Fusing fact and fiction, Mike Carey and Peter Gross have joined forces once again for Vertigo's forthcoming series, "The Unwritten." The last time the two worked together, they produced an Eisner Award-nominated run on "Lucifer" and now they're back in an attempt to rekindle the magic. Providing cover artwork is is Yuko Shimizu ("The Sandman: Dreamhunters").
"The Unwritten" centers around a popular series of books written by Wilson Taylor and featuring a young boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. But Tommy Taylor isn't all fiction. He's actually based on the author's son, Tom - a 30-something Z-list celebrity who makes do living off appearances fees he earns for signing autographs at comics conventions. But now somebody, or more precisely, a cabal of cultish somebodies, are out to get him and it's up to our reluctant hero to find out why.
Teased as a conspiracy thriller not unlike "The Da Vinci Code," "The Unwritten" promises to examine a plot that spans all of literature, from the first clay tablets to the gothic castles where Frankenstein was conceived to the self-adjusting stories of the internet.
After reading the first issue -- a forty-pager that goes on sale in May for just one dollar -- CBR News sat down with Carey and Gross for this extensive and far-reaching two-part interview.
CBR: Let's start at the beginning. How did "The Unwritten" come about?
Mike Carey: It kind of had a long gestation. When we were winding up on "Lucifer," we were both very keen to keep working together. And we put together a number of pitches then for Vertigo. And for various reasons, none of them ever took. And then we both went on to other things. We had other commitments. But it was always our long-time goal to come together and do another book. And then last year, we began to talk to Vertigo about putting a pitch in. And Peter and I started an email chain where we were throwing ideas together. And we had two very, very different ideas that we were both quite keen on, one that I came up with and one that Peter came up with. And in the course of that email conversation, they some how dovetailed into what became "The Unwritten." So from the outset, it was a totally collaborative process.
Peter Gross: I remember thinking, "Oh, Mike really likes his. And I really like mine. What the hell are we going to do?" And then we realized we can fold them together.
The book is multi-layered, but does focus heavily on our obsession with celebrity. And not just A-listers. We're talking B-listers, C-listers and even Z-listers. Coupled with that is this fascination with the rise and fall of former child stars. Are we reading that right?
PG: Yeah, I came up with that part of it. I have a young daughter. And you kind of have these little story fantasies with your kids. And I often thought about doing a story where, it's named after her, the character, and this thing really caught on. What would that be like for her? Why would someone do that to their kid? And so the idea for the story had kind of become that. I always wanted that you would open with this book and then you'd pull back. So the book was just a book, but there is a real person that it's based on. And why did their parent do this to them? So that's really where it came from.
MC: But the core concept is the ways in which stories impact on reality. And the perfect point-of-view character is somebody who has been fictionalized, someone whose life has been embedded in the fiction. And in this case, this very, very big, visible, hugely popular work of fiction.
In the first issue, you mention, by name, a lot of the books and corresponding movie titles in the Tommy Taylor series. In preparing for the series, do you go back and plot what happened to Tommy throughout the saga? For instance, do you know the storyline of "Tommy Taylor and the Golden Trumpet," which is one of the titles referenced in "The Unwritten?"
PG: Obviously, we've had discussions about this. [laughs]
MC: We know roughly what point certain things happened in the series. But we haven't worked out any huge detail yet.
PG: We've talked about that we need to make a complete list of the books. There are actually 13 books. And we've talked about needing a list of all titles -- or at least most of them, because we need to refer to them. And to do that, we have to decide when they came out too, so when we do flashbacks we'll know if he's younger or older.
MC: And what's happening in the world at that time.
PG: So we know four or five of them, for sure. And we've also talked about doing a Tommy Taylor one-shot, that's just one of the books.
MC: But to answer your question, yes, as the series goes on, we will definitely see more glimpses of the Tommy Taylor books and of other versions of the story. The first issue is a glimpse of one of the movies. In the third issue, there is a very different look.
PG: Fan fiction [laughs].
MC: Yes, fan fiction. We see the Tommy Taylor universe from a lot of different perspectives.
If Tommy Taylor is based on someone "real," are Peter, Sue and the other characters in the Tommy Taylor books likewise based on "real people?" Or maybe you can't answer that just yet?
MC: It's a very valid question. And it does get answered. But it's probably something we don't want to be too specific about at this point. We're told that Sue Sparrow is based on an old friend of Wilson Taylor's called Sue Morgenstern. But we don't know anything about Peter. And it turns out, there is certainly another way of looking at that whole question.
When you were creating the character Tom Taylor, the "real" character Tommy Taylor is based on, what were your early thoughts on how he was going to be portrayed? Did you view him as a tragic character? Is he just a jerk? Is he a lost soul?
