All Stories Have Endings: Mike Carey and Peter Gross Close Out ‘The Unwritten’ [Interview]
In the closing days of January, Vertigo Comics released The Unwritten: Apocalypse #12, the final installment in Mike Carey and Peter Gross' fan-favorite meta-fictional fantasy saga. The series told the story of Tom Taylor, a man trying to live down the fact that his father used his name and likeness for the Harry Potter-esque hero of his best-selling fantasy novels. As the series begins, Tom is quickly pulled into a world where the lines between fiction and reality are not so clearly drawn.
Over the course of a 54-issue initial series, an original graphic novel, and the twelve-issues of Apocalypse, Carey and Gross wove a story that touched on a great number of literary genres and archetypes, and surrounded Tom with a rich and bizarre cast of characters, including Lizzie Hexham, a Dickens character brought-to-life, who becomes Tom's friend and confidant; Pauly Bruckner, a man stuck in the form of a giant rabbit, who's been imprisoned in a treacly children's story, and will stop at nothing to escape; Leviathan, the all-powerful creature that feeds on stories; Richie Savoy, intrepid vampire; Golden-Age comic creator Miriam Walzer; mysterious immortal and de facto villain Mister Pullman; and Wilson Taylor, Tom's father, the author whose efforts set the entire tale in motion.
To mark the conclusion of Carey and Gross's long-running narrative, we talked to both creators to learn about the entire history of the series from initial conception to final curtain. (This interview contains spoilers for the ending of The Unwritten.)
ComicsAlliance: When The Unwritten was first announced and launched six years ago, it seemed almost like the platonic ideal of a Vertigo book: the creators of Lucifer and Books Of Magic telling a story about stories in the tradition of Sandman and Fables, with a Tim Hunter/Harry Potter doppelgänger as the protagonist. Were you worried about that initial impression?
Mike Carey: [laughs] I was certainly worried about the fact that we were pitching into a marketplace that already included Fables, which was, at that point, the most successful Vertigo book by a long way. And from a certain perspective, Unwritten seems to be a very similar sort of animal. So that troubled me a bit. But I think, from the first, we were able to make it clear we were going in a different direction with the whole reality/story interface.
Peter Gross: I wasn't too worried about it. I think because we knew going in that what it seemed like at the beginning was not what it was really about. So for me, it was just kind of a fun ploy to present it that way. Although, we were concerned that it was interesting and original enough, but for us… When you asked the question, I pictured us putting all the Vertigo cliches on pieces of paper and pulling them out one at a time – which might not be a bad idea, actually – but it was such a unique thing for us, it was always really going to be about exploring why we wanted to make stories.
CA: I've always been fascinated with the concept of "writing it sideways", which is something pop songwriters in the '60s used to talk about – taking a tune that was already a hit, looking at it from a different angle, and switching up elements bit by bit until you had something new. And The Unwritten is, at least as a reader, a really excellent example of that style of starting with the familiar and ending up somewhere entirely different…
PG: It's funny, because all we knew when we plotted out the story was that there was a father who wrote a really famous book about this kid, and we didn't ever talk about what the book was, initially.
And it wasn't originally going to be a Harry Potter/Tim Hunter analogue, but then when we started talking about "what kind of book is it?", we quickly came around to that. Partly, I think, because I had drawn Books Of Magic, and we realized we could get away with using a boy wizard, and then knowing that people understood the phenomenon and fame of Harry Potter. I think everyone assumes we went into it with the Harry Potter hook, but we really didn't at all.
MC: It was really that, at that time, Harry Potter was the most easily graspable, a universal cultural phenomenon that rose out of a book. So it was shorthand for a lot of other things.
PG: Yeah, if we did it now, it probably would've been a Hunger Games…
CA: I'm glad it didn't start a couple of years later later than it did, or we would've ended up with a riff on Twilight.
MC: [laughs] Well, I think at one point we did talk about using twinkly vampires, but decided against it!
CA: With this series you collaborated on the initial concept, you pitched it together, it seems to be have been very much a collaborative effort. How clearly defined were the responsibilities of who did what, how you came up with the stories, determined the pacing, and so on – and did that change at all over the course of the last six years?
PG: We had a great working relationship on Lucifer, but for me, Lucifer was always Mike's book, and I was the support person. And when we pitched this, it was really something from both of us, something that both of us created.
Now, we'd had some great moments on Lucifer when I'd engage with Mike about the story with questions and stuff, but always relative to "what are you after here?" And with this, we had free rein to throw ideas at each other. That was the biggest reward of the whole thing – we've had incredible conversations and back and forth, just taking these ideas and running with them. And that's something I never would have done on Lucifer, just because I felt like I didn't have ownership of that.
So from the start, it's been really pure back-and-forth collaboration.
MC: In terms of the process, it was kind of fractal. We would do the planning together – as Peter said, we would start with a conversation – Pornsak Pichetshote was our first editor, and he was great at basically hooking us up on three-way conference calls and letting us talk as long as we needed to. And we would do that every week. And then usually it was me who would create a document, an outline or overview of a story, and then that would become the subject of the next conversation. We'd argue it back and forth, it would [feed] into an outline for a specific issue, and Peter would have input at all of those stages.
And for the first time, I think, in my entire creative life as a comic writer, I was producing scripts which were kind of an invitation to negotiate, rather than a set working document. Very often, what came back would be different than what was in the script, and the book continued to grow organically through the layouts, through the pencils, always with that conversation going on around it.
PG: Yeah, I might read a script and think that everything is great, and everything is in place, but once you start doing the layouts and you spend a lot of time with the minutia of it, things just occur to you and things grow. And it was great having that time where I could email Mike and say, "look at this," and, "what if we did this," and things would sometimes change tremendously, and sometimes just in little tiny ways. But having that extra layer of thought is a really great thing to be able to do.
