SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for "The Unwritten" Vol. 4, on sale now.
Since earning Eisner Award nominations for Best Single Issue, Best Continuing Series and Best New Series in 2010, acclaimed Vertigo title "The Unwritten" has continued to receive critical praise, becoming a New York Times bestseller along the way.
Created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, the story of "Unwritten" revolves around Tom Taylor, a 30-something Z-list celebrity who is burdened with a cult following because he's the inspiration for a young boy wizard named Tommy Taylor, the main character in his now-deceased father's popular series of fantasy books.
Following the death of Wilson Taylor in the third collection, Tom is primed to get to the bottom of who or what is driving his life story, which exists somewhere in the realm between fact and fiction.
With the fourth volume in stores now and the fifth set for release in January, CBR News connected with Carey and Gross to discuss the life-altering changes Tom and his friends Lizzie and Savoy are experiencing and how Wilson Taylor is finally getting his story told, albeit posthumously. The creative team also confirm that the main villain in the series isn't Tom's dad, share their thoughts on the new .5 issues which are being released bi-weekly between regular issues of "Unwritten" and hint at the game-changing events resulting from the newest storyline "War of Words."
CBR News: Were you aware of the passage, "As yet, however, the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life" from "Moby Dick" before you started your epic journey on "Unwritten?"
Peter Gross: No. I actually found that -- I was looking at a .pdf of "Moby Dick" early on because we knew we were going to do it. I did a word search for "unwritten" and that passage popped up so I sent it over to Mike right away. It was really kind of perfect.
Mike Carey: "Moby Dick" was always one of the books that we thought we'd like to use. Peter sent me a scene from the Gregory Peck movie version, which included the speech where Ahab is railing against the blind power behind nature. It's kind of inherent in human destiny to pit ourselves against this power -- we define ourselves against it. It was so cool. It seemed to play into a lot of things that we were talking about, especially when you consider the whole conversation took place in a map room. There was a big map between him and Starbuck.
Gross: He thought the beast was just a mask for something horrible that preys on mankind, and we were like, "He's talking about the Cabal." It ended up being a really big inspiration. More and more "Moby Dick," and the other images of whales, has come back to the story. And each time, it's more and more powerful.
When we included the Kipling story, "How the Whale Got His Throat," we knew that it was going to connect to "Moby Dick." The whale has always been there as a huge theme.
Carey: When we started developing the outline of the story, I thought naturally we could tie into Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" into it, as well. The big reveal at the end of Volume 4 that there is a whale behind the whale, was one of the last things that we put into that story.
Gross: There has been a lot of synchronicity with the whale imagery. We have about 10 more levels of it coming up, too.
Carey: That's true. We're definitely returning to whales after the "War of Words" arc.
Speaking of true, or truth, there was a great concept, presented by Lizzie in this arc, that there is a difference between "real true" and "story true." Can you explain the difference for us?
Gross: I find it really interesting to explore the question, "What makes a book last an eternity?" Or as close to eternity as you can get. When you look at something like "Frankenstein" or "A Christmas Carol," how many times do those classics get retold and redone and updated? There is something that resonates in them. Despite how much they change it, there is some core that can't be stamped out. I am really fascinated by that.
Carey: When Lizzie says there is a difference between "real true" and "story true," I agree totally with what she is getting at, which is a lot of what our reality and our attention, on a day-to-day level, is focused on -- the ephemeral, on things that come and go and change constantly. Stories, I think, including the ones that Peter was just talking about, are rediscovered generation after generation. They stay popular because they touch on things that don't change. They are touching on attributes of the human spirit or whatever you want to call it. Or something intrinsic.
Gross: I think the other thing that's really true about what Lizzie is saying is, for me, when you look at something like The Bible, it's "story true." The confusion comes in when people think it is "real true." Somehow, people think "real true" is more important than "story true." And I think what Lizzie is saying is that "story true" is more important than "real true."
Carey: Yes, because "real true" comes and goes and changes and fluctuates, but "story true" is true forever.
Peter, you mentioned those characters that are constantly re-imagined for new readers. Characters like the Frankenstein, who I loved in his supporting role. How do you go about selecting which iconic characters make appearances in "Unwritten," because I love the "team" you assembled of whale-fallen heroes, which includes Ahab, Sinbad, Pinocchio, etc.
