Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Unwritten Rules

Posted by Don MacPherson on May 13th, 2009

The Unwritten #1
“Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity”
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Peter Gross
Colors: Chris Chuckry
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover artist: Yuko Shimizu
Editor: Pornsak Pichetshote
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price: $1 US

The $1 cover price is a solid promotional approach for this new series. The Vertigo brand doesn’t turn as many heads as it did when it debuted 16 years ago, so anything DC Comics can do to attract attention to a new series is a smart move. What attracted my attention to this comic on the shelves of my local comic shop was the fact that there more copies of this comic than any other among the new releases. I took a closer look and discovered the price. I grabbed a copy without even glancing inside or inquiring about the premise. I’ll check out any professionally crafted comic for a buck, especially one written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross. As strong as the storytelling is in this comic book, if the series succeeds, it’ll be due in no small part to this cheap cover price.

Tom Taylor is famous, even beloved, by the world. His father authored a series of fantasy novels that are such a sensation, it makes Harry Potter seem like an obscure footnote in pop culture. The Tommy Taylor books remain a phenomenon, even after Wilson Taylor’s disappearance years ago. Unable to access the fortune being generated by the books, Tom Taylor is forced to eke out a living through convention and retail appearances, but that comfortable life is derailed when a young woman discovers and reveals that Tom Taylor may not be who he believed he was. With his identity in doubt and fans across the world calling for his head, that’s when Tom Taylor’s world really starts to get weird and dangerous.

Peter Gross has been something of an unsung mainstay of the Vertigo brand. He worked on The Books of Magic series, and he worked on Lucifer. Both were reliable performers for the imprint and produced a lot of collected editions, but neither was a bonafide hit either. My hope — if only for Gross’s sake — is that The Unwritten is the book that really garners the artist a lot of attention. With this issue, he demonstrates, as he’s done before, that he can handle the everyday and the fantastic with great skill. He captures the crowded chaos of a con perfectly, but the fantasy elements look appropriately lovely or horrific, depending on what the scene calls for. His work here reminds me a little of that of Cliff Chiang’s, and those who enjoy that artist’s efforts will no doubt appreciate what Gross has to offer.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the script is the cult that arises to worship Tommy Taylor. I’ve always found the notion of that worship can evolve (or devolve, depending on your perspective) from infatuation to be interesting. Roger Stern explored similar territory in various Superman comics in the 1980s and ’90s, and here, we see love for a cherished pop-culture icon perverted by zealots or perhaps the mentally ill. Zealotry in general is fascinating and frightening, and Carey delves into it quite cleverly here.

Carey explores the culture of the fan convention quite effectively in the opening scene. As a comics creator, it’s a culture with which he is intimately familiar, no doubt. I rather enjoyed the fact that the focus isn’t on how weird the fans are or demanding, just that it’s a tiring experience in which professionals or personalities participate out of necessity rather than for their own enjoyment. Carey could have easily fallen into the trap of portraying all of the fans as pathetic, but he takes a rather even-handed approach to such events that were once on the fringe of pop culture. The writer also wisely acknowledges that this premise is inspired by the recent boom in popularity of various fantasy book series — such as Harry Potter, Twilight and the like — in the script itself.

Thematically, The Unwritten has a lot in common with Bill Willingham’s Fables, and fans of that title will no doubt appreciate what writer Mike Carey offers up in this comic. Ultimately, The Unwritten is about the power of stories and how they can evolve into something much more than a piece of fiction designed to entertain. Of course, the metaphor of the literal power of stories is nothing new for DC’s vertigo imprint. Its flagship title, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, explored the same theme as well. Fortunately, while the same theme keeps popping up in this corner of comics publishing, the various creators aren’t just reiterating what’s come before. The Unwritten feels fresh and doesn’t disappoint. This book has the potential to be Vertigo’s Next Big Thing, and with two of the imprints stalwarts coming to an end in the past year (Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets), it’s about time for another strong series. 9/10

15 Responses to “Unwritten Rules”

  1. Marc Sobel Says:

    I agree, this was a great first issue and left me wanting more. I also liked the various uses of media (blog entries, news reports, etc.) to build up the mythology around Tommy and his father, and the story-within-the-story sections. Carey is a very thoughtful writer in that regard, looking beyond just dialogue to convey the story. Hopefully this will develop into a great series.

  2. ThatNickGuy Says:

    When I read the premise for this, I knew immediately that I’d love it. But I don’t buy single issues anymore. However, most especially after this glowing review, I am totally down for the trade (which Vertigo is, by far, the king of timely, well put together trade productions).

  3. Brian Woods Says:

    ThatNickGuy,

    I am always frustrated by people with your position. Why would you willingly contribute to the potential death of the series buy skipping the already solidly discounted first issue? Will you buy multiple copies of the trade to make sure it gets a proper sales bump to make up for contributing nothing to series prior to that release?

