[SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the most recent arcs of “The Unwritten.”]
Already an Eisner Award-nominated, New York Times bestselling Vertigo Comics series, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of “The Unwritten.” And not even Wilson Taylor could have concocted what lies ahead.
Beginning in June, the creative team of Mike Carey and Peter Gross launch a five-issue storyline titled “The Unwritten Fables,” which features Tom Taylor landing smack dab into the heart of Fabletown as the would-be-boy wizard comes face to face with Bigby Wolf, Snow White and the rest of the cast of Bill Willingham’s “Fables.”
Then in September, Carey and Gross expand the universe even further, joining forces with illustrators Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon, and series regular cover artist Yuko Shimizu to tell the whale tale, “Tommy Taylor & the Ship That Sank Twice,” in an original graphic novel.
And we haven’t even reached today’s news yet, which is the release of the seventh trade paperback of the fan favorite series: “The Unwritten: The Wound.”
In the new volume, which collects “The Unwritten” #36-41, the War of Words is over, but the real world and the fictional world are feeling the ripple effects of its climax when Pullman (Tom’s believed-deceased antagonist) stabbed the monstrous Leviathan deeply, setting a series of disastrous events in motion.
As we do each time a trade paperback is released, CBR News connected with Carey and Gross for a vigorous discussion about “The Unwritten” and as always the long-time collaborators didn’t disappoint, sharing valuable insight into Tom’s world — both fact and fiction — and teased what’s to come in both the ongoing series and the graphic novel.
CBR News: In “The Wound,” which features very little of Tom Taylor, you have literary characters running from something literally and figuratively called The Wave. Am I right in understanding that The Wave is caused by Pullman’s attack on Leviathan?
Mike Carey: Yes, the Wave is a direct result of Leviathan being wounded at the end of the “War of Words” storyline. When Pullman uses the harpoon and Tom as a living voodoo doll and strikes through him into Leviathan, Leviathan’s wound and Leviathan’s pain send shockwaves through the world of story.
Peter Gross: It’s the ripple effect of that wound.
Is it just me or has “The Unwritten” journeyed down a darker path this past year?
Carey: I think it is darkening. In a way, that’s because we’re getting to the heart of the stuff that was implied in the earlier stories. I think the harsh undercurrents were always there but now they’re coming closer to the surface.
Gross: I think this arc, “The Wound,” is kind of a quiet arc. In the sense of after all the big events in “War of Words,” it’s this lull. Mike was trying to subtlety set up the world the way it is after Leviathan is wounded and I agree. It’s a darker world.
Carey: And some of that darkness comes from the artwork, doesn’t it? I can’t think of “The Wound” without thinking of that incredible double page spread, in which there is the religious ceremony where the woman has the words drawn on her body and is then transformed. I think that’s one of the most disturbing things that I have seen Peter draw.
Gross: I saw something like that in a movie just the other day. No wait. It was that new TV show, “The Following.” It’s about mass murderers and Kevin Bacon is in it. They did the same thing to somebody, wrote all of them, just like us. I think they stole it from us. [Laughs]
It’s chilling, but I am left believing Leviathan is not alone and that there is another Leviathan out there waiting to take his place. When we last spoke we talked about what would happen if you wiped something like the Cabal from an ecosystem, it would simply create a niche to be filled by something else. Here we are and I think that time is coming again.
Gross: I think it’s more that there are potential new ones, like in the latest issue with Madame Rausch — if that’s the one that you’re referring to — she gets the little one at the beginning. It’s like there is a potential here for a new one to fill its place but it would be a long process.
Carey: Yes, there is definitely an ecosystem of creatures like Leviathan, any one of which could theoretically step into that role. We’ll be looking at more of what the implications of that are as we go forward.
Gross: The one that’s been wounded was the mother of all Leviathans, basically [Laughs] or the current mother of all Leviathans.
