My reading obsession this past week has been the graphic novel series The Unwritten. Between Sunday and Wednesday, I gobbled up volumes 1- 10 of the trade paperback editions, and now I’m all caught up until the final volume is released in May.
What did I think? I’ll be honest: I think with The Unwritten, the law of diminishing returns was in effect.
I loved the sound of the premise when I first heard of it: Tom Taylor is the adult son of the mysteriously disappeared author Wilson Taylor, whose beloved children’s book series about boy wizard Tommy Taylor is the top selling book of all time. A crazy statistic is thrown around in the very first book: Of all the people worldwide who can read, 40% have read at least one Tommy Taylor book.
Tom is a more or less shiftless adult, who makes a buck by hitting the convention circuit and signing Tommy memorabilia — until the day a young woman stands up in a Q&A session and asks “Who are you?” Lizzie questions Tom’s true identity, alleging that his documentation and early childhood are elaborate frauds — and the fandom erupts. Suddenly, the lead news story worldwide is Tommy-gate: Is Tom really Taylor’s son? What’s he hiding? And where is his father?
Tom Taylor goes from adored to despised seemingly in the blink of an eye. Mobs are after him. The scandal won’t go away. So Tom flees to his father’s remote Swiss villa to hide away… and finds himself implicated in a grisly mass murder for which there is no reasonable explanation. And that’s the most normal part of the story.
Tom’s father guarded a powerful secret about the intersections between story and the real world, and the deeper Tom investigates, the weirder it gets. There are objects with magical powers, because stories made them so. There’s a bad guy who turns anything he touches into fiction. (Word of advice: Do NOT let him touch your head!) A magical doorknob from the Tommy Taylor stories can actually open portals between worlds, and a secret cabal is intent on stopping Tom and his friends and shutting down their mysterious connections to the world of fiction.
I couldn’t possibly even begin to describe the complexities of this series, because I kept getting lost myself. There’s a stairway that goes on forever. The worlds are all real, even if the people in each world believe other worlds to be fiction. The more widely read and taken to heart a story is, the more power it has — so Tom can use the plastic replica wand he carries because the power of belief gives it the magic it has in the Tommy Taylor stories.
Meanwhile, the series cleverly uses screenshots of websites and 24-hour news channels to convey the weirdness and intensity of our media-obsessed world, showing the demonization of Tom and later his redemption in the public eye, the pop-psychology attributing all sorts of ills to Tommy obsessions, the chat room conversations of the true believers, and even the messianic cults that spring up to deify Tom Taylor as the word become flesh.
Volume 9 is a cross-over with the Fables series, which I love beyond all reason. And actually, it was hearing that there would be a Fables/Unwritten cross-over that first made me look into The Unwritten. So it’s with sadness that I find myself saying that I disliked this volume very much, because a) the story was so convoluted that it didn’t really make sense and b) the Fables world here is an alterna-Fables, where truly awful things happen to some of my favorite Fables characters — and it was simply too terrible to see the fates of Snow White, Bigby, the cubs, Ambrose, and the rest of the gang here.
When I look back at my mad dash through these ten volumes, I see that I went from 4 and 5 star responses to the early volumes to 2 or 3 stars for the later ones. What changed? For me, the further the story moved from the Tommy Taylor origin story into the broader world of interwoven universes, the less compelling the narrative arcs became. By the end of volume 10, I was spending most of my brain power trying to figure out one WTF moment after another. Each plot development and story arc is interesting as hell, and I love the design and artwork. It’s inventive and challenging and not like anything else I’ve read. (Granted, I’m not a huge comics expert by any means…) But as a whole, it’s frustrating to read this much of a series and arrive at a place where I have really no idea what any of it means.
So, will I read volume 11 — the last in the series — when it comes out next May? Yes, I’m sure I will. At this point, I feel invested in Tom’s story, and I really love some of the supporting characters as well, especially Richie Savoy and Lizzie Hexam. On the other hand, because the story is so confusing and convoluted, I don’t feel a whole lot of suspense about the conclusion, since I’ve completely lost all sense of what this story is truly about.
Meanwhile, there’s a prequel volume now available, Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, which I believe tells both the story of the first Tommy Taylor book and how Wilson Taylor came to write it… and yes, I do plan to read this one in the next month or so, although I think I need a break for a while before I’ll be ready to deal with Tommy’s world again.