Vertigo's UNWRITTEN Blurs Fact, Fiction, and Soon, FABLES

Unwritten #47

In the hit Vertigo comic The Unwritten, the line between fact and fiction is not only blurred. It's practically non-existent. The Unwritten characters encounter people from all kinds of stories — from the proper ladies of Jane Austen novels to heroic figures of mythology.

So the announcement that Unwritten would be featuring characters from the Fables universe isn't out of character for the book. But it is significant for the Vertigo imprint, because the interaction of characters from two of its comics gives Vertigo a sort of "storybook-based universe" of its own.

Written by Mike Carey with art by Peter Gross, The Unwritten is about Tom Taylor, a young man whose father has written a series of fantasy novels starring a young boy wizard named "Tommy Taylor." As such, the world treats Tommy as if he's the "real-life" version of the young hero from the novels.


But now that the comic is heading toward issue #50, readers of The Unwritten have figured out that there's much more to Tommy's "real-life" existence than meets the eye. Through the lens of Tommy's adventures, The Unwritten has explored the power of stories, and how close is the relationship between fiction and life.

As The Unwritten gears up for its interaction with the world of Fables, Newsarama talked to the creative team to find out more about what's coming up — including a new Unwritten graphic novel and the attempt to construct Wilson Taylor’s first novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice.

Newsarama: Mike and Peter, readers are excited to see how Bigby Wolf from Fables plays into your upcoming issue. How did the idea for this interaction between the two worlds come about?

Mike Carey: It was a slow-burn kind of thing. Peter kept on bumping into Bill at conventions and they’d talk about the possibility of bringing the two books together in some way. It was just pie-in-the-sky for a long time, and then Shelly Bond took over as editor on The Unwritten – which meant that for the first time ever, Unwritten and Fables were sharing the same editor.

Very early on in Shelly’s tenure on the book, we had a conference call in which we talked about various ways of raising our profile going forward. And Peter mentioned Fables. Shelly immediately saw the possibilities, and she was very enthusiastic.


Then Mark Buckingham and I met up at the Bristol convention in the UK and talked about possible approaches over a curry. We came away from that meeting with what we thought was a truly great idea, and when we pitched it to everyone else, they all agreed. That became the nucleus for The Unwritten Fables.

Nrama: We saw Bigby on the cover, but will we see more than just Bigby? Can you hint at who might show up?

Peter Gross: Way more! Bill and Bucky basically gave us permission to use all but a very few characters and we took them for their word! We’re basically using the whole cast of Fables — even some that you might not expect to be around any longer.

Nrama: Will Unwritten characters appear in Fables, or is it just Fables characters in Unwritten?

Carey: The whole arc takes place within the pages of The Unwritten – but there is, very much, this question of where it takes place within Unwritten and Fables continuity. There’s a reason why we’ve done it this way. More than one reason, actually – but one is that there’s a huge narrative pay-off for Tom in terms of his understanding of the relationship between reality and fiction. These events definitely change him more than they change the Fables characters he meets. Which is not to say that there’s nothing at stake for the Fables. There really is. Just… not necessarily in the way you might expect.

Nrama: Then it sounds like this isn't a break for the characters in Unwritten. This plays into the ongoing story we've been seeing in your comic?

Unwritten #47, pg. 1

Gross: It’s actually an essential part of our story. As we got into the planning of this we realized that if the "Powers that Be" suddenly pulled the plug on the "Event," we’d have to do the same story anyway and find some stand-ins for the Fables characters. (Or do like Once upon a Time and Grimm and just use our own “Fables.”) At some point, it was inevitable that Tom would have to meet up with characters from fairy tales — and given the upset nature of Fiction at this point in our story, the Fables characters are perfect for us.

Nrama: How do you guys choose which characters and settings to incorporate into the series? Are they personal favorites? Random dice rolls? Completely story driven?

