Mike Carey & Peter Gross on Vertigo's 'The Unwritten'
That is, it's about Tom Taylor, a young man whose claim to fame is being the child star of his father's series of fantasy novels starting a young boy wizard "Tommy Taylor". Think Harry Potter if Harry Potter was real. But he's not the boy in the stories all grown up – he's merely inspiration for the name, but in the fervor over the Tommy Taylor books that makes him a star. All grown up now, he resembles a sort of child actor all grown up and living off his former fame. But he's content with that – making the most of the celebrity status his father inadvertently gave him.
But what if the stories are true? What if the stories described as 'fiction' turn out to be true stories? What if the world of fiction literature – both his books and more --- can somehow be real? Tom Taylor begins asking those questions when a shadowy cabal comes pay a visit and shakes up Tom's life.
The new Vertigo series is a mixture of new and old, both with the story and the storytellers. Writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross are no strangers to one another – they previously collaborated on the long-running series Lucifer that was also with Vertigo. The Unwritten is a new collaboration, one that's been building between the two for some time.
With The Unwritten's first issue scheduled to debut on May 13th with a special cover price of $1, Newsarama spoke with both creators to write about The Unwritten.
Newsarama: The adult Tom Taylor is forever looked upon as the child Tommy from the books – similar to how a child actor grows up but people's views on him or her never do. Mike, would you say that's an apt comparison?
Mike Carey: It's an excellent comparison - I immediately thought of Bill Mumy - but I'd say that Tom's situation is even worse than that. A child actor who grows up may end up forever attached to a role and a persona that he's outgrown, but at least it's still his role, his persona. Tom feels like he's had the fictional Tommy welded onto him against his will, when he was too young to fight back. And then - which is even worse - he's told that the fictional Tommy may be the reality, and his life the fiction. That's a bitter pill to swallow.
NRAMA: From what I've read of the first issue Peter, you're drawing both supernatural situations and real world scenes, including one at a comic convention. What's it like to be shifting between these two types of scenes?
Peter Gross: I'm comfortable drawing anything (except car chases and gunfights!) as long as it's character driven. And Tom Taylor is such an interesting character that I'll be happy to take him wherever he's going to go. And he's going to go anywhere the history of literature might take him. I'll be drawing everything from Dicken's London, the Italian Reformation, Natzi Germany, biblical Judea, and ancient Iraq to the pages of the most successful boy-wizard in the history of fictional literature! What's not to love about that?
But there was an odd moment when we were announcing the book at NY and I looked out at the panel audience in front of us and realized I'd drawn almost the same exact scene in the first issue of the book. At the same moment, Mike leaned over and said, "This is eerily familiar, isn't it?
NRAMA:: At New York Comicon you said this story was inspired by the boy who inspired Winnie The Pooh's Christopher Robin. How did you go from that to this story?
MC: This was Peter's half of the big idea! He wanted to tell a story about a man who has a famous fictional alter ego - a fictional character whose life is directly based on the real guy's life. The story would actually start in the fiction, and would then pull back to show how the fiction is a distorted echo of the reality. I said "Christopher Robin Milne" and Peter said "Yes! Exactly!" But as soon as you think of Milne, you think of how fictions - even benign fictions - can poison reality. Milne was a man who actually hated being a famous six-year old, and shied away from letting his life be a sort of decorative add-on to his father's great work.
So now we had something of a handle on our main character, and a sense of what might be at stake for him personally. We also had a strong sense - which I think was where Peter was coming from all along - that this could be a story about stories: an exploration of the ways in which fiction matters in our lives and to a certain extent shapes out lives. Everything opens out from that, even before you get to the conspiracy thriller angle.
NRAMA: Will The Unwritten feature segments from the actual Tommy Taylor books?
MC: Oh, you bet! Scenes from the books, scenes from the movies based on the books, fan-fic involving the core characters, plagiarised chunks written by an imposter - and increasingly, scenes from other great fictions that overlap with the Tommy Taylor stories in various ways. We have an extract from Frankenstein in issue 3, some weird Tommy Taylor torture porn in 4, and the Just So stories of Rudyard Kipling in 5. It's been a wild ride for us, so far, and I'm sure it will be for readers, too. That shifting fact/fiction frame of reference is a key aspect of how the book works.
NRAMA: Stories about writers is an oft-played field for fiction ideas – just ask Stephen King. Why do you think doing stories about storytellers is so ripe for writer's imaginations?
MC: Well, stories about stories... maybe that's a zeitgeist thing. But it's more than one thing, really. At one extreme you've got Hollywood studios rampaging through the back catalogue, doing remakes of everything under the sun, because when you do a remake the existing movie is all the pitch you need. But I think that's very different from the more playful and multi-layered re-inventions that we've seen in prose fiction and in comics over the past decade and a half. I'd point to Alan Moore's Supreme as a story about stories that actually enriches your appreciation of its source material - and to Chabon's Kavalier and Clay as a poignant and insightful meditation on the fictions that coloured our dreams when we were kids.
Emotionally, it's the appeal of going back to the wellspring - the source of the Nile. We all have stories that colonise and inhabit bits of our minds, and there's a kind of magic in turning our vision inwards to look at them directly. Conceptually, it's like making a story that's a moebius strip, angling away from the fictional reality and then feeding back into it from an unexpected angle. A very post-modern thing, to use that loaded phrase, but if it's done right it can be both fun and revelatory.
NRAMA: Is Tom comfortable with the position his father put him in?
