Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

15 January 2010

The Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity

Collects: The Unwritten #1-5 (2009)

Released: January 2009 (DC / Vertigo)

Format: 144 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781401225650

What is this?: The son of the author of a Harry Potter-like fantasy series gets drawn into a conspiracy about his real parentage and the affect literature has on the real world — and vice versa.

The culprits: Writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross

All right — here’s what I know about The Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity:

1. The central conceit — that of the intersection of fiction and reality, of whether literature comes from some place “real” — is an interesting one, and it hasn’t been done to death.

2. The hero, Tom Taylor, is the son of a man who wrote a series of boy wizard books that was bigger than Harry Potter.

3. There is real magic in our world.

4. There is a real literary conspiracy in our world. The conspiracy has been going on for more than a century, involving Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

5. Somehow, geography in books and where books were written is important.

6. There is no #6.

Unwritten, v. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity coverI really wish Tommy Taylor wasn’t bigger than Harry Potter. I really do. It’s not supposed to be a big deal for the reader … but it makes everything harder to swallow. If the Tommy Taylor series were a knockoff of Harry Potter, one moderately successful but not as popular as Rowling’s creation, it would be easier to understand.

But I have a feeling that Tommy’s popularity is going to be a small but essential part of the plot. The conspiracy that has been shaping whose stories have been told and listened to has made Tommy Taylor popular because Wilson Taylor was cooperating with it. The popularity of the Tommy Taylor series is tied to the strength of the conspiracy.

Fantasies set in the real world can have a difficult time sustaining suspension of disbelief, and it can crumble for a myriad of reasons, each depending on the individual reader. When I look back at Unwritten, I don’t think of the positives. The effective weirdnesses built into Tom Taylor’s life drift away from my memory; I don’t think of the endless staircase in the basement of his de facto stepmother or the “reporter” who looks like a grown-up version of Tommy Taylor’s fictional female sidekick or Tom’s mysterious origins. I don’t think of the effective Harry Potter pastiches that writer Mike Carey throws in to give the reader a taste of and a background in the Tommy Taylor series, each of which is nicely drawn by artist Peter Gross. I don’t think of the conspiracy’s enforcer’s creepy powers or his running through a horror writer’s retreat with farm implements. And I don’t think of Tom himself, an aimless young man who subsists on his fame and whose only motivation is another buck on the convention circuit until allegations about his origins cause him to search for the truths.

All those are effective; all those are parts of an excellent story. No, I think of:

  • A book series that 40 percent of all literate people have read;

  • A character so popular he has inspired a cult;

  • A guest of honor at a convention who is so fragile he has security lead away a cosplayer who won’t let go of a niggling plot point;

  • Who also spouts snippets of literary geography without point or warning;

  • And a fifth issue that is essentially a biography of Rudyard Kipling, told as if the conspiracy had actually existed, completely stopping the book’s momentum as dead as a hammer.

And I don’t believe it. And unlike, say the TV series Castle, I’m not so entertained that my interest can survive that lack of belief. This should work; all the elements are there. I was interested enough after reading Unwritten #1 (which can be seen at http://www.dccomics.com/media/excerpts/13677_1.pdf) that I bought the TPB.

I like the art from Gross. He has a flat, clean style that works well with characters — and a world — that is supposed to have come from a children’s story. The interludes from the Tommy Taylor books look different and right; somehow, they echo what such stories are supposed to look like in my head. The art has to incorporate text and melting things frequently, like a combination of Dali and a typewriter, and Gross’s art does it well. I think this is the first I’ve seen of Gross — although I know I’m well behind the curve on that — but I’m looking forward to seeing more.

I’m not sure it will be on Unwritten, though. I don’t know if I want to buy the next volume of Unwritten. I see the good points and a lot of potential … but it doesn’t interest me. I think, for once, the failure must lie with me. I just can’t recommend this book, but I can’t say my opinion is based on firm enough ground to dissuade others.

Rating: Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Half Vertigo symbol (3.5 of 5)

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