The Neverending Story is my first thing that came to my mind when I thought about the stories I’ve read and seen about books with magic powers.
WARNING: Potential Spoilers!
In his introduction to Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ first volume of Unwritten, Bill Willngham cleaves the history of comic book stories into two periods: The generation of super hero stories and the stories of the LAF Triumvirate (Literature-based fantasy, Animal fantasy, and Fairy Tale fantasy). Unwritten and his own stories (Fables) are associated with the latter generation.
Unwritten was one of those books I put off reading because there always seemed to be another book that I felt a greater urgency to read like American Vampire and Sweet Tooth. Another detractor was Unwritten is a text heavy graphic novel that deserves a greater time commitment than my morning commute would offer. Happily, after hearing Bill Willingham speak about a Fables “event” with Unwritten at the 2012 NY Comic Con, I did pick it up and dedicate my nights to it. I am a fan of the Fables books and am now a fan of Tom “Tommy” Taylor.
Unwritten tells the story of Tom “Don’t-Call-Me-Tommy” Taylor, the benign son of a famous father, Wilson Taylor, who just disappeared one day. In addition to the trauma of his father’s mysterious disappearance, Tommy also suffers the stigma of sharing the name of the central character of his father’s popular Harry-Potteresque book series, Tommy Taylor.
Discredited by genre critics as someone just milking his father’s legacy and worshipped by his father’s fans as the flesh and blood incarnation the “Tommy Taylor” from his father’s books, Tom Taylor struggles to maintain his sense of personal identity and self-worth. He is adamant that the people around him call him “Tom”, not “Tommy”.
His life as he knows it unravels at a fan convention when a woman’s question ignites a storm of gossip about Tom not actually being Wilson Taylor’s son. The gossip asserts that Tom is the result of a clever marketing campaign that has been going on since Wilson’s first book. Fans of the Tommy Taylor books splinter into groups that believe he is a fraud and groups that believe he is his the messiah. These events drive Tommy to an old castle his father used to own. He is determined to prove or disprove his existence as Tommy Taylor.
Unwritten takes its time to tell Tom’s story. I’m hesitant to refer to the pace as slow because that has negative connotations, instead I am going to characterize the Tom Taylor’s story as being steadily paced. The authors, Mike Carey and Peter Gross, effectively avoid the monotony that some stories with similar pacing suffer by using news articles and blogs positing theories about Tommy Taylor and his questionable history to impart plot information. These articles also help develop Tommy’s character tangentially through the eyes of his public.
Pullman, the antagonist whose touch can liquify objects into a silvery alphabet soup is introduced in the first book, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity”, but not much is revealed about him or his employer. The consequences of his actions begin the second book, “Inside Man”, where the a few of the laws and rules of the Unwritten world are revealed.
A friend told me once that he loved the part in those Saturday afternoon TV “kung fu theater” movies that showed the heroes learning new skills. In addition to the imaginative story, part of the fun of reading literature-based fantasy are the laws and rules that have been created to govern the actions of those who live in the story. In the “Inside Man” Tom takes on a “canker”, the result of a story that has been corrupted or become too complicated, “when the energy inside it gets poisoned… because of the contradictions” (as explained by Lizzie Hexam).
Unwritten succeeds as literature-based fantasy because the rules that govern its fantastical world make perfect common sense in the real world. Reality is stretched just far enough to spark your imagination without seeming like you are being force fed the surrealities of the story’s fantastical world.