SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the most recent collections of “The Unwritten.”
As “The Unwritten” continues to expand its mythos with not one but two issues worth of story each month (thanks to the half issues which commenced with #31.5), the Eisner Award nominated series eclipsed all previous pinnacles with its first-ever blockbuster event this past year with the epic arc, “Tommy Taylor and the War of the Words.”
Collected in “The Unwritten,” Volume 6, published by Vertigo, Mike Carey and Peter Gross push their hero Tom Taylor to the limit as the believed-to-be-boy-wizard made flesh is forced to face off against the Cabal — the secret organization that has been attempting to destroy him since “The Unwritten” #1 was released in 2009.
But as luck (or magic) would have it, the Cabal is the least of Tom’s worries as two bigger challenges — in the form of a three-way grudge match against the villainous Pullman and the monstrous Leviathan — await Tom after he brings the unwritten faction to its collective knees.
CBR News connected with Carey and Gross for a vibrant discussion regarding the growth of the series and its main character, but as is always the case when speaking to the creative minds behind “The Unwritten,” the story served as a backdrop to a multilayered conversation, this go-round about societal angst, social media, superheroes and in the case of the Cabal, serving a greater master.
The fifth volume of “The Unwritten,” titled “On to Genesis,” was also explored during the exchange as ontogenesis — the biological process of an individual organism growing organically — ties wonderfully into what Carey and Gross bring to audiences with their superlative exploration of metatextual storytelling.
Carey also shared his exclusive first thoughts about having the cast of “Fables” appear in the “The Unwritten” for a five-issue arc, beginning in #50.
CBR News: Early in “The Unwritten: On to Genesis,” Lizzie explains Leviathan — or the symbol for the mass of ordinary people in society — to Tom, and she says, “If everyone in the world stamped their feet at the same time, the mountains would fall into the sea.” Do you believe that to be true?
Mike Carey: I don’t think you could really use it to crumble a mountain, but I think mass movements shape the world — certainly mass beliefs shape the world. I think part of the problem with the current age is that there is a sense that there are no masses anymore. People have been atomized into such tiny cells that the sense of a mass, the sense of that collective strength, has dropped out of the equation.
Peter Gross: I think that it’s a really good question. And I think Mike’s answer is spot on. Hopefully, it’s something we’ve touched upon, but if people are so divided, it’s hard to get a movement feel going.
And yet, as this series explore these very issues, the Occupy movement has raged on now for more than a year. Is mass movement a positive force or can it grow out of control and become something very scary?
Gross: Look what’s going on with the Arab Spring, which is a very neutral force that could go either way. And this whole reaction to a movie that really isn’t a movie. There is rage that’s just looking for something to latch onto. That’s the flipside of this unconscious energy. I guess it’s neither good nor evil, but it’s a force to be reckoned with, for sure.
Carey: What I think is interesting about the Occupy movement is that part of its strength seems to rise from the fact that it has no spokespeople. It has no people that anoint themselves as leaders. And that it makes it very, very hard for the government to deal with.
Gross: That’s the same as the Tea Party.
Carey: And in the U.K. in 1980s with the Greenham Common Movement, which was protesting against the siting of nuclear missiles in the U.K.
It was unbeatable as long as it was anonymous. Then a few people came to the floor as the leaders of the movement and they argued with each other. They claimed the right to dictate policy, and it crumbled. It fell apart.
Can you talk about the Leviathan within the context of “The Unwritten?” Is it a movement? Is it a monster? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it like the T-Rex that shows up at the end of “Jurassic Park” and saves the day?
Gross: [Laughs] It’s unfolding. What you think it is now, and what Tom thinks it is now, may not be what it is. Tom is going through stages of his understanding of it. When he first encountered it as a whale in the Moby Dick story, it was hard for us because we had to present it as “this is a believable thing.” But it was only Tom’s preliminary understanding of it. It had to feel like this is the answer, even though it’s not really the answer.
In “War of Words,” you uncover another level to it, and there will be other levels after that.
Carey: In the arc that we’re working on at the moment, there are some very, very significant reveals about Leviathan, about its nature and its origin — and some of the unseen side effects of its existence. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
The question of whether it’s good or bad is a crucial one. And maybe the answer, as we were just discussing the power of mass movements, is something morally neutral in itself. It’s a question of how it impacts on you.