Carey: All of the above. Well, not dice rolls. The story requires certain characters – especially the Fables witches – to take a very prominent role. But yes, we were also putting dibs on characters we were really keen to write. So of course there was an element of “we’ve just got to have a scene with so-and-so…” The truth is, the Fables characters were enormous fun to write – especially in conjunction with Tom, who at the outset thinks he knows what’s going on and what he’s dealing with, but really, really doesn’t.

Nrama: Peter, let's talk about your approach to The Unwritten. As you design/draw these worlds and characters from fiction, how much research do you have to do? What resources do you use?

Gross: I search online for as much original source material as I can find--the earliest illustrated versions of characters, etc. But often there aren’t original images, so then I look at film versions of stories for nice period details, etc. The Gregory Peck Moby Dick movie was a great resource for the "Leviathan" arc of Unwritten. I used Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Baron Munchhausen and discovered that the Terry Gilliam movie was very faithful to those.

Unwritten #47, pg. 2

Nrama: You guys have recently been exploring the discovery that stories are dying. In the last issue, there was a suggestion that there are real world side effects of stories dying - that we humans lose the ability to pay attention to a good story, finding entertainment instead in reality TV and sports and such. Is that a correct interpretation of what's happening in story? And is it a real-world commentary? Do you think stories are dying in our world?

Carey: That’s definitely what we’re hinting at – that our consumption of stories has becomes diseased, and that without story, we can’t live. And yeah, I think there’s a level on which we’re commenting on the real world. The arrival of the Internet, and the way it now pervades every aspect of life, has caused a sort of metastasis of story. It’s probably not dying, or even sickening, but it is mutating and the ways in which we relate to story have become problematic. But it’s such a complicated and many-sided thing, it’s hard to pronounce on where it’s going or where it will end. In some ways, the Internet is a frictionless medium. Every meme, every idea, can be thrown in there and it will make ripples on the other side of the world. And the relentless hunger for content privileges stories that are quick and effortless to make. Hence reality TV and all its inbred, brutalized offspring.

Nrama: So in the current storyline, what do the zombies represent — are they related to that overall theme of death?

Unwritten #47, pg. 3

Gross: I’m not sure that we have an overall theme of death! I think the themes of death and rebirth are prevalent in fiction, and I think we echo that and try to play with that. In the case of the zombies, I think they served more as a metaphor for story dying — and shambling around as a walking corpse. I think we also wanted to make a comment about how everyone jumps on the story bandwagon as soon as someone else does it successfully — whether it’s zombies, vampires, demi-gods or boy wizards!

Nrama: Anything else you can tell us about how this current story, and this month's issue #46, plays into the overall themes you're exploring in The Unwritten?

Carey: What we’re seeing at the moment is the playing out of the consequences from Leviathan’s wounding back in #35, which was a year ago both in real time and in narrative time. Leviathan was this… you’d have to call it a living user interface between humans and stories. A symbiote. It was central to the development of human narrative and through that to the evolution of humankind. And now it’s out of the picture, and suddenly our core characters are discovering that there’s an ecosystem. Leviathan doesn’t exist in isolation. There are other creatures out there that thrive on story, and their feeding habits are not so beneficial to human beings.

Unwritten #48

So the next stage of the crisis is going to be dictated by a sort of Darwinian struggle between these beings, which will determine whether human culture survives and in what form.

Nrama: In issue #47, you'll be getting back to what's happening with Tom Taylor in "Orpheus in the Underworld." Readers have been noticing that Lizzie passed on to Hades (unlike other "real world" characters in purgatory), and Tinker is called "a living man." Can you explain this? Is there a deeper meaning to how purgatory/the underworld "chooses" characters in The Unwritten? Or is it just more of that blurring line between literary and real?

Gross: Those questions will all be answered in the next three issues. But I can say that we looked at purgatory or the underworld as a sort of in-between place between Fiction and Reality, where the walls between the two are thinnest. I think in some ways, most stories about the underworld can be looked at that way — that the “hero” is moving from our real world to a world of pure story. And that can be a terrifying thing.