Gross: For me, the fun part of it all is, when we think about a character, and we do just a little bit of research on him or her, you never have to read more than five minutes before you find some underlying connection between the all the authors and another author we are thinking of using or have used. To me, that's the fascinating part of engaging these different characters.
Carey: That's absolutely true. Even without invoking the Cabal, the conspiracy, the way the lives of different authors and stories are interconnected over time is fascinating. We're discovering different lines, different lineages, unexpected through lines, which is all very cool.
This arc called for a cast of all the whale-related characters. We're going to do a similar kind of mash-up in the arc that follows "War of Words" -- a different group of characters with a definite logic to it.
The whale-related characters should spin-off into their own series. "Unwritten" needs a team book.
Gross: [Laughs] Vertigo needs a New 52.
Carey: [Laughs] That would be cool. We do have a spinoff project, which is in development at the moment. Tt will be announced early in 2012. It's very ambitious and very exciting.
Wilson Taylor reminds me a lot of House from the FOX television series. I know I am supposed to despise him for all the terrible things he has done, but I can't help rooting for him or at least waiting for him to appear in-panel. Is this a natural occurrence, because I don't believe that he's the villain.
Carey: You're not sick. [Laughs] Wilson's a very ambivalent character and readers are meant to have mixed reactions to him. His agenda, which is coming out slowly, his master plan, is not malicious. There are things he is doing which are kind of admirable, but it's done in horrible, remorseless ways with a complete lack of pity for the people that he uses. There is this big contradiction there.
And you're right. He's not the villain. The villain is about to stand forth and be revealed.
Gross: The way I look at this is, in a lot of ways, "Unwritten" is Wilson's story. Tom is a consequence of Wilson. I think more and more as we've gone -- well, here's a spoiler for folks that haven't read the earlier stuff -- when Wilson gets killed in the third trade, it all of sudden opened up the book to telling his story in a really interesting way.
It became really fun to explore that character. He has the motives, he has the knowledge and he's a lot more fascinating than Tom. As we get a little further in the series, Tom takes control of some of that stuff, but Wilson remains the driving force. He's definitely an ends-justifies-the-means sort of guy, but as we go through the book, we'll get a more compete picture of just what that "end" is and what the "means" are. I don't think you'll be able to judge him until the end.
Carey: I think it's cool, the way that we're coming back now, posthumously, to the key events of his past. The "Teratogenesis" arc in "Unwritten" #27-30 was very, very Wilson-centric. And there's an issue coming up shortly that goes even further back in Wilson's past. It's like "Memento." We're working backwards.
Gross: I think we've figured out that whenever we kill a character, that's when we're going to tell the character's story.
Carey: That's right. That's when they become most important.
Okay. Let's acknowledge the other big elephant in the room. Lizzie and Tom hook up, finally -- in a big way.
Gross: I knew there was going to be a kiss, but when I saw the script, it was like, "Mike!"
Gross: It totally worked, but it was really spontaneous, wasn't it Mike?
Carey: It was, yes, totally. We knew that the relationship was going to deepen, but one of the weird things about writing this book is, we keep on reaching the milestones that we set out for ourselves earlier than we expected. We'll say in a conversation, "Okay. This is going to happen in the next couple of years," or something, and then we get to it within six months. It's moving a lot faster than we anticipated.
Gross: That's the opposite of some people that are reading who think "Unwritten" moves along at a snail's pace. [Laughs] But there is so much setup and there is so much payoff that we have figured out that the more we frontload something, it just leads us to better places. In "Lucifer," it took 75 issues before Lucifer had the conversation with God. With Wilson, we said, "Let's put this forward." And then it was even more. It was, "Let's kill him." But there has been real story payoff for us every time we've frontloaded those things. We almost look for it when we can, now.
With the overkill of vampire stories of late, it's nice to see Savoy's transformation is a little less sparkly than what we've seen romanticized in "Twilight" and "True Blood." Was that overkill considered?
Carey: We have plans for how we're going to use that vampire trope that we can't talk about yet, but in terms of turning Savoy into a vampire, that was just something that came about during the "Dead Man's Knock" arc. That was never a part of the grand plan.
Gross: That was never a plan. I was like, "Oh. I don't know." But Mike talked me into it and I really like it now.