CA: How far in advance did you have things plotted, and were there specific things that changed along the way? Did you start out knowing the ending, and was it still the same once you got there?
MC: I think the beginning and the end were the things that were most firmly fixed. We always knew what Tom's arc was going to be, and we knew, conceptually, where he was going to end up. That was a big part of the impetus of the series. But there were a lot of things that happened along the way, just because we had really good ideas, and we got excited about this or that aspect of the story. We never decided in advance which other fictions we were going to visit, so that was very enjoyable…
PG: I think we knew Moby Dick… early on, that was probably the only one that was really concrete, that we knew would be recurring.
MC: And I think there was, in the very first overview document that we did as part of the pitch that we sent to Vertigo, we had a version of issue #12, the Pauly Bruckner issue – we said it would either be a Winnie The Pooh-ish world, or a Beatrix Potter world. But we never knew then that Pauly was going to turn out to be such an integral character.
PG: I think the only characters we really had nailed down were Tom and Lizzie. And Wilson, as a presence – but we never intended him to come into the book as a living force the way he did.
MC: No, it's true!
CA: There are a blinding array of genres and styles that you delve into over the course of the series. Were there any things you'd hoped to or tried to work in, but just couldn't fit?
MC: I had a real yen to do a Pride And Prejudice arc, to have Tom stuck in an 18th Century world of very, very precisely-defined social rules that he doesn't know. And have him blundering around at the ball where Elizabeth and Darcy dance, and constantly stumbling into those situations.
PG: And we were going to do much more in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' time period than we ended up doing – it just didn't happen. And I think there were a lot of other books we talked about, but I can't remember now, off-the-cuff.
MC: Well, at one point we were going to have a whole mini-series weren't we, about Lewis and Tolkien? And that kind of foundered, because it's difficult to refer to Lewis and Tolkien without running up against the Lewis and Tolkien estates.
PG: We ended up doing all those half-issues, when we did two issues each month for a while instead of doing the Tolkien stuff.
MC: Which actually worked out better, I think.
CA: Especially over the course of these last twelve Apocalypse issues, how did you plan out all the alternate versions of characters, and all the worlds, and keep it all straight for yourselves and with each other? Did you have one of those enormous walls filled with notes and maps and yarn running from pushpin to pushpin?
MC: No, if we were that organized it'd be dangerous. [laughs] We're not that organized, or at least I'm not – Peter may have had it clearer in his head.
I think to a large extent, it was serendipity. It was stuff we were planning, not quite on the fly, because we knew where we were going, but the route happened as a result of us going back and forth on things.
PG: And to go back to the last question, we did, for a long time, talk about getting Tom into an Arthurian story where he met a Merlin-type character, so we ended up using that and going into it at the end there.
CA: What was the reasoning behind wrapping the first series with #54, and making Apocalypse a stand-alone 12-issue series? At the beginning of Apocalypse, you launched straight into the final act, and really didn't waste any time with re-introductions or preambles – it's clearly a continuation of the larger story. So why did you decide to set it apart?
MC: As I remember it, that was a decision that came about because of the Fables crossover, because we did get a lot of new readers from the crossover. And at that point, [Vertigo executive editor] Shelly Bond was concerned that those new readers might be put off by coming back to a series that was already in the mid-fifties. And we were talking about wrapping up, about going into the endgame, so renumbering from #1 was really just a wave across the room at those new readers, saying, "come on in, it's fine, you'll love it."
PG: Also, we had wanted to do a relaunch, we'd talked about possibly doing it after issue #35 or so. At that point, it was like some people thought, "it's over now," because we had answered all the questions about Pullman, and it was kind of like a new story after that.
And I think partly, we touched on a lot of comic book tropes in the series, and I think relaunching is a thing that comics do! [laughs] We did a crossover, we did a graphic novel, we did a relaunch – we just wanted to try it.
CA: In this finale, over the last couple of issues, there are things that become apparent about how the story works, and even, to some degree, who the story is about. Yes, it's Tom's story – but his father, Wilson, is the storyteller, and ends up becoming the protagonist to some degree. Was that always part of the plan?
MC: Well, it was always part of the plan for Tom to save the world by becoming fictional, sacrificing himself – not dying, but crossing over into this other ontological state. He's always been, from the outset, absolutely convinced that he's not fictional, he is a real entity. He's fought very hard against that perception, and then at the end, he has to surrender to it. So that part was always in the mix, it was always where we were going to end up.
And as Peter's said, having Wilson therefore rotate into the spotlight was not originally part of the plan, but it made more and more sense as we went along – the only person who would be able to be our point of view on those events would be Wilson.
PG: I think it was surprising for us the way it ended up. Because, like Mike said, we always knew the core resolution for Tom was that he had to become completely fictional… But I think our idea of what that meant evolved as we told the story, and as we thought about what stories are. The basis of the whole series has been, "what is fiction, what's the difference between story and reality, and what does that difference mean?" So that all came bubbling up again in the conclusion, and the last issue became much more of a meditation on those questions.
MC: And certainly, we did some blatant cheating – there is no possible plot logic for Richey ending up with Miriam's ghost at the end – but that's because it's Wilson who's pulling the strings. It's Wilson who's decided what kind of happy ending each person deserves.
CA: And now that The Unwritten has wrapped, what's next? Do you have more projects planned together? It's certainly seemed a fruitful partnership, and you do have a joint website.
PG: [laughs] Well, our deal with the devil dictates that we have to do another project together, so for the good of my eternal soul, we're planning some things.
MC: Yes, we have ideas and we have directions we want to go in, so… Watch this space!