SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for the first story arc of “The Unwritten.”
Early in the game, Mike Carey and Peter Gross considered the title “Faction” for what would become Vertigo’s hit, “The Unwritten,” as the ongoing oeuvre fuses both fact and fiction, not only in its storytelling but in the world of the book’s main character, Tom Taylor.
Tom is the son (maybe?) of beloved children’s author Wilson Taylor, who created a bestselling series of books featuring a young, boy wizard named, you guessed it, Tommy Taylor.
But now Wilson is missing and Tom is a suspect. There’s a cult in New Zealand that thinks that Tom is actually Tommy Taylor, immaculately brought to life into the real world. And there’s a cultish Cabal that wants a literal piece of Tom, as well.
All of that, combined with a new Tommy Taylor book arriving mysteriously at the publisher post-posthumously, and Tom’s life as a Z-level celebrity is quickly spinning out of control.
Confused? You can pick up the first “Unwritten” trade paperback, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity,” today in comic book stores across North America. However, if you’ve been following along since the release of “The Unwritten” #1, or don’t mind a few spoilers, read on for an extensive conversation with writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross about what’s happened so far and what’s to come in Year 2.
CBR News: We first spoke back in March of 2009, prior to the launch of “The Unwritten,” and you were both obviously really excited about what you about to unleash on comic book readers. Nearly a year later and with the first trade coming out this week, are you pleased with the reaction, and is it what you expected?
Peter Gross: Yeah, totally thrilled. The funny thing is, it’s kind of gone exactly like we thought it would. I think, right Mike?
Mike Carey: It’s was kind of like our best case scenario, really, that the first issue would pique people’s curiosity and then we’d be able to get good sort of carry-through. That seems to be the case.
Gross: I can’t think of many things that I’ve worked on that have gone the way I’d hoped they’d go [laughs].
Looking back at reviews of the first six or seven issues, and following message board threads and forums, the book has actually grown in popularity and critical acclaim over the first six months – it really seems to be picking up steam and gaining a very sound following as the mythos of Tommy Taylor expands.
Gross: It’s been really consistent. I think people are reading it the way that we intended them to. And there is a consistency to the reviews too. People are getting the right stuff out of it and in the order we wanted them to. That’s been great.
Carey: We decided early on that each issue should have a big reveal or a big set piece that moved things forward, because I think we’ve both had the experience of telling a story at a more, not relaxed pace, but a pace that seemed to be right and then having the readership drop off because people felt it wasn’t moving fast enough. I think with “Crossing Midnight,” we just took too long to set our goal, so we just wanted to come out of the gate on this one with the right speed. I think we did that.
Gross: Again, the reviews have been really fun to read as opposed to painful [laughs].
For folks who maybe haven’t been following since the beginning, or maybe didn’t know what they’d bitten into when they first picked up “The Unwritten” #1, can you talk about the genesis of the project and what your goals are for the book?
Carey: Well, I think the most important core idea of the book is having a character that we follow both in real life and in fiction – and that idea came from Peter. It was something that he’d been thinking a lot about. I think in relation to your daughter, right Peter?
Carey: And then we both came on board with an idea. At first, we were talking about them as two separate projects – kind of alternate possibilities. “We could do this book or this book.” And then Peter said, “Or we could combine all of these elements into one.” And we looked at it and realized, “Yeah. That’s very cool.”
Gross: And I think from that moment, when we first started fitting things together – more and more of it was just fitting things into place around that central idea of this character whose life got ruined by fiction and the consequences of it.
In reading “The Unwritten,” one of the coolest elements for my money that has been introduced so far into the mythos is the notion of this literary GPS that Tommy’s father has left behind for his son. Do you actually have a literary GPS or map spread out in the studio, plotted out three, four, five years into the future, so you know very clearly exactly where “The Unwritten” is heading?
Gross: Yes. We actually are doing that. Literally, we’re building a map here [laughs] in the studio, which is way too complex to actually use in the book.
Carey: But we’re constantly marking up the stories that we’re going to refer to and places that we need Tom to go to.
Gross: I regret it sometimes, because I would love to go back and plant a couple more lines early on, because some of the places that we’re going to, we weren’t totally sure right away. Before the trade hit, I would have loved to plant a couple little things in the journal pages or the media pages, as well.
Carey: That was true with “Lucifer,” as well. In retrospect, we could have added a lot more.
You mentioned the different types of media utilized in the series. It’s been a really interesting approach, the way you’ve been moving story and various plot threads along using an overlay of radio and TV broadcasts, clippings from newspapers and journals, as well as postings on message boards and blog entries. Is that a nod to the way your readers are gathering information themselves these days, either by email or Facebook or MySpace, or is it an actual plot device that plays itself out more clearly later in the series as the worlds of fact and fiction continue to blur?