Carey: There are some very cool moments in "War of Words" where Savoy is trying to leverage his newfound state of mind and he's trying to use it in ways that he hasn't before but he suspects from his readings are possible.
Gross: And there is another thing that is going on there. There are questions like, "How can Savoy even be a vampire?" Because I think in the course of our story, vampires probably do not exist. Stories exist. There are things underneath the story that still have to come out as we move along.
Carey: You could say the same thing about magic. Magic doesn't really exist, and yet Tom uses magic. There is an overarching reason for all these things --
Gross: That will take many years for you all to find out.
There is a great sequence towards the end of the trade where Tom is actively participating in "Moby Dick" as a character, as a whaling man on Captain Ahab's ship, and he is enjoying it. Was Tom getting lost in a good story or did he simply have enough of his own life at that point and believed maybe a simpler life at sea would be easier to swallow?
Gross: I think for Tom, he hasn't had much of a life. Has he ever known the experience of physical labor and hard work? And what about just getting through the day with physical labor? That's something he underwent while he was on the ship. In a funny way, he probably felt more alive there for a little bit than he ever has in his own reality.
Carey: And I think it's definitely true that one of the things that you get from reading a great book is that it really does put you inside other people's heads. It puts you in a different mental space.
Brian Boyd, who wrote a book about the origin of stories, said stories are like play -- it's like watching baby animals play. When you see kittens do their rough-and-tumble fighting, it's play. They're practicing the skills they are going to need for when they are grown up cats and they are killing things and eating them. Boyd says it's the same with stories. Stories are cognitive play that teaches us life skills. They are expanding the range of ideas that we have, the same way that when kittens play, it extends the range of predatory behavior.
Gross: Stories just exercise our brains, basically.
Carey: And absolute survivalism -- even when it looks like escapism, it's an art. It's like mental gymnastics.
Gross: These are questions that we're hoping to answer by the end of the series.
Carey: Yes, exactly. What are stories for? And where do they come from?
There is a great little two-page story early in the trade titled "Wet Ink" where Wilson is telling Tom not to touch the ink while it's still fresh on the page. Wilson tells young Tom that he once knew a little boy who did the same thing and it killed him. He literally fell into the story. This isn't just a scary bedtime story, is it?
Gross: I think Wilson has a reason for everything he ever said to Tom.
Carey: Yes, it's all part of the big plan.
In another one of the Wilson flashbacks, he shares his belief that symbols become more real with each passing day. Can we go back to the whale for a minute? What does a whale represent, not only in "Unwritten," but throughout literature? Is it the sheer weight of society and everyday living pressing on these characters muddling through their lives or something bigger?
Gross: I think that's what we are exploring right now. I don't know if we have an answer, but I think that's a question we both talked about. And it just keeps coming back.
Carey: It's probably not only one thing. It's clear that Hobbes' "Leviathan" is very different from Melville's "Moby Dick." The battle between Ahab and the whale is a battle between man and the resisting physical world -- this idea that nature is something that we have to fight against. Whereas for Hobbes, obviously, the whale signifies something much more benign. I think what we keep coming back to is that the whale is its own living thing and is bigger than any living thing has a right to be.
Gross: It's the biggest thing, but it's also the biggest thing that swims in the sea of unconsciousness. It's an image you can't avoid and it's an image we're going to keep coming back to, and cycle through and it will be ever-changing as we go through the book because it is this perfect image.
By the end of arc, Tom, it would appear, is starting to grasp the fictional and even collective unconscious that drives stories and, for him anyway, manifests itself as the Leviathan or the whale.
Carey: We're not necessarily endorsing the conclusions that Tom reaches at the end of the trade. Tom has met the Leviathan and he believes that he understands what Leviathan is. We will meet Leviathan again, and there are definitely more stories to be told about that particular creature, that entity.
But, yes, I think there is a sense that stories grow en masse. If you read a book or go and see a movie with all of your friends because the rumor mill is telling you that it's great, it becomes something that you can't escape from. It's like a black hole.
Not unlike the darkness Wilson leaves Tom within in "And We Raise Our Glass to the Awful Truth" when he warns him, while he has earned a moment of peace, his story doesn't have a happy ending.
