Graphic Novel Review – The Unwritten Volumes 2, 3 & 4 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

The Unwritten Volume 2: Inside Man (★★★★)

Synopsis: Tom Taylor’s life was screwed from go. His father created the Tommy Taylor fantasy series, boy-wizard novels with popularity on par with Harry Potter. The problem is Dad modeled the fictional epic so closely to Tom’s real life that fans are constantly comparing him to his counterpart, turning him into the lamest variety of Z-level celebrity. In the final novel, it’s even implied that the fictional Tommy will crossover into the real world, giving delusional fans more excuses to harass Tom.

When an enormous scandal reveals that Tom might really be a boy-wizard made flesh, Tom comes into contact with a very mysterious, very deadly group that’s secretly kept tabs on him all his life. Now, to protect his own life and discover the truth behind his origins, Tom will travel the world, eventually finding himself at locations all featured on a very special map — one kept by the deadly group that charts places throughout world history where fictions have impacted and tangibly shaped reality, those stories ranging from famous literary works to folktales to pop culture. And in the process of figuring out what it all means, Tom will find himself having to figure out a huge conspiracy mystery that spans the entirety of the history of fiction.

I will be honest. Sometimes when reading The Unwritten, I feel out of my depth. Part of me wonders if it is just my unfamiliarity with the structure of serial comics or if it is just this particular comic. There are so many levels to what is going on in The Unwritten it practically takes a flow chart to keep track of it all. I’ve read volumes 2, 3 and 4 three times now and I finally have a grasp on what the heck is going on.

Having to re-read these comics three times doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, does it? Would you even pick up a novel that I said I had to re-read three times to understand? Hell no, you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t read a novel three times to understand it. That type of novel would have lost me in the first fifty pages. Graphic novels, though, are designed to be read multiple times. An excellent graphic novel will reveal layers to the story in the artwork, layers that are only visible on multiple viewings. The best example of this is in Watchmen by Alan Moore. I don’t necessarily see that visual depth in The Unwritten, but I would argue that what Mike Carey is doing with the story of The Unwritten is much more complex than Moore’s Watchmen. Watchmen was a visual feast. The Unwritten is a literary, mind stretching banquet.

In Inside Man, we get a better idea of what Tom’s abilities are, that he can conjure fictional characters into the real world by reading or telling a story. How he can do that remains to be seen. If you want to compare the character structure to Harry Potter, we meet Tom’s “Ron,” a journalist named Savoy who bribes his way into prison with Tom so he can get the inside scoop. Tom discovers his ruse but quickly forgives him – he doesn’t have that many friends and Savoy turns out to be better than most. But, not better than Lizzie, who gets thrown in jail as well but only so she can bust Tom (and Savoy) out. The only way to do that, though, is for Tom to use his “powers,” powers that he is determined to believe he does not possess. Unfortunately for Tom, his belief in himself means less than the public’s belief in his abilities. If they think Tom can open a portal to another world with an antique glass doorknob, then Tom can do it. Yes, this all sounds fantastical and it is. But, it is also really, really good.

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Vertigo (August 17, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401228739
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401228736

The Unwritten Volume 3: Dead Man’s Knock (★★★★★)

Synopsis: Publish or Perish The boy wizard is back!

The fictional adventures of Tommy Taylor are the biggest publishing sensation of the still young century. And now, years after the last volume, Tommy’s creator Wilson Taylor — long missing and believed dead — is unleashing a brand new Tommy Taylor book upon the world.

There’s just one problem: It’s not a new Tommy Taylor book at all.

Sinister forces have created a fake book in Wilson’s name, a fraud designed to destroy his literary legacy — and coax the reclusive author out of hiding so they can destroy him once and for all.

But they didn’t count on Wilson’s most powerful creation: his son, the real Tom Taylor.

To unmask the truth about the new Tommy, Tom must confront some of the darkest secrets that surround him, from the hidden fate of his father to the secret origin of his closest friend to the true nature of his fictional alter ego.

Will Tom be able to stop his doppelgänger’s return? Or will the publishing event of the decade lead to the end of time?

