Back in 2019 (this is another repost from my own blog), I finished rereading the 2009-13 Vertigo series Unwritten, created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. It held up well. Spoilers below, so be warned.
The first issue introduces us to Tom Taylor, son of legendary children’s author Wilson Taylor. Wilson’s masterwork is the Tommy Taylor series about a boy wizard (yes, Harry Potter is the template, though not the only one) which has made his son’s life hell. Just imagine if JK Rowling had a son named Harold Potter: the jokes, the fans who want to jump his bones, the crazies who insist Harold is no mere boy — he is the real Harry made flesh! That’s Tom’s world.
At one Tommy Taylor con, a woman named Lizzie Hexam challenges Tom, claiming he’s not Wilson’s son at all. Her evidence sets off a firestorm in fandom, accelerating when Tom, retreating from the fuss, is framed for a series of murders. Oh, and he also meets the Frankenstein monster, who identifies Tom as a fellow artificial creation, both of them neglected by their fathers. Tom, Lizzie and reporter Savoy begin investigating what’s going on, and who framed Tommy. Weirdness multiplies, such as one man getting transformed into Tommy Taylor’s archfoe, the vampire Ambrosius.
It turns out there’s a secret organization, the Cabal, that has been shaping humanity’s storytelling for centuries. Which stories are remembered? Which are forgotten? Do they teach us war and heroism? That greed is good? That self-sacrifice is noble? That smart protagonists look out for number one? Inconvenient storytellers are nudged to change their tune; major inconveniences get dispatched by the Cabal’s enforcer, Pullman. Wilson, a former Cabal agent, is telling stories the Cabal doesn’t like at all. Killing Wilson would only make the stories more popular, which is why Pullman set out to frame Tom. When that doesn’t work the Cabal schemes to discredit the series by swapping out Wilson’s next manuscript for a world-class piece of crap.
It turns out, however, that the Cabal members are Pullman’s unwitting puppets. He belongs to one of the oldest stories ever created, that of Cain and Abel, though he claims the true facts were different. The legend that grew up around his fight with Abel attracted Leviathan, an entity that lives on human imagination; our mental health, in turn, depends on Leviathan processing fiction to keep our imagination manageable (Tom at one point compares it to our gut bacteria making food digestible).
Pullman’s problem is that Cain and Abel is so ancient, and powerful (did you know it even inspired comic book characters?), Leviathan refuses to let it fade into obscurity. If the story can’t die, Pullman can’t die, so he’s worked out a plan to destroy Leviathan, no matter what the cost to the human race.
While Tom really is Wilson’s son, he was a means to an end, grown and raised to give him a unique understanding of fiction and how it works, like teaching a child how to strip a machine gun and put it back together. He’s able to slip in and out of the worlds of fiction, and as fans embrace the idea he’s a real-life Tommy Taylor, Tom gains his fictional counterpart’s magical abilities. Will even that be enough to save the world after Pullman finally drives a spear into Leviathan, seriously wounding it?
(I wonder, by the way, if this was an influence on Kieron Gillen’s Once And Future, which also plays a lot with the power of stories and people raising kids in ways to make them magical heroes out of legend).
It’s a strange epic journey, but it works. Carey and Gross do a great job playing with stories and how they influence us, (though the idea all of us are stories to someone else never quite works). They throw in some great characters such as Pauly Bruckner, a horrible human being Tom accidentally trapped in the Hundred Acre Wood (sans serial numbers) and willing to do anything to get out. They also make effective use of the way the Internet plays such a big role in fandom.
Like Paper Girls, the ending worked better for me on rereading. On the first go-round it struck me as far too dark, and Wilson — who whatever his motives is one shitty parent — got forgiven way too easily. This time around, I discovered the warm father-son hug I remembered never actually happened.
The series runs 11 volumes plus Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, depicting the first novel in the Tommy Taylor series and Wilson formulating his master plan. I enjoyed them all.
#SFWApro. Covers by Yuko Shimizu.