is a quote from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. It also helps convey that somehow Tom has been kidnapped and tied up at the Globe Theatre in London, the home of Shakespeare’s plays.
- Count Ambrosio refers to several times in history where the truth was never proven either way: the Battle of Troy, where Helen was either kidnapped or fled from her arranged marriage; Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were accused of being Soviet spies and executed; and Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who were executed after being accused of various robberies. In each case people died despite having only hearsay to work from, and no definitive facts.
The Unwritten #1
Story by Mike Carey and Peter Gross,
Colourists: Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Letterer: Todd Klein
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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