What if J.K. Rowling based Harry Potter on a real boy, who grew up to be a surly young man jaded by the spotlight? And what if this crabby adult then discovered that his childhood adventures weren't entirely fictional?
Such is the (extremely condensed) premise of Mike Carey and Peter Gross' comic book The Unwritten, which is published monthly from DC/Vertigo. The series stars Tom Taylor, a twentysomething burnout who — as a child — served as the inspiration for his father's insanely popular Tommy Taylor fantasy book series. As an adult, Tom lives perpetually in the shadow of his fictional, boy wizard self. He lives as a D-list celebrity, scraping by on book signings at Tommy-Cons. His life is a joyless slog, until fictional characters (like his literary arch-nemesis Count Ambrosio and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's monster) begin invading Tom's reality.
Carey and Gross, who worked on the long-running Vertigo series Lucifer together, have just wrapped up the fourth major story arc on The Unwritten, which saw Tom exploring the world of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. We recently spoke with Carey about all things Unwritten and discussed his other comic book projects, past and present.
First off, The Unwritten contains both allusions to the Harry Potter mythos and the life of A.A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin Milne. How did this creative genesis come about?
It had a very confused genesis. Unwritten came out of my desire to work with illustrator Peter Gross again, and his desire to work with me. We had worked together for seven years on Lucifer, but when Lucifer was winding up, we pitched a lot of ideas to DC/Vertigo. Peter and I both had ideas and they seemed to be completely separate stories, and then somebody said, "Why don't you put these together?" My idea was about a magic trumpet which altered reality, Peter's was about a character in both a real world and fictional world and having those two worlds play off each other.
Christopher Milne was the Christopher Robin of the Winnie the Pooh books. He was famous on somebody else's terms — he was famous for being a character in his father's fictions, which is the essential dilemma for Tom Taylor. As for Harry Potter, we play on the boy wizard archetype. Had we made Tom a character in a children's story like Winnie the Pooh, it would have been difficult to infuse that story with some of the themes were exploring about celebrity, authorship, and the ways in which fictions can be spread virally in the 21st century. We chose the boy wizard because everyone would immediately have strong associations with him.
Has the Potter camp ever contacted you about Unwritten?
No, I think in many ways we're under their radar. The best-selling comic books in America sell 150,000-100,000 copies. We're below that, but we sell successfully in the trade collections. The Unwritten is so far from being on the Potter scale of reference. But if they did notice us, I can't say they'd have any problems because ultimately our story is nothing like Harry Potter. The boy wizard is a way in, but we never come back to that point.
Was the decision to incorporate the boy wizard into a larger literary world — one where Melville, Shelley's, and Kipling's creations come alive — part of your plan from the start?
It was always part of the original plan. Our goal throughout was to have Tommy visit not just different stories but different types of story. I've been asked a few times recently at signings, "What's the next novel Tommy's going to go into?" It's not a formula where he goes into one fictional work after the other. At the end of present "Leviathan" arc (as a reveal) we go back to the question, "Who or what is Tom? If he's not Tommy Taylor, why can he seem to use magic? What's going on here?" That's our central focus. In Year 3 of the book, we will be looking at how the wall between fiction and reality can become porous and also different media and storytelling.
Speaking of other media, Unwritten #17 was a choose-your-own-adventure comic detailing the origin of Tom's companion Lizzie Hexam. It was definitely one of the more novel layouts I've seen in a comic. Any more of those off-kilter issues planned?
The temptation is very strong. We didn't do that just as a gimmick. We reached this point when we thought "How do you tell Lizzie's origin story?" because she has contradictory origins. Her origins are mutually exclusive, and we wanted to visit both of them without choosing between them. Choose-your-own-adventure seemed to be a perfect vehicle for that. But yes, we will be experimenting with different forms of storytelling. There is a member of our core cast who we haven't touched on at all, [Tom's other companion] Savoy. We've talked about how best to tell his back story, and Pete has an idea that's more radical than choose-your-own-adventure. We won't do that this year, maybe Year 4.
How far is Unwritten scripted at this point?
Not very far ahead of what's published. We're at #27 at the moment. In terms of planning, we're comfortably ahead. We have the whole of Year 3 in considerable detail and the two arcs that follow. We have the big core idea for Year 4 already decided on. We're probably looking at a six or seven year run with a definite endpoint.
My favorite moment in The Unwritten is when Tom's father transforms Pauly Bruckner, a human criminal, into an extremely profane rabbit in a Beatrix Potter-esque prison dimension. How is it writing such a lunatic character?
