SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains minor spoilers for “The Unwritten” Vol. 2, on sale now.
Carey and Gross, who previously collaborated on “Lucifer” for the DC Comics’ imprint, garnered two Eisner nominations in 2010 for the title: Best Continuing Series and Best New Series.
“The Unwritten” centers on Tom Taylor, a 30-something Z-list celebrity who is burdened with a cult following because he’s the inspiration for a young boy wizard named Tommy Taylor, the main character in his father’s popular series of fantasy books.
But is Tommy Taylor fact or fiction? And for that matter, who or what then is Tom? And those aren’t the only questions unraveling in the title so CBR News reached out to Carey and Gross to discuss what’s fact, what’s fiction and what’s faction in “Unwritten.”
Carey and Gross also discussed the forthcoming choose-your-own-adventure issue of “The Unwritten,” what’s ahead in the third volume and how big (and how long) of a story they are planning to tell.
CBR News: With the great success you’ve had so far with the series, including Eisner nominations for Best Continuing Series and Best New Series, were there any major changes you made to the overall concept once the initial buzz came in during the first arc and you saw what was working and perhaps what wasn’t?
Mike Carey: Not really, no. We had a very strong sense of direction from the outset. I think if we had changed our approach at all, as we’ve gone on, it’s only been in terms of accelerating the pace of the reveals. In every other respect, I think we’re on the course that we always wanted to be on.
Peter Gross: I think we’ve changed a little bit and we’ll kind of see how people are reacting to certain characters or certain things. Sometimes you think people might think a character is a bit surly and he’s not meant to be then we’ve got to make sure that’s clear and what our intention is. But these are just pretty subtle shades.
Carey:I guess the other thing is, we ourselves are just getting use to the characters, and as certain characters become more prominent, we may have to make adjustments.
Gross:Pauly Bruckner, the rabbit from the last story in the second trade, I think with everyone’s reaction, we instantly wanted to bring him back, well maybe we wanted to anyway, right Mike? [Laughs] But I don’t think we wanted to do at first, necessarily.
Carey:That’s true. He’s getting all sorts of action now.
In the stories we’ve seen so far in “Unwritten” and what we know is coming in the months ahead, it appears as though you’ve developed a title that allows you pretty much the ultimate flexibility to tell any type of story you wish. Do you agree?
Gross:I don’t know how early on we realized what a great set-up we had for any sort of stories we wanted to do, but the time when I was really aware of it was, and I mentioned this to Mike on the phone, when we went from Nazis to talking bunny rabbits from one issue to the next. If we’re doing that, then we’re living in the high country. There’s nothing we can’t do. It’s amazing.
Carey:There’s a sense with the one-offs particularly where we’re kind of daring each other on to do weirder and weirder things. It started as a tactical experimentation, but we’ve set the bar quite high. We kind of have to keep pushing it now.
Gross:I imagine this must have been the way Neil [Gaiman] felt on “Sandman.” When you just realize you have a set-up really allows you to go just about anywhere, it’s a fabulous thing.
In the first storyline of Volume 2, entitled “Inside Man,” you introduce two new characters Leon and Cosi. With these children, you explore the power of imagination, and you really take that exploration to the extreme. Are you using these characters as an example of what can go wrong with storytelling and fiction, or are they a plot device to drive the story forward? I doubt the latter.
Carey:I guess one of our overarching themes is the impact of fiction on the real world. In the “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ” arc, we approached that in a very political way. We talked about the political and social uses of story and the way in which stories can be manhandled and twisted. With Cosi and Leon, we see the psychological and personal way stories are true and how stories can be the pivot on which your life turns.
Gross:And what happens with them kind of twists your expectations around of these kinds of stories. Normally, you would think these kids are going to become part of the great adventure or something. What we were trying to show was, this is a real world and fiction misplaced has real consequences.
Carey:It was actually a fairly late addition. It was something that happened as we were working through that arc. I can remember, we had a really long phone call about this, the two of us and Pornsak [Pichetshote], our editor, and we talked about exactly this. If we’re going to play this out to where it’s heading, we kind of have to give the kids’ story full weight. We added an extra issue to do it.
Gross:And that was #8, which turned out to be a really powerful issue. I know I had suggested what happens to the kids to Mike and he was very reluctant [Laughs]. I think you even said your family really liked those kids.
Carey:There was a point when I was writing the script and Lin, my wife, came up behind me and read over my shoulder and slapped me in the head and she just walked away.
“Unwritten” #9 opens with a great description of evil and how it exists in the Tommy Taylor books. I quote: “Count Ambrosia is immortal because he’s the embodiment of something in the human soul. An inner voice that never stops screaming. A remorseless, selfish part of ourselves. He’s the bit of us that follows its own logic to the last degree. As though conscience and grace never existed. And I buy that, as far as it goes. I think evil is immortal. I just think the reason is more banal than that.”
