There’s a long history of literature about literature, and perhaps a large chunk of that list is made up by comics and graphic novels. But even in this sub-genre, The Unwritten from Vertigo has slowly been gaining a cult following for its deep, layered world, impressive visuals from artist Peter Gross, and complex characterizations from writer Mike Carey.
Ostensibly the story of Tommy Taylor, a real-world Harry Potter stand-in (actually a Christopher Milne stand-in, as we’ll find out in a bit) who turns out to be a similar path to his fictional counterpart, The Unwritten has gotten deeper and more complex with every issue, while continuing to examine just what it is about writing that’s a little bit like magic. On the eve of the most recent issue’s release, we chatted with Carey about what makes his characters work, where the series may be going, and what other books he considered essential reading:
MTV Geek: You’ve played with a number of pieces of literature throughout the series, but the current arc is the first one to really fully embrace a book – specifically Moby Dick. Why is that? What’s important about Melville’s novel as a starting point?
Mike Carey: There are a lot of different answers to that question. We always intended for Tom's encounters with books to get more and more hands-on and direct, leading to the point where he actually enters a narrative. When we were auditioning for possible books that would work in that context, Moby Dick stood out for several reasons. One was that we both liked it a lot. Another was a passage in both the book and the movie where Ahab is talking about the power that lies behind the visible, observable world.
Peter sent me that as a clip from the Gregory Peck movie, and it chimed in so well with what we were doing in The Unwritten, that we both felt we had to go with Moby Dick. Then, later, when we started to talk about other fictional whales, we realized how many possibilities Moby Dick opened up - particularly the revelation in #23 that Tom has been looking in the wrong direction the whole time. There's another whale lurking in the background here, besides the usual suspects...
Geek: Particularly with Tommy, it feels like you’re playing the long game with his character. He’s accepted that magic exists, and that he’s in a book, but he’s still kind of, well, a dick. Most comics create some sort of catharsis for their characters every issue, so what’s it like to create one in the long view?
MC: I think Tom's changing as we watch him. He was a fairly passive-aggressive guy when we first met him, letting events carry him along and feeling sorry for himself. But the cataclysm at the Villa Diodati triggers something in him, and we start to see both a courage and resolution that was hidden before and a compassion that he wasn't allowing himself to feel.
So I guess I'd argue that there *are* cathartic moments for Tom along the way. It's true, though, that he's more of a slow-burn than some comic book protagonists - and his relationships with Lizzie and Savoy take time to reveal themselves. His relationship with his father, too, come to that. He's a little bit like Jessie in FAKER in that you ultimately come to a good understanding of what turned him bad. That's not the same as a free pardon, but it makes a difference.
Geek: One interesting bit I read recently is that you based Tommy more on Christopher Milne, than Harry Potter. Has that changed over time? He certainly has his Hermione and Ron, at least.
MC: Yeah, but that triumvirate goes back waaaaaaay further than Harry Potter. It's fair to say that the configuration of hero/hero's love/hero's sidekick is a staple in fantasy. I grew up on Moorcock's Eternal Champion, where it's absolutely ubiquitous. I'm not rejecting the Hermione/Ron parallel; I'm just saying it's an instance of something wider and older - something that Joseph Campbell would have no trouble in recognizing. To give one very obvious example, it's the set-up you get in the Ramayana, with Rama as the hero, Sita as the hero's lady, and Hanuman as the best buddy. Of course - and maybe I should insert a spoiler warning here - the Harry Potter books work a variation on the classic formula. In The Unwritten, as we've seen in recent issues, it's played straight, for now at least. Lizzie loves Tom, and Tom loves Lizzie. Richie stands off to one side of that relationship.
Tommy is definitely a character who has very strong echoes of modern fantasy protagonists, including Harry Potter. Christopher Milne is more important in terms of how Tom's story - as opposed to Tommy's - plays out.
Geek: Okay, granted, but… Tommy and Lizzie sleeping together: is that because you secretly wanted Harry and Hermione to get together in the end? Because I think it is.
MC: No, I have no opinion about that! Really! I'm a big fan of the early Harry Potter books, but I haven't even read Half-Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows. I will do so, at some point, but right now my knowledge of those books is limited to what other members of my family have leaked to me.