Of these three compilations, Dead Man’s Knock is my favorite because it gives us answers to two questions: Who is Lizzie Hexam and what is Wilson Taylor’s game? First, Lizzie. Is she a mentally unstable orphan or is she the character from Our Mutual Friend made flesh? If the answer is the latter, then there is credence to the idea that Tom Taylor is a fictional character made flesh. If she is the former, then why does she so totally believe in her mission to help Tom and in Tom’s destiny? The answers to these questions also help answer questions about Tom. Tom and Lizzie are human beings, one raised to become a fictional character and one hiding her true identity in the safety of a character from 18th century England. Wilson’s game is still a little foggy, mainly because Tom was so bitter with the reappearance of his long dead father he wouldn’t take the time to listen to what he said.

One of the sections of Dead Man’s Knock is a Pick-a-Story Book that lets the reader choose what Lizzie’s back story is. It was very inventive if irritating to read the first time when I wanted answers, not a cutesy comic. On subsequent reads, however, I gained an appreciation for it.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Vertigo (March 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401230466
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401230463

The Unwritten Volume 4: Leviathan (★★★)

Synopsis: This fourth volume in the acclaimed series sends Tommy Taylor into the world of Moby-Dick!

After the shocking return of Tommy’s father, best-selling fantasy author Wilson Taylor, the mysterious Cabal audition a new assassin and Tom seeks out “the source.” The source of what? He’s not really sure, but it looks like a whale, and apparently it can be found in the Nantucket farmhouse where Moby-Dick was written. What he finds is a path into a whole different ocean, with more trouble (and more whales) than he could possibly imagine.

I am sure my dislike Moby Dick influenced my dislike of Leviathan. Granted, I haven’t ever been able to finish Moby Dick so to say I don’t like it is disingenuous. I didn’t like what I read, that’s for sure. A general knowledge of Moby Dick will suffice for the reader of Leviathan, i.e. there is a man searching for a white whale, but there was too much time with Tom apart from Savoy and Lizzie. We did get an answer to a big question, though. Tom Taylor realizes, “I exist in the suspension of your disbelief.” What the reader suspected back in volume 2 is confirmed – it is the public’s belief and perception that Tom Taylor is real that gives him the power. So, I guess it stands to reason that if the public ever starts to doubt him, his powers will diminish or evaporate all together.  As I stated at the beginning of this review, I have no doubt there is much more to Volume 4 than that one revelation, but that was what I came away with.

What I haven’t mentioned but deserves acknowledgement is how Cary and Gross are shining a light on how fandom, internet culture and instantaneous information can create a worldwide mob personality. The best example of this, since the conclusion of Harry Potter, is Twilight. While the surfing internet is, literally, a solitary occupation, being connected wirelessly to every type of person imaginable at any time creates a virtual mob whose opinions and thoughts are capricious, at best. There will come a time, and probably not too far off, when someone will figure out how to mobilize one of these mobs into real world action. The Occupy movement is the first of such and will one day seem quaint in its idealism and peacefulness. I’m not saying that Team Jacob is going to pick a time and place to throw down with Team Edward and settle their disagreement once and for all. But, the power of the internet will be used for ill in this way. One day. Reading The Unwritten, a tame version of internet culture and how it intersects with the real world should make everyone stop and think. Unfortunately, the only people reading The Unwritten are already very familiar with fandom culture. I doubt many average readers are picking up graphic novels, which is a shame.

I would recommend The Unwritten to anyone that loves books and has an interest in the “other world” of internet fandom. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend it to middle schoolers or younger because there is sex and a bit of nudity at the beginning of Volume 4. It is ridiculously tame compared to a more hard-core graphic novel like Fables, but I would wait to introduce teens to it until they are mature enough to handle it and that depends on the person.

  • The Unwritten Volume 4: Leviathan (★)
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Vertigo (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401232922
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401232924

NaNoWriMo – One step forward, two steps back

Image from mysynonym.com

For almost four years, I have been meeting my cousin, Mark Hoover, every Tuesday and Thursday to write. We write most days, sometimes stopping down to lament about kids, life, politics, etc., but the majority of the time we focus on writing and supporting each other in our ongoing endeavor to make $**t up. I suspect that he helps me more than I help him, but he is nice enough to tell me that my advice to him is valuable. His advice to me, and his unwavering belief in my abilities even when I believe I can barely string a group of coherent words together, are what has kept me writing for so long with so little success.