    It seems to me the first critical juncture for a title is release through maybe issue three or four. After that, it’s either started or it isn’t. After that, I’d figure around issues 17 or 18, where after a year and a half some people might switch to something new.

    I don’t mean this to be a flame or anything. I just honestly can’t understand the rationale of people who think like you do. Given how tough it is to get a series going and keep it going, it seems like you’d want to do something to contribute if you are already 100% behind the artists and concept.

  4. Don MacPherson Says:

    Brian wrote:
    I am always frustrated by people with your position. Why would you willingly contribute to the potential death of the series buy skipping the already solidly discounted first issue?

    I think you’re oversimplifying the issue. Today, those in the industry are well aware of the “waiting for the trade” phenomenon, so I don’t think publishers make decisions about the fate of episodic series without factoring in the sales of the collected editions.

    I recall at one point it was reported that one of DC’s Vertigo titles (I can’t remember which one) lost money in its episodic format but more than paid off for the company when it came to trades.

    Furthermore, given the nature of the story in The Unwritten, DC no doubt has its eye on some strong sales in the book market. The Unwritten collected editions will no doubt be marketed to the Harry Potter crowd.

  5. ThatNickGuy Says:

    Frankly speaking, Brian, I agree with Don. You’re oversimplifying the issue.

    For one, as Don pointed out, one of Veritgo’s titles paid itself off in trade format. I hear of more people buying Vertigo trades than the monthlies, which is something that I think every company accepts now. There has been a growing market for collections in the last decade or so.

    Secondly, I don’t feel satisfied spending $4 on 22 pages that is essentially Chapter 1. I would much rather, much like a novel, sit down and enjoy it in its entirety at my own pace. I’ve not once bought a single Vertigo title in its monthly form because they have a fantastic trade policy. Now, of course, the arguement comes up “it’s not $4, it’s only $1!” Which brings me to my next point.

    Third, I don’t like buying monthlies and have not bought a single issue in several years now, preferring to wait for the trades. I like the way they look on my bookshleves, especially several volumes alongside each other. Trades are easier to lend out to friends and there’s a LOT less worry about damaging them or taking care of them with “bagging and boarding”.

    They’re hardly losing money on me, given that I have not only bought trades from all four big companies (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse), but all sorts of other independent companies like Oni. In fact, they’ve made MORE money from me because I’ve sold previous copies of books in order to buy a newer, fancier version (Kingdom Come, Watchmen, Sandman, Crisis, etc as Absolutes, JLA and Gotham Central‘s deluxe hardcovers, etc). If anything, I am their key demographic when it comes to buying trades.

    Finally, just because I’m waiting for the trade doesn’t mean I haven’t been talking up this series to every comic book friend I have. And I posted a link to Don’s Unwritten review on a forum I visit (No Scans Daily) because even though I haven’t read it, I already know it’s going to be a favourite of mine. Much like a LOT of Vertigo titles, I’m going to be talking this bad boy up for years to come, ensuring that it gets a lot of sales via word of mouth.

  6. Dave Lynch Says:

    ThatNickGuy, really? Even if the first issue of this series is $1 for 40 pages, you still won’t buy it? I usually stay out of Vertigo titles, superheroes genre is more my thing but even I bought this.

    Btw, kinda jealous Brian Wood address you. I know it’s not your usual conservation between comic fan and writer i.e. thank you for supporting my title, you’re my #1 fan, etc. but… still a little jealous.

  7. Don MacPherson Says:

    Dave wrote:
    Btw, kinda jealous Brian Wood address you. I know it’s not your usual conservation between comic fan and writer i.e. thank you for supporting my title, you’re my #1 fan, etc. but… still a little jealous.

    Note that the person who commented in this thread is Brian Woods. The DMZ/Northlanders writer is named Brian WOOD (singular). I’m assuming they’re different guys. :)

  8. ThatNickGuy Says:

    I think Brian Wood would PROBABLY be a little less hostile toward potential fans. Loved Demo and have yet to check out DMZ, which I hear is fantastic (some of said word of mouth for ‘ol Don, here).

    And yeah, Dave, I probably won’t get it. Keep in mind that I rarely even GO to the comic store these days (starving university student and all). Last time I went was Free Comic Book Day, and that was after about a month or two since the last time. But, as I said, I fully intend on getting the trade when it comes out.

  9. Brian Woods Says:

    From Wikipedia: Crossing Midnight was an American horror/fantasy comic book series set in contemporary Japan. It was written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Jim Fern and Eric Nguyen, with covers by J. H. Williams III. Vertigo, a DC Comics imprint, published the series. It was canceled due to poor sales, and the series concluded after 19 issues.

    So our facts are these: Mike Carey has had a title canceled early despite whatever impact trades had. Books of Magic, while boasting a number of conceptual similarities to Harry Potter, has never had the best legs.