Again, when you explore one of these great truths, do you start of by landing on a theme like good versus evil and create a story around it, or do you plot an issue of “Unwritten” and because of its design, one of these life lessons just present themselves?
Carey:It’s a little bit of both. We’re determined to stick, all the way through, to a key theme or a key group of themes. It’s what we already discussed. It’s to do with the interactions between fiction and reality and to the extent to which reality is based on fiction and stories, in different ways. We are bringing our favorite stories in, but we choose them because we’re at a certain point in Tom’s story. Or in Tom, Lizzie and Savoy’s story. And certain stories take us where we want to go. They allow us to come in at the right angles.
For example, with the “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ” arc, it was really useful at that point to have them completely flawed, completely distracted from where they wanted to be – taken away from their own goals, kind of floundering and hopeless. We chose “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ” because it comes out of left field, it’s powerful, it’s scary and it very definitely has a bearing on the effects of fiction on the real world. But it’s also a complete 180 degree turn from where we were last. I think it is both choosing stories that work for us, stories that resonate for us and choosing stories that fit in terms of their internal logic and their vibe.
Gross:With “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ,” we knew what we wanted to accomplish with that story, but we didn’t have the fiction we were going to use picked in that case. Mike found that and we used that. I’d never even heard of it. So literally, sometimes we know what has to happen and we’re looking for a story that fits it. Sometimes, we have the fiction there that we want to use and we build the story around it.
Can you have great fiction without good and evil?
Gross:You’ll know when we’re done with this, I guess [Laughs].
Carey:That’s right. In terms of our story, what is evil? In a sense, Tommy’s great adversary, Ambrosio, is an embodiment of evil, but when what happens to Chadron, the governor of the prison, happens to him, is he being possessed by evil? Does he become evil for that moment? Or is it something more to do with the way stories force roles on us and there was role available and he ends up taking it?
In some ways, what we’re talking about has oppositions of good and evil within it, but it’s about something slightly different than that.
What I love about “Unwritten” is that, by its very design, the reader is compelled to read deeply into things like character names and places visited for hints and clues about the greater mythos. So let me ask is Savoy’s named based on the French verb, “savoir,” which means knowledge? Or better yet, is Savoy the embodiment of knowledge?
Carey:I’d never thought of that connection before.
Gross:But Mike thinks of these things on a subconscious level.
Carey:If the name came from anywhere, it probably came from the Savoy Theatre in London, which is where the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were first performed.
Gross:I was just reading the second trade, and with that opening with Roland and the scene with Oliver and Roland, I thought it was really interesting because I don’t think you [Mike] intended this when you did it, but that scene is all about the friendship, too. Knowing that Savoy and Tom become friends throughout the arc, it had a lot more poignancy the second time or after the fact for me.
Carey:That’s very true. It wasn’t something that was foremost on my mind. At one time, there was an expression, I think in the twenties and thirties in England, if someone does you a good turn, you do a good turn back, you’d say, “I’ll give you a Roland for your Oliver.” So you’re right, that wasn’t intentional.
Gross:That’s what works so well about the book. When it’s done right, these things have resonance. You were asking that, Jeff, but they have resonance we didn’t intend. But when you’re spot-on with your instincts and what’s going on, those things just kind of build.
For instance, when we were doing the “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ” arc, we had that panel where Pullman shows up and he’s in a German car. So I looked for reference and I found the car I wanted to use, and then I looked and it’s called, the “Pullman.”
Carey:The other thing worth mentioning at this point, is that we have a great process on the book. It’s kind of heavy in terms of time usage, but we have long, long telephone conversations. Pornsak patches us both in and we go over the scene breakdowns, Peter’s layouts and the script. There are loads of things that come in at late stages because we’re talking it all through.
Gross:It really gives us an extra level to the process and to the story.
Peter, can you talk about the look of “Unwritten?” Specifically, the immense landscape you have to work within because, as we discussed, the possibilities are endless.
Gross:It has its challenges and its pluses. It’s really nice to be able to shift styles a little bit and keep challenging myself depending on where we go with the book. That’s [been] built into it from the start, so I expected that. But you forget how much work it is. Like, Mike and I just did a little, seven-page Lucifer story for “House of Mystery” annual, and it was going back and building from a scene in “Lucifer.” It was so easy! [Laughs] I thought it was going to be hard, [but] I could do it with my eyes closed.
But there’s a lot of work on this book. There are a lot of references and looking at art styles and stuff, but it’s fun working on it because you’re challenging yourself. It’s really rewarding that way. I think people that read it, really respond to how much work we put into it.
Carey:I think it’s fair to say that you [Peter] always go further than the script requires you to. You put so much work into it. With that “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ” arc, you looked at newsreel footage from the time about the book burnings and stuff, which really adds to the richness of the tapestry.
Gross:I always think, working with a writer, I try to surprise them with what I drew, but I make them feel like that’s exactly what they wanted but hadn’t thought of it. That’s when I feel like I’m doing it right.