Today, we met for the first time since I started NaNo. A question I had for him about my lead character’s name (which is changing early in the novel because she is on the run! Oh, the drama!) turned into a great discussion about what I should do, how I should handle it. The result? I’m almost convinced to scrap everything I worked on yesterday (1500 words!) and change the perspective from third person to first person. His arguments for me doing it are solid and, when I look at it from a what’s best for the story/character I know that first person is the way to go. But, it will require completely reworking what I’ve written so far. (For the record, I’m not officially competing in NaNo because one requirement of the challenge is that it be an original novel. Completing an unfinished work doesn’t count and that is what I was doing.)  That would be scrapping or reworking 36,000 words worth of prose. That is difficult for me to do for obvious reasons.

Now, for the not so obvious reasons: I’m notorious for going into something like this, editing, reworking, etc, getting discouraged and quitting. Frankly, I don’t want to fail like that again. Maybe this time will be the time that I get over that particular writing hurdle.  Maybe writing in first person is my natural voice, what I should have been doing from the beginning and the words will flow so easily that I will finish the entire novel before Christmas, send it to publishers in January and get it accepted in February. Ooooorrrrrrr, maybe I’ll do what I always do and work really hard for a while, then my interest peters out as it gets more difficult or I get closer to success. I really am my own worst enemy. Are there such things as a writer’s psychologist? Cuz I think I need one. Maybe that’s what Mark is.

During our discussion, Mark said that I have to constantly put obstacles in my heroine’s way. One step forward and two back. Thinking on some of my favorite books, that is exactly what happens: Elizabeth Bennet, Margaret Hale, Harry Potter, Maisie Dobbs, Percy Jackson, Victor Frankenstein, Jane Eyre. What keeps me reading is wondering how they will react to adversity. Going through trials and tribulations with them makes the ending, whether it be happy or tragic, satisfying. I hope that my journey writing this novel, the inevitable one step forward two back in my writing process, will make my denouement satisfying as well.

I’m rooting for a happy ending.

Graphic Novel Review – The Unwritten Volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity

Cover of "Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor ...

Cover via Amazon

Imagine if Harry Potter was real. Not that the world of Harry Potter was real, but if the fictional character were based on a real person. That is Tom Taylor’s life. His father, Wilson Taylor, wrote 13 books with a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor as the hero. After the publication of the 13th book, Wilson Taylor disappeared, leaving his estate in limbo and his son, Tom Taylor, struggling to survive. He manages by attending Tommy Taylor conventions as the inspiration for the fictional wizard and signing books. Tom Taylor, the adult (although is specific age is never mentioned) is quick to say that he isn’t really Tommy Taylor. Just plain Tom. When a young lady named Lizzie Hexam stands up during a convention question and answer and challenges Tom Taylor’s real identity (his birth certificate is fake, etc.) igniting a firestorm and hurling Tom Taylor’s life into chaos.

That Mike Cary and Peter Gross have based The Unwritten on the fandom and pop culture ubiquity of Harry Potter is unquestionable. While Cary has said that Tommy Taylor is based on Christopher Milne’s life being the basis of Winnie the Pooh’s Christopher Robin, the comics from Wilson Taylor’s books that preface each issue show Tommy Taylor and his friends as dead ringers for Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron. The pages detailing the Internet reaction to Tom Taylor’s real life story are hilarious in the spot-on depiction of fandom’s obsessive nature.

The first volume is confusing in the way that the beginning of all stories are – the writer knows more information than you and is purposely doling out the bare minimum you need to know to keep you hooked. The cliffhanger at the end of the volume doesn’t hurt in furthering that goal, either. Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity is an exciting and interesting introduction to Tom Taylor’s world and offers enough ambiguity to hint that there is much more to Tom’s life than meets the eye.

