In the last (first?) column I mentioned that a series like the Unwritten deserves more scrutiny than it has received, because piecing together its big picture feels like it could be a rewarding exercise. In its own way, it is as dense and anarchic as something like the Invisibles, and as difficult to hold together in your mind all at once.
The Unwritten is a thrill ride. It’s everything Mike Carey and Peter Gross have learned about comics over their decades-long partnership. The way they shape their narrative together betrays a supreme confidence in their storytelling ability and their mastery over the form. The series is long but extremely compressed. Characters shift between narrative arcs and locations at pace. At some point I realised that I wasn’t reading on to make sense of an underlying mystery or to seek the resolution of a tangled plot, but for the pure joy of watching the narrative fireworks.
Two examples from the final collected volume will serve to illustrate the surface-level quality of the book. At one point a conflict is manufactured between the protagonist Tom and his girlfriend Lizzie –who uncharacteristically jumps to the conclusion that Tom is unfaithful on rather slender evidence. Knowing what we know about how close these two characters are, the episode that inspires Lizzie’s distrust and jealousy is not sufficient as an explanation for her feelings. In a later issue, Carey and Gross essentially retcon her reaction, and suggest that she was a victim of an evil spell. A conflict is quickly assembled for the purposes of a cliffhanger splash, and just as quickly dissolved in the next few issues. That kind of backflip is impressive even when it isn’t entirely pulled off. It’s the sort of audacity you can only afford when you’ve memorised every beat of the music comics can make.
The second example is the dialogue, which is stuffed with Carey’s attempts at action film wisecracks. In the last book, Richie (an Irish vampire and cynical journo) has little to do but make jokes at the expense of the other characters. He is in some respects a stand in for the reader – calling out the absurdity of the narrative acrobatics that Carey and Gross are indulging in, in order to make them more acceptable. He is a bit like Touchstone in As You Like It, a clown popping the bubbles of pretention blown by the other characters. The rapid-fire chit-chat makes the Unwritten exceedingly easy and pleasurable to read. It reassures you that you don’t need to hold the tangle of plot and character history together as you’re reading. All of that stuff is silly anyway. Just enjoy the trip.
It’s important to stress these sensational aspects of the comic, because like Sandman before it, the Unwritten suggests an exploration of the nature of stories, and their impact on the world, which it only partly fulfils. The most thematically rich bits of the Unwritten are usually stand-alone issues that take a break from the main plot. In the final volume, the one-shot is in the middle, and brings together the three villains to elucidate their motivations and ideologies, which have thus far been rather unclear to the reader. The creators can make room for the excavation of meaning by the reader when they put their gyrating plot on hold. Again: it’s one of those series that works better at the speed of the single issue.
Although the thematic concerns of the Unwritten are only occasionally satisfying, I prefer its company far more than that of Sandman. Gaiman’s magnum opus isn’t a coherent treatise on the power of story either, and in fact ends up partly being aboutGaiman’s failure to fulfil his artistic ambitions. But the series constantly telegraphs its own seriousness, and too often relies on that sense of profundity to get away with clumsy comics. Carey and Gross say some things better, and some things worse, with the Unwritten. But their book is a comics masterclass in comparison.