I did not grow up reading comic books, I have to admit. The only comic book store in town closed while I was in middle school, and I never really had an affinity for superheroes. Occasionally, I heard about some superheroines I quite liked the concept of, especially She-Hulk, but I never got involved.
However, I did watch Batman: The Animated Series, the fantastic Saturday morning cartoon that gave birth to Harley Quinn, one of my favorite characters in all of fiction–a smart, loony, complex, cheerful, and amoral villainess with a Queens accent and red lips. While I missed her self-titled comic that ran from 2001 to 2003, I’m currently following Gotham City Sirens, which features Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy. It is admittedly hit or miss–while the writing is often delightful, the art tends to treat the female leads as simple palette swaps of each other, despite their different fighting styles and physiques. (Catwoman’s given birth, for Pete’s sake!)
But I digress. In the spring, I heard of a new comic series called The Unwritten through a post on io9.
The story behind The Unwritten is another story.
That is, it’s about Tom Taylor, a young man whose claim to fame is being the child star of his father’s series of fantasy novels starting a young boy wizard “Tommy Taylor”. Think Harry Potter if Harry Potter was real. But he’s not the boy in the stories all grown up – he’s merely inspiration for the name, but in the fervor over the Tommy Taylor books that makes him a star. All grown up now, he resembles a sort of child actor all grown up and living off his former fame. But he’s content with that – making the most of the celebrity status his father inadvertently gave him.
But what if the stories are true? What if the stories described as ‘fiction’ turn out to be true stories? What if the world of fiction literature – both his books and more — can somehow be real? Tom Taylor begins asking those questions when a shadowy cabal comes pay a visit and shakes up Tom’s life.
Oh, I thought to myself, bring it on. Metafiction that appeals to my generation’s innate love of Harry Potter? When I had a chance during the summer, I headed to the nearest comic book store and picked up the first issue. The other issues soon followed.
It is so much more than that initial premise, although the premise is utilized brilliantly. This is the rare story that could only be told in a comic book. (In the only contrast I can provide, I find that Harley Quinn works best in animation, since she’s a very physical character.) The typeface and presentation of the real world is utterly different from the excerpts of the Tommy Taylor books we are gifted with, but it really hits home with issue #5, when Tom’s story is ignored in favor of the story of Rudyard Kipling. Journal entries, stories, the period details… they’re all just stunning. There’s also the occasional page of pop culture associated with the Tommy Taylor series, with fan forums, gossip sites, and the like. It’s extremely visual, despite such a focus on literature and stories.
The main characters and villains are realistically rendered, even the fantastical Pullman, the assassin for the mysterious cabal. While Tom is a great every guy protagonist, I like Lizzie Hexam–or is it Sue Sparrow?–best. While most of it is her earnestness combined with her mysterious intentions, there’s also the fact that she’s supposed to stand in for Hermione Granger and shares a similar name with a Doctor Who character, Sally Sparrow.
There’s tons of these fantastic literary references crammed into each issue, from the obvious fantasy series (Harry Potter, Series of Unfortunate Events, et al) references to little things. I can’t help but wonder if Pullman is named for Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, the secular answer to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In one issue, Tom returns to the villa where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, only to stumble across a writers’ workshop. Each author is obviously a send up of popular genres and authors at the moment, including Laura K. Hamilton and young adult fantasy writers. Such interplay is both funny for the reader and interesting in terms of the intertextuality.
The covers are also gorgeous. Each is drawn by Yuko Shimizu, and they’re bold, unique, colorful, and wonderfully evocative. For an audience that doesn’t read comics, I would advise waiting for the trade paperback, but I’d be happy spending three dollars a pop just for the covers. They’re marvelous. I mean, look at the latest cover!
I must tell you that The Unwritten is for mature audiences. There’s violence, cursing, and one issue opens with what is assumed to be the work of one of the writers in the workshop, who essentially writes the literary equivalent of the Saw films. It’s a bit too shocking and violent to make its second point about the rise of fanfiction, but it lasts just a page. This is for grown fans of Harry Potter, and not the little ones.
The Unwritten should be available at your local comic book store–you may have to ask the nice comic book store employee for the first two issues if they’re not on the rack.