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Mike Carey and Peter Gross on Unwritten

With the release of Volume 7 of their bestselling series, Mike Carey and Peter Gross discuss the artistry behind the riveting text of Unwritten.

 The Wound

Unwritten, Vol. 7: The Wound

As the story begins, we catch up with Tom Taylor in an interesting spot in his storied life. What’s led him to where he is now?

Mike Carey: Oh, man. Where to begin. I think we joined Tom at a very low ebb in a life that had consisted mostly of ebbs, and we charted his slow and painful journey to some kind of knowledge and acceptance of himself. Because ironically, it’s when his life falls apart that he really starts to understand what it’s all about. He grows up, is what it amounts to, and he takes on responsibilities. He comes out of self-pity onto the sunny uplands of terrifying life-or-death crisis.

But in terms of where he is right now, he’s descended into the Underworld to find Lizzie and bring her back --- and he’s met a whole lot of old friends and enemies along the way. Now he’s in sight of his goal, but it won’t come as a surprise to anyone to learn that it’s not going to be that easy. There’s one more threat to face and one more lesson to learn before he can go home, and it changes everything.

With such an incredibly rich and dense ongoing storyline, do you worry that The Unwritten is tough for new readers to gain access to? What should readers know if they plan to jump onto The Unwritten now?

Peter Gross: That all the previous issues are available in collected graphic novels at bookstores everywhere, and also available in digital editions! The availability of these collected editions has enabled comics to leap into more sophisticated extended stories because the readers are able to start at the beginning any time they want to.

MC: The core idea of the series is actually a fairly straightforward one --- we’ve just done some freakish things with it. Our main character, Tom Taylor, may or may not also be Tommy Taylor, the wizard hero of a series of YA fantasy novels written by Tom’s putative father, Wilson Taylor. And the woman he loves, Lizzie Hexam, may or may not be a character from Dickens. The whole thrust of the series is about answering those big ontological questions --- or teasing answers, so far, but they are coming. We promise.

 

There’s a certain irony to this series in the sense that it’s about bestselling books at a time when book sales are decreasing. Does the notion of books, and comics, becoming more and more a cult phenomenon for certain devotees allow this series to take on more and more resonance with you as you create it?

MC: We’re self-referential to a fault --- but really The Unwritten is a love letter to the stories that have shaped our lives and a meditation on how fictions and the real world interact. There’s a sense in which that interaction changes constantly, and another sense in which it’s a constant. We always have used stories as reference points for defining both ourselves and the world we live in, and I think we always will. What changes is the way the stories are made available to us.

PG: I think that one of the background themes of The Unwritten is that we live in a time of an info and media revolution where the way information is shared is changing and becoming more and more instantaneous. The jury's still out on how that is going to affect us all in a cultural sense.

How do you two work together, plotting out storylines? Do you work closely together pairing the art and script and what each will entail? Or do they come together separately?

PG:  We have long conversations over email and to a lesser extent over the phone about the stories and the upcoming direction. Then Mike usually puts that together into an outline and then we have more conversations and then Mike goes to script and puts in a lot of new surprises, and then we have more conversations. Then I start to draw and suggest more things and we have another conversation about that. Finally, it all goes to get lettered and then --- you guessed it --- we have another discussion and make final tweaks. 

MC: It’s actually the most organic approach to storytelling I’ve ever been a part of. It feels like the story is something that’s constantly on the move between the two of us, growing and changing with each issue. It’s both exciting and hair-raising --- and I think it’s only possible because we’ve worked together for so long and know each other so well.

How far out have you two planned this storyline? Do you have an entire series arc plotted out at this point? 

MC: As of now, yes. We always knew what the climax was going to be, but we deliberately left some of the stops along the way fairly vague so that we could incorporate good stuff that we happened across by serendipity. That was an approach that we developed when we were working on Lucifer, and it worked really well there. But now we’re within sight of those final arcs and final revelations, and we have something like a beatsheet for the remaining storylines. We wouldn’t have been able to say that three months ago, but it’s true now.

What inspired you to create this series? 

PG: I think our first desire was to work together again after a long and fruitful collaboration on Lucifer. But we pitched a number of things that didn't get a go and it wasn't until we came up with The Unwritten that it became about telling a story that felt important to us. I think it was a desire to tell a story about why stories mattered to the two of us --- for my part, I wanted to do a story about why I was willing to spend my life telling stories. Or in the words of Count Ambrosio in the first issue of The Unwritten, why "stories are the only thing worth dying for!"

MC: Yeah, I absolutely agree. There were more specific things feeding into it, but that was what it came down to. We were very much reflecting on what stories are for and what they do to us --- for good or bad. Peter’s original idea, which was one of our starting points, involved following the same character in reality and in a story in which they’re a fictional character. Then we got to talking about what the correspondences and echoes might be, and we ended up with Tom.

How has the story evolved for you since you first began it back in 2009? Is it still the same series you initially envisioned, or has it gone in a direction you didn’t expect back then?

PG: It's still the same ending, but it's become more of an examination of our original ideas, not a recitation of them. It's grown beyond what we originally thought of. I think our initial desire was to examine why we need stories. And as we go deeper into that question, I think the answers touch on more profound things for us. I don't think I realized at the start just how much of our reality and physical interaction with the world was based upon a collective narrative we all share to a greater or lesser extent.

What’s next for the series?

PG: We have two huge events coming up: First, the Unwritten/Fables in issues #50-54, where Tom Taylor gets to share a story with the character from Bill Willingham's acclaimed series Fables. I think this might be the first time two Vertigo creator-owned series have shared a story together. It all takes place in the pages of The Unwritten, but it features a very full complement of great Fables characters.

The Unwritten and Fables Crossover

The Unwritten and Fables Crossover

MC: And then the other big thing that’s looming is the OGN Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice. We’ve been planning and preparing it for ages, and it’s coming together beautifully now. It’s both a complete Tommy Taylor story, a sort of comic book adaptation of a Wilson Taylor fantasy novel, and at the same time a prequel to The Unwritten that reveals a lot of new stuff about Wilson’s life and how he did what he did. And it includes Tom’s birth, which to some extent settles one of our big questions…

Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice

Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice

-- John Hogan