SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains minor spoilers for “The Unwritten” Vol. 3, on sale now.
You would think Brian K. Vaughan (“Ex Machina”), Bill Willingham (“Fables”) and Ed Brubaker (“Criminal”) would know a thing or two about superior storytelling in comics. So if you’re not reading “The Unwritten” from Vertigo, what are you waiting for. All three of the aforementioned scribes highly recommend the Eisner-nominated series, created in 2009 by writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross.
For the uninitiated, “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? Those aren’t the only questions unraveling in “The Unwritten,” and with the release of the title’s third volume in trade paperback this week, CBR News reached out to Carey and Gross to discuss what’s fact, what’s fiction and what’s faction.
The always candid creative team of Carey and Gross, who previously collaborated on “Lucifer,” also shared their thoughts on why a great villain is crucial to a great story, discussed some big reveals from the third volume and explained the difference (or lack thereof) of writing an ongoing series that is destined to be collected in biannual trades.
CBR News: The second volume of “The Unwritten” was released last summer. As a refresher for CBR readers, where do things stand for Tom Taylor and his friends at the opening of this third volume?
Mike Carey: Going into Volume 3, you’ve got Tom, Lizzie and Savoy still on the run from the police after the fire at Donostia prison. Tom is still wanted in connection with the murders at the Villa Diodati and Lizzie and Savoy both escaped with him. There is also a book which has surfaced that is ostensibly the fourteenth Tommy Taylor novel. Wilson Taylor, Tom’s father, has been completely under the radar, completely withdrawn from publicity — from all of the human race for as far as we know — for many years and now suddenly this book has surfaced and is being published by his old publisher, Queensberry. What else, Peter?
Peter Gross: Tom, Lizzie and Savoy have, I guess, been drawn back to London from their last adventure, sort of transported in a way, at this time because of this new book being released. It’s a nexus point and it’s kind of pulled them in. This fourteenth Tommy Taylor book is a huge deal and the question is whether this is the real book or a fake book and whether Tom can track his father down and find out some answers to all this before the book comes out.
Carey: One of the other characters in play, Chadron, who is the governor of Donostia prison, seems to have become possessed by Tommy Taylor’s vampire nemesis in the novels, Count Ambrosio, as well.
Gross: I forgot that. [Laughs] We’re working on the next year of the book right now, so you forget when certain things happened or will happen.
I think the other distinguishing thing about this volume is that it features the “Choose Your Own Adventure” issue, which received a lot of notice and attention. I think it’s a phenomenal issue that focused on Lizzie Hexam and Volume 3 is well worth checking out for that alone. It was really interesting to see that issue mixed into a trade with the other issues but I thought it worked well.
I want to come back to that issue, which I loved, but first you mentioned Ambrosio. We’ve discussed “The Unwritten” a number of times since its launch in 2009 and we’ve often explored the role of the hero in a story as it relates to the evolution of Tom Taylor, but what about the villain? How important is having a Big Bad, or in the case of “The Unwritten,” a cabal of big bads, to storytelling?
Gross: That’s an interesting question and I think it’s probably the driving force of stories.
Carey: There’s a sense in which we use stories to take down the enemies that we can’t take down in reality. There is a sort of totemic dimension to stories. Beowulf slays the monster, so you convince yourself that the monster can be slain. There’s a kind of magic in that. But for us, particularly, the Cabal, this mysterious organization which has been hounding and harassing Tom is, conceptually, the focus. It is the center of the story. There is a sense that up ’til now, Tom has purely been reacting to their agenda, to Wilson’s agenda and this trade is where you finally see Tom impose his own will on events and starts fighting back against the monsters in a sense. He’s trying to take charge.
Gross: I think what the most interesting thing about the whole question of villains is, and maybe this is something we’ll get to look at some time, but how villainy changes in all our stories as we grow through cultural differences. Even looking at how someone like Lex Luthor has changed over the years from a scientist to a businessman to a politician back to a whatever, you can kind of tell what’s going on in the world by the villains that we pick. Like Mike said, what’s that thing that we can’t really fight against?
Carey: That’s a very good point. I haven’t thought of Luthor like that before. In our story, like you said, we have a wide range of big bads and they kind of serve different functions.
Ambrosio, in the novels, is purely an incarnation of evil — a two-dimensional incarnation of evil. But the Ambrosio that Tom meets is something different, something more complex than that and in some ways, a little more tragic than that.
We’re going to slap spoiler warnings at the top of this story, but two major plot points revealed in this volume are Tom meeting his father, Wilson Taylor and Tom meeting his fictional sibling Tommy Taylor. Why was this the right time to share these encounters and can you talk a bit about the importance these two events have on the overall mythos of “The Unwritten?”
Carey: We definitely wanted to go into Year 2 by raising the stakes. The first issue in this trade is “The Unwritten” #13, so it was the start of our second year on the book. We had always talked about bringing Wilson back on to the stage, about having this big encounter between Tom and Wilson. I think we initially talked about having Tom meet Wilson a little bit further down the line but the more we talked about it, the more we thought, this is the time. This is the time to have that big confrontation. And to have Wilson begin the process of justifying himself, explaining himself, to Tom and giving Tom some of the clues that he needs to move forward and make sense of what’s happening to him. Looking back at it now, we both feel that it was the right thing to do. It’s a game-changing arc, “Dead Man’s Knock.” It puts all of our characters on the stage together for the first time and it includes a number of beats that completely change the story going forward, and change Tom’s situation.
