'The Unwritten,' 'Air' bring smarts to the table

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Dec. 29, 2009 -- The Unwritten, a new series by Vertigo/DC Comics, is one smart comic book.

The surface narrative follows Tommy Taylor, a young man who was used as the basis for his father’s popular series of books about a boy wizard, also named Tommy Taylor. Taylor pére disappeared years ago after his 13th Taylor book, abandoning his son and tying up the money in trusts, so Taylor the younger makes an unhappy, tangential living at book signings and Tommy Taylor conventions. That is, until a researcher discovers that all of the biographical materials about Taylor are crude forgeries. With that, Taylor’s life is thrown into turmoil, as the tabloids have a field day, a mysterious cabal tries to kill him and a cult springs up believing he is the word made flesh. Or would that be “The Word” from the Book of Genesis? Could be, because the supernatural is involved, too.

But while the mystery of Tommy Taylor (and a jaundiced view of our celebrity culture) is occurring on the surface, author Mike Carey (Lucifer, The Devil You Know) is also engaging us another level, telling a story about stories – a metafictional adventure that blurs the lines between literature and reality. Carey raises the question of what is real and what is fiction not only with Tommy Taylor (who knows the “literary geography” of famous fiction by heart), but with Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), George Orwell (1984) and others who based their fiction on true events or real places. Issue Nos. 2-4 take place partly in the very real Villa Diodati, where Frankenstein and Paradise Lost were truly written (and the Tommy Taylor books were fictionally written). Then Carey devotes all of issue No. 5 to an entirely new – and terrifying – interpretation of the life and career of Rudyard Kipling.

Some may carp that “Tommy Taylor” is too closely based on Harry Potter. But those critics should be made aware that Potter himself is uncomfortably similar to an earlier character, Tim Hunter of the The Books of Magic. That was a comic-book series about a boy wizard published years ago by Vertigo/DC, mostly drawn by a fellow named Peter Gross – who is now engaged drawing a series called The Unwritten.

Taking notes yet? And we haven’t even gotten to the Christopher Robin parallels!

Casually literate and intelligent, engrossing from the first page, The Unwritten is a gem of a conspiracy story with enough metafictional layers to launch a thesis or two. And fortunately for latecomers, the first five issues are available in the trade paperback The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity ($9.99). It’s worth checking out – especially if it turns out that Tommy Taylor is the reality, and we readers are just fictional characters.

Speaking of smart, literate, quasi-magical conspiracy stories, the second five issues of Air have been collected into the trade paperback Flying Machine (Vertigo/DC $12.99).

In my review of the first volume (Air Vol. 1: Letters From Lost Countries) I said I found the art of M.K. Perker sort of sketchy. Either he’s gotten better, or I’ve grown accustomed to it. Either way I enjoyed it more this time.

Also in this volume, author G. Willow Wilson shows us that Blythe (our heroine, the flight attendant with acrophobia) is in fact the most powerful hyperpraxis pilot alive – that is to say, she can manipulate the world of symbols, making the unreal real by thinking about it. Sort of like Narimar, the country which doesn’t exist because it’s not on a map, until someone like Blythe remembers it, where she meets another hyperpraxis pilot, the famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

Being a hyperpraxis pilot has its unusual advantages, such as when Blythe is able to relive the life of her lover Zayn, during his childhood in Saudi Arabia and young adulthood in college. Many women would welcome this insight into the male mind, as does Blythe – so far.

Meanwhile, we learn some background on this hyperpraxis business, through the eyes of a young Aztec named Luc in 1063. As the conquistadors arrive he learns that the age of prophecy (when men could read the symbols of the world) is passing, and there will be war for a thousand years. And Luc is destined to play an important part, with the assistance of Quetzalcoatl. (Yup, the feathered serpent god.)

But that’s set-up for future stories. For now, we learn enough about Zayn, Blythe and Amelia to make Flying Machine worthwhile.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 118

Comment by Mike Parnell on December 31, 2009 at 11:41am
I have been reading and enjoying The Unwritten. It is a story about storytelling, but also about myth making, which I guess is storytelling. I highly recommend it.
Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on December 31, 2009 at 6:08pm
I'm waiting for the first Unwritten trade, but I did enjoy the first issue. I'll put in a good word for Air, though. I've enjoyed both trades, and I think the story possibilities really start to open up in the second.
Comment by Martin Gray on January 1, 2010 at 4:47pm
Superb reviews. I bought the first, and maybe second, issue(s) of Unwritten but haven't gotten to them yet. Sounds great, and I do so miss Tim Hunter.

I came across Air in a previe and didn't like the art or feel, so I'll pass on that.
Comment by Don Collett on January 5, 2010 at 8:12am
I've been passing up The Unwritten because of the seeming links to Potter (which I'm not a fan of), but I may have to reconsider. Air has been a great read from the start, and I'm getting used to the art style.


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