I remember when the Vertigo imprint first launched back in 1993. I had just gotten into Sandman, which was in the midst of one of its greatest arcs, Brief Lives. I read a lot of those early Vertigo efforts, and while not all of them clicked with me, I soon came to consider the Vertigo label a sign of quality. A series branded with it might not always be to my tastes, but it was a sign that it should be paid attention.
A few years later, I fell out of regular comic reading for an extended period of time. Eventually, I resumed the monthly habit, yet I did not immediately return to Vertigo. I was too busy catching up on what had been happening to my favorite heroes/creators over the course of the past decade and a half. “Grant Morrison is writing Batman? Cool. Wait, Bruce’s dead and his son has taken over? What the–?” (In retrospect, Batman #666, as cool as it was, was probably not the best jumping-on point). I would occasionally glance at the Vertigo titles on the racks, but their names were unfamiliar to me. I knew nothing about them or where would be the best starting place. So, I mentally filed them away for later trade shopping. That changed with the arrival of The Unwritten. Intrigued by its premise and $1 pricing for the debut issue, I decided to roll the dice. I was immediately happy that I did.
Unwritten was created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross as an exploration of the nature of storytelling. Tom Taylor has spent his life in the shadow of his father Wilson, or more specifically, his father’s literary creation: Tommy Taylor. Tommy is the protagonist in Wilson’s series of young adult novels, which have become a global sensation. When readers first meet Tom, he is at a Tommy Taylor convention, cursing his father’s choice of name, while at the same time showing no qualms about cashing in on it as far as humanly possible. He is many ways adrift. Carey has cited as one inspiration for the series Christopher Robin Milne who was used by his father A.A. Milne as the model for Christopher Robin in the tales of Winnie the Pooh. Carey wondered what it your life would be like when people regularly confused you with a fictional character? Under the circumstances, how could you ever be expected have any identity of your own?
Starting from this premise, Carey launched into a deep examination of the very nature of storytelling. Tommy Taylor is a boy magician, cut from the same cloth as Harry Potter, but I believe that there was a deeper reason to evoke sorcery than lining up with some pop cultural zeitgeist. In the world of Unwritten, storytelling itself is not only a powerful magic, but an essential life-force. In the current arc Apocalypse, the nature of reality is crumbling apart because the narratives of storytelling no longer hold. Something has been sucked from existence, killed in our souls. Without the ability to tell tales, there is no way to even perform the most basic functions. Planning your day, telling your co-worker how your weekend was, all of these require a basic mastery of storytelling. Answering “what are your plans for vacation” requires that you can imagine what has not happened, and venture an answer. This is how we define our day to day lives, not to mention weightier questions. Stories matter because they are how we describe the reality of our existence. Without them, we are truly lost.
This examination of mythmaking comes to center stage in #24. “Stairway to Heaven” is an interlude issue, placed between arcs and not featuring any of the regular characters. Instead it focuses on a collective of talking, anthropomorphic animals. They are refugees from various worlds (or stories) who have gathered together as the Free People. They live on a seemingly endless stairwell, which they travel in continued hope of finding The Golden Door. Behind this Golden Door, they will find their Maker and “live with him in peace and plenty forever.” When faced with hardships, they recite their oldest prayer: “happy ever after.”
One day into this orderly society, we come a white rabbit by the name of Pauly Bruckner. Pauly was once a vicious contract killer, who blames Wilson Taylor for trapping him in the body of a bunny and condemning him to life in a children’s story. At the beginning of #24, Pauly come bursting into the civilized ranks of the Free People, cursing up a storm. Displaying his impatience for fools, he tries convincing them to forget their Golden Door and their inconsistent habit of back-tracking up and down the stairs in case they missed anything. All they need to do is reach the top. He is ignored, but not for long. There are many threats crouching in hidden passageways, predators, which Pauly dispatches with an unrivaled remorselessness. “He was no rabbit then, but, a god, in his fury pure and bright and terrible.” Soon this “god” maneuvers himself (over a couple of corpses) into leadership, winning the unquestioning the devotion of his followers.
What follows for the remainder of the issue is a gripping, disturbing examination of how a mythology is born, evolving both naturally as well as through conscious manipulation. Pauly appropriates the legend of The Golden Door as his own, adapting it to his own goals. At the same time, the faithful nurture the flame themselves, feeding the story with their hopes. It becomes their support, a source for inspiration. It might be a more complicated belief system than their traditional prayer of “happy ever after,” yet it provides solace nonetheless. What might have begun as self-serving lies on Pauly’s part, now defines the Free People’s existence. They carry on his name.
This issue is not only one of the highlights of the entire series, but one of my favorite single issues ever. It is one of the few times I have finished an issue, then immediately picked it back up to read through a second time. It spins a fable full of talking animals into something touching on powerful themes of human nature. It is also an emotionally involving experience. As such, it fulfills all of those expectations for unique, challenging comic books that the Vertigo brand represented when it first debuted over twenty years ago. This Wednesday The Unwritten will come to its conclusion, leaving the Vertigo line a little poorer.