    Single issue sales impact the longevity of titles. Maybe there is some relationship between being a Harry Potter fan and a comics fan you can count on, although personally I don’t know any Harry Potter fans that read comics at all. Given the economy, I imagine even a loss leader like Vertigo will feel the pinch to perform this year or get the ax.

    Honestly, I imagine the whole $1 first issue program is a direct attempt to try to get people to buy the monthlies. If Vertigo didn’t care about monthly sales, why would they do this?

    Keep in mind that I am not even arguing against the “waiting for the trade” mentality. I am arguing against leaving a creator you like hanging.

    If you aren’t sold on a concept and skip a book, fine. If you read a sample and don’t like it, fine. But to state that you feel strongly that you are going to dig a book and then just leave it out there to die isn’t cool.

    And yes, the famous Brian lacks an “s.”

  10. Ray Says:

    Brian, oddly enough I’ve noticed more people getting ready for the trade due to the $1 issue. I work at a shop and I’ve had quite a few people pick up Unwritten #1 due to my suggestion or just because of the price, and most of them, if not all (if my memory serves me) have just asked me to add the trade to their reserves.

    I find Vertigo has set an odd standard with the trade, the Vertigo titles that are not cancelled have always sold higher in trade format than than in issue format at my store.

  11. Martin Says:

    I have to agree with those saying that supporting the first issue is probably needed to aid the series’ longevity. I mean, really, Vertigo obviously wants people to pick it up hence the lowered price, and in all likelihood that’s at least partly due to how the majority of their fans wait for the trade. If the first issue still doesn’t sell strong and get more people into following the singles for at least a year, then, well, I fear another American Virgin/Crossing Midnight scenario.

    This is a book that seems to have everything going for it in terms of commercial success – known creators, a cheap first issue, and probably the most approachable and universal concept since Sandman, not to mention a Harry Potter similarity that shouldn’t hurt in attracting outsiders – so I’m betting Vertigo will really be expecting a stronger-than-the-usual performance for this series.

  12. ThatNickGuy Says:

    Where did I say I was leaving it out there to die? Did I not say that I’ve been talking up this book, already, with friends and websites? I’m already recommending this book like crazy and I plan on supporting said book through my trade sales.

    I don’t understand why you’re being so hostile about this, Brian. I’m a casual buyer, at best, these days. My one single dollar isn’t going make or break the title. There have been dozens of books that have continued BECAUSE of the success of trades.

    Honestly, Mike Carey, as great a writer he is, is also not one of the “big names” that sells books. He apparently had a great run on Hellblazer (a title I’ve yet to read at all, but I’d like to at some point). He also had a less-than-desired run on Ultimate Fantastic Four. There are all kinds of reasons why a title doesn’t catch on and doesn’t make the cut. Fortunately, Vertigo doesn’t have as large expectations as mainstream/superhero titles outside of it. If Unwritten continues to get rave reviews, I have no doubt it’ll continue to do well.

    And, as I said, I don’t buy monthly issues at ALL, anymore, regardless of the price. It’s not just a matter of supporting a title or a creator, it’s a personal choice which I think you’re overreacting far too much about.

  13. Dave Lynch Says:

    Damn, I guess I didn’t fool you guys, when I pretended Brian Woods was the Brian Wood. Did you really think I was fooled with the ‘s’ at the end. Did the internets cracked in half?

    Anyway, if Vertigo really want their readers to buy the monthlies than waiting for the trade, why don’t they either delay the release of the trade to a much later date than they usually do or release hardcover first like Marvel Premier Hardcovers. I switched from trade to monthlies on a lot of titles I buy since they release those hardcovers first.

  14. ThatNickGuy Says:

    Ugh. I hope not. They’d have to wait a lot longer to get my business, then. I hate the premiere hardcovers, but that’s an entirely different argument.

  15. Brian Woods Says:

    Nick,

    It isn’t that your dollar makes a difference, it’s the overall impact of everyone who will leave a title high and dry (and yes, if it’s out and you aren’t getting people to buy it, you aren’t helping it, and if you haven’t read it, how can you recommend it, anyway?) while they wait six months or a year for a trade to come out. Like I said, if the book wasn’t for you, no problem. You stated yourself that Mike Carey isn’t a top level name for people. If it were a Gaiman book, it would be fine on its own, because a book by him won’t be dumped if it doesn’t spring to life immediately. He might have enough clout to contractually keep it alive x amount of time. Carey probably doesn’t, especially when his last title didn’t do so well.

    The ultimate question is this: Is it worth a dollar today to still have the title going in a year? If you don’t want the issue afterwards, you can drop it off somewhere like a random reception area where it will get seen.

    The only thing I am hostile to is this book being a victim of economics: If there is no demand, there will be no supply.