The Unwritten is a comic book by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.

The Unwritten is one of those ideas you kick yourself for not coming up with, or (should you lay claim to having considered it) using.

The Unwritten is probably the main reason I have not yet given up on comics.

The Unwritten begins with Tom Taylor making a living off his mysteriously absent fathers books, which focus on a character half Harry Potter and half Christopher Robin. And, just as the real life Christopher Robin was unhappy to have to live in the shadow of his fictional counterpart , so too is Tom (who by no account should you call ‘Tommy’) frustrated at the beast that is Tommy Taylor. When accusations of Tom’s true parentage come to light, the Tommy Taylor audience Tom has been living off take up arms in revolt at this betrayal, but when characters from the Tommy Taylor books seem to be involving themselves in the real world, people then begin to wonder if maybe Tom Taylor is the boy wizard given life and form…

Superficially, there seems to be little in the way of innovation to champion The Unwritten. But the above tract is really just the coathanger upon which to hang questions of identity, belief and the nature of our relationship to fiction. While the series follows the broad course set out by Tom’s eventual and reluctant quest, it frequently diverts itself to fragments and histories and short stories which might seem irreverent or distanced from the story proper, but in truth are vital components to both the plot and the thesis of the series.

Indeed, these diversions are sometimes better than the main tale itself – the first looks at the growth in popularity of Rudyard Kipling contrasted with other writers of the time (in particular Oscar Wilde), the nature of his work and indeed the consequence of polemics, patriotism and propaganda. The next – which occurs in the middle of a story headed into chaos no less – looks at a father, his children and their favourite stories, intertwined in the benefits and the risks of over-indulgence in fantasy. The series even takes pause to consider what happens when a story is wilfully misinterpreted, as in the case of Jud Suss, both as a grand part of the series mythology and as a metafictional consideration and metaphor.

Of concern to Messrs Carey and Gross is the questions which orbit the sphere of stories: who bears the responsibility of fiction – the author, or the reader? Who is more important in determining and defining the world of the fiction – the author who creates it, or the reader who interprets it? At what point does it stop belonging to the former and begin tenure under the latter? Is fiction inherently harmful, or something we allow to harm ourselves (or others)? What sense of entitlement is an audience allowed to have in an age where communication with authors and each other is so great and vast? And more to the point, what sense of entitlement is appropriate? What then, is the ability of fiction to influence reality (both literally and figuratively)? And, as becomes apparent in the story of Jud Suss, what is ability of reality to affect fiction? The very act of observation comes into question, and the responsibility of an audience to the work is raised as a point of contention.

The series gladly pauses to consider these questions – it may not answer them, but it will certainly give evidence to both sides and allow the reader to act as jurors to an individual verdict. It does not demand that we agree with the verdict of the writer or artist, but instead acknowledges that we are smart enough to come to our own conclusions and move along. It’s a brave move which could very easily backfire, but instead belies the confidnce of its own creators.

On that very subject then, I should acknowledge the sterling work of Peter Gross in capturing the subtleties of Mike Carey’s script – he is a deft illustrator who has managed to incorporate a number of styles and layouts into this series which could very easily bore the reader. He doesn’t rail against the website-style news and blog pages, which can’t help but stifle and artist, but instead endeavours to enliven them. This is not to say that he doesn’t get to put pencil and pen to staggering images – he does of course, and the story would be very different in tone without the grace of his work. Credit must also go to the work of the cover artist Yuko Shimizu which is frankly breathtaking. Were the internal workings of this series absolute guff, the series would be justified simply by being an excuse for these covers to exist. That said work is the antithesis of guff instead means this is a wholly wonderful endeavour, and one which could (nay should) be recommended to anyone in search of a read that bothers to challenge its readership, if not just stimulate a more active relationship with our fantasies and escapism and enjoyment.

(For those interested, the first issue can be download for free here.)