If you want to make a large number of people feel something, there’s no better tool than a story. A good story can mobilize, inspire, incite and comfort countless people, and can prove to be a more effective tool for social change or repression than any gun or bomb. In writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross’s ongoing series “The Unwritten,” from DC Comics‘ Vertigo imprint, a secret cabal of powerful men realize this and have been manipulating prominent storytellers for a very long time. However, they’re about to face a challenge in the form of an unlikely hero. CBR News spoke with Carey about the revelations from the first chapter of “The Unwritten” and his plans for the second storyline which begins in issue #6, in stores October 14.
In the first arc of “The Unwritten,” readers met Tom Taylor, the adult son of novelist Wilson Taylor. Wilson was the author of a series of bestselling novels starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. After his father mysteriously disappeared, Tom was able to make a healthy living off his father’s literary legacy, thanks to his name. Then, people started asking questions about Tom’s past; questions which he didn’t have answers for. That lead Tom to set out on a quest to investigate both his past and what happened to his father. It also made Tom the target of the secret literary cabal, and, in issue #4, they caught him in a trap. He was framed and arrested for a series of vicious murders committed at the Villa Diodati, the last place his father stayed before he disappeared.
Hope is not lost, though, because in a flashback in issue #5, readers learned that early on in his career, Wilson Taylor had acquired a journal containing author Rudyard Kipling’s knowledge about the Cabal. “You could say that Wilson is standing on the shoulders of giants. What Kipling learned later in his life and at great cost was given to Wilson for free,” Carey told CBR News. “That has implications for all the things that are now happening in Tom’s life. There are obviously many more revelations to come, but Wilson was building on what previous generations of writers have found. He’s taking advantage of their hard won knowledge.”
It’s been revealed that Wilson had already passed along some of that knowledge to Tom. As a boy, Tom was made to memorize the locations where many of the world’s famous writers penned their greatest works. “Wilson anticipated Tom coming into contact with the Cabal.” Carey said. “He’s telling Tom how to respond to their tactics.”
Tom will need to call on everything his father taught him to survive the new arc of “The Unwritten.” Not only is he locked in prison, he’s also at the location where the “Song of Roland,” a famous medieval narrative about a massacre, was born. “‘Song of Roland’ is a fascinating example of a fiction that had a disproportionate impact on the world. The Emperor Charlemagne had been campaigning in Spain against the Moors. He won a few modest victories, but took some damage along the way. So he was coming back to France with the remnants of his army and making some territorial gains, but then his rear guard was ambushed and massacred at the battle of Ronceveaux Pass,” Carey explained. “There were – reportedly – a huge number of casualties, and in the ‘Song of Roland,’ that’s dramatized as being the result of Roland’s refusal to call for help. He was the leader of the rear guard. He was asked to sound his great horn, Olifant, and call for help, but he wouldn’t because that would have been a shameful thing to do. So he stands his ground against this this Moorish host and loses his army.
“Whether this happened or not is open to debate, but the point is, somebody made it into a song and that song had a spectacular viral success in early Medieval Europe. It was sung by minstrels and troubadours for centuries, and ultimately, it kept alive the memory of the ambush, betrayals, and deceit. It also embellished those elements with all sorts of lurid and spectacular details,” Carey continued. “You could argue, and it has been argued, that when the Ottoman Empire was finally displaced from Spain and driven back, it was partly the result of popular refusal to let this issue lie. So the song becomes part of the campaign to push the Ottoman Empire out of Spain. It’s a fiction that changed the world, although it took a long time to do it.”
In the new arc of “The Unwritten,” the “Song of Roland” will have direct relevance to the situation that Tom Taylor finds himself in. “When Tom went to the Villa Diodati, he was at the location where Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ was written, and in issue #6, he’s in Donostia Prison, which is located on the point where the ‘Song of Roland’ had its origin. He is right where Roland died, if Roland ever existed, and there are consequences for him being there,” Carey explained. “Also, while he’s in jail, Tom is at the mercy of his enemies. He can’t get away, so he’s an easy target for the Cabal, and they aren’t finished with him. There’s a reason why Pullman, their agent, killed off the other inhabitants of the Villa Diodati and left Tom alive. We’re going to find out what that reason is and what the Cabal has planned for Tom now.”
Lizzie Hexam, the mysterious graduate student who started asking questions about Tom’s past in issue #1 plays a role in the new arc of “The Unwritten,” as Carey introduces another two supporting characters as well. “One is Tom’s fellow prisoner, Richard Savoy, and the other is the governor of the prison, Claude Chadron. They both get sucked into Tom’s struggle against the cabal in very, very different ways.”
Carey loved the way Peter Gross brought to life their last Vertigo series, “Lucifer” and feels the artist’s work on “The Unwritten” is even better. “I think Peter is doing the best work of his career, and it’s just so exhilarating to be a part of that. He’s a great visual storyteller,” Carey said. “It’s possible to be a great comic artist without necessarily being a great story teller, but Peter is both. His art is always in the service of the story, and he always brings out and enhances what’s in the story in unique and wonderful ways.”
2010 promises to be a big year for “The Unwritten.” In January, the first collection of the series hits stores, featuring an introduction by “Fables” writer Bill Willingham. Then, the “Song of Roland”/ Donostia Prison arc of “The Unwritten” wraps up in early 2010. That arc will be followed by a two-parter, and then by another one-off story similar to issue #5 of the series, which was a flashback that detailed Rudyard Kipling’s involvement with the Cabal. “It’s a structural approach that we used in ‘Lucifer,’ where we have longer arcs, buffered or dispersed by little one-off stories. Those one-off stories in ‘Lucifer’ allowed us to focus on minor and supporting characters, as well as comment in indirect ways on what was happening in the main story,” Carey remarked. “In ‘The Unwritten,’ the one-offs will very often relate to specific fictions, specific stories and storytellers from previous times, like the Rudyard Kipling issue. Issue #12 will be our next one-off. I’d rather not say just yet what fictions are involved in it, but they’ll have direct – if unexpected – relevance to what’s happening in the main arcs.”
In May of 2010, Carey and Gross kick off the third major story arc of “The Unwritten” with issue #13. “In that story, Tom is loose in Europe and on the run. He’s learning a lot of valuable and useful things about who his enemies are and what they’re trying to do. He’s also learning about what his father had in mind for him. You could say he’s picking up the tools he needs for the job he has to do,” Carey hinted. “Among the fictions that we’re going to explore in 2010 are ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Jud Suss,’ which is a novel by a German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger. It was a novel written from the German-Jewish perspective that was turned inside out by the Nazis and made into the most successful anti-Semitic film of World War II. The Nazis turned that story into something very different [than it was intended to be], and there are reasons why it becomes important to Tom.”