The Unwritten: The Power of Stories, From Harry Potter to Frankenstein
Tomorrow, the first trade paperback collection of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ Vertigo comic book series, “The Unwritten,” hits bookstores. Subtitled “Tommy Taylor and the Case of the Bogus Identity,” the book revolves around Tom Taylor, the son of a bestselling author named Wilson Taylor who mysteriously disappeared years before the story opens.
“Unwritten” weaves in several familiar elements of literary history, including obvious analogues to “Harry Potter” — both the series and the character. Wilson’s best known works are a series of young adult fantasy novels about the adventures of a boy wizard, who is aided by his two friends from wizard school and tormented by a powerful, undying villain. Wilson chose to name the main character Tommy Taylor after his own son, a decision that unfortunately cursed the boy — now a grown man — to be forever associated with the character. Or at least that’s explanation as the story begins.
Suspicions begin to arise in the general public that Tom Taylor may not be Wilson’s son at all, with theories ranging from Tom being an adopted child taken from a poor Serbian couple, to the fantastic possibility that Tom is somehow the fictional character of Tommy Taylor made real.
Seeking to discover the truth about his past and escape media attention, Tom runs to his father’s manor in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati. Which also happens to be the same manor where, in 1816, a writing contest between Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley and John Polidori gave the world Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and John Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” And Tom’s visit isn’t going to end without seeing its own horror story played out.The idea that stories have a real and lasting impact in the world, causing change in ways that are often very subtle, is central to the events in Carey and Gross’ work. Carey mentions a number of notable works of literature in “Bogus Identity”, but the two most prominent examples up are J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” And while they’ve certainly influenced the world and culture in which we live, those works — and their themes — have also had a lasting impact on the world of comics.
Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” with about a hundred and fifty year head start on Rowling, has clearly had a greater effect. On the immediate surface, it’s one of the earlier tales to posit that pushing science to its limits may lead to us all one day spitting in the eye of God, and then falling to our knees, wallowing in our collective hubris, and crying “What have we wrought?” Which is certainly a theme that comics has turned to again and again.
First up as evidence is Marvel’s Incredible Hulk, a big green monster who was created by a cutting edge science experiment gone wrong, leaving him an angry, violent behemoth unable to form coherent sentences. While that’s perhaps more loyal to film adaptations of “Frankenstein” than the original novel, the line of literary ancestry is clear.
Comics creators often don’t even bother to borrow qualities of the character, instead transplanting him entirely. Frankenstein’s monster has made repeated appearances in the pages of books by both DC and Marvel. This isn’t even the first time he’s turned up in a Vertigo book, after he encountered Bigby Wolf during World War II in Bill Willingham’s “Fables.”
But lifting the character or revisiting the dangers of science theme merely scratches at the surface of “Frankenstein”‘s impact. The power of the story, and the one that “The Unwritten” highlights to create parallels with its own events, lies in the creation of something that takes on a life of its own in a way its creator did not intend.
As the third issue of the comic opens with an illustrated scene from “Frankenstein,” while Tom Taylor is still attempting to determine how real a person he actually is, the reader is left to wonder whether Tom might be some sort of artificial being brought about by Wilson, and then to ask whether Wilson would be happy about the direction Tom’s life has taken.
More even than that connection, “Frankenstein” is used in “The Unwritten” as a symbol of how all creators lose control of their works when they unleash them into the arms of the public. Wilson Taylor created his books to have an effect, but he had no way of guaranteeing that once people bought and read them they’d have the effect he intended.
“Frankenstein” isn’t the originator of this idea but it imagined it in such a way that the word Frankenstein has become almost synonymous with a treasured creation gone horribly wrong. And that’s a problem as familiar to comics characters (ask any incarnation of Tony Stark how he feels about what others do with his technology) as it is to comics creators (ask Alan Moore how he feels about fans who idolize Rorschach).
J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series hasn’t yet had the same broad impact “Frankenstein” has, but in its relatively young existence it’s done quite a lot. And central to the series is an idea not at all unfamiliar to comics readers. Harry is a young boy, different, picked on, feeling alone, when suddenly it’s revealed to him that he has magical powers, that he’s different and special.
The fear of being different and being treated as an outcast is a powerful motivator, often driving people to either conform with social standards or to defiantly stand against them. And fantasies can have a powerful pull on outside, particularly when those differences are a result of something that makes a person inherently better than everyone else. It’s an escapist notion that’s common in superhero comics, but there’s also something more specific in play in Rowling’s fantasy world.
Not only does Harry discover he’s different, but he’s taken away from his old life to a new school where everyone else is also different, just like him. I’m far from the first person to point out the similarities between this fantasy and the story of a certain school for gifted children founded by a noted bald telepath that’s been a staple of the Marvel Universe for several decades now. Or to make note of how American children thrill at the idea of getting born with mutant genes, all because some crazy energy beings used super science ages ago, while British children dream about being born with whatever exactly it is that gives you magic, which probably all got started by a group of men with really enormous beards.
Simply because people accept the fact that they’re different doesn’t mean they’re ready to accept being an outsider or being alone. They want to feel as thought they fit in. And the reason using a Harry Potter analogue is such a brilliant way to show the impact stories have in the world is that it allows Carey and Gross to depict how a story can serve as a rallying point for a group of people who feel like outsiders.
It’s seen again and again in society: People who would otherwise never meet or interact with one another come together because they discover that a certain story, perhaps a sci-fi trilogy or series, perhaps a comic book, perhaps even a best-selling vampire romance novel, resonates with them, communicates to them something they feel is an important truth about the world. And friendships and connections are formed that might never have happened if the story did not exist.
In “The Unwritten,” it’s shown not through any of the central characters but rather through the community that
forms out of Tommy Taylor fans. They’re already at “Potter” levels of fandom when the book opens, and when the rumors start to spread that Tom Taylor might be Tommy Taylor come to life, some of them become religious in their levels of devotion.
Imagine what might happen among “Potter” fans if tomorrow footage surfaced of Daniel Radcliffe teleporting into the center of a crowded London street and then flying away on a broom, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Tom’s followers are like. And Tom, well, Tom just wants to fit in too. Unfortunately for him, at least so far he remains out of place, not knowing where and with whose company he really belongs.
Aside from the allusions to “Frankenstein” and “Harry Potter,” I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful fifth issue in the collection, an examination of the history of the antagonists of “The Unwritten” presented through the eyes of author Rudyard Kipling. If you haven’t given the series a look yet, possibly because you’re the type of reader who waits for Vertigo series to be collected in trades, now’s a good time to jump in. Vertigo’s still offering a free downloadable .pdf of issue one if you need more convincing.