We brought Tom and Lizzie together because the logic was there for both of them - irresistibly so, in Lizzie's case - and because we were about to split them up. A love scene at that point felt right. It's not all sweetness and light, as I'm sure you'll agree. There's a question, which Lizzie asks herself, as to whether she can really give a meaningful consent to a liaison with Tom, given how Wilson has primed and aimed and trained her.
That was one reason why we made her be the initiator in that sequence: we didn't want readers to see Tom as a rapist, which he would arguably have been if he'd made the first move. Another reason, of course, is that Lizzie is the forthright one: Tom would angst around and not do anything about it.
Geek: More seriously, and to get back to the issues at hand, with Lizzie and Savoy trapped, you’re taking them so very dark places; and there’s a great reveal at the end of the “torture” sequence two issues back. How attached do you get to your characters? Was it difficult to take them there?
MC: Yes and no. I'm trying to think of how to put this. I get *very* attached to my characters, but that never stops me from putting them through hell. So it's painful, but it's not difficult. The idea that "you always hurt the one you love" is if anything more relevant to writing fiction than it is to real life. The mark of a writer's love for a character is that the character will be put through an unbelievably tortuous and torturous arc and then get some kind of spectacular pay-off, which may or may not involve a happy ending.
Way back when I was writing the Lucifer miniseries - which gave rise to the later, monthly book - I had a plot that involved a young girl unintentionally killing her brother, and then making an Orpheus-style journey to the underworld to get him back. Only she fails: at the crucial moment, Lucifer's agenda trumps hers and she comes back empty-handed. In the pitch, I yielded to a momentary weakness and had Lucifer relent and give the girl her brother back as a payment for services rendered. My editor, Alisa Kwitney, had three words to say on that: "but he wouldn't". And she was right. You have to follow the logic of your narrative and your characters. There's a reason why the Greek word agon comes to mean both the conflict in a narrative and the most intense physical pain.
Geek: Since the ultimate puppet master is Wilson Taylor in the book, and you are, in reality, controlling the actions: are you Wilson Taylor? Do you identify with him at all?
MC: Not really. I think I might identify with him more if this were more of an auteur kind of situation, but it's really not. Peter and I collaborate very closely on the storytelling, and our editor, Pornsak, has also been directly and deeply involved, so there's no equivalent of Wilson for us. We're more like the evil cabal!
Seriously, in that respect, The Unwritten is completely different from any other book I've worked on. We've worked out this process, by trial and error, that makes us all into storytellers on an equal footing. That's the most exhilarating thing about it - and at times, of course, the most stressful: with your own books you can just go your own way and you won't be bothered, but The Unwritten belongs to us all.
Geek: How much of a temptation is there for you, in a book all about breaking the fourth wall, to fully break it into the real world, and include yourself in the story?
MC: Less than you'd think. Peter and I are united in a deep suspicion of certain kinds of meta-textual story - the ones where anything can happen, most things do, and a sort of arbitrariness and nihilism sets in. If you mess with the story plane, you're messing with sweaty gelignite: the risk you run is the risk of completely disengaging your readers from the fiction, of making them feel that nothing ultimately matters and so there's no reason to get invested in characters and situations. The only novel I can think of, off-hand, where what you're describing was done successfully, is Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut. And the only comic book I can think of is Grant Morrison's Animal Man. And in both cases, it was a slash-and-burn moment: the story ended immediately afterwards, for good and sufficient reasons. Oh, I should say that I haven't read the later Dark Tower books: a lot of people tell me it works there, too.
In a more general way, we're aware of our own virtual presence as storytellers in the book: there's a sense in which it means something different to us because we're talking about our own craft and our own experience as creators. But I suspect that the moment that became an actual element in the storytelling, the tower we're building will be struck by lightning.
Geek: To talk more generally, what is about the structure of stories themselves that makes for such riveting literature?
MC: Man, if I could answer that one, I'd be a trillionaire! I was thinking last night, as I was watching the last ever episode of LOST, that telling a story is a bit like close-in magic - where you're doing something very mechanical and sometimes even very obvious, but you're explicitly giving the other person an alternative scenario in which what you're doing is miraculous and wonderful. You're investing ordinary events with a super-charged significance. There are a million ways of doing that, and some work better than others, but ultimately you need your audience to meet you more than halfway. After a while, there's nothing more that you can do to make the story work. Then the audience come in and furnish it out with what's in their own minds.
