Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 102 (5/16) -- The Unwritten, Book 1, by Carey and Gross

Vertigo started off as the weird and untamed side of the DC Universe -- launching out of books like Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol and Hellblazer and Shade the Changing Man, back when continuity was a stylish suit in a closet full of other garments, and not a straitjacket -- but has turned into the comics equivalent of HBO in recent years, full of self-consciously high concept, and terribly respectable, projects that always seem a little too pat, a little too cleanly focus-group-tested, to be really successful artistically.

The Unwritten is the latest in that string: entirely classy, carefully worked out, and with a killer elevator pitch. If it feels somewhat hollow and second-hand, well, that's only to be expected, right?

You see, there was this phenomenally popular fantasy writer, Wilson Taylor, who wrote thirteen books about a fictionalized, teenaged, magical version of his young son Tommy. (This is the story as we're supposed to believe it at the beginning -- in the best tradition of modern commercial comics, though, it's very clear that Everything We Know Is Wrong, and that it will all turn out to be wrong several times, in shocking reveals, before the final final truth is unveiled somewhere near the series's inevitable end.) Wilson disappeared some years ago, very mysteriously, leaving behind Tom, now a young man with several failed or aborted careers behind him who makes his living speaking and signing at fannish gatherings, playing the part of the character his father made of him.

By itself, that could be an interesting premise for a naturalistic story -- all about the differences between fantasy and reality, fiction and life, promise and reality. But it would probably be a bit of a downer, and not have much scope for zippy comic-book action, so writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross instead start very early with the exceptionally heavy hints that Tom is something special, that fiction is magical by its very nature, and that (inevitably) there is a Secret, All-Powerful Cabal behind huge swaths of human history against which Tom will have to battle for fifty issues or so before he can emerge triumphant. So this volume -- whose title, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, also unsubtly pokes the reader in the ribs with the Tommy Taylor/Harry Potter parallels -- reprints the first five issues of the series, in which Tom gets into the usual thriller-hero Trouble Over His Head (with the similarly required help from the Sexy Mysterious Woman in Glasses), starts to question Everything He Knows, and gets the first hints of His Unique Abilities.

Sadly, what we don't have here is an ending, of any kind. Tom's story ends on a cliffhanger, and his existential questions -- not to mention the inevitable true fantasy premise of the series -- are not addressed in any serious way. A tacked-on story at the end explaining how the Secret, All-Powerful Cabal manipulated Rudyard Kipling only serves to confirm the reader's impression that Carey and Gross will be in this for the long haul (staring fixedly at the brass ring of Fables) and that antagonist organizations in Big Two comics must always be cartoonily Eeeevil.

The skin and flesh here is well-conceived: Tom is a grumpy, interesting character, and both the Sexy Mysterious Woman in Glasses (who calls herself Lizzie Hexam) and the current Minor Boss (called Pullman -- I hope it's Carey's intention to name all of his minor bosses after popular writers of fantasy for teenagers, so that Pratchett, Wynne Jones, Alexander, and Cooper will also try to kill Tom) are sturdily archetypal. Gross's art is unspectacular, in a standard modern big-comics style, but it also gets the job done, and is fine to look at. The Unwritten reads well: it's a solid slab of middle-of-the-road comics entertainment, with a few Easter Eggs buried to make some readers feel particularly smart and savvy. But its bones are entirely derivative and cynical, which no amount of pretty flesh will hide in the end.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Mountain Goats - Fall Of The Star High School Running Back
via FoxyTunes

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