Book Series Review – Harry Potter

Coat of arms of Hogwarts, the fictional school...

Image via Wikipedia

I have my tickets in hand and am downing coffee in preparation for the Harry Potter double feature I am attending tonight. At 9:00 p.m. Deathly Hallows Part 1 will show and, after a brief intermission, Deathly Hallows Part 2 will show at midnight. I’m excited mainly because of the spectacle of it; I thought Part 1 was pretty boring and the book itself was far from my favorite of the series.

But, this post isn’t about the movies, which one I liked best (Prisoner of Azkaban) or how faithful they were to canon. This post is about the books and my order of preference and why. So, without further ado, I give you my favorite HP books with a short review of each.

1. Prisoner of Azkaban (★) – I flatter myself that I can predict what is going to happen in just about every book I read, not because I’m particularly clever but because I’ve read so many books and, in the end, none are all that original with their denoument. The ending of PoA completely caught me off guard. I thought Rowling’s writing took a huge step forward, as well. When re-reading SS & CoS after reading book 3 and 4, her writing seemed juvenille and amateur.

2. Goblet of Fire (★) – Another amazing ending. The graveyard scene made me cry the first time and I’ve cried every time I’ve read it since. The book is ridiculously bloated – as are all the remaining books – but throwing in different wizarding cultures gives the series a shot in the arm. Too bad Rowling pretty much drops that dimension in future books.

3. Order of the Phoenix (★) – Harry in his James Dean Rebel With a Cause phase. I love that the kids empower themselves in the face of adults that just won’t listen or understand. It makes up a little bit for CAPS!LOCK Harry. I will also admit that this book made me a Harry/Hermione fan, even though Rowling didn’t intend for that to happen.

4. Sorcerer’s Stone (★) – Not nearly as well written as the final five this still deserves a high spot because it was good enough to hook millions of readers, including this one, on Harry’s story.

5. Deathly Hallows (★) – I had low expectations for this book after reading the bloated, meandering Half Blood Prince. But, Rowling delivers a great ending. She even had the courage to kill off some beloved characters. She didn’t have the courage to kill off Harry, a move that, while it might have alienated a large portion of the fans, would have made a much stronger point about love, loyalty, friendship and sacrifice. I should probably drop this below Chamber of Secrets because of the horrible, tacked on 20 years later epilogue.

6. Chamber of Secrets (★) – Can you say sophomore slump? I can’t pinpoint why this book is so low on the list, to be honest. In hindsight, it is a very important book, introducing us to horcruxes as well as Tom Riddle. But, the explanation in the book for everything that went on was so vague that I was left with my WTF? face firmly in place. Of course, this lack of explanation is also a weakness of every other book in the series.*

7. Half-Blood Prince (★) – If I wrote everything I hated about this book, in detail, it would take me until midnight. Unfortunately, I just don’t have that time so I’ll be succinct. One, it was way too long. It was basically an information dump for details that Rowling should have been divulging in dribs and drabs in books 1-5. Two, Harry just lost his only family member (Sirius Black) and he grieves for about two paragraphs at the beginning. Three, Rowling waited two books too long to delve into the romance. It seemed very vaccous for all these kids to be brewing up love potions with everything that was going on. Four, after a few thousand pages of Hermione and Ron believing in Harry and listening to him, they pretty much ignore every warning he gave them about Draco (and Harry was right in the end). Five, Dumbledore suddenly becoming Harry’s mentor is, again, two or three books too late. About the only thing that was good about the book, and I say “good” meaning having great impact and importance to the overall story, was Dumbledore’s death. Of course, anyone that knows anything about a “Hero’s Journey” knew from page one of book one that Dumbledore was going to die before the end. This is the one installment that I have to say I enjoyed the movie more than the book.

 

* I have a theory that Rowling structured her seven books like a mystery, holding back all the pertinent information for Hercule Poirot to reveal in the library to the assembled suspects. Books 1-5 would have been much better (and six wouldn’t have been so God-awful) if she would have told us more as we went. I pretty much despise lack of communication as a plot device and that is the only way to sum up every one of Dumbledore’s decisions to keep Harry in the dark.