Nrama: When we first met Tom, he was extremely bitter and angry. How would you describe him now?

Carey: I think he’s learned a lot and I think he’s become a lot less self-centered and self-pitying. A key moment for him was when he stopped running from the cabal and took the fight back to them, as much to avenge the innocents killed in the crossfire as to defend himself. Which means that probably the changes in him go all the way back to the deaths of Cosi and Leon, the children of Chadron, back in #8. That was an appalling thing for him to see, and he had to recognize his own complicity in their deaths even if it was accidental and out of his control. That was the Tommy Taylor stories having a lethal recoil in the real world. Up to then, he’d wanted to get free from his father’s legend so he could live his own life. After that, he wanted it all to stop for much more urgent and wide-reaching reasons.

Unwritten #49

Now what we’re seeing is a man trying to dismantle a bomb by preaching about it. Which would seem to be a bad choice of methods, but it’s the only thing that has a hope in hell of working.

Nrama: What else can you tell us about the next few issues?

Gross: The three-part “Orpheus in the Underworld” is a very important and pivotal arc in our story, and in the emotional life of our characters. When we left Tom at the end of issue #44 he had lost his memories when he arrived in Hades to rescue Lizzie. But Tom has always had very fuzzy memories of his childhood and his upbringing by his father. So if those get restored, they might be more than he was expecting. And if we’re going to live up to the Orpheus metaphor here, someone has to try to be rescued from Hades — but there are so many candidates who want to get out.

This is an exciting arc for us and one we’ve been setting up since Wilson Taylor and Miriam Walzer stood before an Orpheus painting back in the 1930’s in issue #27 or #28.

Nrama: As the world of Fables crosses into The Unwritten, it brings to mind the fact that any fictional universe could show up, including some others from Vertigo or other comics. At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, have you pursued other current day worlds you'd like to introduce?

Carey: Well, we were very close to having a Superman arc at one point – back when Pornsak Pichetshote was our editor. We pitched an arc entitled "Last Son of Wherever," which was about the growth of the superhero myth and the way it was connected to the social conditions in 1930s USA. But in the end we decided we needed to do some fairly outrageous things to whichever superhero appeared in the story, and that having it be Superman – assuming we even got the permission – would probably tie our hands too much. And that was how the Tinker was born.

In terms of other Vertigo cross-pollinations – no, not so much. There’s a unique synergy between Unwritten and Fables. We really couldn’t do what we’ve done here with any other book. Although how cool would it be to have Richie Savoy meet Spider Jerusalem? They’d have a lot to talk about.

Nrama: Is there an ending in mind for The Unwritten? Or is this a world you're hoping to explore for a long time?

Carey: We’ve always had a very specific end in mind, and major stepping stones along the way, but the journey to that point is a constant ebb and flow as ideas get explored and characters determine their own stories. But I’d say that what we’ve learned along the way has only added to the end we have in mind and made us more determined that it’s the right one. We aren’t quite sure how long it will take us to get there but we have some 50 or so issues under our belt now and we still have a lot we want to explore in the Unwritten world. I’m guessing somewhere between 75-100 issues.


Nrama: What else are you guys working on in the world of The Unwritten?

Carey: We have an Unwritten OGN coming out later this year. It’s a weird and wonderful thing, set mostly in the world of the Tommy Taylor books but with frequent glances sideways at the way they were produced and Wilson’s agenda as he brought his boy wizard character into the world – which of course coincides with the birth of his real-life son, Tom, or so we’ve always been told. So this is both a prequel to The Unwritten and an inversion of everything we’ve done so far. We had insane amounts of fun with it, and it’s utterly beautiful.

Gross: It’s Mike and I adapting Wilson Taylor’s very famous (and ultimately world-changing) first novel “Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice”! (Along with the great finishes and colors by Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon — the great team that worked on the infamous first Pauly Bruckner story in issue #12.)

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