Gross: In a sense, you would say that the Tea Party is an aspect of Leviathan. And the Occupy movement might be an aspect of Leviathan.
In the first two or three volumes of “The Unwritten,” you explored classic fiction like “Moby Dick” and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Just So Stories.” In “On to Genesis,” you transitioned from the classics to the golden age of comics. Will Superman, Batman and Spider-Man be remembered 100 or even 200 years from now?
Carey: I think superheroes are very much the mythic archetypes of our era. A writer for the London magazine “Time Out” once said to me: “If you take the X-Men by itself — the entire run of all the X-Men books — it’s the single biggest mythical text that the human race has ever conceived.” I think there’s something in there.
Gross: It’s almost biblical. I think there are good things about superheroes. It’s no accident that they basically came into being as we came out of the Great Depression and as America rose to a superpower, we created these beings with superpowers. It’s almost a metaphor for super-powered nations. And I think that is a huge reason to why they are still around.
I also think that if you take mythology and strip the religion out of it, you basically end up with superheroes. That is what the last century has done. We have created a non-religious take on these stories.
Carey: It’s true for any genre that suddenly rises to prominence or mutates into a new form. It’s usually because it has a contemporary relevance. It has become a mirror that you can see yourself in. Westerns are the stories of America’s rural past. Gangster movies in the 1930s are the story of America’s urban presence.
I think Peter is right, that superheroes are the story of a certain view of America’s place in the world in the 20th century. And that is an insight that I stole from Peter anyway. [Laughs]
Gross: I have been harping on that for a long time.
Why did you choose to create The Tinker for this story as opposed to using an established superhero like Superman or Batman?
Gross: The Tinker actually has an interesting history for us, because what we really want to do in that arc was use Superman. I think because the gist of the arc was whatever power is inherent in those characters for change gets bought up by a corporation and gets neutralized in the end, we figured pursuing the Superman angle might not be the right answer for us. [Laughs]
Instead, we developed a Superman metaphor for the story. As we started getting into the type of character we wanted him to be, and we started to give him a little bit of resonance with the stories in Tom’s past, we came up with the Tinker idea, which I think ends up being a great golden age character. He actually worked better for us than Superman would have.
Carey: I totally agree. He is also a very cool analog for Tom. We’ll see more of him going forward. His story is not finished. Neither is the story of his creator, Miriam Walzer.
Speaking of powers, I love how Richie — the net ninja — empowers Tom by typing blog entries. Does social media truly have that kind of power?
Carey: I should confess that I am lousy at using social media. I really only use Facebook, and I don’t do very much there, either. Peter and I have a blog but we’re sinfully bad at posting on it.
I was on a panel at FantasyCon in the U.K., and we were talking about the differences between America and Britain when it comes to genre fiction. Someone asked whether the distinct differences in comic books, which were very profound in the 1980s, still exist today, and I am not sure that they do anymore. I think part of the reason for that is that we exist in a kind of media superconductor. Certain substances, when you cool them down to way below zero, they become frictionless. Electricity can pass through them with no resistance at all. I think certain messages are permeated to the world in a frictionless way and the significance of place gets lost.
Sometimes you get groups of writers in a certain place and they cross-fertilize with each other. I think that happens less now because the platform that those meetings happen in now is the World Wide Web and it is worldwide.
Gross: I think what made “The Unwritten” happen now was not unlike the speed at which information moves and is digested or not digested and spit back out. This type of story wouldn’t have been the same 30 years ago, if we would have done it all.
As we were talking about movements, like Occupy, when you think about it, social media was probably responsible for the uprising in Egypt succeeding, but the jury is still out on the effects of social media. We think about it a lot in the context of our story and is the fact that everyone tweets weakening fiction, weakening the power of story because everyone is writer and not a very good one? That’s the kind of stuff that I think about ,but I don’t have any answers yet. I think that’s what we’re exploring.
The .5 issues have added a new level to the storytelling of “The Unwritten” as you are now able to expand the universe every month and really tighten the focus on characters and/or plotlines. Do you consider the .5 issues a success and will you continue to do them?
Carey: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, hasn’t it, Peter? What’s weird is that when we originally pitched the .5 issues, the idea was that they would run parallel to the main story and they would enrich the backstory. They would explore the past of the Cabal, they would explore the past of the main characters and comment, in an indirect way, on what we were seeing in the regular monthly comic.
