The Unwritten Storytelling

unwritten ship cover “Tom will mean Tommy, and Tommy will mean Tom. The real world will point to the fiction, the fiction back to the reality, and so on, like particles circling in a super-collider until they impact each other and something new is born.”

From its beginnings in 2009, it has been clear that the Vertigo series The Unwritten was an exploration of storytelling and its power over our everyday lives. The series tells the tale of Tom Taylor, whose father, Wilson, is the author of the best-selling, and worldwide cultural phenomenon, Tommy Taylor young-adult novels. The fact that Wilson gave the same name to both his biological and literary progeny is no coincidence. Long employed by a mysterious organization known as the cabal, Wilson has picked up a few hints to the order of things over the years. So his son is conceived as a great experiment which Wilson will oversee, just as he molds the fictional Tommy. Throughout the series so far, writer Mike Carey has given clues as to how this process took place, but they were only pieces of the puzzle. Then, in September, Vertigo released an original graphic novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sunk Twice, which paints the first full portrait of what transpired.

The Ship that Sunk Twice is split into two narrative threads, one illustrating the origin of Tommy Taylor according to the first novel of his adventures, the second consisting of Wilson’s journal entries detailing his preparations for the birth of Tom and the first year of the child’s life. From the start, Wilson is arranging everything exactly. For example, he moves the date of publication to Sue’s (Tom’s mother) due date. As additional protection, he convinces her to give birth at home, so that he might fudge the date on the birth certificate if necessary, for everything to line up properly. He takes advantage of Sue’s post-partum emotional distress to convince to her sign away any claims to the child; as far as anyone else is concerned, the mother is a mysterious woman named Calliope, just another one of Wilson’s characters who speak and act only as he desires them to. Never losing sight of the small touches, he has his one year old son fitted with glasses so that he’ll better resemble his fictional twin.

All of Wilson’s careful preparations pay off, as both the books and his son become worldwide sensations.

The novel of Tommy Taylor begins with a shipwreck, the sole survivor of which is a baby in a basket, desperately tossed overboard by his parents. The basket is swallowed by a giant whale, who safely deposits its unwritten wilson&wave(wavecrop)cargo on shore and into the care of a gentle elderly wizard who also happens to run an elite school for young magicians. Years pass, and the baby grows into a boy, who befriends Peter, a flustered young student desperately trying to live up to his family’s wizarding legacy, and Sue, a bright, plucky young pupil. Oh, and there’s Count Ambrosio, a figure of pure evil, who, having been imprisoned by Tommy’s parents as their final sacrifice, possesses a bit of enmity towards their child.

If any of this is starting to sound familiar, then, well, I believe it’s rather intentional. Since the first issue, the world of Wilson Taylor’s novels have borne a strong resemblance to those of Harry Potter. Those books are never referred to directly in Wilson’s journals, though he does obverse how his choice of a boy wizard fits nicely with the current zeitgeist. Yet, there is more going as well. The shipwreck scene at the beginning bears a strong resemblance to the doomed sea crossing in Bram Stroker’s Dracula (the ships even share the same name); indeed, Tommy’s arch-nemesis is a vampire. The baby of destiny cast adrift by its parents has a rich history stretching from Superman back to Moses. Then, there’s that whale. In an earlier storyline, Tom Taylor finds himself in the belly of a whale along with Baron Munchausen, Pinocchio, Sinbad, and Jonah. At the time, Tom was busy tracing the footsteps of Herman Melville.

unwritten baby and  dragonIn his journal, Wilson confesses how hard it is to find new stories, as the old ones pervade everything else; the shadow of someone like Tolkien is so long that it is inescapable. Look no further than the prologue to Thor: The Dark World (ancient battle against dark forces, an indestructible source of evil power, and so on) for evidence. Yet, for his part, Tolkien did not exist in a vacuum, but drew on the stories and tales which sank into his unconscious and, in turn, inspired his own writing. In our day, many an eyebrow was raised at the similarities between Harry Potter and Vertigo’s pre-existing boy wizard progeny Tim Hunter (created by Neil Gaiman and John Bolton at the start of the 90s).

At the same time, however, Wilson invests his story with his own experience, the true magic of his writing being that it contains his dreams. Tom is not a pure thought experiment for him, but a creation which he hopes will be able to confront the cabal. He is aware of the cruelty of the child’s upbringing, however, believes it to be for the greater good, just as Tommy’s parents must rob their son of his birthright until the day he might be able to claim it. The parents leave behind a magical message for Tommy to discover, in which they explain “Everything we’ve done will make sense, then. And perhaps you will forgive us,” though they will never forgive themselves. One can easily imagine Wilson wishing the same for the day his son will discover the journals.

So, even if there are no original plots, there are still original stories which are not simple plagiarism. The talented writer takes what has comes before, what is already floating around in the popular culture of the moment, and resets in their own distinct voice, threaded with their personal cares. Thus, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster took the tale of Moses and refashioned it as something meaningful to their moment of history, just as J.K. Rowling retold long-established fantasy tropes as books more relatable to a contemporary audience. Eventually those new tales become lodged in the popular imagination, becoming part of who we are, and then, lend inspiration to the next generation of storytellers.

As this outstanding Vertigo series keeps reminding us, fiction is a vital part of our lives, and vice versa. To pull the two apart is simply impossible.

6 thoughts on “The Unwritten Storytelling”

  1. I enjoyed reading THE SHIP THAT SANK TWICE, and your review is great. I think the whole series is a wonderful exploration of the power that story and fiction have on the individual and society.

    Regarding author influences and originality, I think Carey’s observation (via Wilson Taylor), that the strength of an original character lies in its ability to erase its influences and antecedents, is an interesting point. For example, Superman may have been influenced by the stories of Moses, Popeye, Doc Savage, John Carter, and others, but the character is ultimately Superman, not a derivative Moses or Popeye pastiche. Likewise, Batman is not a Zorro or Shadow pastiche, but Batman. In contrast, I don’t think that Liefeld’s Supreme and Glory characters, as examples, ever erase or escape their Superman and Wonder Woman influences.

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