We also see the return of two of my favorite “Unwritten” characters, Tinker and Pauly Bruckner. I love what you’ve done with Tinker — actually I would love to see an ongoing Tinker series — but remind folks of who Pauly Bruckner is, why he’s a rabbit and why Tom and his friends should worry that he’s back. And he is back, because he plays a pivotal role in the next arc, as well.
Carey: Pauly is this ultimate wild card in our universe. We have a lot of characters who are following their own paths, who are grimly determined to reach a certain goal and Pauly is just this tormented guy that is cruel and venal and petty and vindictive and he’s more than a little bit crazy but he suffers so much that you kind of have to, on some level, you have to feel for him. But yeah, he’s a random element. He doesn’t know very much about himself, he doesn’t know very much about what it is that has happened to him and why. And the more he finds out, the more dangerous he becomes.
Gross: And it’s taken him 45 issues to work his way into the story [Laughs] so I think the reason to worry about what it is that he is going to do is that he’s into the story now. He started out on the fringes and he’s been working his way from the other side of things to this eventual meeting with Tom.
Carey: There are some more big revelations coming up for Pauly too.
Gross: Yes. “The Unwritten” #48 is actually a Pauly-themed issue. We’ve kept that happening. There is a Pauly Rabbit story every 12 issues.
There is a great line, I believe from Richie, in “The Wound,” which is, “Do we believe the story is more important than the truth.” Or as we in the media sometimes joke, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Do you think this is true?
Carey: I think truth is powerless in the face of story. The story makes up the roots and the branches and the exoskeleton of our world and you can occasionally glimpse through the cracks but not that often. We’re not built for truth. We’ve not adapted for truth. I think Richie says that too: “The truth is a cold place to live.”
Even though Pullman is dead, we still have lots of great antagonists for Tom to face. What was the inspiration for Lucas Filby?
Carey: He’s right there from the start, isn’t he? He is briefly seen in “The Unwritten” #1. We wanted a kind of Messianic figure. I guess what Filby is is somebody that sees the power of this particular story and tries to right it. He tries to control it and direct it and funnel off our power for himself. And he is ultimately destroyed by that process. There are people like that in your real life, as well, who create a message and put the message out and become the message at the same time — it’s the servant and the manipulator for whatever personal gain they can get from that. They are very dangerous people, I think, to get close to.
Gross: I think the interesting thing about him for me is the way that Mike brought him back into that seminal moment where Wilson beats Pauly Bruckner to death in “The Unwritten” #2 only later do we find out that not only Tom saw it, but Lizzie saw it too and now Filby was there too. It’s like we’re slowly bringing every character into being there at that moment to witness the death of Pauly.
It’s like those time travel stories where you find out that everyone at the crucifixion of Jesus is a time traveler. [Laughs] Or JFK’s assassination.
For “The Unwritten,” do you pick a location and find a story to tell there or is it the other way around?
Carey: I can’t remember why we went to Australia. We had a strong instinct that we wanted a change of scene. We also wanted to go somewhere that we hadn’t been before.
Gross: I think you set Filby in Australia in the first issue. And I find that whatever you Wikipedia — at least for anything we’re talking about in this book — you end up with six degrees of separation from a whale story.
Carey: Yes, but “Kondili” is a whale with a wound story. As to what drew us to Australia, I think it was Ayers’ Rock and the Peter Weir novel, “Picnic at the Hanging Rock.” I’ve never read the novel but I’ve seen the movie about four or five times.
The idea of the Aboriginal dream was a powerful draw, as well. We wanted to play with that a little even if only by implication.
You mentioned going to Wikipedia, looking something up and always finding a connection to something in “The Unwritten.” Do you think that is specific to your series or is that the case for any work of fiction be it a film, novel or comic?