But what actually happened was that we ended up, to a very large extent, giving a backstory for Leviathan there, which actually gets its payoff when you get #35 — the big confrontation between Tom, Pullman and Leviathan. I think that probably reads differently if you haven’t read the .5 issues.
They’ve been collected in the new trade in sequence with the regular issues, but I know you considered splitting them up in two separate volumes, telling two parallel, but distinct stories.
Gross: I don’t know what the ideal way to present the .5 issues is. As a comic book, you would read one, you would absorb it for two weeks and you would the .5 and then two weeks later, you would be back to the main story. Each time, you would have enough time to digest those and they wouldn’t crosstrack in your mind.
In the quick read of the trade, you don’t get to absorb them like that and read them as two separate tracks. I think everyone is going to have to feel their way, but I think this new trade is the best trade we’ve done yet, and is the best collection for its value. There are so many issues for a great price, but I think everyone is going to have to decide how they want to read it.
Is Pullman truly a villain in “The Unwritten?”
Gross: When you get Pullman thinking back to his origin, when they are down in the altar room, I think you could say that he is the hero, in a way. He certainly is not in the long run — it’s a mixed bag. It’s what makes him a really compelling character.
I somehow feel bad for Pullman. His eternal hunt for Leviathan wasn’t his choice. It was his lot in life.
Gross: He got royally screwed. It’s kind of funny, because from the beginning, Mike and I always said that someday we’ve got to do a story of the first person that got screwed by a story — the first person whose life got screwed by a story — and eventually we figured out it was Pullman. [Laughs] Then, it was a quick jump to figuring out which story it was that ruined him.
Carey: When he says what he did was not terrible in the .5 story — “It was not so great a sin. I did it at the outset, that was all. When there were no other stories. When the beast had nothing else to think on but me.” — he’s right.
We’ve seen other people that have done much, much worse than Pullman and not suffered a fraction of what he’s suffered, but I think he does become a monster in trying to destroy the monster that hurt him.
Gross: For us, it’s the compelling event that “The Unwritten” is about. It’s about this guy whose life was ruined by a story. That is the impetus for “The Unwritten.” Stories can ruin lives.
Looking back to when we originally discussed “The Unwritten,” you told me that you considered calling the series “Faction” to represent where fact and fiction crossed paths. And during the climatic scene of “War of Words,” Tom asks Pullman, why he should believe him because everything he’s told him till now has been a lie, so I have to ask you, is Pullman Cain, the first human to murder another?
Gross: I think I can say it’s an unfolding narrative.
Carey: Yes, it can be the truth without it being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Gross: We’ll have all of those answers by the end of the series. [Laughs]
Those reading “The Unwritten” monthly may already know this answer, but for those reading the trades, is this the last we see of Pullman?
Carey: Hmm. That is potentially a spoiler. Let’s say, as Shakespeare says in “Julius Caesar,” “The evil that men do lives after them.” Pullman’s legacy certainly is isn’t over and done with, and we’ll be revisiting the whole question of his origin and his relationship Leviathan.
Gross: We have already established in the arc since in the monthlies that at least a small part of Pullman is still alive.
Obviously, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Tom. I love watching him grow throughout this series — how he’s being written, Peter, how you’re drawing him. Can you talk about Tom’s transformation from z-list celebrity disillusioned with the life his father created for him to your leading man? Because while he become the hero of this story, he’s also become much more desperate and direct in his method of operation, including almost single-handedly wiping out the Cabal and making murderers relive their murders over and over like a bad home movie.
Gross: He’s changing in some ways more slowly than I expected. And now, he’s determining his own path, wouldn’t you say, Mike?
Carey: I think there is a great parallel between him and Pullman. To defeat your enemy, you have to become him. We’ve come along way through Tom’s arc. Personally, I have very much enjoyed the process. Peter’s right — initially, maybe it happens a little slower than it should, but I am very happy about where he is now and very excited about the next stage of the journey.
Gross: And you’re right. He has changed physically, too. In the next arc, in the monthlies, in “The Wound,” we join up with the story a year later, and he’s a much more hardened hero, almost like a combat veteran. I find him a little more interesting to draw, actually. He’s got this confidence and purpose he didn’t have in the past.