Gross: It gets increasingly more important later, don’t you think Mike?
I think those things are just all very pervasive. They’re also replacing the traditional role of fiction. What we used to do by reading fiction, we now do by writing status updates on our Facebook page. Maybe something’s gained by that, but certainly much is lost, too. But it’s like little inroads into our fictional energy, which I think are pathways for people to exploit. Maybe?
Carey: And that idea of a simultaneous web of story that can circumnavigate the globe is definitely one of the things that we’ll explore more and more as we go on.
Gross: And in reality, don’t you think, it almost creates this monster that needs to be fed. Like when you look at the response to the Tiger Woods scandal. If there was ever a guy who needed a magic map and a doorknob right now, it’s Tiger Woods.
I was actually going to mention that very story and how it could have very easily played itself out in the pages of “The Unwritten.” Even the way the story is being revealed, via blogs, 24-news services and tabloid journalists. “The National Enquirer” is the news source of record on this one.
Gross: And it becomes a feeding frenzy for these story tidbits. It’s like you have to have the 24-hour a day Tiger Woods network to keep up. And everybody is like, “What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing?” It makes you wonder, what’s getting lost behind that while they’re feeding us this story? What the hell are they doing on Wall Street that we’re not aware of? It’s very much like what the Cabal is doing in our book.
Carey: We talked about the Bible and how that story started and eventually went across the world, but it took centuries. The evangelists go off to the four corners of what was the Roman Empire and, gradually, there is a kind of absorption of the story into everyday cultural life, but it literally took centuries. But the modern equivalent would take a day or a day-and-a-half.
Gross: And would it amount to any real power, or it would have just been diffused and never amounted to anything at all [laughs]? “Oh yeah, Jesus, the guy who came off the cross. That was so last year.”
While Tom Taylor is perhaps not an everyman-type hero that we would instantly all cheer for, he’s certainly a character that we can empathize with, especially as we learn more and more of his story. What steps did you take to make Tom a character that we had to learn to love?
Gross: That’s a great question.
Carey: I think you measure him by how he responds to the awful things that happen. But even from the start, there is a tension. And yes, he is a bit whiny. And he does feel hard done by. And he does complain a lot. But at the same time, you see him being very considerate to the fans. You see him trying to let people down gently a lot of the time. And then his world falls apart, and I think he becomes a stronger person – maybe not stronger, but certainly more sympathetic because he doesn’t fold up under the adversity. He actually gets more active, more energized as the world goes to pieces around him.
Gross: I think he’s a hard character to handle. Like you say, I think he’s someone you empathize with. You really feel like, “God, I know what that would be like to have that life.” It’s not so much that you like him, but you can just empathize with his position. I think that can only take you so long, and I think we’re working on making that transition where maybe the events surrounding him are big enough that he changes his relationship to things a little bit and he gets, I guess, more proactive.
Carey: Yes, he definitely becomes more proactive.
Gross: But for us, it’s that line of how long can you do the one before you start doing the other.
The pacing on a story with a mythos this grand is extremely important. You’ve managed to tease just enough each issue without giving away the whole enchilada. Is there a method to the controlled madness?
Carey: I think the important thing there, and it’s the one rule we’ve been trying to follow, is don’t stand still. You have to make sure [each chapter] gives you something, some piece of the puzzle that you didn’t have before or shows you something that you did know, but from a different angle, so that you never feel like we’re just treading water.
Gross: The reaction I was most surprised by is kind of sort of comparing it to “Lost.” Or, I saw a review that said the most infuriating thing about this book is the way they answer a question and then ask 10 more, but it’s also the greatest thing about the book too. And I can totally see that, because we have so many pieces in our head that we’re able to put a lot of them out there each month, but there’s always more behind it.
The pacing of it is an interesting thing, because we know where all this stuff is going and probably for us, it’s the hardest thing to judge. With all the answers, you never sure how much you’re giving away with little things or not.
Carey: That said, we’re very, very lucky to have the editor we have on this book. Because Pornsak [Pichetshote] never lets us get away with shit. He’s very, very good at keeping his eye on the details and saying, “Did you nail this beat?” Or, “Where did you nail this beat?” Or, “Where is this beat going?” Or, more importantly, “Do we need to hit this beat?” We have very, very long and very, very detailed discussions about those things.
Gross: And I think Mike alluded to something that is similar to “Lucifer.” I thought the best issues of “Lucifer” were those one-offs that Mike would do. And I was always kind of jealous, because those were just really the ones the fill-in artist would do and I loved those one-offs. But I think what we’ve done with this is we kind of have the feel of the one-offs, but like what Mike said, we put a big payoff or a big piece in each time, so even though it might feel like a one-off, it’s still really connected to the main story. And I think each issue always has a connection to the main story. We have the benefit of having so many pieces in our heads that we can put big pieces in right away, because there is going to be more payoff behind those.