Gross: I’m finding it more [specific to ours] but maybe with other projects, you don’t do that kind of research and look for that stuff. When I bought my first car, it was some weird little car that I’ve never heard of before. Then you drive down the freeway and you see them everywhere. And you never noticed them before in your life. [Laughs] I think “The Unwritten” is like that. It has these underlying connections and you don’t look for them but when you start looking for them, you see them everywhere.
And I’m sure if Mike and I were working on Superman right now, and we were exploring little things, we’d be finding connections between Superman and everything else that’s ever been written.
Carey: But I do think that there is a sense in which it is a universal. And I think it proves a point that the fabric of reality is narrative as much as it’s anything else.
Gross: I think it’s also thinner than we expected. If all the connections are there, maybe the net of fiction we’ve woven isn’t as thick as we think it is.
You keep finding these excellent whale references. Did you build a story around Kondili or did it present itself while you were telling your story like so many others have in the past?
Carey: We found it when we were roughing out the story. Basically we work from big to small. We’ll do a big overview of the year where we’ll plan out where all the arcs are for a year or maybe 15 months. But a whole sequence of arcs. And then for each individual story, we sort of flesh it out, and decide what the beats are. And we knew that we wanted Didge to talk Tom back into story. We wanted her to tell a story that would become his gateway.
And it made sense because she’s a woman of aboriginal stock who is living in the city. She’s urbanized. She’s a little bit contemptuous of that aspect of her heritage but it would make sense for her to know some of the Australian native legends and so we went looking for one that fit the bill and we found Kondili.
Awesome. And I love that Didge is dyslexic. It’s a perfect counter spell. Have you been holding onto that superpower for a specific moment?
Carey: That was entirely Peter. That was Peter’s idea.
Gross: I don’t even remember. How did we come up with that?
Carey: You were saying that there should be something about her. I think you were questioning if it was a good idea to bring in a new major character at this point? And you said, “She needs to have something. She needs to be connected to the central theme in some way that we haven’t done before.”
And we were just brainstorming about that idea and you said that she could be dyslexic. And Shelly [Bond] and I just went, “Whoa.”
Gross: [Laughs] I wish I could remember coming up with stuff like that. But it works because it gives her an armor that no one else would have.
You have left the impression that there is more to Armitage than we have seen, even foreshadowing a possible betrayal. Â Do we see him again or has his story been told?
Carey: No, far from it. He’s got a long way to go yet. He disappears from the story for a little bit but we haven’t taken our eye off of him.
When you are constructing a mythos as grand as “The Unwritten” how difficult is it to add in new characters like Didge and Armitage and not upset the perfect balance? Is it a hard decision to make?
Gross: There are always discussions about that. In this case, we really wanted a lull after the intensity of “War of Words,” so I think we wanted to step back from Richie and Lizzie and Tom almost like an epilogue-ish feel and Mike came up with the new characters but it was more trying to fill a spot that opened up in the story.
Carey: I guess the other thing that is going on here is the idea of ripples — we’re talking about forces that are being let loose into the world and there was a logic to jumping to a completely new locale and a completely new cast and showing them being affected by the fallout from what we have already seen.
Really looking forward to the upcoming “Orpheus in the Underworld” arc and what I hope is the return of Lizzie back from the undead, but let’s leap ahead to what’s coming in #50, an arc featuring the cast of “Fables.”
Gross: From the very start, Bill [Willingham] has been a huge “Unwritten” fan. He loved the concept from the start. I would run into him at cons more than Mike would and he would always say, “We’ve got to do a crossover. We’ve got to do a crossover.” And I could not for the life of me think of a way to do it. But I would always say, “Sure. Sure,” because I wanted to do it. And one day, I mentioned it to Mike and then it eventually popped into our heads a way to do it that made sense.
Carey: The other thing that let all the ducks line up in a row was Shelly [Bond] taking over as editor on the book because she is also editing “Fables” and she works very, very closely with Bill so suddenly there was a direct channel that we were all on. I think Peter mentioned it to her one time and she ran with it.