Gross: I think there are some interesting things that happen when we’re working too, like Tom and his father. Their dynamic, you could say, is an echo of “Lucifer.” There were definitely father issues between Lucifer and Yahweh. In “Lucifer,” they never had that meeting, that talk, until the very end of the series so I think we intentionally kind of decided, let’s do it sooner. This isn’t “Lucifer.” This isn’t going to be this overhanging thing. It’s going to be different. But the other thing that we’ve realized as we’ve worked is that one of us will suggest doing something sooner than we anticipated and the other one goes, “Oh my God. Should we do that?” And every time we’ve done it, it’s really paid off well for the story. I think we’ve challenged ourselves to go ahead and do those things earlier. With that said, what happened with Wilson, and I don’t want to give too much away, but that was not intended. His fate in this book is not what we intended as we went into it. I think I initially said, “Let’s do this to Wilson.” And we talked about it and decided it made a lot of sense, even though it’s not what we intended going into it at all.
Carey: My first email response was, “No way.” And my second was, “That’s genius. Let’s do it.”
As for the Tom/Tommy encounter, it happened casually, kind of on the fly. We just thought it would be a cool thing to do to have that kind of dark mirror moment when Tom speaks to… what, I don’t know.
Gross: Right. That may not be canon in the book because it was drug-induced.
Carey: Yes, it was drug-induced so who or what is he talking to? Is it something inside him? Or is he actually talking to another individual?
Fair enough, but while the encounter between Tommy and Tom remains somewhat ambiguous, we do get Lizzie Hexam’s secret origin told in a most remarkable way, a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Or, I guess due to stringent copyright laws, a Pick-A-Story. Was this format chosen because of Lizzie’s complex backstory or did you lose some kind of bet where you could either be Karen Berger’s butler for a day or do this?
Gross: Our editor Pornsak Pichetshote actually had the idea of doing the “Choose Your Own Adventure.” We were talking about all these different ways people tell stories and he said, “Why not do a Choose Your Own Adventure?” We were like, “Yeah, that’s an interesting idea but…” Then I think it just hit us slowly, because that was in the background to do that at some time, and then on some email chain we came up with Lizzie’s story is the perfect one to do this way because we don’t want to make a firm commitment to exactly what her background is. The whole sense of her is that it could be one thing or it could be another thing. It was perfect format to tell her story.
Carey: The analogy I always use is Schrodinger’s cat. When you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead and Lizzie is both real and fictional. At this stage, we’re not sure which of those backstories is true.
Gross: Again, I don’t think either one of us wanted to make a firm commitment. Lizzie, to me, is the one character that I think, going into it, I had one idea of her and Mike had another idea of her. She has been very illusive to me as we’ve worked on the book because I think in some way I never quite reconciled the different versions of her. And in a way, that’s OK, but I find myself confused by her, even now.
Carey: We had this big fake-out, didn’t we? Because when we first meet her, she seems to be incredibly in control, kind of like a Lisbeth Salander character, someone who just finds her feet in any situation and doles out the hurt when necessary. Then we see that’s a bit of a faÃ§ade and underneath all that are her insecurities and uncertainties, including her uncertainty about who the hell she is, so there is some deliberately misleading stuff in her appearance.
I want to ask you about Savoy, a character that I love. Maybe it’s the news reporter in me or maybe it’s my long-time love for Jimmy Olsen, but if you could, can you talk about him for a minute and share your thoughts on how he’s grown into a major player in the series?
Carey: He always had to be there, because broadly speaking, there was a parallel there between the support team that Tom put together and the little friendship group of Tommy, Sue and Peter in the Tommy Taylor novels. So in a way, we were casting Savoy, we wanted a male friend for Tom and I think he turned out very, very satisfying. In a way he’s Lizzie in reverse. He’s got this hard-bitten, cynical shell but really, he’s a fairly decent guy.
Gross: He’s probably the most self-assured of them. It’s funny. I hadn’t thought of the Jimmy Olsen thing with the red hair too even, but because of what’s happened to Savoy past the third trade, there are times when I think of him like Cassidy in “Preacher.” [Laughs] So, I guess he’s a combination of Jimmy Olsen and Cassidy, which is a pretty good description of him.
Finally, “Dead Man’s Knock” comes out this week, but as a monthly series there’s nearly a year’s worth of issues available for folks to read if they so wish. How do you balance writing for the monthly installments of “The Unwritten” versus trades, or does that even enter the equation?
Carey: I think we always make sure that there is a big nugget, a revelation, in each story except for the one-offs because the one-offs pay off in a different way, but we try to make sure each monthly issue has something completely new and unexpected in it. So we’re not writing for the trade. Or we’re not writing exclusively for the trade.
Gross: I think these days it’s become so organic that you know there is going to be a trade so I guess you just need to know where the story starts and where it ends.
Carey: I don’t even think about that. I kind of have to force myself to think where the breakpoint comes. That doesn’t come to me naturally.
Gross: I was just looking at the third trade and was thinking, “God, it’s really nice that we opened with the TV recap of what’s going on.” That worked out really well. I can’t remember if we specifically said, let’s do a media recap because it’s the start of a trade or not. But it’s nice that it’s there.
“The Unwritten” Volume 3: “Dead Man’s Knock, in comic stores now and bookstores, Amazon.com and more tomorrow, collects #13-17 and features an introduction by Steven Hall (“The Raw Shark Texts”).