PG: We obviously had a lot about discussions about him. You take this core concept and then you extrapolate and ask, "What would he be like?" You really want to make sure that he isn't annoying, and just kind of a cynical guy. We wanted the impact of what happened to him to be really clear, so that you can empathize with him. And he seems to be the one character people seem to get right away. They get the idea of the character. And they get the misery of what that life would be like. As soon as you say, "He was the most famous kid on Earth, he was abandoned and now he makes his living at these Tommy Taylor cons." You can almost fill in the details at that point.
MC: We were very concerned at first that he might come across as whiny or overly passive. And yeah, we talked about ways of making him more accessible and more of a sympathetic point-of-view character.
PG: And we also want him to be somewhat like Yorick in "Y: The Last Man." You want to journey through this book with him and feel like you're a part of it with him. Whereas with "Lucifer," it was a big, epic story but you weren't necessarily able to empathize with Lucifer through the course of the series. Mike had other characters in there but we wanted Tom to be the guy who gets you into this and carries you though it.
And what can you tell us about Swope? Based on this first issue alone, there's definitely more to this character than simply being Tom's agent.
MC: Well, I think it's clear by the end of the first issue that there is a cabal, a conspiracy at work. And Swope is talking to a person or persons unknown who have some sort of stake in what happens to Tom. And some type of agenda for Tom. It's a long time before the full details of that agenda come out but it's very, very central to the story.
I guess you would call Swope a small player in something very, very big and it's right at the heart of what the book is about.
Do you know already how this all ends for Tom? And perhaps more importantly, do you know how long this journey will take?
PG: We totally have the end. But it's kind of built where we wouldn't have to get there for a really, long time. I think Mike has a certain period set kind of roughly in his head, right Mike?
MC: I tend to think in terms of five, six years. But Peter's right. It's a moveable beast.
PG: It could be like "Fables." It could last forever. It totally depends on when we get into it, how we feel.
MC: As with "Lucifer." In the end, you are un-writing, as much as writing. When you do an arc, you are closing a few doors on one specific direction. So it depends on how many of the incidental stories we choose to tell as we go along.
PG: Yeah, that's an interesting way of looking at it.
We meet the fictional foil Count Ambrosia in the first issue of "The Unwritten," both in the Tommy Taylor story and real-Tom's story. But unlike Tom, Ambrosia seems to be living a little more in the real world. Can you talk a little bit about that character?
PG: That's probably something we can't talk about too much, just yet.
MC: It's interesting. As you look at Ambrosia as we first meet him in the book, and then we see him again in that first issue... there's some interesting stuff that does get explored at a later stage.
We spoke with Jonathan Lethem as he was wrapping up "Omega: The Unknown" and asked him what the deeper meaning was to his epic fantasy, and he laughed it off and said any themes that made it into the comic sneaked in there when he wasn't looking. So is "The Unwritten" just a story? Or is "The Unwritten" something more?
MC: The answer is yes. It's an exploration of story, of narrative. The part that story plays in our lives. And one of the starting points for Peter and one of things that we discussed early on was this sort of conundrum of so many of the Vertigo books. And he was thinking particularly about "Lucifer," that we had worked on together for many years. They play with mythologies and belief systems that the creator actually doesn't subscribe to. You sort of buy in imaginatively and creatively to a philosophy or a religion or a world picture that you actually don't have any conviction or investment in outside of the creative process. And it is sort of fascinating how we do that.
PG: The question is, "Why the hell would we do that and spend years working on it, if there wasn't more to it?"
And to your point, an actor could land the role of Hitler. And while he doesn't likely agree with Hitler, it's probably a fascinating role to play.
PG: But the interesting thing is while he's playing Hitler, he totally believes in Hitler, on some level. But that's a good question. What's the point of that? What's the power of that? And what's the necessity that you think you are doing it for? But I think it's really sad you asked a writer about the deeper level of their comic and they said they're just doing a comic. That's the antithesis of what we're trying to do. [laughs]
MC: If you think about the first stories, the first stories had a very specific role. Most likely, the first stories were ideological. They were stories that explained how things happened and why things happened. Where does thunder come from? Where do we go when we die? They were attempts to grab onto the invisible and make it understandable and safe. And I think there's always a sense in any great story that it throws up conventional frameworks in your mind that you use when they seem to be valid or helpful. And then the rest of time you don't, you can sort of selectively choose to see the world through the lens of a particular fiction. So that's definitely one of the things that we're looking at it. What are stories for? And what do they give us?
PG: Let's say the Bible is just a story. When that was written, it took a 1,000 years to disseminate and change the world. But now, it would take five minutes on the internet. And so one of the things we want to look at it is how the power of story changed when the way information is received changes. It's like story is getting less but it's getting incorporated into other aspects off our culture. You were asking about celebrity and news and journalism and things like that. Those things have co-opted story away from where stories should be. And that's what we're really looking at. What is story? Where should it be? It's been stolen away and to what end are people stealing it away and misusing it.
Check back to CBR News tomorrow for the conclusion of this two-part interview.
"The Unwritten" #1 goes on sale May 13 from Vertigo.