Gross: She said, “You are thinking of doing that and you haven’t done it yet?” [Laughs] But it’s an interesting thing because “Fables” and “The Unwritten” are kind of two sides of the same coin.
For me, the difficulty of approaching it was the underlying differences between them, which is our idea that the stories are the initial thing and the characters and the ripples come from the stories and Bill’s take on “Fables” is that these were real beings and the stories came from reflections of their lives. We had to come up with a way that puts those two opposite things together and once we did it, we came up with a story that Mike and I have said lots of times, “If we didn’t do this with ‘Fables,’ we would still have to do this story.”
Carey: It was an amazing process because the more we got into the process, we realized we could use this to set a whole of stuff up that we really, really needed for the climax. It feels like a really vital part of the framework now, doesn’t it Peter?
Gross: We kind of had an idea of what we could do with it but when we first all got on a conference called and talked about it, I told Bill my reservations of those underlying concepts. But Bill said a really smart thing: “Let’s turn that into the strength of the story. Let’s tackle it head on.” And that really helped out.
In “The Unwritten,” you have known literary figures like Baron Munchausen and Frankenstein playing roles but they exist on a different plane than Bigby Wolf, Snow White and the characters of “Fables.” How do you reconcile the two worlds? And does this not add another layer of complexity to the storytelling?
Carey: Yes, I guess it does in a way. The way in which Tom is able to meet the “Fables” characters is unexpected. It’s not just simply that he’s in a fictional world or that he wandered into Fabletown. It’s much more intentional than that. There is logic to it that comes in from left field but once it happens, it’s inevitable.
Gross: And also for Tom, he has run into these fractured fictional characters in the wasteland that resulted from The Wound so when Tom meets the “Fables” characters, he assumes that they are more castoffs of fiction. He’s seen this kind of thing before but they’re different than that.
Carey: He thinks he knows what’s happening but actually, he’s wrong. He’s very, very wrong.
Is “Fables” a Vertigo comic book in “The Unwritten?”
Carey: No. But, I guess beyond that question is the wider question of, are these characters on the same fictive plane? Are they meeting on a level playing field, as it were? And the answer is that it’s a bit more complicated than that. [Laughs]
Okay, because I wasn’t trying to think of an example, but I couldn’t find one, of a character that exists in “Fables” that Tom might have met, in a more traditional form, in “The Unwritten.”
Gross: That’s the interesting thing. Tom has met mostly, fairly current fictional characters, relative to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. That’s one of the issues that came into play in the story.
I can’t wait. And while I’m not getting a Tinker ongoing series as a side project, I am getting an original graphic novel this September called “The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor & the Ship That Sank Twice,” which sounds equally awesome.
I know it’s early but what can you share about the book?
Carey: It’s been several years in the making. It’s a crazily ambitious idea and, again, I think it was Peter who was the initial impetus. We talked about how we would approach telling a Tommy story that still maintained the connection to Tom, as well, that still had resonances and payoffs for the monthly book and that’s what this is. It’s a Tommy story that you’ll see within the framework of how Wilson created the character, how he wrote the book, how he positioned it, how he brought it into the world and what was going on in his life.
In some ways, it’s like a prequel to “The Unwritten.”
Gross: There are two things about it. It’s the opposite of how we did “The Unwritten” in the beginning. We would do Tom stories with little flashbacks into the Tommy Taylor world. This is the Tommy Taylor world with little flashbacks into our real world.
And the other way we are approaching it is that it’s the first Tommy Taylor novel, so it’s Mike Carey and Peter Gross doing a graphic novel adaptation of Wilson Taylor’s first Tommy Taylor novel and throwing in some little tidbits we’ve learned about Wilson Taylor in the process.
Carey: How much more meta-fictional can you get?
Gross: We haven’t put ourselves in there yet but maybe we should start it at the offices of DC Comics? [Laughs]
“The Unwritten vol. 7: The Wound” is on sale now.