Complain about renumbering gimmicks if you want, but the final twelve issues of “The Unwritten” are off to a fine start with “The Unwritten: Apocalypse” #1. This is a beautifully planned issue, with all the metafictional and metaphorical goodness readers have come to expect from Mike Carey and Peter Gross. It’s a story about stories built with stories, and if that isn’t an elevator pitch to excite you, you wouldn’t like “The Unwritten” anyways.
After certain annihilating events that it’s tough not to spoil, Tom Taylor must build himself back up from nothing, using stories as the building blocks. First an amoeba, then a mouse, and eventually a man, he hops from one story to the next, each time a few steps higher on the food chain. It’s a subtle progression that’s constructed to feel random, and I didn’t realize that his growing larger was significant until the almost-end. Is this because meaning is only ever constructed retroactively, once the reader knows the ending? Or is it because the narrator’s shape doesn’t matter nearly as much as his relation to the events of the narrative?
I’m joking, but these are the sort of questions that Carey and Gross have built “The Unwritten” to examine. As Tom tumbles tale-to-tale, he has to ask what is real, what is fiction, and how the two build one another. What does the interplay between fantasy and reality say about reality? Isn’t what Tom calls the “real world” just another story? These are English-lit-grad-student issues that could feel esoteric or overwrought, but Carey hasn’t lost his ear for discussing them in basic, playful terms that make them feel essential and personal. Wise lions, grasshoppers, geese and the Mad Hatter all opine on the nature of identity and reality, and using such a motley crew to present literary philosophy is fun. The way that these interactions provide questions and refute easy answers reminded me why I loved “The Unwritten” in the first place.
The art also keeps the creativity coming. Every story that Tom falls into has its own unique style, paying homage to classic images like John Tenniel’s “Alice in Wonderland” illustrations or the children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings.” These homages never feel like cheap imitation or a simple nod to a storytelling touchstone. Carey and Gross incorporate and change these stories, as they have so many time before. Chuckry’s colors are also well done, making these scenes look very much like storybook pages. From Narnia to nothingness, from Wonderland to wild mongoose fights, each is a distinct setting.
If we’re to take the renumbering as evidence that DC hopes to bring on new readers for this arc, “The Unwritten: Apocalypse” is only a half-success. I still wouldn’t recommend simply jumping on from here on out; so much has already happened, and much of the weight of these upcoming issues will come from knowing that background. But this issue provides a far more important introduction: one to “The Unwritten’s” themes, which are its strongest point. Readers who are curious as to whether they should start back-reading “The Unwritten” trades would do well to read this issue – as would anyone who’s missed this series’ intelligent, inspired exploration of fiction.