Geek: Beyond playing with form, there’s often an incredible amount of other material in the book, from message board chats, to letters. Just speaking practically, what’s the difference in time for you from writing, say, an issue of X-Men Legacy, versus an issue of Unwritten?
MC: Those media pages take a long time to do. They take the equivalent time for me of writing about four regular pages - but for Peter, and his assistant, Barb, they take longer still. There's a lot of design work that goes into them, and a lot of crazy invention around the edges. Things like the online avatars on the message board threads - Peter and Barb design all those! It's very labor-intensive, but loads of fun.
Geek: And why was it important to present these other views of the world throughout the story?
MC: It comes from our focus on storytelling. We wanted - arguably, needed - to show Tom's story echoing and ricocheting around the world, and we wanted to show how people everywhere become collaborators in that process. We're watching a myth being made, and it's the kind that grows up from the ground rather than being imposed from above. We're aware that it can happen the other way, too: that's the basis for most of what the cabal does, come to think of it. But in this case, it's a very organic thing with its roots in virtual communities all over the world. That's not to say that it can't be helped along by active manipulation, of course - we see that, too.
Geek: Let’s talk a little bit about your influences, either for this book, or in general… What would you say your top five essential books are, and why?
MC: Oh, I suck at these things. And I never give the same answer twice.
Okay, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny would have to be in there. That's all about a guy who turns himself into a myth - actually by borrowing an old myth and re-inventing it. And it's an utter triumph of storytelling, taking breath-taking risks and making them come off perfectly. If it weren't for the Amber books, I'd say it was Zelazny's masterpiece.
The Sandman has to be in there, if only because that was the primer where I first learned the art of structuring comic book stories on an ongoing basis. Gaiman did things on that book that nobody had done before, and he did them better than most of the people (me included) who've imitated him since.
I'm going to name China Mieville's The Scar. I don't think I could ever do what China does, and I seldom try, but he's an inspiration in a more general way: The Scar, in particular, is a book that I'm happy to live in the same world as. Wonderful, incandescent prose and spectacular storytelling, all informed by an imagination that makes hallucinogens and doves descending from heaven more or less unnecessary.
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, because they were a milestone in my love affair with fantasy and because his world building is so intense and obsessive. And again, because of the prose: he was a painter before he was a novelist, and he uses words to paint.
And finally, the Torturer books by Gene Wolfe. Despite what I said about meta-fictions above, the ultimate sense you get from these novels of a guy living a life that's been edited to meet the needs of others is powerful and poignant. "I have lingered too long in my own tomb..."
Geek: What about top five guilty pleasure books?
MC: The Lensman novels by E.E.Smith. Guy was a fascist, pure and simple, and the stories are bloody silly. But great fun.
The Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi. They're leftist-bashing and pro-Christian-right, which I'm not, but they're great.
That's it for guilt. Mostly, when I read rubbish, I'm cool with it. Not that Don Camillo is rubbish - Guareschi was a great storyteller.
Geek: Which book or books most made you want to become a writer?
MC: I guess most of the ones I named above, plus the novels and short stories of Ursula LeGuin, Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Mark Twain's short stories, the bits of Jorge Luis Borges that I was able to get in translation... When I started writing, I imitated Michael Moorcock - the Moorcock of the Eternal Champion books. I thought a hunt for magical artifacts was the only logic you could hang a fantasy novel on!
Geek: Is there any book you desperately want to use in The Unwritten, but can’t?
MC: Yes. But it would be impolitic to name it. We're going to work around it, anyway, and kind of invent our own equivalent.
Geek: Ha, okay. Most important question of the day, which I’m sure you’ve never gotten before: when will we see an Unwritten/Fables crossover?
MC: Barkis is willing! Because of the way Tom's world works, we could do that without compromising either title.
Geek: And just to wrap things up, where is the title going? How long do you have things plotted out for? And when we get to the finale, is there any possibility of a happy ending for our heroes? Because it certainly doesn’t seem like things are headed in that direction.
MC: We have the next year plotted out in detail, and the ending already locked in. There's a gap of, let's say, two years where we know what's going to happen in broad outline, but we could use a lot of different routes to get to where we need to be.
Happy endings depend on where you're standing. The mass extinction of the dinosaurs was a good thing for us mammals, but it sucked for the dinosaurs. There's an ending that - we hope - people will enjoy but argue about.