No one else can speak the words on your lips
Everybody’s a critic.
Well, in issue #4 of The Unwritten one specific person is a critic, and unfortunately he’s looking to do a bit of a hatchet job. With Tom Taylor distracted by a mysterious study in his father’s house, a character called “Pullman” sets about murdering everybody else in the building. It’s an opulent set-piece to round out the first arc of the series, setting up a situation where once again Tom is framed for a scene of violence. Whereas the first issue found him set up as the survivor of a nail bomb attack, the end of this issue sees him as the lone survivor in a house filled with corpses. Once more, the public narrative around Tom Taylor shifts, as his story grows increasingly convoluted.
That’s the end of the issue though, and it’s not right for readers to skip to the last page. Chronologically-speaking, the issue is focused on two concurrent stories, with Pullman’s murder spree a splashy background event as Tom continues to investigate his father’s whereabouts. For both, misdirection is the key theme, as evidenced by the opening page of the issue. We start off with what looks like it’ll be another except from the Tommy Taylor novels, in the same style seen in previous issues. However, it quickly turns out to be torture porn written by one of the authors staying in the villa, using the Tommy Taylor characters for shock value.
We never find out who wrote that submission to the bail-out box, where people can anonymously submit pages for critique by the other authors on the course. Pullman, on the other hand, is only too keen to show his hand, which happens to be “fictional” and can turn reality into a story. We see him once again melt things with that hand in this issue, turning them into words which drip to the floor in puddles. After the mysterious housekeeper slits her own throat, Pullman cuts off her head and throws it to a very confused Tom, who watches as it melts into the words “answers” and “questions” in his hands, literally seeing the secrets dissolve into nothingness right before him.
The implication is that Tom is looking into himself when he sees the dissolved head of the housekeeper, and the untold stories she represents. She’s not a person, but a collection of literary concepts and tropes which have taken the form of a woman. As Tom watches this happen, Pullman asks him about Medusa, the famous Greek monster. Medusa could turn anything to stone that looked on her face, but was undone when she looked at her own reflection. Here, it’s easy to see that Pullman considers Tom to also be a story rather than a person. By seeing the nature of reality as a series of stories we construct, Tom is looking into his own undoing.
It speaks to the way that Pullman views the world, stories stacked upon stories which are all ultimately as meaningless as one another. Stalking one of the authors through the house, he explains that her instinct to hide isn’t a choice she’s making instinctively – instead, what she’s doing is following “genre conventions”. Somebody else is making the decision for her, based on what’s best for the overall story. It’s a curious approach, because Pullman is telling a literal truth here – Mike Carey has written her choice into his script, so Peter Gross can draw the sequence where she’s killed off by Pullman. In turn, that’s part of a wider narrative which frames Tom Taylor for the police and generates a cliffhanger for the issue. This is the hardest that Carey has leaned against the fourth wall to date, and raises the question: is Carey identifying with Pullman?
At any rate, with this issue we’re still far more focused on setting up mystery than in giving any kind of answers, which means lots of very small questions are offered with the understanding none of us will get answers for a fair while still. We even get a mysterious map filled with little notes, to keep us interested. Yet whenever things start to move a little too quickly – like with the discovery of the map, or the reveal that the housekeeper knows more than she should – the issue quickly snips the dangling threads, so best to keep the reader from seeing the full tapestry.
The authors are all killed off as the issue progresses, with little regard for poetry. They are all simply killed expediently, as Pullman relishes their deaths as he quickly processes each other occupant of the villa in increasingly fast fashion. He’s on the clock, using Tom’s exploration of the past as an opportunity to quickly tell a story without our protagonist realising. Tom is so busy following “genre conventions” by building up the mystery around his father and his childhood that he’s completely unaware of the massacre happening on the ground floor. His instincts, written by Carey, are to slowly and methodically work through every single thing he can find in his father’s old office, but that’s the exact opportunity which Pullman needs to kill everyone – eliminate the housekeeper and any secrets she has – and use their deaths to frame Tom as a mass-murderer.
If you think that’s a quick turnaround for the story, then the final page emphasises that for you, as the winged cat from the Tommy Taylor stories – Mingus – suddenly appears in front of a befuddled Tom and his police escort. Just as the first page misdirects us in one direction before heading into another, so the final page suggests that everything the Pullman has been working on over these last twenty pages was also a misdirect. Tom didn’t pay attention and ended up framed for murder by someone who understood genre conventions better than he did. But Mingus’ arrival suggests that there’s someone who remains one step ahead of Pullman (and, as a consequence, the reader). Is Tom’s father still around, pulling the strings of reality in order to bring a magical winged cat to Tom’s side? Just as we don’t find out the author of the first page, we remain unaware of the author of the last.
Roger Corman is one of the most important figures in film history. When Tom references him as they open up the mysterious study door, he’s probably thinking about the series of gothic horror films Corman made in the 60s, based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s an early indication that The Unwritten is about to take a detour into horror.
The story of Medusa is a famous one. Anyone who looks at her would turn to stone, and so the Greek hero, Perseus, was sent on a mission to kill her. He tricked her into looking at her own reflection, which turned her to stone before she could get near him.
The Unwritten #4
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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