There are so many references to literary greats throughout the series, be it authors, historical landmarks or their works of fiction. Are you both big fans of classic literature, or did you have to research targeted writers to match themes you wanted to present and explore?
Carey: It’s a combination of the two. We have our favorite stories, and one of our favorite stories is definitely going to show up. But there is other stuff that we are researching on the fly, like #10 and #11 that revolve around a novel, which I think it’s fair to say, is fairly obscure. But it’s a novel that became a movie with a huge historical significance. The novel is called “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ” by Lion Feuchtwanger, so we all so dutifully went away and read that and watched the movie.
Gross: Well, some of us just watched the movie [laughs]. I had never even heard of it. And when you find out the influence of this book, you should read about it on Wikipedia, it’s very interesting.
Carey: It’s a bizarre little episode that happens there. It was written by a German Jew, and it then became the most influential anti-semitic movie in Germany during the Hitler years.
Gross: It’s just a completely anti-Jewish propaganda film, and the original story gets twisted around. You think it’s going to be this hateful, weird movie, and you watch the movie and it’s very slick and it’s very well done for the time – it stands right up there with the Hollywood movies made at the time, and it’s very persuasive and frightening as a result.
Well if this is a book that you didn’t even know existed, how does it find its way into “The Unwritten?”
Gross: That’s the amazing thing with working on this book. We know what beat we want to hit in the story arc, but we don’t know what fiction we’re going to use. We’d never heard of “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ,” and then it turns up, and it’s a perfect thing.
Carey: It turns out to be exactly the right thing.
Gross: Even #5, the [Rudyard] Kipling issue, which I think is an incredible issue, was going to feature a different author originally. I don’t even know. Why did you change it, Mike?
Carey: I was reading a biography of Kipling and I just thought, “My God, everything we need is here already.”
Who was it going to be?
Carey: It was going to be Evelyn Waugh, I think.
Gross: But when we find these things, it ends up being so much better than what we were going to do, but we have not changed the structure of “The Unwritten” at all, really, but we have encountered so many things that we had no idea about when we went into it. And that’s what’s made it really rewarding and really interesting to work on.
And just to go back to “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ,” how did you find it?
Gross: Mike found it.
Carey: How did I find it? I’ll tell you how I found it. I saw a documentary called, “We Have Ways of Making You Think,” which is a history of propaganda, and there was a whole episode of this documentary that was just about the figure of Joseph Goebbels, who was Hitler’s propaganda minister. And this movie was his brainchild. It was him who chose it. It was him who shepherded it through the studio system, because basically he was in a position where he could just tell the studio, “You will make this film.” So that’s how I came across it.
Gross: And it’s also worked out because it’s really the birth of modern propaganda, media propaganda. So, for us, it’s really kind of a pivotal, key point in the development of what we’re talking about through “The Unwritten.”
What’s coming up after #10 and #11?
Carey: “The Unwritten” #12 is another free-standing story.
And beyond that?
Carey: In Year 2, there is a story that we seeded very early on which is there is a new, 14th Tommy Taylor novel, so we’ll be returning to that.
Gross: That kicks off in #13 and it will very much be structured as a real welcoming-on point for new readers.
Carey: All the characters from all the various plotlines converge – it shows you who they are and where they’re coming from.
Gross: And it brings it all back to London, where it hasn’t been since #2.
Carey: And we’re going to have an arc that is centered on Moby Dick – although it has a lot of other whales in it, as well. It’s a very whale-centric story.
“The Unwritten” #5 had whales too, didn’t it?
Carey: Yes, we’ve already done whales, but you can never have too many whales.
Should I re-read #5 before I read that arc.
Gross: You could. You certainly could.
Carey: And we’re going to be looking more at the background and revealing more about some of our supporting cast – more about Savoy and more about Lizzie.
Gross: Actually #16 is a feature on Lizzie.
Carey: Told in a very unusual way.
When we first spoke about this project, you thought the story would maybe take five years to tell. Has that changed at all?
Gross: I keep pushing Mike to make it longer. I’ve heard Mike mention 75 issues, which makes me happy [laughs].
Carey: There would be something satisfying about it lasting 75 issues.
Gross: He went into it at 50, so I have him up to 75. That’s pretty good.
Gross: I keep sending him more ideas. Let’s include “Alice in Wonderland.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
“The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity,” written by Mike Carey with art by Peter Gross and cover by Yuko Shimizu is on sale now.
“The Unwritten” #9 goes on sale next week.