In “Unwritten” #10, you talk about a common interest in lies and in truths, which are their opposites. I love the second part, “Which are their opposites.” It’s so obvious, but to hear it said that way just stuck in my head. Again, like good and evil, do lies and truths, these opposites, play a major part in what’s happening in “Unwritten?”
Carey:Oh, shit yeah. Hugely. Storytellers are liars by definition, which is why Plato refuses to allows them into his perfect Republic. Storytellers will be barred at the gate. But within that, there are good lies and bad lies. You know Kurt Vonnegut? He had this concept of “foma.” Foma are the lies that make you brave and good and happy. They’re the positive lies, the kind of medicinal lies. And then there are lies in “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ,” where you see how toxic and corrosive a lie can be.
The movie of “Jud SÃ¼ÃŸ,” which must have been seen by literally two-thirds of the German population, really sells you on the idea that Jews are scary and Jews are evil and you can’t trust Jews. It’s so slickly done. It’s actually exciting and entertaining.
Gross:It’s not what you’d expect. You expect it to be barbaric and crude. But it’s slick and it’s just like the Hollywood movies of the time and it’s persuasive. It’s frightening how easily it can persuade you. You’re almost ready to sign up for the Nazi cause after you watch it. It’s really horrifying.
Carey:The American critic Stanley Eugene Fish talking about Satan in “Paradise Lost” said, “There is no defense against rhetoric at the moment of impact,” and I think that’s true. When you are reading a great story, you’re buying it for as long as you’re reading it or watching it. When you’re watching a movie, your critical faculties are suspended because you’re just enjoying the story and a whole lot of really poisonous shit can be slipped under your guise at the point.
Gross:And I think that’s what we’re really writing about and what the book is about. Or a great portion of what the book is about. Why do we believe these lies over and over again?
In #11, you introduce the concept of the story as a canker. Is that what forms creatively as a result of truths and lies?
Carey:The canker is an embodiment of the perversion of a story, which actually doesn’t have anything to do whether the story is a lie or not because arguably all stories are lies. But if the story is pulled away from its initial aims, if it becomes a vehicle for something it was never intended to express, than that’s what a canker is. It’s a convenient metaphor for us.
Gross:We’re saying, if you stretch it too far, then it folds back in on itself or becomes something different.
Carey:And that energy becomes a negative energy.
At the end of #11, Tom lays out what he needs to do next: “I’ve got to find my dad. Find out what’s really going on. Who Pullman and his friends are. And what they want.” Does he get these answers in Vol. 3?
Gross:I think we pretty much address all of those things in the next arc.
Carey:That’s right. All of our key characters meet in London.
Gross:Mike is making a vain attempt at saying, “We do have a plan, don’t worry.” [Laughs] We aren’t like the writers of “Lost” for three years.
The big news coming out of Comic-Con was that “Unwritten” #17 was going to be something pretty special, a choose-your-own-adventure story, right?
Gross:It was actually our editor Pornsak’s idea to do a choose-your-own-adventure. We all loved those when we were kids. We all read them at least once. While it sounded intriguing, it ended up being the most work any of us had ever done on a single issue.
They gave us 32 pages instead of the usual 22. But on top of that, we decided that wasn’t enough, so we turned the book sideways and split each page into two, so we ended up with 63 pages of story in the thing, which just about broke poor Ryan Kelly’s spirit. But as far as we know, it’s the first choose-your-own-adventure comic that we can figure out, and maybe one of the few sophisticated subject matter choose-your-own-adventures. It’s all about Lizzie’s backstory, and when you read it, it just makes perfect sense. Choose-your-own-adventure is the perfect format to tell her convoluted backstory.
Carey:It’s a perfect match of form and content. You have to read it. I wrote the script originally in a sequential way, so it all sort of makes perfect sense if you follow all the different through lines, then we had to jumble it so we’re weaving backwards and forwards though the story as you go. If you think Lizzie should do this, go back to page 5. If you think she should do this, go forward to page 32. Getting it all to match up was a crazy nightmare.
Gross:We kind of don’t know how it’s going to turn out until it’s actually all put together. We’re not even going to know, but I think it’s going to work well. It will be a surprise.
Is #18 the beginning of a new arc?
Issue #18 is kind of an epilogue to the whole arc. It was going to be one-off, but we combined it with an epilogue to the main story because #17 is kind of a one-off break and we wanted to make sure everything got tied up.
And #18 really features a look at the cabal. What they’re about and how they deal with things.
Carey:And #19 is the start of a new five-part arc.
Not that I want you to think about ending this series anytime soon, but do you have an end date or final issue count in mind?
Carey:We know where the story ends. We know what the final beats have to be, but it’s still an open question of how long we take to get there. I think, at the moment, things seem to be going well, and the book is getting a positive response. We would like it to play out to about the same length as “Lucifer” did – 60, 70 issues.
Gross:But I’m amazed we’re getting to #20. It just seems like it’s zipping by really fast, so it might take us longer than we think.
Carey:Maybe we should be doing a “100 Bullets” kind of thing.