MC: No, he's an orange ball of hate. At least, he is when we first meet him. He moves on from that position, but really he feels like his entire life has been sabotaged more or less from the get-go by his father's great opus. He can never have any privacy, and he can never be judged just on his own merits. It's like there's this invisible force field around him, and it's the wrong size and shape so he's always aware that its there. Of course, it doesn't help that when he's tried to do anything meaningful on his own account, he's generally failed - so he's actually thrown back onto using his second-hand fame to earn a living.
All of which makes him sound kind of pathetic, but actually there's another dimension to Tom's story that we gradually become aware of. He's absolutely right that he's been sabotaged: he just may not be putting the blame where it belongs.
NRAMA: Tom's living life as best he could when it's revealed rather publicly that he may not be who he thought he was. How does that come about – who's out to get Tom?
MC: He gets challenged at a convention - a Tommy Taylor convention, where he's one of the guests of honour. A young student stands up and says most of the documents relating to his life appear to be faked up or suspect in one way or another. So who is he, really? Tom is inclined to laugh it off, at first, but the public reaction is very different. And then all this other bad stuff starts to surface, and he realises that he doesn't know as much about his own life as he thought he did. He's still sure that he's a real man, with a real past, but the evidence is hard to come by - especially when he's on the run and in fear for his life.
Who's out to get Tom? The Unwritten - but nobody knows who the Unwritten are, or anything else about them. Not a single word has ever been committed to print about them or their activities: they exist in the interstices, never discussed, never recorded, never contained in the words that describe everything else we see and know.
NRAMA: According to Karen Berger at NYCC, Peter you're doing more than just drawing the book – you're chipping in on some story ideas. Can you tell us about that?
PG: This has been a real co-production between me and Mike. The initial premise was a combination of ideas from the two of us; mine was about a child made famous in a story and then abandoned by the father/author, and Mike's was about a conspiracy behind Fiction. We combined those two and added in the idea of looking at how fiction affects the real world in consequential ways and we followed with volumes of emails back and forth developing those concepts more and more deeply. I'd say we're co-plotters up until the point where it's time to write a draft, then I back off and let Mike take the lead. I tend to be the one who initially pushes concepts farther because I have a lot of time where I'm inking and have nothing in my head to think about except this story. So while Mike is busy writing X-Men, his Felix Castor novels, and various screenplays, I'm in the studio spending 14 hours a day thinking about the implications of Pullman's Fictional hand! I harness all those ramblings into emails to Mike and he weeds through them and separates the wheat from the chaff and sends more inspirations back my way. I don't know if the story we're doing has dictated this way of working, or if this way of working has dictated the story but we have gotten to astounding places with what we're doing in The Unwritten. If this book is 1/2 as good as working on it has been we're going to have a great comic on our hands.
MC: Karen described us as a two-headed beast, which we like a lot. Of course, the CareyGrossosaurus is a fictional animal, and we're pretty sure we're real.
Seriously, all the story planning is done by the pair of us in tandem. There's no separation of powers, as it were - except that I can't draw. Both in terms of the big picture and in the plotting of specific arcs, we kick everything backwards and forwards between us. We're getting good at using that very open-ended process to canvass a vast range of ideas before we decide where we're actually going to go. It's time-intensive, but it works - in fact, we're amazed at how productive it's been.
Even back on Lucifer, where more of the planning was driven by me, Peter brought dimensions to the storytelling that just weren't there until he turned his eye on the script. Occasionally, as a thought experiment, I try to imagine Lucifer with someone else on art. It's like trying to follow Vonnegut's prescription for studying a granfalloon: "just remove the skin of a toy balloon..."
NRAMA: This new book is a reunion of sorts back to your days working on Vertigo's Lucifer together. How'd it come about?
PG: It's been great! Mike and I love working with each other and we really wanted to do another project together; having it be a creator-owned book has been even more special. Mike and I spent 6 years working together on Lucifer and over that time we became a well-oiled comic producing machine! When you work that much with someone you learn what it is they're after in a story and you develop a shorthand where you know when you need explanations or when it's better to back off and let the other one do their thing. With The Unwritten we get to start at the point and take it further--especially because this is a creator owned book and we can take it wherever we want. I've likened this to what Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon did with Preacher after years of working together on Hellblazer. I'm hoping that people will look at The Unwritten as the great Mike Carey/Peter Gross series!
MC: When we were wrapping up on Lucifer, Peter and I pitched a dozen or so ideas to Vertigo, with a view to getting another book up and running right then. For various reasons, nothing really took: we were talking on and off for most of a year, but then the inevitable happened and we both got sucked into other projects.
But we both still wanted to team up, and when Crossing Midnight finished we started talking again. I'm remembering this as being in the Fall of 2007, which seems like a long time ago now. We each had a big idea that we wanted to run by the other - and somehow, by a kind of mystical convergence, they ended up being the same story seen from two different angles.
NRAMA: What made you want to do this book, Peter?
PG: Working with Mike was the starting point: coming up with a story that challenged both of us was the second step. But what really makes me excited about The Unwritten is that it's really about something. I think one of my initial thoughts was why do we create fiction? Why can a guy who has no strong belief in God or religion (me) spend months or years of his life happily doing stories about gods? I knew there was a reason and I wanted to explore that--so for me that's what this book is about. There's been a few times as we've plotted things out that I get a shiver up my spine because I think we're touching on some big ideas with The Unwritten. It's like a fiction that feels instantly true. Once we set up the conspiracy behind literature in the series, we started seeing signs of it it reality, and many of those bits of synchronicity have substantially shaped the story as we've moved on. I wouldn't be surprised if some men in black show up some day to erase us--or maybe Mike's already on their payroll and doing their bidding! Hmmm...I better start being a little more careful about all this.