It’s always nice to see comics with literary ambitions. And as Vertigo’s best comics tend more and more toward the crime genre, “The Unwritten” seems like a throwback to the days of “Sandman” and “Books of Magic,” when Vertigo comics were the province of sensitive gaming types, or bibliophiles with a taste for wizardry. Sure, “Fables” fits that description, but “The Unwritten” takes a different approach from Bill Willingham’s epic fantasy. If “Fables” is about stories colliding with other stories, “The Unwritten” is about stories colliding with reality — the layers of reality that separate imagination from fact, the fantastical from the mundane.
But it’s also directly about “Harry Potter.” Not that any specific knowledge of J. K. Rowling’s series is necessary to understand “The Unwritten,” but a general awareness of the characters and situations grants entrance to the humor of this comic. Its jokes largely hinge on parody, even when its jokes are brutally dark.
Such ties to “Harry Potter” provide Carey with easy access to characterization. We get a sense of the history of many of these characters because we can extrapolate their past from what we know of the Rowling books, even if the comparisons are only superficial. But it also leads to potential narrative danger. It could limit the potential of this series if its just a Rowling-in-reality riff.
Carey has shown his willing to expand his scope in previous issues — the Kipling story was probably the most effective example of that, and possibly the best issue to date — but “The Unwritten” #9 is basically a Harry Potter prison break story. Or a kind of a “What If?” tale. “What if Harry Potter were based on a real kid, and that kid was imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit, and then he busted out using powers he didn’t know he really had?” Plus, you know, with Voldemort played by Count Ambrosio and all.
The story works largely because Carey pulls back to show that he knows its all a story within a story. It’s implicitly metafictional, if not explicitly so. Still, it’s not quite clever enough to reach the heights of the best of the Vertigo line. And because Carey has pulled back, it’s not quite emotionally compelling enough to make us invest in the characters.
But for all my criticisms, this is still a good series, a good series that’s still young. And it has a edgy darkness that’s easy to overlook among the Potter pastiches. Children die here. Prisoners are torched. It’s violent and harsh, even when its about winged cats and the ghosts of legendary heroes. And the discord between the fantasy trappings and the violent reality keep this book interesting.