We love writing Pauly, he's a lot of fun. As with the character of Gaudium in Lucifer, once we got into fleshing out that character, he developed a life of his own. I get annoyed when creators say, "Oh this character came alive and started dictating terms," but what does happen is a character you thought was very minor suddenly catches your imagination. But yes, Pauly will be coming back very soon. [Ed's Note: The F-bomb-dropping Pauly returns next month in Unwritten #24.]
My second favorite moment is when the villains Calendar and Pullman try to produce a bogus Tommy Taylor novel (Tommy Taylor and the Emerald Telescope) to besmirch his name. The fake novel rips off everything from Lord of the Rings to the midi-chlorians in Star Wars. Will Tom ever visit this crappy rip-off universe?
That would be fun, wouldn't it? It's something we've talked about, what happens if Tom go into this grotesque reduction of Tommy's world. It was fun to roll up all these fantasy tropes in a superficially cynical way. We were referencing stories that we were rather fond of.
Do you miss working on Lucifer?
I did for a long time. Working on Unwritten sometimes feels like Lucifer revisited. The only ingredient that's missing is editor Shelly Bond. We used Ryan Kelly for finishes for a while, Todd Klein on lettering, a lot of people who worked on Lucifer are working on Unwritten, and Unwritten is a collaboration between myself and Peter. It's a fuller collaboration than what we had on Lucifer.
In 2010's House of Mystery Halloween Annual, you revisited the Lucifer universe with a story starring the fallen cherub Gaudium. Do you have any other plans for more Lucifer stories?
Not at the moment, no. We've talked a couple times about a Mazikeen or Gaudium miniseries, which would be all kinds of fun to do, but it's a question of timing and finding an audience. I'm not sure it would be commercially viable to do a Lucifer spin-off so long after the event. It is selling well through trades, and not everyone is discovering it through Sandman. I've been very pleased to hear that some people have made the journey in the opposite direction, discovering Sandman through Lucifer.
Had we done it at the time, it might have worked. It's more of a tendentious prospect now, but having said that, DC is collecting my Sandman Presents: Petrefax miniseries, so maybe the audience is still out there. I'd love to do it, Gaudium is one of those characters I'm pleased to have created.
Another one of your big projects is X-Men Legacy for Marvel. What can we anticipate from your X-storylines in the next few months?
Before Messiah Complex, my team imploded. Half of the team went bad, a couple of the others (Iceman and Cannonball) were very badly injured, Rogue was in a coma. My team just shattered into a million pieces. Something similar is planned, not in the immediate future, but there's going to be tension with the core cast all going in different directions.
You're also writing Age of X, an alternate universe tale about mutants in a dystopian reality. The X-Men have a long history of alternate universe tales (Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse), how was it writing your own alternate reality?
I'm also halfway through Age of X, which is the most satisfying story I've told in the X-Men universe. I'm glad people are enjoying it. I wanted to do a massive fake-out, as Age of X is a mystery story. It's not a whodunnit, it's a "what in the name of all that is good and holy is going on here?" It looks superficially very similar to Age of Apocalypse, but it's about reading through the clues and figuring out where things went wrong.
Besides the comics mentioned, what other projects are you working on?
I'm writing a graphic novel for Vertigo at the moment. I can't say anything about it, but I'm 4/5 done with it.
What comic books influenced your writing style?
As far as comics, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison, but in different ways. They opened my eyes to the different possibilities of comic storytelling. If you look at the first arc of Lucifer, you can see very clearly that that's me trying to do Neil Gaiman. It took me until issue 4 to find my own voice. I guess this is a generational thing, but I was reading the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets when it first came out. I also absolutely adore Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta's Starstruck.
You're an incredibly prolific writer. What is your schedule? How do you pull it all off?
I don't plan my days. They're formless and chaotic but productive all the same. A woman I used to work with when I was a teacher said that my working style reminded her of entropy, energy dissipating into a void. I work ridiculously long hours. I don't work smart (in that horrible cliché) — I start early, carry on until late, neglect meals, all kinds of stuff. I'm driven by a fundamental restlessness, an insecurity when I'm not working I feel like I should be. I have this incredible blessing that the work I do is fun and rewarding in of itself, that I make a living doing something I love doing.
But yes, it's scattershot. Start early, work late, and waste a lot of time sometime during the day watching DVDs of episodes of American drama series, make endless cups of coffee, stare out the window. I don't have a plan, never have a plan.
The Unwritten Volume 3: Dead Man's Knock is in comic stores today.