Gross: [Laughs] I think that's one of the best little bits of the book so far, that scene with Wilson telling Tom that story and turning the light off at the end. I think it's totally true for Tom. And probably true for all of us -- at least from Wilson's point of view.
Carey: That's right. That's Wilson's world picture, right there.
Enjoy your moments of peace, because they don't last very long.
Carey: That's right. It's not going to last. You're going to be thrown back into the maelstrom and it will probably be worse the next time. The sequel is always bigger than the first time around.
Can you give us a quick update, for the folks reading "Unwritten" as individual issues? First off, why the move to the bi-weekly format? Was there just too much story?
Gross: We had a story that we were going to be doing as a miniseries, and it was not getting done the way we wanted it to. It was going to be a lot of work and a lot of commitment, and we were thinking of putting it off for a little bit. But we kept talking about how we love these one-offs, we love the way they flesh out the story. We love how they flesh out what happens behind the scenes. We have so many great ideas for them, but the problem with doing more than the occasional one is that it slows down the main narrative. Every time we looked at doing one, it slowed down the main narrative, so one time, kind of as a throwaway, we said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could do a bunch of these in-between each issue, while we keep the main book going." And because we put the miniseries that we were talking about doing on hold, Karen [Berger] said, "We've got room in the budget. Let's do it." We were stunned. We were like, "Okay, now we have to actually do it."
What we found working on it is, it is a fascinating way to grow the story because it's slowing things down, which is great. But it's also widening them out and deepening them. So, as you are reading this normal-paced book, you're getting all this stuff stretching out on the horizon, behind it and filling it up. I think it's a new way to tell a long, epic story. I just think it has a lot of potential.
Carey: It's like different voices in a fugue or different instruments in the symphony. As the main theme carries on, you have all sorts of different variations.
Gross: It's exactly like that. I think it worked out way better than even we anticipated.
Carey: I am really, really happy with how each of the next three .5 issues -- the upcoming #32.5, #33.5 and #34.5 -- turned out. I think we were just firing on all cylinders. It just works as a framework.
Gross: When they came up with the .5 thing, I didn't know what Marvel was doing, so when they announced it, people were like, "Oh. This is like the 'Point One' that Marvel is doing. It makes me crabby just to hear about .5 " And now, as it's coming out, people are saying, "Oh. That makes sense."
Will the .5 issues be collected in sequence with the trades?
Carey: That's a good question. We were talking at one point about possibly having two volumes come out at the same time in a slipcase, but I'm not sure. You're probably still going to see the one volume, but there is an open question of whether we do it in sequence or separate out the .5 issues.
Gross: Reading them without the two-week break in between would be very awkward. To read Chapter 1 of Tom's story and then immediately go into the past and then Chapter 2 of Tom's story and then into the past -- I'm not crazy about that, but it's to be determined. I like Mike's idea that we put out to volumes in a slipcase. That's what I want.
Do you need to be reading those .5 issues to follow the story?
Gross: You could just be reading those .5 issues and get some fabulous comics that aren't really tied into the main story directly. And you could totally read the main issues too without them.
Carey: Oh, yeah. You could read the whole-numbered issues in sequence because they make perfect sense by themselves. There is nothing missing.
Gross: If I wanted to get someone into "Unwritten," I would give them those .5 issues.
For those reading trades, there is one more volume before the start of your next major arc, but as a tease, what is "War of Words?"
Carey: Well, I think what we've been building towards is a gradual turnaround, a very gradual turnaround, for Tom, our protagonist, who to this point has been very passive and very reactive. He's constantly working towards other people's agendas. Gradually, over the course of the past couple of years, we see him start to take control of his life more and more. In "War of Words," it's basically what happens when Tom issues his own agenda and takes the battle back to the people that have been making his life hell since the first issue.
Gross: "War of Words" is a great example of what Mike was talking about when we frontload events. You would think that everything we've built up to in this series -- Tom's confrontation with the Cabal -- would come somewhere around #75 in the series, but it's actually happening in "War of Words." It's a lot of stuff that you would think we would not get to for a while, that we're getting to now. And really, the nature of the book is going to be drastically different at the end of what happens in that arc.
The fifth collection of "Unwritten" is in stores January 11. "Unwritten" #32, the second chapter in "War of Words," is on sale now.