Carey: Or a hesitancy or passivity. He’s gained immeasurably, but he’s lost something, as well. We’ll see how that plays out.
You’ve teased that at least the legacy of Pullman lives on and that we’re going to learn more about Leviathan, but what about the Cabal? Are they actually finished as a threat to Tom?
Gross: I think we’ve seen the end of the structure of the Cabal, which was really as you learned during the course of the story; they thought they were one thing, but they were actually just really a tool for Pullman and the plug has been pulled on them. I think Tom pretty much wiped them out, but there is going to be a lot of upcoming stories about what happens when you wipe out something like that.
Carey: Exactly. I guess you can look at it in biological terms. It’s as if this is an ecosystem. Wiping out the Cabal creates a niche that can be filled by something else.
Gross: Maybe something worse.
Are the Cabal the titular Unwritten as you teased in the story?
Gross: Well, they call themselves the Unwritten.
Carey: They didn’t record their own history, which served Pullman’s agenda. It suited Pullman for them to have a very, very poor institutional memory.
Gross: [Laughs] He didn’t want anyone to know he’d been around since the beginning, which is basically why he did not let them write anything down.
You said that when you wipe out something like the Cabal from an ecosystem, it creates a niche that can be filled by something else. Is that the Wound?
Carey: “The Wound” is the consequences of Leviathan being hit by a harpoon in “The Unwritten” #35. It’s about the way the world has changed in the intervening year and how it continues to change as the story goes on. It’s also about, as Peter said, the changes of the cast, in the major characters, in Tom and later in Richie.
I guess you could say the ecosystem comment could refer to Leviathan, as well the Cabal.
Gross: Part of what we’re starting to talk about in “The Wound” is if our connection to story is injured, what are the consequences? What is our life like if we can’t access stories the same way as we have in the past?
You mentioned “The Wound” explores how the world has changed the cast, namely Tom and Richie. But you didn’t mention Lizzie Hexam. Is she coming back from whatever it was she got sucked into at the end of #35?
Gross: She’s as dead as Pullman, right now. [Laughs]
Carey: [Laughs] Nicely put. It’s obviously going to be very hard for Tom to let go of Lizzie because she’s become such a mainstay in his life. And as you said, we don’t know what she’s been sucked into. We don’t know what happens to the people and objects that get touched by Pullman’s hand. That’s a mystery that will be explored.
“War of Words” feels like it could have been the end of “The Unwritten,” yet it’s really just the climax to the first part of your story. How do you top “War of Words?”
Carey: I think the story that we’re working on at the moment, which begins in #42 and runs with interruptions through to #49, is pretty huge.
And then there is a huge, game-changing arc, which begins in “The Unwritten”#50.
Gross: I think you can expect a series of huge climatic stories with little downturns in between. And I think it will continue like that till the end of the series.
Carey: Yes, it does feel like we’re already climbing towards the next climax.
Can you give us a tease about “The Unwritten” #50 and what lies beyond?
Gross: We have big plans beyond #50. We’re talking 75 issues at least. But what we really want to do is tell the story the right way and we don’t know how long that will take but that’s our best guesstimate.
Carey: I think we teased this last time, but there is another thing besides the monthly that’s in the works, which will be announced before very long. The story of “The Unwritten” continues to grow in different ways.
Bill Willingham revealed at New York Comic Con that beginning in “The Unwritten” #50, the cast of “Fables” would be featured for a five-issue arc. I know this isn’t the other thing that will be announced soon, but the cast of “Fables” appearing in “The Unwritten” is incredibly exciting for fans of mythic fiction, especially for those who already read your two series.
Carey: Yes, we’re very excited. There’s a paradox at the heart of this story. The “Fables” characters show up in “The Unwritten,” but all of the settings and a whole lot of the characters in the story will be very familiar from the Fables world. So who’s visiting who? It remains to be seen, and the answer is not what you might think at the outset.
If you’re a regular “Fables” reader, you’ll see a lot of your favorite characters, but you may not recognize all of them the first time you see them. And actually, the same goes for the trio of characters from the “The Unwritten,” who are our main point of view.
The stakes are unbelievably high. Superheroes save the world every day but this story is about saving something much bigger and more precious.
“The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words,” by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, goes on sale October 17.