“The Unwritten” #5 is a break from the regular ongoing plot of the series, which normally focuses on Tom Taylor and his search for the truth about himself, as the book jumps back a century to focus on British writer Rudyard Kipling in an effort to provide some context for Taylor’s adventures and more information on the world of the comic. The story, itself, is affecting and deep with every aspect of the comic working together in perfect sync to tell how Kipling rose to popularity and suffered for it.
Visually, this issue is the strongest one yet as Peter Gross, Chris Chuckry, and Todd Klein all contribute to the unique mesh of art and text. Since “The Unwritten” is a comic so entrenched in the written word and this issue spotlights a writer, text plays a rather large role here, and Gross and Klein give it its proper place. Gross’s page layouts often work around where excerpts from Kipling’s journal will go or, in one scene that illustrates Kipling’s poem, “How the Whale Got His Throat,” the poem itself intermingles with the art. Throughout, Klein uses a variety of fonts to great effect, the cursive one for Kipling’s journal particularly well done since cursive fonts are sometimes difficult to read, which isn’t the case here.
Chuckry uses a different color pallet for this issue, one that looks faded. Faded tans, browns, and blues all indicate the time and the nature of this issue: it is a journey into the past, but it is also a story someone is reading, narrated by Kipling’s journal. As well, this is a fictional rendering of Kipling’s life to suit the world of the comic, which is reflected in the coloring. Peter Gross also shifts styles here, using a very thin, clean line, sticking to minimally rendered figures, a change that’s apparent on the final page of the comic, which takes place in a different time. His drawings of Kipling as he ages are subtle, the alterations in appearance sneaking up on you as they do in real life.
The scope of this issue is bigger than simply Kipling as Carey provides numerous hints about the larger world of “The Unwritten” and the group that is seemingly moving against Tom Taylor. A young Kipling is approached by a man named Locke while in India with the promise that he could be made a well known, successful writer with Locke’s group’s help. They admire Kipling’s belief in the British Empire and wish for him to champion the Empire in his writing. While reluctant, Kipling doesn’t exactly turn Locke away and, quickly, he is the voice of British imperialism — soon, detractors like Oscar Wilde are disgraced and Kipling sees the sort of men he’s been dealing with. The plot unfolds in starts and stops, skipping years to focus on moments, an effective way to tell this story since its focus isn’t so much Kipling’s life but how his life fits into “The Unwritten.” The culminating scene between Kipling and Locke is powerful, full of harsh truths, and is almost uncomfortable to read.
If you thought “The Unwritten” was an English lit major’s dream comic before, this focus on Rudyard Kipling — partly a celebration of his writing, partly a damning critique — solidifies that sentiment. Thankfully, this comic is so much more than just an illustrated essay or biography, it’s a story first and foremost. And it’s a very good one at that.